JOURNALIST'S FIRST JOURNEY
By Sharon Angleman
dropping my keys twice, I put down the camera case, the book bag, the
travel mug and the bulging, overstuffed notebook. I picked
my keys up off the pavement for the third time and began to fumble with
"Damn it!" I mumbled.
"I have to get this door fixed."
I gathered up my items
and went around to the other side of the van. This side opened fine.
I climbed in over forgotten backpacks and my youngest son's Gameboy.
I felt a crunch under my knee and looked to see the remains of a pop tart
ground into my jeans, as well as into the timeworn fabric of the passenger's
"Damn again," I said.
A million things were racing
through my mind. Dr. Gambill said I could do this, but I still questioned
my abilities. The only news I had ever covered had been on our own
campus, all nice, neat and under control. Why me? I thought.
Out of all the students, why me? My nontraditional age, maybe?
My familiarity with the area, limited as it may be? My abilities,
his faith in me?
I puffed with pride as
I thought of this, and deflated almost as quickly. What if I let
him down? What if I stumbled on my face? The entire world
is watching this, and he has sent me out there to work with USA Today,
a national newspaper.
I began to hype myself
up. I can do this. I know I can. I just needed to switch
my thinking gears. I was barely over the shock of thinking if it
was my own children whose school had been shot up the day before. I just
needed to regroup. Without realizing it, my mind drifted off
to the day before...
The west coast television
I was watching scrolled a marquee across the bottom of the screen just
as I was leaving to pick the children up from school. The bulletin
announced there had been a shooting at a Jonesboro middle school.
Four children were dead and at least 10 more wounded. I stared at
the screen. "Jonesboro?" I thought. "I didn't know there was
another Jonesboro... But it says 'Arkansas.' That doesn't make sense."
Finally it began to
sink in. Something has happened here. Scotland was the
first thing I thought of. "Oh my God, they found their way here,
to OUR town!" I thought.
"What school?" I screamed
at the television. I turned to our local station. Nothing,
only some talk show about teen romances.
I rushed out the door,
and before my van got to the main road from our rural home, I saw five
emergency vehicles speeding up Highway 49 toward Brookland. I don't
remember anything until I was out on the main highway and saw that the
crews were responding to a large automobile accident blocking the highway
to the south...
Geez, I thought, lifting
my head up from the steering wheel, shaking my head to clear the horrid
memory. I told him 10 minutes. It's been almost 15.
I made my way across town,
everything seeming fairly normal. Traffic was average. The
weather was nice. People seemed to be going about their business
as they always did in this quiet little city of 50,000. But something
hung in the air.
Even though the wind was
especially gusty, something still, breathless and odious hovered in the
atmosphere. I looked closer at the faces and saw masks of shock.
Unfocused eyes stared out as drivers put gasoline in their cars and customers
I passed a grocery store
parking lot and saw the nation's flag hanging heavy and shamefully
low on its mast, its posture speaking of fear, and death, and disgrace.
It seemed to be whispering remorse to a nation it thought it had failed..
As I drove slowly past
it, I began to detach from my surroundings. A surreal sense of being
washed over me. I felt I was acting a part in a movie. I decided
to go ahead and play the part for a while; reason was getting me nowhere.
I pulled into the lot at the Motel 8, gathered my notepads and camera
equipment and headed into the building.
I pulled out the scrap
of paper Dr. Gambill gave me to look again at the two reporters' names.
I double checked the room numbers, carefully folded the paper and tucked
it back in my pocket, took a deep breath and went upstairs.
Peter Katel answered the
door and immediately shuffled me off to his partner's room for introductions.
After we all said hello and shook hands, I deposited my things on
the bureau and bent down to tie my shoe. When I did, Peter said,
"Well, we figure we can pay about $150 a day. That sound okay?"
I looked up and he was
smiling. Carol Morello was also looking, grinning. 'Oh, what teases,'
I thought. 'They know I would pay them to be here.'
"Sure!" I said, smiling
also, "Sounds great to me!"
Peter asked directions
to the county jail, took down my pager number and flew out the door, leaving
me alone with Carol. She said she was waiting for some calls, and
almost immediately the phone rang.
As she talked, I looked
around the small, stuffy room. The window was open causing thick,
humid breezes to flap around the short, plaid curtains. A sweater
and hairdryer spilled out of a small travel bag that lay on the table.
Several dirtied ashtrays were lying around, but there were no cigarette
butts in them. I could smell the lingering odor of stale smoke and
felt my lungs stir. I had only recently given up cigarettes and
was thankful I didn't see any.
Several newspapers lay
spread out on of the beds, and I caught my first look at the five victims
who had died in yesterday's shooting. I sat down and tried to read
the text, but only stared at the photographs.
Carol startled me when
she said, "They did a good job, The Jonesboro Sun, a great job."
"Yes," I said. I
looked back at the happy faces of children who would never again see a
schoolroom or hear the laughter of their friends. Never again would
they stand in lines, brushing and braiding each other's hair. "Yes,
we have a great paper here."
The words sounded slow
and slurred, but Carol was almost instantly called to the phone again,
so I don't think she noticed. She then spent the next 15 minutes
running up and down the stairs gathering faxes from the front desk.
In between trips we squeezed in some small talk, and she asked a
few questions about the area, including what county we were in.
She joked about how she usually asked what country she was in.
"It's not always this bad,
though," I said naively. "I mean, things like this don't happen
"Oh, yea, it is," Carol
said as she continued to flitter from one part of the room to the next.
"It's always like this. Tell me, why do you think this keeps happening
in the South?"
I looked quickly up at
her in surprise. Seeing my reaction she continued, "I mean, this
is Pearl all over again. I was there for that. And Kentucky.
You don't see this in other parts of the country, so why here?"
Realizing where she was
going, I felt my pride and defensiveness rise up.
"Well, yeah," I said, slowly
and thoughtfully. "It's happened in New York, and even Alaska,
if I remember right."
Responding to some other
thought that just occurred to her, she asked if I wanted to make some
calls. I began looking through the phone book for some names Carol
had written down for me, and she shuffled through notes bound in narrow
"Ah!" she shouted.
"I found it! This is Shannon Wright's mother. Why don't you
My mouth fell open and
my eyes widened.
"Oh, I, uh...well...can
you do it?" I felt stupid and failed already. Great, I thought. Thirty
minutes and I've blown it already.
"I mean, I'd like to watch
you do it, see how you handle it," I covered. "I've never interviewed
someone whose daughter was shot by a kid the day before."
"Oh, sure," Carol smiled.
She took back the phone number and seemed genuinely pleased to perform
for me and provide some pointers.
Before dialing the number,
she took a deep breath and flicked her wrists by her sides like an athlete
about to run a relay. As she dialed the phone, she carried it with
her and started to pace the room again. When someone answered, she gently
asked to speak to the mother. Carol put her hand up to her chest
and cleared her throat.
She began to talk, and
her fingers spread out over her chest and pressed against it. Her
shoulders took on a hunched, burdened posture, and her eyebrows knitted
together, causing furrows in her forehead. She continued to pace
the floor this way and spoke in a low, sympathetic voice, shaking or nodding
her head as she did.
"I understand...Yes, oh,
I know...I understand...Yes, but I wanted to give you the opportunity
to tell the world how wonderful your daughter was, as a teacher, a mother
and a person."
Continuing across the room
like a caged animal, Carol's pose remained one of sympathy and understanding.
Her voice reflected experienced pain and sadness, all the while pressing
her chest as if to ease the hurt in her heart.
"No, it's all right...I
understand, I...I just thought you would want everyone to know how special
and wonderful she...Oh, I know she was, and I thought you would want to
tell people...I know, I understand...Well, you take care, and I am so
sorry, really...Okay, thank you. Good-bye.
"Well, she's not talking,"
Carol said as she hung up the phone. "That's all right, though.
I didn't think she would, but it's always worth a try."
I was amazed, and ashamed,
of what I had just witnessed. I could feel resentment and anger
burning in my throat. 'This is my town,' I thought. 'These
are my people. We've got some serious problems here, and you guys
come in here rehearsing for the Globe Award!'
I sat and watched Carol
for a moment. She was already back on the phone, her rushed and
antic voice digging for more information from a child specialist.
I slowly began to realize
that she was doing her job - and she was damn good at it.
I forgave her for being so false and unfeeling and understood that attached
emotional involvement could be the death of a journalist. I began
to admire, just a bit, the way she had a million ideas and questions going
on in her head at once and handled them without missing a beat.
We went to the mall where a local radio station was passing out white
ribbons for residents to wear on their shirts. Overnight the tiny, silken
strips of fabric had become symbols of support, unity and strength.
Everyone was being encouraged to wear one, and I expected a small crowd
to be there. Carol and I split up to cover more ground. I
was to interview as many people as I could. In between talking to
people, I took pictures with my camera, hoping I could use some of them
for the social project I was doing for class. Ironically, I had
decided to investigate youth and crime in the community for my portion
of the publication.
We left there and began
to travel across town. Carol was driving toward Westside school
when Peter called her on the cellular phone. It was decided then
they would station me at the school for a while, and they would go to
some press conferences. So, we turned around and went back to the
motel for my van.
"Oh my God," I said aloud when I turned the corner that led to the school.
What seemed like hundreds of TV trucks, antennas and small satellite dishes
littered every foot of pavement in the driveway and the parking lot.
I stopped the van on the side of the road and got out.
What was like a nightmare
I was trying to wake from, but couldn't, this was becoming numbingly real
with each new thing I saw. The entire world had just invaded our
quiet, conservative town. I took a panoramic shot of the scene.
No one would believe this without documentation.
I just stood there for
a moment, trying to digest the events that had led up to what I saw.
Blinking with some sophomoric hope, I prayed that when I opened my eyes,
this bizarre vision would be gone, wishing the surreal state my mind was
operating in would disengage and everything would go back to normal.
But, of course, it remained.
I got back in the van and entered the school grounds. Two state
troopers motioned me to stop, but as soon as I said 'media,' they casually
waved me through. I drove very slowly and gazed around in amazement.
People were walking everywhere, vehicles were parked as if they had stalled
out where they were. I finally found an empty spot on the grass.
I once again gathered my
gear and got out of the van. Cables were crossing the pavement everywhere
I looked. People were bustling back and forth, talking into small
recorders, cellular phones or walkie-talkies. Some carried huge
cameras with monopods. Others carried video equipment. Cameramen
in jeans following quickly and cumbersomely behind thin, blonde women
in suits. They all had intense, unflagging expressions on their
I made my way through the
bedlam that eerily reminded of the carnivals we used to got to in Long
Beach when I was a teenager. Large, square trucks blocked any breeze
and cast chilling shadows over those who walked by. Fat, black cables
snaked across the pavement, threatening to tumble anyone foolish enough
to look up from the ground. I even saw food and drinks being handed
out from behind a table set up in front of a mobile kitchen manned by
the Salvation Army. Then I saw Jeff Shearman, retired army sergeant
and familiar face.
"Jeff!" I said.
"Hey, girl," he said.
"Working for The Herald?"
I told him I stringing
for USA Today. His eyes were making a constant survey of
the grounds as we talked, darting back and forth like a nervous cat. I
saw in his eyes an intense, disoriented fear, that, had I not known
him as well as I did, I would have mistaken for strength. His fear
scared me. In spite of the warm, late morning sun, I shivered and
pulled my arms around me.
"Who are you here with,
the ASU unit?" I asked him.
"No, I'm just here," he
said, eyes never leaving the grounds.
"You're not here with a
group?" I asked again.
"No, I'm just here."
Finally he looked at me.
"Don't drink the coffee,"
he said with a bit of a forced smile.
"Why?" I asked.
"I could certainly use some."
"There's nowhere to get
rid of it," he answered.
"No port-a-potties," he
whispered. "Got rid of them this morning. Hoping the media
wouldn't hang around. But you didn't hear that from me."
We both laughed a weak,
nervous laugh. He pointed out a small girl walking toward the gym
with her mother.
"There's one of the students
your bosses want you to talk to," he said. "Go get 'em, kid, and
I walked to her, but about
five feet away, I stopped dead in my tracks.
'Oh my God!' I thought.
'I can't do this! These are my own people. I can't go up to her
and ask how she felt seeing her classmates shot up, or how she felt seeing
the blood of her best friend pool around her feet as it sought cracks
in the concrete, or if her nostrils too were being assaulted by the thick,
foreign smell of death hanging heavy above our heads. And
I can't explain to her that I'm only asking because the rest of the world
wants to read about it.'
I panicked. I wanted
to scream to everyone to get the hell out of here. If they would
all just go away, things would be okay, and we would realize that none
of this really happening! I looked around wildly, expecting someone
to slap me and curse me for even thinking about bothering that little
But no one noticed me.
Everyone was still rushing back and forth like little ants building their
colony. I wondered what God was thinking as He watched this.
I wondered if He was tending to the force that had taken a big stick and
stirred us all up like bored and curious children stir up an anthill.
A small-framed woman was
to my right, walking in circles like a puppy chasing its tail. She
wore jeans, leather clogs and a flannel shirt with the tails out.
Strings of dusty blonde hair wiped about her thickly powered face, and
frosted pink lipstick bled into tiny pleats around her lips. Talking
on a cell phone she said, "Beautiful, that's beautiful! Go with it!"
The arm not holding the phone was waving in the air like a politician
I turned back around to
run to Jeff for comfort, so he could tell me what to do, but he was gone.
Frightened, I looked around again. I slowly tried to regain
my stability. I noticed the school flag was half mast and again
got that strange feeling of the banner weeping in the strong March winds.
I saw flowers being brought in and laid down by the doors and by the sidewalk.
Then I noticed gallon-size bleach jugs lined up on that same sidewalk.
I knew immediately what they were for, and thanked God that they were
I walked down the sidewalk
and over to one of the building entrances. Seeking refuge in the
obscure shadows of the doorway, I turned toward the brick wall and wept.
Feeling as if I had cleansed some of the horrible, greedy filth from my
soul, I regrouped. I was here to tell a story, to document evils
done to our children, to possibly find some shred of reason why two young
boys felt so violent that they gunned down their classmates. I would
do my best to help bring to light the forces that destroyed seven lives
and wounded thousands of others.
Hiding behind my camera,
I wandered around the grounds, feeling like I was walking in slow, animated
motion. I soon blended with the rest of the ants, scurrying back
and forth, intensely focused on the job at hand. I walked out to
the wooded area the boys had used as cover. Investigators were combing
the brush trying to find more casings. I watched with the other
journalists, some taking pictures, some scribbling notes in thin, rectangular
notebooks, some stretching boom-mikes as far as they could over the narrow,
muddy creek that separated us from the investigators.
"Can't keep away from things,
Startled, I turned around.
"Oh, Steve, you scared
me," I told the Jonesboro police officer.
Not knowing what to say,
I just looked at the brass-plated tag on his chest and traced the name
'Bradley' with my eyes.
"Long day already?" I finally
asked. I gazed at the pleasant, nice-looking face and thought that
even though I had not known him long, he was my friend. Maybe it
was just because we here at this spot, at this time. We were all
friends, we were a family, we were all experiencing this together.
"Long two days," he replied.
"I was one of the first out here."
In his eyes, moist
with the pain of a man who had seen too much, I saw the same odd,
chilling fear I had seen in Jeff's. The terror I had managed to
harness just below the surface threatened to squeeze its powerful, gripping
fingers around my chest again. This man, I thought, just last
week wore his uniform with comely authority and pride when I accompanied
him on the saturation patrol. Now his eyes are dull, and his uniform
seems ill-fitting on his slumped, defenseless shoulders.
Yes. I was scared to see
one of our town's heroes look so defeated and vulnerable.
"Oh, God, Steve, I'm sorry."
"Yea," he said looking
at the ground, as if to hide his eyes, knowing what they were doing to
"They find anything else
out there today?"
"Nah, just looking," he
"You have kids, don't you,
"Yes." He looked
me straight in the eyes. "And when I got home, I hugged them, tight,
without letting go, for a long time."
"Yeah, me too."
I asked some of the questions
I was supposed to asked then walked back over to the parking area.
I spotted one of my classmates there stringing for the New York Times.
I saw from the outside what I must have looked like when I first got there,
had anybody noticed. Very scared, very out of place.
"Wander around a bit, Lance,"
I told him. "You'll loosen up. You get a little used to it."
I saw a crowd gather, and
like a lost sheep, hurried to join the flock. A boy was telling
ten different cameras and dozens of recorders what he had seen the day
before. I wove through the crowd and began taking notes. Most
of the questions I had were already being asked, so I just listened and
scribbled. After a few minutes the mother began to look around helplessly,
trying to find a way out. I was closest behind her, so her pleading
eyes caught mine several times. Guilt washing over me, I whispered
to her, "Just get him out of here."
"What?" she mouthed desperately
"Just take him by the arm
and go," I leaned over further and whispered.
I drew my brows together
and nodded my head in a short, quick jerk, not wanting the other reporters
to hear me betray them. She gave a quick nod back and began to look
around again, this time with a steadfast look of will, rather than powerless
entrapment. I stepped away and started talking to another reporter.
She wanted the camera man to get a close up shot of the white ribbon I
wore on my tee shirt.
When I turned back around,
reporters were now asking the mother questions, encircling her with microphones
and cameras. I saw her look around for her son, who had been whisked
off by another group of reporters.
"Where is...Oh, there he is...I...Well,
oh, he'll be all right," she said, dismissing her concerns, and turned
back to the cameras to eagerly continue her story.
I was annoyed, and maybe
a little angry, that I had tried to help her escape. And I was smugly
pleased that I had not done it before I had the notes I wanted.
I joined a few more
of the sheep herds, interviewed a few lone souls, was turned down by a
few more, then received a page from Peter. I used Lance's cell phone
to return the call. Peter wanted me to go to the skating rink were
the business was offering free roller skating for the Westside children.
After that I was to go to a press conference the hospital was holding.
I arrived at the rink and
again began to feel like the insatiable intruder that the media
are thought to be. I let out a huge sigh of relief when I saw Sherry
Pruitt, a former graduate assistant for Dr. Gambill, drive into the parking
lot. I had worked with her a lot and she had taught me many of the
writing skills I would need in the real world of reporting.
"You here for The Sun?"
I asked her.
She told me she was, and
I was relieved to see that she too was nervous and a bit uncertain of
what to do. We entered together, feeling there was strength in numbers.
I spotted three girls and an older woman at a table. Thinking the
woman was a mother of one of the girls, I approached the table to see
if they wouldn't mind talking. The woman was a volunteer counselor,
there in case a child needed to talk. She began telling me about
herself, but left when she realized I really wanted to talk to the girls.
Before I knew it, I was
surrounded by kids, each wanting to tell me her version of the story.
One of the girls had ridden the bus everyday with the two boys accused
of the murders. Most of the children had witnessed the sniping and
were eager to talk about it. A girl claimed that one of the victims
had been her best friend. Another girl said, no, she had been her
best friend. Before the bickering got out of hand, I diverted the
girls by getting phone numbers and making sure I had their names spelled
correctly. This done, I headed to the other side of town to the
St. Bernards Regional Medical Center conference.
I saw Lance again almost
immediately, and we latched on to each other's presence like two
lone Americans on third world soil. The conference proved not to
provide much in the way of graphic details or breaking news. The
mother of one of the wounded girls was speaking to the press, but did
not want to say much. I began to make my way back to the motel,
ready to be relieved of the heavy baggage I had picked up throughout the
While Peter dictated the
information he had gathered to Carol, I watched her type feverishly on
her laptop computer. Her eyes darted constantly from the screen
to the keyboard. Every now and then she would shake her hands and
demand that Peter repeat or verify something.
When Peter left, she began
pacing again. As if the idea just struck her, she asked if I would
call the 13-year-old suspect Mitchell Johnson's, preacher. Then
she went back to the keyboard. I tried several times before I got
through to him, but when I did, he was willing to talk. He spoke
fondly and highly of the boy whom everyone had been referring to in the
past tense all day.
Carol was more patient
with me during my debriefing, but still very hurried and anxious.
Several times I sensed that our communications had broken down, and the
correct details had not made it to the keyboard. But the speed at
which she was operating did not allow for many corrections. She
had made it clear she was pushing deadline.
When we were through with
my part, she asked if I would take a check so she wouldn't have to go
to an ATM machine. I tried to hide my surprise and told her a check
would be fine. I stopped by Peter's room on my way out, and then
looked at my check the whole way out to the van.
I was torn between the
excitement of payment for a 'real-world' job and the guilt of having made
money off my home's tragic misfortune. Mostly, though, I was
just very, very tired.
When I arrived home, my
family had not checked the answering machine and did not know were I had
been. As I explained, my oldest son of 13 began to formulate what
he thought my part in all this had been.
"You mean you were one
on those people out there bugging everyone?" he almost shouted at me.
"Oh my God, Mom! How could you?"
He threw his arms up in
defeated disgust and turned around. Storming out of the room, he
continued to mutter, "How could you, Mom? How could you?"
I went after him, having
forgotten until now that he was the same age as these other children.
In spite of his anger and resistance, I began to explain I didn't do anything
wrong, I didn't bug or hurt anybody.
"It's my job, Sweetheart,"
I told him as gently as I could. "And if there weren't people out
there doing what we are doing, no one else in the world would know about
it. The hundreds of people that have shown up today to give blood,
they came because the media told them about it. And the money being
raised, it's because people heard about it on the news. When people
see the sad pictures of people crying, they understand the reality of
what's happened. It helps them realize just how this has affected
real families, and they will do more to help, they will do more to stop
this from ever happening again."
Thankful I seemed to have
satisfied him, I wondered, just a bit, if I was also trying to convince
Thursday I did not have much involvement with the paper, and spent
much of the day developing film. Friday, however, Peter called again.
Carol was going back to Los Angeles and he needed me for some more interviews.
I was to ask people how they felt about children being tried as adults
when they commit adult crimes. This was fairly easy, as I could
simply conduct interviews with the people I came in contact with as I
went about my own business. For the sake of my own project, I went
back to the school to look around a bit more. I was quickly shuffled
off the grounds, however, by men in the same type of camouflage attire
that Drew Golden had worn three days earlier.
I stopped by the funeral
home where the second family that day was saying a final good-bye to their
daughter. Security was tight for the media, and it seemed more of
the same; little ants scurrying here and there, though a little more slowly.
Crews were tired and ready to go home.
I traveled on then to the
cemetery where a girl had been buried that morning. I planned on
getting some nice, symbolic shots; close-ups of flowers at the graveside
and things like that. But when I arrived there, I again felt like
the ugly, horrid intruder, coming to rape a young daughter with my ever-seeing
camera, denying her rest after this atrocious act . To my relief,
however, I was alone. I wondered why no one else was around, and
walked slowly to the small graveside. There was no fresh earth to
be seen, only dozens upon dozens of flowers. Further inspection
showed teddy bears, angels, banners and a softball with signatures on
I knelt down and prayed
for the families. I prayed for the children, and I prayed for forgiveness.
I put down the gift that I had brought and whispered to Paige that I was
sorry. My tears on her grave's bright and fragrant dressing were
only a few of the thousands that had been shed there that day.
I had shot close to a roll of film when someone pulled up. I stood
up and waited. I would take my tongue thrashing. I would apologize
and extend true, heartfelt sympathies.
The man, however, wore
a camera around his neck as well. He was a staff photographer for
the New York Times. We did the small talk thing and exchanged
business cards. He even loaned me a roll of film. When real
mourners arrived shortly thereafter, it was behind him that I did some
of the best work I've ever done. His presence and confidence allowed
me for the first time to feel like a true, professional photographer.
By the time I left two more reporters had shown up.
My last Westside assignment
for USA Today involved attending the church of Natalie Brooks.
A CBS crew was there to greet each visitor. 'How rude,' I thought.
'How disrespectful.' But I soon realized that the cameras were right
there in the open, not tucked neatly into a purse as my recorder was.
Nor were their notebooks hidden behind a not-so-well-used Bible.
They were open and honest about their mission. I justified mine
by claiming I needed to worship anyway.
The truth, of course, was that
I did. In seeing women and men brought to their knees in sorrow
and grief, I was quickly humbled. No one resented me, and I was
welcomed. During the service women clung to each other, rocking
and sobbing. Men fought back tears behind rimmed eyeglasses.
Members raised their arms above their heads and praised God. I joined
their grieving and finally emptied restrained eyes. My heart was
finally able to break, and begin to heal.
As I left the church that
day, I decided I would return with my husband and three boys.
I remembered my oldest son's young, questioning eyes when I had talked
to him earlier that week. I recognized in them the dawning fear,
and understanding, emotions that both saddened and comforted me.
And I remembered the first
question he asked me Wednesday evening when I returned home.
"Where did you go Mom?
Where have you been?"
"To the end of the world,
Honey, the end of the Earth," I said. And I pulled him tightly to my breast
for a long, long time.
you came here through a Literary Illusions link,
then close this window when through viewing.
you came here through a search engine,
then go to Literary Illusions Home Page.