Authors: Brad Willis
This is big news for my career. That's not lost on me. But as I say when I accept the award at a ceremony in New York, it's hard to accept such a prestigious honor for documenting such tremendous suffering. As I sit in a suit and tie with Stan and Dennis for a sumptuous awards dinner complete with champagne, I feel humbled as well as a little embarrassed and out of place. I'd rather be back in the field, unwashed, hungry, and exhausted, pushing forward to bring another story of human suffering and injustice into the light of day.
In fact, all I can think about is where to go next.
WAS BORN IN LOS ANGELES IN 1949. The city was already well on its way to becoming a madhouse. When I turned five, we moved to the nearby countryside. A bucolic place called West Covina. It was paradise: rolling hills, creeks, pastures, farms, orchards, and walnut groves perfect for all-day hide-and-seek and the building of secret forts. But soon the developers arrived, and the landscape was leveled, scraped, and sterilized for suburban housing tracts and strip malls. As I watched all my favorite haunts being destroyed, it felt like they were bulldozing my childhood into oblivion.
Like so many other Americans of their era, my parents and their friends were prejudiced. From my earliest years I heard countless pejorative terms for people who weren't white and conservative. Even as a little boy, something deep inside me recoiled every time they spoke like this. It was incredibly painful and made me feel like I had been born into a family to which I didn't belong. Then came the sixties. The Civil Rights Movement. Vietnam War. The assassinations of John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It felt like someone had hijacked my country. Like so many others of my generation, I was consumed with youthful outrage. I marched in protests. I got roughed up by the cops at peace rallies. I became completely disillusioned with the idea of ever joining a society that behaved that way.
I can't remember finishing high school in 1967. All I wanted was out. At the first chance, with the ink barely dry on my diploma,
I fled to the woods of Humboldt County in Northern California. It was a place where I could sink my fingers into the fertile soil, plant seeds, tend the earth, and grow my own food. I could spend days on remote, rocky beaches and never see another soul. I could canoe down wild rivers or hike into forests of virgin redwoods and just sit, listening as the quiet whispers of nature enveloped me. Being in this isolated area with nature's beauty was like finding my true home. I was away from the racist remarks, the anger, the frustration of marching and protesting, and a world that seemed upside down and inside out.
I loved the outdoors, working with my hands, and being self-sufficient. I bought an old truck and chainsaw, scavenged dead oak and pine trees from the forest, cut and chopped like a madman, and sold firewood. The smell of the wood splitting open mesmerized me. Oak had a light fragrance of vanilla and cinnamon. The pine resin had a minty aroma that flooded my senses. I also built a business restoring some of the region's cherished Victorian homes, figuring out how to do the needed carpentry and painting as I went. This nourished and sustained me, but when I turned nineteen it felt like it was time to get serious about an education and I enrolled at a small college in the redwoods named Humboldt State University.
I became fixated as I threw myself at my studies even harder than I had chopped firewood. I loved language and literatureâfrom the classics of Shakespeare, Whitman, and Thoreau to the radical poets of the beat generation. I ate it all up like I was starving, finishing a degree in English Literature and earning a high school teaching credential in less than four years. It wasn't from any inherent brilliance, and I had no career ambitions. I don't even know why I got a credential. I never wanted to be a teacher. I just needed to prove something to myself and to the mainstream world I had left behind even though I still wanted nothing to do with society, the system, or the rules. I'd checked out of that scene long ago and, with my degree finished and the small savings left over from my firewood and restoration business, I was ready to head off for the unknown.
I decided to leave my remote cabin on the edge of a village called Freshwater for a few months and see more of the world. I thought
about South America, New Zealand, or Africa. Or maybe I'd travel around Europe again on a shoestring budget like my trip there the previous summer. The destination wasn't of utmost importance. Expanding my boundaries was. I longed to feel part of something bigger, explore what was unknown to me, and be a global citizen.
In the end, I chose Canada. I could drive my old van there, explore Vancouver, then head farther north into the Yukon Territory and camp out in the wilderness, avoiding the costs of air travel and lodging. In preparation for my trip, I drove into the nearby town of Eureka to buy some supplies. As I was heading home to pack for my trip, the local television station caught my eye. The large cinderblock building had a neon sign facing the main road that flashed the time and current temperature right beside the station's call letters: KVIQ-TV, Channel 6.
I don't know why I pulled into the parking lot and walked inside. I didn't own a TV and didn't care a thing about local news. I was hooked on
The New York Times
and enthralled by the major events shaking the world, always fantasizing I was the one on the scene of a great war or revolution. I never saw myself as a reporter. I just wanted to be a witness to that which was momentous and meaningful. Yet suddenly, there I was, strolling through the lobby of a small-town TV station, when a portly, gregarious man wearing strong cologne and a loud tie walked up and introduced himself.
“Hi, I'm Alan Jones, the general manager. You must be the one looking for a job.” Jones reached out with his meaty fingers and shook my hand with surprising strength.
“Yes, sir,” I answered impulsively, trying to match his grip while wondering what I was getting myself into. I'd never taken a course in journalism and had no idea what duties people performed at TV stations.
“Where are you from?” Jones asked with a gentle grin.
“Right here, Freshwater,” I answered. “I just graduated from Humboldt State.”
“Oh, I thought you were from out of town!” he said with a laugh.
Jones must have been confusing me with someone who really did have a job interview and was somehow blind to my outfit of work
boots, blue jeans, and a flannel shirt. I glanced at the station entrance expecting to see a well-scrubbed journalism grad in a dark suit and button-down collar come running in for his interview and angrily declare me an impostor.
“Come with me,” Jones said. “As I'm sure you know, we just fired a reporter and plenty of people want this job. I'll introduce you to our news director. We'll see how you do.”
“Yes, sir!” I said again with a smile, thinking I might as well have a good time while it lasted and I'd still be able to leave for Canada in the morning.
News Director Don Michaels fit the role of a seasoned journalist to a T. He was sitting behind a desk piled with papers in what could only be called organized chaos. He wore thick glasses framing a face pockmarked from childhood acne. His thinning reddish hair was in a comb-over to hide a balding pate. He was coatless, in a wrinkled white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled above his elbows, thick suspenders, and a narrow black tie tossed over one shoulder. Michaels was so absorbed in his work he didn't bother looking up when Jones said, “Here's a local guy who wants a job,” and sat me down in a creaky wooden chair facing his desk. “I'm a local guy, too,” Jones said as he turned and headed out. “I like local guys.”
Two metal boxes, each about four feet high, stood beside Michaels' desk loudly clacking away, spewing rolls of tan, pulpy paper all over the floor. Suddenly, a sharp bell sounded. Michaels leaned over and ripped the paper off one machine. “Another so-called
,” he said disdainfully, giving it a quick glance then crumpling it up and tossing it into the trash. “Worthless, old news; nothing urgent at all.”
“What are those?” I asked, risking sounding like a fool.
“News wires. Associated Press and United Press International. Didn't you learn about these in your journalism classes?”
“No,” I said as straightforward as possible. “My degree is in English Lit. I've never taken a class in journalism.”
“Humph,” Michaels grunted. “Go take a look.” Michaels used words sparingly, getting right to the point. His brusque expression never changed.
I walked over and watched the automatic printers firing off one story after the next. World news, national news, statewide news, local news: reports literally pouring in from around the globe before anyone ever saw them in a newspaper. As they cascaded onto the floor like a waterfall, it seemed like the whole world was unfolding right there at my feet. It sent chills down my spine.
Michaels ripped three stories off the wire, handed them to me and said in a curt tone, “Write these up. Make them concise and conversational. One page only. Here's some script paper. You can use that empty desk and typewriter over there. You have ten minutes.” He looked me in the eye with a fatherly but piercing gaze as I realized he hadn't bothered to even ask me my name.
I had never typed a word in my life. I hand-wrote most of my college papers and had to pay someone to type them when a professor required it. I sat down at the news desk and flashed through the wire reports, then picked up a sheet of the thick script paper with shaky hands. It was really three sheets; white on the top, pink in the middle, and yellow on the bottom, with sheets of carbon paper in between. It was so thick I could barely get it into the typewriter without destroying it, already losing too much of my precious ten minutes. Once I finally got the sheet threaded, I began to hunt and peck with my index fingers, furtively glancing at Michaels in hopes he wasn't watching and relieved to see he was crumpling up more wire copy and tossing it on the floor. Despite my slow fingers, my studies in English Literature paid off. I knew how to write. I finished just in time, making my first deadline.
I handed the stories to Michaels. He gave them a rapid glance, tossed them onto one of the growing piles on his desk, and said in a challenging tone, “Can you shoot and edit film?” I was in luck again. Art was part of my minor studies, and as an elective I had taken a film class working with 16 millimeter film cameras, cutting the film strips and splicing them together with special glue. Michaels took me into the film room and I gave a quiet sigh of relief. It was the same editing equipment I knew so well. I cut and spliced some leftover film strips for him then noticed the cameras on a wall rack. “Those are Bolex and Auricon cameras,” I said. “I know how to use them.
The Bolex is for silent footage and the Auricon records sound on the film strip. You always need to white balance and set the f-stop before you shoot. By the way, I also know how to process the film.”
“Okay, I'm a homicide detective,” Michaels said, seeming unimpressed as he strode back into the newsroom. “You've rushed to the scene of the crime after hearing on the police scanners that a body has been found in the woods.” He pointed to a shelf with a few black boxes that had dials and flashing red lights. I could hear the squawking of a police dispatcher and the responses from units in the field. Scanners. This must be how it really happened.
“I'm busy on this case. I only have three minutes to speak with you. Here's a notepad. Go.” Michaels was pushing me. Seeing what I was like under pressure.
I decided to be terse, just like him, stick to the basics and ask the obvious.
“Male or female? Age? Name? Cause of death? Where did the victim live? Any suspects?” I took furious notes as he fired off his answers.
“OK, follow me,” Michaels said. “Grab the wire stories you wrote from my desk. You're on the air in two minutes.”
We walked briskly into the large news studio. There were racks of lights on the ceiling; massive floor cameras on thick, black wheels; and a colorful news set in the middle, painted in hues of blue with
KVIQ Eyewitness News
prominently displayed in the background. There was an adjoining room behind the cameras with a plate-glass window labeled “Control Room,” filled with projectors and other large machines that mystified me. Michaels opened the door and found the engineer. “Fire up the cameras and turn on the lights for a screen test.”
As the hot lights flooded the studio, he sat me down in the news chair, wrapped a lavalier microphone around my neck, walked over to a floor camera, and pointed at me, then barked, “You're on the air in thirty seconds. Just back from the murder scene. Forget your notes. Ad-lib what you know. Then read the stories you wroteâ¦ right into the camera. Make eye contact. Here we go, 3, 2, 1â¦ You're on.”
I took a deep breath and, doing my best to remember how network news reporters sounded, began my story. “I'm Brad Willis. Here's the breaking news. I'm just back from a crime scene in the woods north of town. Homicide Detective Don Michaels tells me the body of a young woman, stabbed to death, has been discovered in a shallow grave. College coed Jane Doe, missing for several days, has been identified as the victim. The police say they have no suspects at this time. We'll stay on the story and keep you informed as more information becomes available.”