You know what’s crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy
The moment lasts less than a minute. But getting to that moment took every second I had.
My day begins like it does every day. At 6:30 am, I check my phone. I have a few missed text messages from trusted sources.
I grab a cup of coffee and let the news gremlins start cranking in my brain.
Soon I’m talking to a source who tells me about the big arrest in Texas.
I sip my coffee and feel a tingle run up the back of my spine.
I don’t know whether the Starbucks bold is kicking in or I’m getting that news rush that has fueled me for the better part of 30 years.
“Remember that horrible wreck on I-40 a year ago where the truck driver killed the TDOT worker…”
And so it begins.
I will begin a 12 hour quest to flush out this story, verify facts, get interviews and exclusive pictures that are practically impossible to get.
by 9:15 am, I am in my morning editorial meeting. This is where reporters pitch stories and the powers that be grant us journalistic permission to move forward. A news pitch is like any idea worth presenting. It needs to concisely hook it’s audience with an understandable message. If you can’t sell the producers at this table, then you have no chance of getting your story out of this laboratory of discussion.
I have printed up pictures of mug shots and aerial photos of the scene. “Remember that TDOT worker who was killed on I-40 by the truck. It shut down the interstate.” I hold up the man’s picture. He has a kind warm face of a father, a grandfather and church going man.
I hold up another picture for the group to see. “Remember at his funeral, there was a processional of TDOT help trucks and co-workers lined up on the sidewalks in Nipper’s Corner. They were standing at attention. Remember how emotional that was?”
I pause for a moment to let the sentence settle in. I feel the energy in the room begin to swell. These are news people who live news, eat news, remember news. Everyone knows what I’m talking about.
“We did 5 stories on it, at least,” I add. “Everyone in here covered this. We put a helicopter up in the air to get aerials of the traffic backed up for miles.” I laugh out loud. “You know it’s a big story if we rent a helicopter and put it up.”
There is a murmur of laughter in the room.
Yeah I remember that a producer chimes in. So do I echoes a reporter sitting along the wall.
Like a good fisherman, who knows how to set the hook, I proceed.
“Well the truck driver who killed the TDOT worker was indicted this past April. But he fled the scene. Whereabouts unknown. That is until yesterday. Texas lawmen picked him up over night near Mexico.”
I pause again.
The room is pulsing. The producers are percolating like they’re chairs are connected to an electrical socket.
A good story is like a roller coaster ride. This part of the pitch is the part of the ride where you are going up the steep hill about to crest the top and then plummet to the bottom at death defying speeds.
“They’re flying him back to Tennessee today. They have boots on the ground right now in Jim Wells County Texas.”
“Where the hell’s that?,” someone blurts out.
I laugh. “I don’t know. I guess Texas is so big they ran out of names for counties and they just named it after some guy named Jim Wells.”
There is a chuckle across the table.
“I like it,” the producer at the white board writing down ideas says.
I get up from the table. “I’ll keep you posted.”
There’s a sense of satisfaction finding a story nobody knew was there, and shining light on it.
I sit at my computer and stare at the man’s mug shot. The words next to his face say: HOMICIDE.
I call the sheriff’s department in Texas. The secretary there says the sheriff won’t be in today.
I stare at the 330 pound suspect on the screen before me. I think about his 9 count indictment. I think about the man he is accused of killing.
They have been tormented by this atrocity for 17 months. They didn’t ask for this. They didn’t expect it. Then suddenly, like a thunderclap in the middle of the night, BOOM, it happened. There loved one was gone and they were left to pick up the pieces.
Now there is an indictment. But there is no arrest. There is no suspect to arrest. Without an arrest, there is no closure for the man’s family. This family deserves closure. Thrust into the limelight, they have put on a brave public face, said all the right things, and now this family of daughters and grandkids just wants to move on with their life with a sense of peace.
Peace is now just a plane flight away. I stare at the mug shot on the Jim Wells County Jail website. Candelario Castillo. The 330 pound man with the shaved head, wearing a black and white striped shirt stares at the jailhouse camera for this haunting mug shot. His eyes are fixed forward, his lips tightly pushed together.
“He looks mad,” a lady in my art department will later tell me when I ask her to put his mug shot on a full screen graphic.
I begin making phone calls. It quickly becomes obvious in the minds of TDOT, this guy is public enemy number one. In the minds of TDOT, this truck driver behind bars in a remote county jail, killed one of their own. He took away a family member. The department seeks justice too!
This guy was a stone’s throw from crossing into Mexico, where he might have disappeared into the enigmatic ether forever. Now he’s caught.
TDOT wants this guy back in the Volunteer State to face charges. I learn the commissioner has authorized two THP officers to fly 850 miles in the state’s plane to fetch him up. The troopers will travel to South East Texas where Texas law men will hand over TDOT’s most wanted.
Hours go by and I collect elements I will need for the story. I have the editors pull file footage of April 28th 2016. The pictures are poignant, graphic, showing twisted metal and cars backed up.
I have found the man’s lovely family and interviewed them. As fate would have it, they are in town, having received a replica of the highway sign bearing their loved ones name. They are strong and brave and courteous. They tell me they appreciate the way TDOT is handling this moment and they tell me the suspect’s incarceration in Middle Tennessee will help close a gaping wound they have lived for the last 17 months.
I am slated as the 6pm lead story. All I need now is the video of the suspect landing at the Nashville Airport. I have been granted clearance. The airport is a mere five miles from the station. This should be easy, I think to myself.
My phone rings in the newsroom.
The voice on the other end, sighs. “They decided to land in Dickson. It’s closer to the jail.”
My thoughts suddenly swirl like a screaming red ambulance siren blaring off a dark wall.
“They changed their flight plan at the last second. They land at 3:45 pm.”
There is a pause. Then the voice says, “Sorry.”
And that’s how the news monster goes.
You think you have every angle covered, and suddenly the Gods of randomness throw a new set of dice against the curb showing craps. Do you get up and walk away, or do you put another $20 on the pass line and throw them bones again?
I look at the digital clock on my desk top. It’s 2:30 pm.
I think for a split second about giving up. It’s 40 miles and it’s Friday and rush hour is looming like sharks feeding on chum.
I tell my photographer buddy the new information.
“Let’s go!” he shouts with alacrity, shutting his laptop computer.
And that’s news.
We’re like the military with cameras. We are quick to adapt to change and overcome obstacles.
The only constant in all this?
The clock. 6pm is coming regardless of traffic or flights or anything else.
The clock is the real enemy of any newsman. You either have your story ready to air at 6pm or you don’t.
6pm comes and people turn on their TV sets and you either have accomplished your task, or you haven’t. There is no chance for a re-do.
As I walk out the door, I think about what might have been. I think about the walk down that was going to be five miles away is now 40 plus miles away and every tick tock of the clock is like a bass drum blasting against the inside of my head.
Highway 40 west is a log jam. Big rigs pull to the left for no reason. People slam on their brakes. It’s the usual slow dance of rush hour traffic.
We might have made better time, but a local sheriff decides to drive in the fast lane, doing the speed limit for 25 straight minutes.
Nobody will pass Johnny Law. Not a single solitary soul. These motorists had no problem playing hookie from work, but pass a car with a star on it’s door? Not a chance.
The drive to the municipal airport in Dickson is a grind. Once you exit the interstate it is still 30 minutes away. So many left turns and right turns and stop signs and traffic lights.
And to make a newsman’s life even more complicated? Schools are letting out and yellow lights are flashing and school buses are stopping at railroad tracks and, well you get the picture.
“man I hope we make it,” I say to my photographer. “How much longer?”
“Depends on how many school kids this middle school is educating,” he says pumping the brakes, and grinding to a halt in the cross walk.
I watch a bunch of kids, mouths full of braces and over sized back packs trudging along at one mile an hour.
I feel my blood bubbling inside my veins. I push forward against the seat belt, trying to urge the car to go.
As I watch America’s best and brightest laboriously walk home on a lazy Friday afternoon, I think about the craziness I am suddenly dealing with.
We are trying to record a landing that initiated in Alice, Texas, not far from the Mexican border. We are trying to intercept a twin prop aircraft flying 850 miles with one of Tennessee’s most wanted on board.
I know the THP. Polite, but no nonsense. If we are in position, they will tolerate us. But they are on a mission, and they won’t wait for us to be late. If we are tardy, that magic visual moment will be gone. POOF!
I know this. I am worried now.
“In 2.5 miles make a right on Sylvia Road,” the GPS voice chimes.
I roll my eyes. Sylvia Road. It just sounds so bucolic, so distant. Why couldn’t they have landed at BNA I think for the 100th time.
Finally we pull into the Municipal Airport.
It’s exactly what you would expect for a small town. The airport office is a small building just off the county road. There is an iron fence that separates the parking lot from the tarmac. Beyond the Tarmac is the airstrip. It is quiet and beautiful and I am excited to simply get out of the newscar and stretch my legs.
I gaze at the airfield. There is a wind sock and a runway and thousands of feet of neatly mowed grass. The dark asphalt of the landing strip cuts a sharp path through the rich green Tennessee fescue.
There are patio chairs on the deck behind the office. There is a picnic table and a sign that hangs over the doorway. It reads Welcome to Welcome to Dickson in bright red letters. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was at a back yard bar-b-que waiting on someone to hand me a cold one.
I scan the airfield. There is no sign of the plane.
I feel a weight lift from my shoulders. Driving all this way and missing our photo op was my first concern. Now waiting too long for our photo op to arrive is my burning concern.
I try and relax, taking in the moment. I am glad to be out of the car, not staring at stop and go traffic or 8th graders meandering down a sidewalk.
The sun is hanging in the blue Tennessee sky. It is a warm day, but there is a breeze and the moment is enjoyable compared to the spitting rain and cold that has inundated this region for the last few days.
It’s close to 4pm. I stare at the sun. It is beginning its dash to the horizon. A few moments ago it was bright, almost white, impossible to gaze upon. But it’s now September and the days are growing shorter. The sun grows tired faster and it is reaching for the ground. It has morphed from brilliance to a shade of orange. If this was a Crayola box of Crayons, you might call it burnt-orange, red-orange, even macaroni & cheese.
The man at the terminal counter is warm and welcoming. There is no TSA, no metal detectors, no strip search at this tiny airport.
He shakes my hand with a smile and leads me to a monitor in a rear office.
“They’re about 20 minutes out,” he says, pointing to the flat screen with hundreds of little airplanes.
“Wow,” I exclaim. “There are that many aircraft in the sky?”
“More,” the man says flipping a switch.
The monitor fills with a 1,000 airplane icons. They look like fireflies swarming a porch light on a warm summer night.
The little icons are practically on top of each other, traveling over a radar screen that represents the region.
Staring at this mid air traffic jam, I am amazed there are not more mid air collisions in Middle Tennessee.
“Those are just the planes that filed a flight plan,” the man tells me.
He touches another control and isolates the plane I am here to see. He points to an icon with a series of numbers.
“They just crossed over the Tennessee border,” he says pointing to the flashing icon.
I return to the tarmac. I knock on the glass of a waiting trooper car parked beside the building. The officer inside is young.
He gets out and introduces himself.
He will tell me that he was heading to Nashville to pick up the prisoner, but then got a call redirecting him to Dickson.
He is happy. It’s closer to his office.
I laugh. I wish they landed at BNA I say.
And suddenly, out of a blue sky, filling with a pink hue, the plane emerges.
The plane lands and the roar of the twin props fill the pristine quiet.
The plane taxis to the back of the office and the stairwell lowers.
I see legs under the fuselage.
Then I see the gigantic calves of the suspect. I watch as the troopers readjust handcuffs and leg irons.
Suddenly the suspect with the black and white striped shirt and short pants sagging over his butt shuffles toward me and my photographer.
He sees our camera and he raises his hand over his face.
I have done this countless times. After a while, you get a feel for it, learn to read people and body language. I can tell this gigantic man, this truck driver accused of vehicular homicide is not going to be combative or effusive. I doubt he will speak, I doubt he will offer much.
I ask him if he has anything to say for himself or to the family. He will meekly say he is sorry. Then the back door of the squad car slams shut.
I thank the troopers as they drive away.
The entire video moment lasts 19 seconds. It took all day to get to this moment. It lasts 19 seconds. But it is a beautiful, exclusive, heart pounding 19 seconds that every news operation in town wishes they had.
We thank the airport manager and we begin the long trek back to Nashville.
Every road is clogged with rush hour traffic. Highway 70 to I-40 D.B. Todd to 17th avenue to Murfreesboro Road. It is a hellacious grind.
Tick Tock. Tick Tock.
Finally, we arrive at 5:35 pm. The newsroom is strangely calm. Nobody has called me. Nobody is worried I won’t make it.
I walk in the door and my producer smiles. “Thanks for going to get that,” she says.
I had to, I respond heading to my desk.
I have 25 minutes to ingest this new footage and cut several more segments for the opening of the news.
I step on the crime tracker set with 2 minutes to spare.
I am excited, and exhausted. I haven’t rested for a moment. I ate a sandwich sometime hours ago. I exhale and try and collect my thoughts. The adrenaline is pumping.
I see my boss for the first time today.
“You’re going to like this one boss,” I shout across the set.
He smiles. The new footage of the suspect leaving the plane shows on the monitor as the director pre-rolls the footage making sure he has all the components needed for the show open.
“5 4 3 2 1,” I hear the director count down in my ear.
“A man wanted for vehicular homicide is now back in Tennessee,” the anchor says staring into the camera. “Good evening.”
In that moment, I realize it has been one hell of a day. 12 hours of digging and clawing and scratching and fact checking and now it is about to be broadcast live.
I haven’t spoken a word yet, but I already know this story is strong. It’s exclusive, it’s informative, and it will help bring closure to a family that deserves it.
After 30 years of doing this, I still love this moment, when your skin tingles and you know you are about to ride that roller coaster over the edge.
And it all begins with a 19 second walk-down.