This is a post I promised months ago. Since I never got around to finishing it, and I figured you had forgotten about it, I was going to forget it too. But when an apparently disgruntled American purposely crashed his small plane into a seven-story office building in Austin, Texas, Fort Hood came to my mind. And that made me decide to finish this blog post. It’s about my tiny bit of work covering the Fort Hood massacre for ABC’s Nightline.
“Military police have suspect cornered in bldg at Ft. Hood. Police say 2 shooters opened fire, killing 7 people, wounding 12. details still coming.”
My friend and investigative reporter Nanci Wilson posted that on Facebook at 2:23 PM on Thursday, November 5, 2009. Within seven minutes, at 2:30 PM, I hit send on an email to Teri Whitcraft, the national law and justice unit producer at ABC News: “Let me know if y’all need help.” Four minutes later, Teri wanted to know how long it’d take me to get to Fort Hood.
I grabbed a bag of Zapp’s potato chips and started cramming them into my mouth. It’d take an hour and a half to get to Fort Hood. And if I were called in to work, only God knew when I’d have a chance to eat again. I’d need the energy of food to do my job.
At 2:46 PM, Teri emailed me that she thought they had everything covered.
I put away the potato chips, turned on my laptop and sat down to type up my notes on a meeting with one of my sex book sources, but what I was really doing was watching the Fort Hood updates on CNN … and Facebook. At 3:52, Nanci posted a call for blood donors at Scott & White hospital in Temple, Texas. At 4:01, she reported that the death count was up to 12.
I couldn’t think about sex research under these circumstances.
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That’s what I wrote on November 13, 2009. It’s factual.
Below is what I’m writing more than three months later. It’s based on hand-scribbled notes, limited emails and cell phone records, and my now shockingly vague memory. I never thought that night would become vague. But it did. I guess that’s what stress does. Still, I do have snippets of memory. Their lighting is as detailed as if I were watching them on a theatre screen.
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I wanted to be at Fort Hood covering the story. That’s how I know I am a journalist, not simply a writer. When the big story breaks, I want to be there. It makes me feel like I am doing something about “it.” Maybe I can’t stop the tragedy, but at least I can inform the people and maybe we can learn something and make changes that prevent such from happening again.
Since I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing, I changed clothes and walked out the door for the gym.
Ten minutes later, I turned the ringer on my cell phone to its highest decibels, placed the phone on top of my purse, told the owner of the gym to let me know if he heard my phone ring, and climbed on an elliptical trainer to warm up for my workout. At 5 PM, Karl, the gym owner, started me on my actual workout. For the next hour, I lifted weights inside, I ran laps outside, I checked my phone, I lifted weights inside, I ran laps outside, I checked my phone.
With all the phone checking, I felt like I was a prima donna saying, “Hey, everybody, look at me,” when I really knew the truth – I wasn’t going to be getting a call. But that didn’t stop me from continuing my routine, lift weights inside, run laps outside, check the phone. By 6 PM, my clothes, my hair, and I were soaked with sweat, and I was spent. Of course, that’s when it happened – my phone rang. In seemingly three leaps, I crossed the length of the gym and grabbed the phone.
Jeanmarie Condon, senior producer for ABC’s Nightline, calmly asked if she was interrupting me. “I’m at the gym.” She apologized. “No, I just finished my workout.” She wanted to know if I could work and how fast I could get to Killeen or Temple, Texas, homes of the medical centers that were treating the gunshot victims. Without thinking, without asking permission, I stepped into Karl’s office and took it over, searching for pen and paper. Karl handed them to me as Jeanmarie gave me my instructions – get to one of the hospitals, find friends, family, victims, someone with solid knowledge of the event to go on Nightline that night and talk about the shooting.
I grabbed my scribbled three words of notes, my purse, and literally ran out the door. Ten minutes later, I began booting up my computer, while shedding clothes for the shower. I washed my hair, barely blew it dry, found some semi-clean jeans and a shirt, threw them on, as well as a speck of makeup, went back to the computer, printed out directions to both hospitals, grabbed notepads and pens, put on shoes that I could run in and stand in for hours, threw a jacket in the car, and 40 minutes after getting the call, I was backing out of the driveway on the road to Fort Hood.
As I drove, I thought about the class I was to teach on Saturday – the Art of Interviewing. I thought about what I’d tell my students about this night, about these sorts of circumstances – high pressure, big stories, national tragedies, what to do, how to prepare oneself, chaos, competition. Oh, gosh, the list was endless. And I hadn’t conducted interviews in months. I reminded myself of my job – find people to interview, not interview them. Breathe deep. Relax. Remember you’re a professional. You know what you’re doing.
As I write this, in my head, I see myself water skiing. I think about skiing whenever I get stressed. It calms me, though I’ve only gotten to ski twice over the past 30 years. Despite that, I know that when I set my right foot into that boot of a slalom ski, slide my left foot into the rear binding, and hold that single-handle rope in my gloved hands that I am going to get up first try. Why? Because I’ve done it that many times. I know the fundamentals.
I can feel my arms stiff and straight, my back strong, my stomach tight, my knees bent, the rhythm in my body as the ski bumps over the water, how my knees absorb the shock, how my arms lift and move like a guy wire, how my body leans, my ankle muscles stretch, how I chew the cinnamon-flavored gum in my mouth in perfect rhythm to the water, and how I scream with ecstasy because no one in the boat can hear me over the roar of the engine.
And in my mind, now, that’s what I saw when I drove over the bridge of Lake Travis. I knew I could do this job.
If you’d like additional information about my coverage of the tragedy, please click here to read Fort Hood Notebook, a piece I wrote for the Texas Observer.