Monday, December 21, 2009

The blizzard of 2009 takes me back to my first front page story, and my friend Tom Mickle

The good news this morning is that there was a newspaper at the end of my driveway. The New York Times didn’t make it; The Washington Post did after neither paper had any chance of being delivered Saturday or Sunday in the midst of The Blizzard of ’09. (No mail on Saturday either. What happened to, “neither wind, nor rain, nor snow…”)

The bad news is that the lead story in The Post sports section was—I swear to God—a feature on Ron Jaworski in which he revealed that he thought, having watched hours and hours of tape, that the Redskins looked better the last few weeks. Oh my God. What next? Mike Tirico’s 10 favorite Redskins moments of the decade? Also on the front was a lengthy story on the Maryland women beating American on Sunday afternoon.

Okay, it WAS a slow news day. And at least I had SOMETHING to read at the kitchen table so I’m grateful.

Having grown up in New York I frequently make fun of the absolute panic that hits this area anytime there is a HINT that there might be snow coming. In fact, my first front page—as in front page of the newspaper—story in The Washington Post was about an impending snowstorm. I was the night police reporter on the Metro staff and I was assigned to write a story about how big the storm might be and what preparations were being made. I made all the requisite phone calls and wrote about a 20 inch story—18 inches longer than I thought necessary, but I never complained about extra space.

I went down to the police station to spend the evening after I’d written the story and, as always, the first edition of the paper showed up in the press room at about 10:30. At that point in time The Post was the only news organization in town that sent staffers to police headquarters on a daily basis. Al Lewis, the man whose byline appeared on the first day Watergate break-in story, worked the day shift. Whoever was the lowest person on The Metro staff totem poll worked the night shift—that winter it was me. One of my assignments was to take the 25 papers delivered at 10:30 and walk around the building handing them out to the cops—homicide, robbery, sex (which had some euphemistic name I can’t remember) and perhaps most important, communications. A good source there could give you a major jump on a story.

The free newspapers were a big deal to the cops. If there was any delay at all in their arrival my phone would ring. I’d pick up the phone and there would be a homicide detective on the other end, not telling me there’d been a murder somewhere but wanting to know where the hell the papers were.

On this particular night I picked up the paper before making my rounds and flipped to the Metro section to see if my snow story had made the Metro front. It hadn’t. Disappointed I paged through the section—nothing. I was about to call the desk to demand where the hell my story was when it occurred to me that it had been stuck inside the ‘A,’ section. As I picked it up, my eye picked up a headline at the top right corner of the front page: “Area Girds For Snow—Up to Eight Inches Expected.”

I started to laugh. This was it, my big moment, a front page story—a LEAD front page story and it was on a possible snowstorm. Not the stuff you call your parents about to make sure they notice. By the way, it didn’t snow an inch; it didn’t snow AT ALL. My good friend and mentor Marty Weil, the night rewrite guy then as now, shook his head the next day and said, “Just goes to show what happens if you can’t trust your sources.”

Those sources got this weekend’s storm right. They said it might be up to two feet and it was. I actually did the Washington thing of over-preparing: shopped on Friday; bought a new flashlight because I couldn’t find the old one; bought plenty of logs for the fireplace; got gas for the car--the whole deal. I had a weekend project: clean-up my office, which hadn’t been touched in six months and looked like a storage room.

That worked out fine (I’m still not finished but I can see the floor again) and I took turns working and watching games and then taking a break and watching games. The only two games I DIDN’T get to watch were UCLA-Notre Dame and Duke-Gonzaga. Why? Because the people who run the CBS affiliate in Washington-_WUSA-TV—went to round-the-clock coverage of the snow.

You can’t make this stuff up. It isn’t as if they were telling people stuff they needed to know, like closings—EVERYTHING was closed. It isn’t as if they were reporting injuries or accidents. They just kept saying over and over that it was SNOWING. Then they would show someone standing in their parking lot—they called it a “snow terrace,”—to confirm that it was snowing. They spent several minutes talking about one female reporter’s cute little snow outfit. “Bought it today,” she gushed. “Look, it fits.” They interviewed two people who had skied to the store and showed a dog wearing snow boots.

I kept flipping over in part because I was convinced that at some point they would go back to the games (wrong) and also so I could write today about the inanity of what I was watching. My always-helpful brother, who was able to get some kind of out-of-town feed on his cable system kept calling me with updates. At one point in the second half of the Duke-Gonzaga game he said, “You know you’re missing one of the great defensive performances in history.”

Shut up Bobby.

I DID watch most of The New Mexico Bowl, which was actually a fun game with Wyoming winning improbably in overtime against Fresno State. As silly as it is to play 34 bowl games and include all those 6-6 teams and force schools to buy (and eat) thousands of tickets, I kind of enjoy seeing the little guys have a moment in the sun (or in the case of The St. Petersburg Bowl—brought to you by beef-a-Roni or something, their moment in a dome) and occasionally you will get a game worth watching.

I didn’t even mind when Terry Gannon (who was a great shooter once upon a time) and David Norrie (I have no idea who or what he was) went on about how it was a “great way to start the bowl season.” But when Gannon, no doubt prompted by someone in the truck said, “Wow, what a great beginning to Capital One Bowl Week on the ESPN family of networks,” that was enough for me. He sounded almost as silly as Andy Katz (wait, this just in, Andy Katz reports that North Carolina won last season’s national title) actually referring in WRITING to the ESPN family of networks. If ESPN is a family in any way it is The Simpsons.

Oh, one more note while we’re being silly: Did anyone else notice during the Villanova-Montana Division 1-AA national title game Friday night—which was a terrific game—that it was being referred to as, “The Division 1 National Championship Game.” Why? Because Division 1-A doesn’t officially have a national championship game sanctioned by the NCAA. Where does this insanity end?

By Sunday I had to get out of the house one way or the other. I struggle to watch entire NFL games unless there’s something truly compelling about them. I love Rex Ryan but Jets-Falcons wasn’t getting it done for me. I finally decided to see if I could get down the driveway (it’s pretty long) to our street, which had been plowed just enough to create one lane. My son Danny came out to help and I got almost down the driveway before getting stuck. Danny shoveled for a while and then our neighbor, Pete Henry, rode to the rescue. He keeps a snow-blower in his house for these occasions and he dug me out and got me to the street. It wasn’t easy getting to the main roads from there, but we made it.

Everyone has a snow story of some kind. Mine goes back a long, long way. It was my senior year in college. By then I was covering Duke basketball road games for just about every newspaper in North Carolina as a stringer. Duke wasn’t good enough (seriously) to be staffed on any non-conference road trip so I would write game stories for Durham, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro. I’d write a different lead for each and a different ending mixing in different quotes depending on the newspaper. (Greensboro, for example, liked player quotes over coaches quotes). They were all fully aware that I was being shared and didn’t care. At 25 bucks a story I was getting rich.

Duke had a two day road swing in late January to West Virginia on Saturday night and Duquesne on Monday night. I drove to my parents’ house in Washington on Friday (by my senior year classes were something I attended when I had free time) and heard that a major storm was approaching. The interstate in West Virginia was closed so I left early Saturday morning to take Route 50 through the mountains in Virginia to get to Morgantown. It was slow going but I was almost there mid-afternoon when I came upon a truck that had turned over and was stuck in the middle of the two-lane road.

Two hours later it was still stuck and there was no way to get past. I was running out of gas, periodically turning off the engine until I got too cold, then turning it back on. FINALLY, several tow trucks manage to move it just far enough so that we could all get by—10 cars from one direction; ten from the other, at a time.

I got to Morgantown just before tipoff, still shaken and cold. The building temperature was set at 56 degrees because of the energy crisis and there might have been 3,000 people there. Duke lost a really bad game. As soon as I walked out of the locker room, I noticed that the heat had been turned off. I could see my breath. I had four stories to write.

Tom Mickle, then the Duke SID and, as it turned out, one of my best friends in life, stayed with me in the press room. He wore a coat, a ski cap and kept taking off his gloves long enough to send one page at a time on the old telecopier (six minutes per page) that was used then to file. He stayed with me for two hours in a completely empty, un-heated building until I finished (my fingers cramping in the cold) all four stories.

We made it to Pittsburgh at 2 a.m. Never in my life was I happier to see a hotel.

Tom died suddenly of a heart attack three years ago. I have lots of memories of him but none more vivid than that one.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Feinstein, I would love hear your thoughts on Bobby Knight calling out John Calipari. Mr. Knight made a valid point and I was wondering what your reaction is. Thank you as always for you insightful thoughts.

Kevin Kaczmarek said...

Great article! I agree w/ anonymous...would LOVE to hear your thoughts on Coach Knight's recent comments.

Shaun E in PC said...

It was ironic to see the teams left in Cal's wake play on Saturday: UMass and Memphis on one member of the family of ESPN networks.

charles pierce said...

14 inches of snow = half the home schedule every year when I was at Marquette.
However, my favorite snow story came in Greensboro, when three inches fell on the morning of the 1974 national championship game, paralyzing the place and causing hilarity among all of us from Milwaukee.
Unfortunately, of course, David Thompson was able to make the game.

Gordon said...

John what do you expect? These are the same news directors who EVERY YEAR insist on telling us that the airports are crowded the day before Christmas and that there are a lot of people at the post office on April 15th.

Hopefully you will comment on the Bobby Knights comments. Say what you will about coach Knight, and certainly you have insight most do not, but Bobby Knight never had any NCAA sanctions. And most forget or do not know the story of Landon Turner. That said, it is impossible to explain away some of his behavior.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Anonymous said...

Try living in the south, if there is a 2% chance of snow 3 days out, the weather and news is 100% all over it. Live broadcasts talking to grocery store managers, talking to the highway coordinators, etc, for 3 straight days. Weathermen teasing the 'likelihood' of snow. Down here, I'm CONVINCED that grocery stores line the pockets of the newscasters.

And then the kicker - more than 75% of the time they miss the whole deal. On both sides of the isle. By sometime in early March, they'll talk about some small chance of snow they don't think will happen, everyone will have gotten prepared for the previous 4 times when snow was a virtual certainty and only, maybe, a 1/4 inch would have fallen, and bam, we'll get 5 inches which will shut us down for 4 days. Ah, the life of the newscasters and weathermen.

By the way, it was a great performance by Duke on Saturday.

Anonymous said...

If you can't take watching an entire NFL game, try out the NFL Redzone. It has changed Sundays for me in a profound way. OK, that's a little bit of hyperbole, but given my choice of 49ers or Raiders most weekends here in Sacramento, it is a welcome relief from mediocre football.