Some call it a wild goose chase. My editor calls it ‘the nature of this business.’ My friend, ‘the B8 story.’
I call it a Cracker Jack Story — you know, the kind where if you dig long and hard enough, you’ll find a prize inside, even if it’s small and cheap, and not exactly what you wanted in the first place. It’s still a prize. And it’s yours.
It started early Monday morning. I came into the newsroom, thinking I would spend the day working on a certain cancer story I had been cultivating for a while. Instead I was handed a Sheriff’s Office press release about a surgeon (who we will refer to as Dr. Smith for the duration of this tale) who was flying a plane and crashed. I was told to write an obit in which I should try to profile his life and career.
An obit. No problem. How hard could it be?
I began by calling the Sheriff’s Office that sent out the press release. No response. Called the airport where the guy had taken off from. No response. I called the fire department that responded, the coroner’s office and his former employer. Nothing.
I looked this guy up in marriage records, state voter registration records, medical liscence records and court records. His name turned up in court files, but the documents weren’t available. No address or phone number to be found.
It seemed strange — a surgeon that was so hard to pin down.
“Go to the office and knock on some doors,” my editor told me. “Someone’s gotta know something about this guy.”
So, I went. Drove the 20-ish minutes out to a cute neighborhood / college town with lots of young people on bicycles and pulled into the parking lot of an outdoor medical plaza. The office bearing the surgeon’s name was closed. The phone number listed on the window didn’t work. When I asked the optometrist next door about my doctor-in-question though, he said he’s never really seen him, despite having worked there for years.
“He works weird hours,” he said. “The office is only open a few days a week.”
Curiouser and curiouser. I decided to go to a nearby address I had found in his name on Lexis Nexis.
The house was pink, an old Spanish-style villa in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. The sun was blaring that day and the dry Sacramento heat was sweltering. A sign that said “The Smiths” was tucked into a corner under a table full of flower pots. I couldn’t tell if it had been torn down or if it had fallen.
I knocked on the door. No answer. Knocked again. No answer.
In a last-ditch attempt at getting some information, I decided to write a note and leave it under the door. Just as I was about to sign my name, a big white van — the kind they transport camp groups in — pulled onto the driveway. A slender woman gets out of the driver’s seat and is shortly followed by six children. I approach her cautiously.
“Excuse me, ma’am? Would you happen to know a Dr. Smith?”
Her face drains of color. She looks stricken. Bingo, right house.
“He was my ex-husband,” she said, beginning to stutter about how she’s not sure she’s ready to talk about it. She pauses, looks from me to her kids and invites me into the house for a glass of ice water. I accept and follow her into the house.
As she hands me a red plastic cup, I ask if there are any pictures of the doctor around the house. The mother shakes her head as the oldest daughter, 18, steps forward.
“I have one,” she says, holding out a small photo of her and her father from at least a decade ago. “I haven’t spoken to him in four years.”
We move to the backyard and talk. There are two chickens in the far corner by the fence — Ashley and Blondie. Ashley is brown with white flecks and Blondie is pure gold. They lay eggs almost every day, she tells me. Her little brothers love to come and collect them, especially the 12 year old, who was the last to see her father before the crash.
She tells me about her dad. About his unpredictable mood swings, his infidelity, his pattern of lies, questionably-legal practices. About how he “was really messed up,” not a nice guy. About how he sent her a white BMW as a graduation present. About how that’s the last she’s heard of him. That’s the last she wants to hear of him.
“My mom’s really upset about the crash and all,” she said. “I don’t really understand why. We haven’t heard from him in years.”
She tells me that she’s going to college in the fall to study microbiology. She wants to be a doctor, she said.
“But not like my father.”
Driving back to the newsroom from that interview, I didn’t know what to think. My mind was spinning. That’s what you get when you start digging, I told myself. When I got back, I was told to add to the brief from the morning. No big deal, they’re not going to run the stuff I got — too dangerous, potential for libel and all. So I added a sentence or two to what became a four-inch, double-bylined brief.
Initially, I was upset. Upset I had spent my whole day on a story that wasn’t. Upset I had driven to Davis, hunted down a family and couldn’t use any of it. But then, as I settled down and turned in my three sentences of copy, I realized I learned a whole lot.
I learned how to find someone it seemed didn’t exist. I learned to follow even the most inane tracks to find something potentially valuable in the end. And somewhere along the way, in all this hunting, I found something even more valuable: my inner blood hound; my inner reporter; my inner Lois Lane.
I found confidence that yeah, I can do this. And that, dear friends, is a gem no one can ever take away from you.