My Craft Stories

The Highway to Sioux Falls

Hot oil from an onion ring burned him on the upper lip and he winced as he bit and slurped in the translucent ring. Despite his efforts, the heat from the oil burnt his mouth, making his eyes water. The Friday Night parade of teens swarmed the Arctic Circle drive in with honking car horns, squealing girl voices bouncing on benches, and engines revving as carloads of boys stopped to tease the girls with whistles and antics. He chewed on the onion ring in the news van watching the high school kids through the side window.

Brandon Thaurer, weekend news anchor and sports reporter, took a bite of his burger. A half hour earlier he interviewed Betsy Smalls, the city’s champion softball pitcher. A minor story, with only a soundbite and pitching video, to round out the late night broadcast. Dinner had to come quick so he could run back to the station and edit the videotape.

He was a celebrity in this little pond of 6,000, the smallest television market in America. If he even took a walk into a restaurant, people would swarm and beg for an autograph. He really didn’t like the attention because he was shy and only a journalist. He didn’t take the job to be famous. To save time, and reduce his stress at all the attention, he grabbed fast food and ate in the van.

He worked alone again as a reporter and photographer; a one-man-band to save the station owner the cost of two employees. He didn’t mind doing all the work because it saved time and let him make an excuse for not being such a big shot. He couldn’t sign autographs if he was running the camera. Plus, he only shot what he knew would go into the final report. Back at the station, he could have his video and soundbite ready for air in ten minutes.

Brandon once took his camcorder out to shoot a quick video about a weekend marathon. To establish the race and show it happening, he ran ahead of the fastest runners to catch shots of the lead pack. He caught them three or four times and could have won the marathon himself if he wasn’t carrying the weight of 75 pounds of camera and tape deck. Plus, he was an observer and not a participant.

Glendive was his first job in broadcasting and he had worked his way up at the station starting as a producer, then a photographer, then a reporter, and now the weekend news anchor. He had worked hard and learned about as much as he could in Montana. He dreamed of sitting at the anchor desk at KSFY in Sioux Falls. A return of sorts to Iowa since he grew up in Grand Rapids.

Besides being known by the women of Glendive for his small dimple when he smiled, the men called him the crazy dude who was always running around poking his nose into the reasons behind cattle stench, house fires, bar fights, and rodeo events. He filled his reel with these homespun features, yet he lacked the tough stuff he knew would impress the Sioux Falls news director.

This left him going after sunset searching for a grim tragedy to make his audition tape pop. Despite his best efforts, he only could round up the champion softball player.

“Highway 16, before Hollecker Lake Bridge, a vehicle accident. Unknown injury,” the scanner in the van shouted out. He waited before jumping into the driver’s seat. “10-4, Sally. Sheriff en route. Save a longhorn and make a pot of coffee.”

Brandon knew Sheriff Bell, and despite the stereotype, he learned the Sheriff embraced his love for doughnuts. He often brought a dozen when he needed a reason to bend the Sheriff’s ear.

Brandon chased the voice of the sheriff and drove out to Hollecker Lake. He punched the gas until the rundown barns, old cars, and farm houses blurred parallel to the road as the news van flew past them. The fragrance of cattails, cornstalks, and the sugar beat factory blew through the open window mixed with musty, earthy humidity of the Yellowstone river.

He slammed on the brake pedal as he came up on a cloud of smoke and the taillights of a bus or motor home. Dead grass, rocks, and broken glass crunched under van tires as he parked behind the accident.

A woman fell from a door in the motor home and stumbled onto the shoulder. He could see tears running across her cheeks and she was waving frantically for him to stop. She had a bloody gash on her forehead. As soon as he stopped, the woman ran toward the news van waving for him to come closer.

“He’s hurt. My daddy. I think he’s dead,” she wailed. He plucked up a light and made his way to the motor home. She said something about the motorhome coming to a hard stop after hitting something. A deer? She didn’t know. Brandon didn’t see an injured animal. He shined the light, and it reflected off the window blinding him. The woman pushed him toward the open door.

“He was driving. And now he’s not breathin’,” she said. “Hurry. Please help.” She gasped in a swallow of air and cried again.

Brandon stepped into the motor home and navigated past a broken mug, spilled coffee, torn pillows, and a gate separating the motorist from the living quarters. The driver slumped over the wheel making guttural gasps. Brandon touched the man’s neck and found a weak pulse.

“I think he’s broke his neck,” said Brandon. He had once seen a bull rider with a broken neck. “Did you call 9-1-1?” The woman gasped at his matter-of-fact reporting of her dad’s shallow breathing. Brandon realized he was making it worse. “I really don’t know how hurt he is.”

The woman stuttered. “Yes. I called them on the CB, and they are sending someone.” She wailed again.

He squeezed the mic on the CB and saw the radio flash on Channel 9. He tried not to sound like a news anchor and just talk into the mic. “To anyone listening. We’ve had an accident just before Hollecker Lake. We need an ambulance.” He breathed in a deep breath and tried to calm his nerves.

He waited for a reply. “Comin’ your way, son.” Brandon recognized Sheriff Bell’s voice. “Sheriff, it‘s Brandon Thaurer. We’ve got a guy dying and his daughter with a cut to the head.”

“Affirmative. I see you.”

Brandon saw the rhythmic flashing of red and blue lights in the mirror as the sheriff and an ambulance stopped behind the cruiser. A swarm of men rushed up to the front and Sheriff Bell poked his head into the motor home. “Get out of the way, son. We’ll take it from here.”

Sheriff Bell reminded him of his father. He was the same age and size and Brandon deferred to the older man. A thumping in his chest brought back the time he doubted he thought his dad believed he was ready for the job.

“Go to work. Be a newsman and allow us to do what we do,” said the Sheriff. Brandon watched the men push past him.

Outside a cool breeze wrapped around the motor home giving him a chill. He shook it away. On the shoulder, a gray-uniformed attendant cleaned up the woman’s head.

“I know who you are. You’re on the TV.”

Brandon blushed and put out his hand. She refused it.

“I won’t talk to you. I don’t want to talk to you. I want no one to know how my daddy died.” She covered her face and backed away.

“Just tell me what happened.”

“We hit it,” she said. “It came out of nowhere.”

“What was it?”

“Daddy was laughing and then he wasn’t.” The woman cried. “It came at us so fast.”

“But what was it?” The woman cried louder and pushed him away. He still had no clue, and he felt like he should be more sympathetic. But he needed that one soundbite that would make this worthwhile. It upset him he couldn’t get it.

Brandon hoped maybe she might talk later. A couple other attendants brought up a gurney to the motor home and Brandon looked through the viewfinder of the camera and captured video of the accident.

He shot a establishing view of the accident and then a shot of the flashing lights reflected in the spilled oil and antifreeze on the pavement. A shot of the lights on the cruiser and a shot of the attendants fussing with the gurney. Finally, he followed the attendants as they climbed out of the motorhome with the driver. Brandon held out a mic.

“Sherriff, anything you can tell me?”

The sheriff shook his head with a grim face and looked away from Brandon. He felt like an intruder, but he needed to know.

To keep telling the story, Brandon shot video of the emergency crew to the end of the motorhome and waited as they moved the driver into the ambulance. The daughter followed them crying and hugging the waist of another woman who had climbed out of a car behind the ambulance. A family friend or the woman’s mother? He would try to find out. In the meantime, Brandon captured everything happening on video. He thought this might make the audition tape. However, he still needed an emotional soundbite.

Brandon set the camera down on the ground and looked through the viewfinder at the front wheels. He considered this a creative shot with a different viewpoint on the accident. In the viewfinder, he saw something blocking his view of the road. Brandon zoomed in on the object and looked again.

In the closeup, Brandon saw a face looking at him. A man, roughly in his thirties, with a beard and a large gash on his cheek. He zoomed out on the face and saw a body twisted around laying next to a motorcycle. It looked odd and Brandon wondered why it looked like a cornfield scarecrow. He realized the head was facing backward instead of forward. He was looking at the man’s back.

Brandon leaped from the camera and shouted for help. “I see someone under the motorhome! Come quick.” Astonishingly, no one had thought to look under the motorhome.

Everyone came running including the crying woman and her friend. The Sheriff followed Brandon’s finger to the body.

“My God,” said Sheriff Bell. One of the ambulance attendants inched his way to the body and looked for a pulse. “I’ve got nothing,” he said. “This guy’s dead.”

Brandon waited and watched as a tow truck pulled the motorhome off the dead motorcyclist. He shot more video even though he didn‘t think he could use it because the scene was too brutal for the evening news. Instead, he tried to get interviews again. He still needed a soundbite. This time everyone seemed in shock and even more than unwilling to talk.

He drove back to the station with the window rolled down, taking in the river, the musk of the water, and the taste of the night. He thought about the accident. The motorcyclist died when he collided with the motorhome. The driver, who had been laughing with his daughter moments before the impact, died on his way to the hospital. The accident came out of nowhere and ended two lives.

In the edit bay, Brandon cut the video and wrote the story. He added it to his tape after the downtown church fire and behind the story on the Mormon cricket infestation. He took out the shot of the motorcyclists’s eyes, which were too grim, haunting, and unsuitable for television.

© 2019, Michael Shawn Sommermeyer. All rights reserved.


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