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Peer Work

Home  >  Peer Work
The Rest of the Story: A Journalist's First Year on the Job
By Debbie Cutler, Eagle River
Genre: Non-fiction Level: Adult
Year: 2010 Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

January, 1991

We're at war. POWS, taken hostage after their plane crashed, are shown repeatedly on television. Some are Americans. A woman, concerned about the treatment of the POWS, calls the paper I work for: the Chugiak-Eagle River Star (now The Alaska Star), a small newspaper in Eagle River just outside of Anchorage. She asks us to start a letter-writing campaign to request humane treatment for prisoners in Iraqi hands; she specifies the letters must go to the Iraqi government or the efforts will be useless. Lee Jordan, the editor, tells me to find an address.

I am a new reporter, been on the job about a month. I don't know how to go about finding an Iraqi address. So I just started calling people. The base can't help me. The Red Cross can't help me. "Try the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C.," someone finally suggests.

I call on a Saturday, at home, minutes before I am due to leave for a college class. A man with a heavy, hard-to-understand accent answers the phone. I tell him my mission.

He ignores my request for an address, instead telling me his people are not unfeeling animals.

I realize I am talking to someone from Iraq and don't know how to handle it. I have one sheet of yellow legal paper and a pen at hand. I'm not prepared to do an interview. "All I want is an address."

He ignores me. "We will take them food, cure them from sickness. We will we treat them like a human being. We will take care of them, supply them with food and clothes. We'll return them home safely. I guarantee you this." I write the words quickly on my one sheet of paper, scouring my bedroom for something else to write on. I find nothing.

"All Americans ask us about this. Believe me, the advertisement of this is very bad. No one is talking about the (Iraqi) civilians' rights. We would like to explain our view to honest civilian people of the U.S. and all the world. Children, men, women and all people (were killed by an American bomb). No one is talking about the rights of the Palestinian people.

"We want to resolve this crisis so all regions live peacefully. We have to resolve the main conflict in that region. The main conflict is between the Palestinian people and the Israelis." He continues.

I am running out of space on my paper. I am running late for class, a class I have a test in. I feel sick to my stomach. I feel a failure as a journalist. I ask him his name.

"Is that necessary?" he asks. He doesn't want to give it to me.

"Yes," I say. "Well, no. Well, yes." I don't know. I should get his name, but I don't want to press him.     

"Could you tell me your occupation at least?" I ask. He tells me he is an Iraqi official, gives me the requested address, then continues his one-sided conversation. He tells me the Iraqi people want to be friends with Americans.

"My opinion is very nice," he says. "And I'm very happy to see this kind of human being (American civilians) that treats us kindly and politely. My thanks for the citizens of the U.S. for this."

I continue writing on the sides of the page, in the margins. I feel I should ask him something. My mind is a panicky blank. Finally I ask about the oil spilled in the Persian Gulf by Iraq as an act of war. He ends the conversation, hanging up abruptly. I listen to the dial tone.

The editor prints the story with a disclaimer. "Propaganda is a major weapon employed by the government of Saddam Hussein as it defends its invasion of Kuwait." He tells me to interview the Anchorage chairman of APEC, a pro-Israel group, who again tells me Iraq is a master propagandist.

A friend tells me since I didn't get the official's name, people will think I made up the story. Even the editor asks how I can prove I talked to the man, how I know he is who is says he is. I tell him the best I can do is give him a copy of my phone bill, which will show a 20-plus minute call to the Iraqi embassy. I tell him for all I know the man could be a janitor.

I don't think I'm cut out to be a reporter. I like the man I interviewed. I feel compassion for the Iraqi people. The people who I am told to hate, who we are at war with. I don't understand the war. I get upset when people tell me they like the story because I know it was poorly done. One-sided.

I interview two Vietnam veterans. They tell me ugly things about war. "Six months after high school I'm out killing people," one says. "I have a hard time going to church now." He tells how he watched Vietnamese babies being killed by Americans. "I still hear kids cry," he says. "It makes the hair on my neck stand. That's why my kids are spoiled. I can't stand to hear them cry."

The other one tells me he only thought of suicide after he returned home from war. He no longer felt a part of society. "Over in Vietnam you understood. It was black and white and you knew exactly where you stood." He tells me nothing had to be perfect because there was nothing to be perfect for. In the states he was treated with hostility and found himself wanting to return to Vietnam, where hatred at least made more sense to him. Back home, he was confused, scared and isolated. The headline writer titles the piece: "Viet war ‘messed up' Pierre Collins." 

I cry when I read that. I call Pierre and apologize. I feel like quitting.

February 1991

I write about school children writing letters, etc. to Americans in Saudi Arabia. I write about a Crisis Pregnancy Center. I ask people if they think the U.S. should launch a ground war.   

"Do it," one says.

"Whatever the president wants to do is fine with me," another answers.

"Kick (Saddam's) butt clear out of there," says another. 

"Go in there full bore and don't back out." Still another. A few say no. Not yet.

My best friend, who is pro-war, stops writing to me. Her husband is sent to the Gulf. She doesn't understand why I can't make sense of the situation. She tells me she's disappointed in me for not taking a stand for the war. She calls me ignorant. She tells me she doesn't respect the media. She tells me she doesn't respect me.

I start my month-long project of writing about the Iditarod race. I interview all the local mushers. I follow them on the trail in early March. One, Joe Carpenter, is axed from the race because he broke a rule. During a storm he allowed another racer to "jump start" his dogs when his dogs went on strike and refused to budge. He had sat with them, without food, for 10 hours. He asked officials if they would allow him to finish the race, not compete for money or recognition. Just finish. They took away his dog food (kept at the checkpoints). They told him to go home.

He cries as he talks to me. "It's getting harder (to talk about it) as we go along," he says. I look at my pad, uncomfortably. "I put my heart into it. I committed myself to excellence. People don't understand how much it takes, what it really takes for (mushers) to get into the race. We just want to be a part of the spirit of the race." He spent his life's savings to enter. He is in debt.

We walk outside to take a picture. I bend down and a husky, chained to a dog house behind me, lifts his leg and urinates on me -- yellow foul-smelling urine. And lots of it. It runs down my new, black full-length wool coat. I stand. Because of the way I was squatted, urine is from my shoulder to my toes. It is in my hair. It drips into my boots. Joe is horrified.

I laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh. He runs inside to get me some paper towels, all apologetic. I'm still laughing when he gets outside. I laugh all the way home. I laugh as I take a shower. I laugh as I take my coat to the dry cleaner. I don't know why.

March 1991

I write about things like gardening, foreign language programs. I write about Christina Kanack, a 4-year-old with leukemia.

Her mother had called me. They were financially desperate. They couldn't pay Christina's medical bills. Would I consider doing an article?

"The best way to get help is to touch people emotionally," I tell her as I take off my coat. It's probably not a professional thing to say. But I don't feel like a professional. I don't believe any reporter can be objective. I don't believe there is such a thing as objectivity. I think the public knows that too; that's why they are so disillusioned with the media. But none of that matters. All I know is there is a child who is sick and needs money to get better. All I know is I'm going to do my best to see that my article helps her.

I don't say that the house is nicer than that of many I interview. I know people will hold that against the family. The public likes to see someone hit rock bottom before they help them. I want to help them before their shovels clank at dry rocks. I am straight-forward. I put my heart into the story. I start it:

Christina Kanack sat crosslegged on the clean almond-colored carpet of her living room floor while playing with her cat, Figaro. The 4-year-old tugged the cat's tail a little too hard and Figaro squirmed to get away from her. Christina must have realized she had been too rough on the feline as she put her thin white arms around it, smiling as she gave it a firm hug.

Her actions show her to be a typical four-year-old. But her appearance shows her to be otherwise. Her once long blonde hair is replaced by a fuzz. She's tiny, not even weighing 30 pounds. She looks like a beautiful, but fragile china doll -- like a child easily broken.

The guy who edits the story changes the bank's name where donations were to flow in because he doesn't recognize it. He doesn't ask me about it.

April, 1991

More stories on returning war vets and their experiences. Stories on daycare, artists, health centers etc.

I write about John Barclay, who had suffered congestive heart failure and had open-heart surgery and now spends most of his time in a wheelchair. I visit their home and his wife apologizes for the mess. She is also ill and neither is able to clean their homestead like they used to. Their dogs yap at me. The couple is gracious.

I write about how Safeway helps John purchase a Tommy Gate lift for his truck so he can still be mobile. The manager at Safeway tells me John often shops for elderly folks at the Senior Center, an act that touches her.

A few months later (September), I lay out his obituary in the newspaper. The photo attached to the obit is not a good one. I pull out the photo I took -- him grinning in front of his Tommy Lift -- from the file cabinet. I use it.

I hear his mother, who is in a nursing home, leaves the state. I wonder about his wife. They have no children. I feel I should go visit her. I don't. I don't go to the funeral.

More school stories. More community stories.

I write about a woman who had a bone marrow transplant. The person who laid out the page switches paragraphs, which makes the story illogical, confusing. I call the woman and apologize.

May 1991

I write about Dallon Oberg and his bee hives. I meet his wife and son. They show me their plants. They show me an art studio. They show me white fireweed honey. Dallon takes me out and walks me into the bees. They don't sting me. Later they point out pollen droppings on my vehicle. The bees always drop it as they fly, Gloria, his wife, tells me.

Later in the year, I type in his obituary and then lock myself in my room and cry. I don't know why his unexpected death affects me so strongly. Maybe because I don't know many dead people.

I run into his wife at the post office. I ask how her son is doing. I ask how she is doing. I take her picture for a face-to-face column.

I do more on schools, war, fires, arts, etc.

June 1991

More community news. More fires (dry summer). Single dads, melodramas, the past drug life of a pastor.

I interview a 16-year-old former drug user who is a special ed student. She tells me her partying friends don't want anything to do with her because she no longer parties. And the non-partying crowd doesn't want anything to do with her because they don't trust her. She tells me she has no friends. She tells me she home-schools to avoid friction. She tells me she has family problems.

She tells me she works two jobs to help pay for vet bills for her dog Niki, who had a seizure and has liver problems. She tells me about her poodle that also has seizures. She tells me how she gets teased about owning epileptic dogs. "But they're special," she says. "They've been through a hard time, just like me."

She tells me she wants to stay off drugs, finish school (she made straight As the previous semester), go to college. "I want to be something important. I do," she says. "I want to have my family look back on me and say ‘she did it.' I want to make them happy." I cry in the interview. It is the only interview I ever cry in.

Months later I learn she is pregnant, no longer working, and living with an abusive man. My stomach sours.

"Sometimes you go in the wrong direction, but you got to pull yourself out," she had told me. I hope she remembers. I hope. I hope.

July 1991

More fires. Summer activities.

I interview a Russian immigrant, an artist who fled from Russia because, in part, he was locked in a mental hospital for creating religious icons. His wife, also an artist, tells me about childbirth in Russia. Home birthing is not allowed. Medication is given whether the patient wants it or not. "They just say, ‘Shut up. It's not your business. You don't pay for it, so just shut up,'" she explains. They wouldn't let her bathe. They wouldn't let her husband visit.

I interview a woman who quit her job to take up flying, then crashed her plane along the Yukon River. She tells me she had to float her plane up the Yukon to get it repaired. But first, she tells me, she had to dismantle it. She tells me the worst of the trip was being on her period without pads or tampons. But she tells me I can't print that. I don't.

 I interview a feminist outdoorswoman. "You don't conquer the mountain," she says. "You just stand there. Women want to smell the flowers. They want to be in the wilderness, not do to the wilderness." She wears a leg brace. I like her.

August 1991

More of the same. People and community. It's always the same, yet always different. 

I take pictures at the first Picker's Retreat Bluegrass festival in Eagle River. People dance in the mud. I eat a wonderful tasting vegi-burger. I run into friends. I watch a couple dance on a truck bed in the parking lot. Only the moonlight illuminates them from behind. It is midnight.

I stand watching their silhouettes for at least a half hour. A band, practicing for their turn on stage, plays for them. A band member hands me a beer. "They dance good, don't they?" he asks.

"Yes." I take the beer and drink it. It feels good to be in the parking lot with the dancing silhouettes and the practicing band. I thoroughly enjoy myself.

I interview the organizer. He tells me many people didn't think he would be able to put the festival together. He laughs. In my photo cutline, I refer the doubters as scoffers. He calls and tells me he does not like that word. I tell him it's not a quote. He tells me he would have preferred I use the word "shufflers." I don't know what he means.

Later I learn the festival was a severe financial drain on him. There won't be a second. Too bad.

I take my first accident photo. A 1,200-1,500 pound piece of metal fell on a man at the Earth Station in Eagle River. I'm sent to cover it. I think he's dead. He's all bloody. I don't want to take pictures. But I do it. Tons of them. I even take them as he's carried out on the stretcher. I feel horrible. I cry. My boss calls to find out the man's condition. He's going to live. Only in a strange sense does that make me feel better.

Mikhail Gorbachev and conservative hard-liners have it out in Russia. I interview the Russian artist who told me about childbirth in Russia. She tells me she's sad, but understands what has happened. "When Gorbachev first opened freedom and the like, he discussed problem, illnesses and so on," she says. But things got worse. "He became unpopular because the economics were getting worse."  She tells me Gorbachev only made cosmetic improvements. She is very upset. She is very worried about her family and friends. Her voice seems weak. She tells me she wants her homeland to change for the better, but that won't be without costs, without battles.

I interview a foster mom and her three foster children. Two, she tells me, will soon be reunited with their abusive mother. "The last week I've been on the verge of tears every time I think about it." She confides she's not sure the move is in the children's best interest. She cries when she talks about it. She's adopting the third child, a boy who ran away from his abusive home when he was 12 years old, three years prior.

He tells me wants to be a bartender. He tells me he knows the job well as his mother and various aunts worked in bars and often took him with them. But, he tells me, if he can't be a bartender, he can't be a bartender.

"Whatever happens, happens," he says. "I'm not just going to perfectly plan my life because I don't know if it will happen that way or not. What goes, goes."

He tells me he's not religious, but that he feels God has a plan for his life. He tells me he's no different than any other child. "I've been in like six or seven foster homes," he says. "But being in foster care doesn't change anything. You're still a normal person. It's not so weird."

He would really like a bicycle. The people who are adopting him don't seem to have a lot of money. I tell people at work his desire. We get a new mountain bike for him. I deliver it and watch his face turn from surprise to smile as he stands there in the early morning sun, still in pajamas, staring at it.

September 1991

Big news, though I don't write about it, is the Kerr mail bombing in Thunderbird Falls. That's hard news. I write "soft" news, or so I'm told.

I write about preparing a lawn for winter. I write about shoplifting children. I write about Eagle Scouts, biologists, computers, exchange students, schools, WISE, dieting, armed robbers, ale-makers etc. All in all a fairly low-emotion "soft" news month.

October 1991

Lunch programs. The disabled. Square dancing. Teacher protests. Burglaries. Car repair. Toy-making. Power outages. The Whale exhibit. Single Fathers. Tuberculosis.

I go to the senior center and watch the Alzheimer's patients. One sings enthusiastically. Dances around the room, all smiles.

"The biggest thing in her memory is music," the director tells me. "Music keeps her going." That too will go.
Sometimes the woman stops the dance and weeps. The director tells me that's common. "It's part of the process," she says. "They don't understand what's going on." They don't understand why they mess their pants. Why they sometimes don't know who anybody is. Why they sometimes don't even know where they are.

November 1991

I talk to a missionary who grew up in Chugiak. She's upset she had to leave Haiti because of the coup against President Jean-Bernard Aristide. She learned to love the country where people lived without proper food, medication, education. She tells me the people are friendly -- offer her their bed while they sleep on the dirt floor. They offer her food, when they hardly have any. "You're sitting there thinking about what those people are going to eat for the next week," she says. "They're very gracious."

More of the same. But different.

December 1991

A happy season. I write lots of good news stories. Those are the kind people want to hear anyway. People don't want to hear what they need to hear. The negative gnaws at them. They don't want that. They want the world to change without diagnosis, without treatment.

I write about the Pearl Harbor attack in honor of its anniversary. I interview a man who tells me he was there at the time of the attack. He describes what he saw. Later, he calls back embarrassed. His memory was wrong. He was there two years later.

So, I write about his time spent working with Japanese civilian prisoners (with his all black troops -- black men couldn't fight alongside white men). I write about the friendships that sparked between Japanese and Americans. "You'd be surprised how many friendships developed," he says. The editor takes out the part about thousands of Japanese committing suicide by jumping off cliffs in the Marianas. It is Christmas.

I write about a group of teenagers who anonymously shovel snow from area driveways, just as an act of goodwill. It's a happy, up story. AP picks it up. So does Paul Harvey. I get a call from his assistant who interviews me. She asks questions like: "How big are the driveways?" "The houses must be some distance apart, huh?" "Isn't there lots of snow in Alaska?" I can tell she wants me to exaggerate the situation and when I don't, she quickly ends the interview.

Paul Harvey uses the story three times on "The Rest of The Story." He, or someone who writes for him, makes up a story about me hiding in bushes (in the freezing cold, of course) night after night waiting to catch this gang who's preying on the elderly, on single women. It's a wonderful story. I laugh every time I hear it.

At the end, Harvey pulls the punch and lets the public know this is a good gang. The whole thing is exaggerated. People love it. They call from all around the country. I get letters. It doesn't matter it's not true. People want to believe it.

It's Christmas. A time when people try to cover the ugly with colored lights and brightly-colored gift wrapping. A time when suicide, depression, domestic violence, loneliness and financial problems escalate. But everyone smiles. It's Christmas.

Christmas edition, as usual, is "good news only" on the front page. There are two front page stories: a list of local church services and a story I write about a dog obedience club starting. A picture of the dogs are shown. They wear Santa hats. We laugh.

Inside are stories of a local man sentenced to prison, a fund created for two orphaned children whose parents were killed in an accident while picking out the family Christmas tree, and a story I write about a woman who is battling a rare terminal illness while trying to raise three children.

Her ex-husband is in prison for sexually abusing her daughters. The woman was abused herself as a child. She's attempted suicide -- describes the incident in detail. She's been a victim of domestic violence. Now she's facing death. Happily. Or rather, what life she has left. Happily.

"I'm really happy to be alive," she tells me. Her house is all decked out for Christmas. She is young. Early 30s. She will soon be left immobile.

"Today all I worry about is trying to cope with the day -- one day at a time -- kids, dinner, getting the house clean." She lets me read her poetry. She offers me a cup of coffee. I smell the fresh sent of pine from her Christmas tree. I watch the lights twinkle. I smile at her children.

I wonder when I will type in her obituary. I stop myself. I don't want to think about it. It's Christmas.

 
About the Author: Winner, UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest, 2010 - Nonfiction, Open to the Public
 

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