Thursday, June 26, 2008

Are we scavengers?

Some weeks ago, my outlook on journalism changed.

It was a Wednesday morning. Elvis's "A Little Less Conversation" woke me up, and I immediately grabbed my phone to silence it. The caller-ID read "Unknown," letting me know that it was my editor at the Globe. Apparently the newspaper likes to be stealthy.

We exchanged pleasantries and got to business.

"How brave are you feeling?" he asked.
"Depends on what we're talking about."

I had previously been assigned to go down to Miami, Okla. to do a story on a Model-T club that was traveling across the country. My editor filled me in that there was a woman in Miami who had lost her son and daughter-in-law in the recent tornadoes.

The Globe hadn't been able to contact her, so since I was in the area it fell to me to go track her down. Great.

"Oh, and if they stick a shotgun out the door, just leave--that's happened before," my editor added.

So there I was, sitting in my car outside this woman's house. There was a miniature zoo of people in her yard, and I tried to summon the courage to walk the gauntlet of relatives on the way to the door. Fortunately for my inexperienced anxiety, they all left shortly afterward.

But so did my hope that I might be able to get an interview. Fearing that she was one of the people who had left, I got out of my car, plodded to the door of the house and knocked.

A woman answered the door, and I knew it was her. She had lakes for eyes.

Immediately, everything I had planned to say to justify my appearance there melted away. I stammered an introduction and asked if she was willing to talk to me. I was met with a deadpan stare as she tried to process what it was that I was asking.

After a brief pause, she said it was fine. We sat down on the couch, and amid the bustle of people circulating through the rooms and attending to the responsibilities that come with planning a funeral, I tried to think of what I should ask.

So I asked her to tell me about her son. Who was he? what did he enjoy doing? What were his interests? At first I felt like a vulture, looking for a piece of roadkill. Gradually, however, that mindset faded away and was replaced by a new realization about journalism.

Stories like this perform an important role because they allow us to understand ourselves better as well as remember who has passed. In another realm, they can also provide a therapeutic outlet for the victim's relatives or loved ones.

In this woman's case, the shock she felt was still apparent, and she wasn't exactly a wellspring of information. But the fact that she allowed me in and answered my questions said enough.

For the whole story, check out the Joplin Globe's website.

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