Monday, October 15, 2012

Close enough to get the shot, far enough to be safe

Cameraman's PTSD told the story
Yes, they've got us hemmed in down here along this road - just close enough to see, but far enough away to suit them. Far enough all we can do is interview each other...I think you're right; it's a study in the banality of evil. Ms. Arendt was right. Definitely. - TV anchor personality interviewed at the time of the Branch Davidian standoff, 1993

The phone would often ring in those days during my afternoon naps – not every day, but often enough that I would expect the calls.

Mickey was usually very well-oiled by then; it was past midnight in Rome, long after he left the BBC studios for the day, long after he boarded the train at the railway station where he bought his international telephone cards at the news stand.

He would call from his kitchen in a stone cottage originally built as a tool shed on a little farm granted a Roman legionnaire after his retirement many centuries in the past.

Sometimes, he sang his mother's favorite song, a number recorded by Marty Robbins called “El Paso.” Had I ever heard of it? No, how does it go, again?

Mickey would ramble, but he told the same stories in the same way, almost word for word, as if watching the action unspool from a video he shot so long ago it was inscribed in his mind, something he could stop and start, reverse and fast forward.

“London paid extra for the pink mist,” he would say. “You know what I mean? Have you ever seen the Zapruder film?”

Yes, of course. It was shot in my home town – downtown - on the courthouse square.

“Well, that's what they wanted back in those days – the pink mist.”

Sarajevo. The Yugoslavian campaign in the power vacuum.

He was from Canada, said of persons he despised, as the Canadians sometimes do, that he or she was a “kun-tah.”

Short vowels, broad a, accent on the first syllable of an unprintable one-syllable word.

There was the one about the light news day in the townships of Soweto, the time when the Reuters correspondent, the “kun-tah,” saw a huge gathering down at the end of a street of rusty tin sheds and ordered the driver to steer for the crowd.

“He kept telling him 'No, you don't want to go there. Very bad. BAD!'” But the correspondent wouldn't listen. He wanted the shot.

The correspondent insisted. He was a kun-tah. When they got there, they learned the woman had been accused of consorting with a police official, serving as an informant, sleeping with him, betraying people who disappeared and had never been seen again.

“Do you know what a necklace is, Jim?”

Of course. Who didn't?

“It's an automobile tire. They put it over their head, around their neck, sometimes force an arm through so they can't get out. They fill it with gasoline and touch it off with a match.”

The woman, he said, was wearing pink panties that the mob had pulled down for unspeakable reasons. In her death agony, her hands tied behind her back, she reached down to the waist band of those pink panties and tried to pull them up.

“She didn't want to die with her bum showing,” he would always say. “Pulled them up with her last breath, then keeled over and burned to death.”

Did I know London paid a bonus for the pink mist?

“The snipers always tried for a head shot. Always a head shot - with a .308,” he would say – every time.

By now, he had moved on to the BBC, but it was the AP when he was in “the Afghan,” and back to Reuters when he was in Israel and The Sudan. Lebanon, said Mickey, was "the Levant."

Miguel got killed in Sarajevo. “He got too close with his camera. Up until then, we played it like it was a game, but he got too close...”

The funeral was in Spain. He accompanied Miguel's remains home, stayed for the funeral.

Then he would cry.

“They blamed me,” he would always say. “They blamed me.”

Had I ever heard “El Paso?” He would sing it.

It was his mother's favorite song – back in Winnipeg.

Like any drunk, sometimes he would put his wife on the phone. She was an advertising executive in Rome.

“Why you no coming here, Cheem?”

I wouldn't know exactly how to get back home.

What did her agency handle?

“We working for the government,” she would say. “You know, airplane, taxi, hotel – movie, telvision?”

No Catch'a twenty-two?

“What is?” she would ask. “Catch'a twenty-two?”

I could never quite explain it.

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