Friday, December 21, 2012

We Few, We Band of Brothers

           Sitting and looking out the window at the Thomas A. Edison rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike, I suddenly realized I was crying.
            I wasn’t just choked up like before. Pulling my baseball cap low over my eyes, I slid a hand up beside my face and unsuccessfully tried to finish my Coke.
I was quiet and no one seemed to notice. If they did, they were polite enough not to stare.
            A few hours earlier, I’d left the Shakespeare Room, a small conference room in a hotel near Newtown, Conn. where a satellite newsroom had been set up for coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting.

            I was finally going home.
            But at the tiny table with my Burger King lunch somewhere in North Jersey, I came apart because I was now completely alone.
            I started working the long days of covering Newtown Saturday after arriving in Connecticut Friday night.
Thursday morning, after five full days of reporting, I was scheduled to finally rotate out and head home, unable to leave The Mercury short-staffed any longer.
            While covering relentlessly horrific and difficult things, I felt like I’d formed a sort of camaraderie with those covering Newtown with me. One person described it as a “brothers in arms” kind of deal.
            We didn’t, and maybe don’t, know each other very well, but those that were there for an extended stay sort of grew together.
            I was uncomfortable and harried every day, constantly nervous and pressing, but at least I had everyone around me through most of it that experienced the same thing. When the day’s work finally wrapped, we all could at least sit together in the hotel bar or lobby and talk through it all.
            Part of the coverage was the funerals. After the first days of trying to get victim profiles through anyone willing to talk (and there weren’t many), the worst jobs were covering funerals. No one wanted to go.
            In my first and only experience, something very difficult happened. I don’t know if I’ll ever really talk about what happened, but I was able to get through it.
            When my editors found out what happened, I was quietly pulled off of doing funerals because there was concern for my “psyche.”
            A few days later, I found out that one of the others I’d worked with was pulling a second or third funeral assignment. I basically begged my assignment editor to put me on instead.
            I’m fairly confident most of the people I was with would have done the same for me.
            We may have all been shell shocked, but we were all trying to look out for each other.
            We shared our grief, respectfully quieted when someone broke down, or listened calmly when someone lashed out at the stress that not only comes with covering such a tragedy but just being in the newspaper business.
            The company always afforded us with opportunities to bow out, to talk with a professional, but it didn’t seem like anyone wanted to miss an assignment and add to another’s workload. Everyone always volunteered to do more.
            Talking with one of the young reporters I’d worked with from the beginning in the  Shakespeare Room late Wednesday night, we discussed what might happen to us after being exposed to this type of coverage, nonstop, for so long.
            We quietly wondered if this is the type of thing that could give you post-traumatic stress disorder. We thought aloud about how we would describe what we did in Newtown to our family and friends. We whispered with uncertainty, “We’re going to be okay.”
            What mattered most was that we were able to be scared together.
            Because of the nature of the situation, I was never happy in Connecticut. But I did feel comfortable in a few moments.
The instance that stands out was after we’d all filed our stories one night after the hectic, soul-shaking first days.
            Around the table in Shakespeare, the usual crew gathered and ate our dinners from the hotel kitchen and waited for the conference call that would decide our assignments for the next day.
            Music was played from a laptop. Someone sang. We listened to catchy but not great pop music and joked about the assignment editor’s affinity for boy bands.
            Leaning in my chair and having the same French fries I’d already had twelve times before, I felt totally comfortable for the first time since I’d gotten to Connecticut.
Sitting in the rest stop Thursday afternoon, I suddenly didn’t have that support group of people who were there, subjected to the same things and feeling the way I did.
            In the rest stop, I could hear people behind me laughing and talking, many of them obviously taking off early to their Christmas destinations. Children laughed and played with the cardboard Burger King crowns and an older woman discussed menu options with a slightly younger woman.
            At the same time, faintly, I could hear a TV somewhere above with the news on, playing more Newtown coverage. I didn’t dare look up.
No one there knew how it had been in Newtown. No one where I was going at home would know it either.
            I thought of the funerals and knocking on doors and the terse phone calls.
            And that’s about when I realized that tears were streaming down my face.
            I’m glad I went to Newtown. The people at the New Haven Register needed help and I hope someone would come to help me if a news event of this magnitude happened near The Mercury.
            I’m glad I covered it because I did my best to be as respectful as possible to the town and the victims, like the rest of the people I worked with, and unlike some of the news agencies I witnessed. I’m still heartbroken for the people there and I hope things start winding down very soon.
            Like everything associated with Newtown and Sandy Hook, it’s definitely going to take some time for me to get right again. I already miss the group of mostly young and all incredibly talented reporters and editors I worked with.
            I don’t feel sorry for myself for a second.
But I’m nervous for those that are still up there.
            As much as I’ve grown to care for Newtown and its people, I grew to care about the people in the Shakespeare Room.


  1. Frank, you break my heart. I am so very glad you have this vehicle where you can so openly share your feelings which, as a professional, you can't do when you are working. I cannot imagine how you all did this. I can't fathom the pain you all have endured covering these heartbreaking stories and doing so with such objectivity and professionalism. As someone who used to work in your office once told me, you are a very good writer. The proof is in what we have all been reading. Keep writing about it and talking about it. It's what will get you through it. I'm glad you are going home. Try to have a peaceful Christmas. I will be thinking of all of you.

  2. I covered Newtown, too. You captured my experience well here.

    I dreaded going back there a few weeks ago when my editors needed an anniversary story. I mean REALLY dreaded it. It ended up being an inspirational visit, and some piece of my heart that I lost in December were somehow restored when I saw that these families, this town, was someone going on. I am in awe of the families there.

    Thanks for posting this.