Friday, November 05, 2004

Journey of Hope

The Rolling Herd Emerged Through the Shimmering Heat...
One of my strangest moments behind the lens came four years ago when I was covering a group of fraternity brothers as they cycled through my area as part of the 'The Journey of Hope'. I forget what charity the ride benefits, but it's a summer-long cross-country bicycle trek of some distinction. As a mountain biking hobbyist myself, I was quite stoked to cover this highly visual event and I attacked it with great zeal.

After a series of phone calls, I rendezvoused with the young cyclists about thirty miles away from my station. The group of young men sat underneath a store awning, taking refuge from the summer sun and eating apples, bananas and other healthy things. They all seemed quite tired from the morning ride, but to a man they smiled at my arrival and eagerly welcomed my questions and camera.

Before long, I'd separated the more verbose riders from the crowd and began interviewing them one by one. In their matching bike shorts and jerseys, they were the picture of heroic youth, and their attitudes backed up this impression. As my betacam churned tape through the record deck, each young fraternity brother downplayed their individual efforts and credited their fellow riders with helping them get through the arduous trip.

In no time, I had all the sound I needed, chatting happily with the riders off camera as they finished up their meal. As they packed away the remains of their meal it struck me that I have been wrong classifying frat guys as unimaginative, knuckle-dragging conformists all these many years. I found myself admiring their attitudes, enthusiasm and work ethic. But all esoteric thought melted away as they saddled up and began pedaling around the parking lot. This is what I'd come for...

Five minutes later, I pulled my news unit onto the shoulder of the highway and dashed to the back of the vehicle. By the time I had the camera on the tripod and the viewfinder fired up, the line of cyclists broke the horizon. Through the lens, I watched the rolling herd emerge through the shimmering heat waves coming off the asphalt. I stayed with the shot until they neared, zooming out and riding the focus as they filled the tiny screen. Finally, I yanked the camera sideways and recorded the scene of them blowing past me - a matching yellow blur of strength and valor.

Once they were past, I jumped behind the wheel and dropped the idling news unit into Drive. As I pulled onto the highway, I drumming my fingertips on the steering wheel to the beat of Stevie Ray's blistering Stratocaster. I was in the zone, doing what I feel I'm designed to do, and calculating the next perch, one that would give me yet a different angle of the single-file pack.

Three times I did this, passing the line of cyclists on the four-lane highway, racing ahead and setting up a shot to capture their swift progress. Lucky for me, they were heading toward my station and I figured by the time they passed it, I'd have enough high-energy footage to make one hell of a signature kicker. As I pressed the accelerator to catch up with them yet again, I was drunk on my favorite brand of Electronic News Gathering.

Until I crested the next hill. Red brake lights caught my attention as cars ahead of me swerved to the shoulder. I passed a few until I noticed one of the haphazardly parked vehicles was the 'Journey of Hope' pace car. A sick feeling washed over me when I saw several bicycles lying on the edge of the road ahead, their young riders racing on foot into the distance. I pulled over immediately, got out of my brightly-logo'd Explorer and took in a most sobering scene.

Up ahead, the young cyclists huddled around a fallen comrade. Yelling his name, they cried and stomped the way young men do when faced with forces beyond their power. A few attempted CPR, others cursed the clouds. One biker ripped off his yellow jersey and tore it to shreds in frustration and heartache. I didn't want to believe what I was seeing, but a quick glance at a mangled bike and dented SUV told me it was true. An ambulance's siren wailed in the distance, erasing any doubt.

So I did the only thing I COULD do. I quietly popped the tailgate, pulled out my gear and began rolling tape from a considerable distance. Nothing could have made me plunge into that crowd with shouldered camera, but not to record it all would have felt wrong and cowardly. Two cyclists noticed me and ran back to protest my lens, but the silent look I gave them must have told them I took no pleasure in documenting this turn of events, for they melted back into the scene and left me alone. Of that I was grateful, since I knew the next action I took would be rather indelicate.

"Newsroom, please" I said when the cell phone's dialing turned into our receptionist's voice.

Seconds later I explained to the news managers how they'd have to re-think the story I was working on.

"Good Lord....okay - look, try and get some sound with the other riders...", came the response I halfway expected.

"No way - I'm done here. If you want sound, you're gonna have to send a reporter."

The voice on the other end didn't like my answer, and during the long pause that followed I thought about it myself. Maybe it WAS a cop-out, but I wasn't about to play vulture any more than I already had. If the callous suits back at the shop wanted more pain to sex up their brand new lead, it wouldn't be by ME. Let them send a better-groomed blowhard to do their bidding. If my calculations were right, they'd never get here in time anyway...

Which they didn't. By the time the reporter arrived, the scene had cleared. Only the state trooper remained, and he was too busy taking measurements to answer any questions. Minutes after he pulled up, the reporter was following me in my rear view mirror as we headed back to the station.

The young cyclist died later that day at the hospital, his insides hopelessly altered by the force of colliding with a merging SUV. We opened our evening newscast with the story, first with video of the fraternity brothers gathered around their unseen friend, followed by some of my earlier beauty shots of the bicyclists pumping in unison. All in all, the story lasted no more than forty seconds and featured no on-scene sound-bites.

Not that I cared. I felt I'd done my job by shooting the aftermath, and yet saved a bit of my humanity by not sticking a lens in anyone's face. But I was still conflicted as I went home that night and played with my kids. Somewhere, the parents of a grown son were writhing in agony, and I wasn't completely proud of my role in the whole thing. All I was really sure of is that I'd write about it someday. Someday, when I better understood what happened along that highway.

Truth is, I'm still waiting.


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Chris Kittinger said...

I am a member of Pi Kappa Phi and this post has stuck with me for years. Had to come look it up so I could share with some of my brothers.

Chris Kittinger

Chris Kittinger said...