Driving lessons

I would never have learned to drive if it hadn’t been for my father. He taught me in his girlfriend’s Ford station wagon.

My parents were divorced by then, and every time I got behind the wheel of my mother’s vehicle, she would spend the entire trip gasping, gripping her seat, panicking, nagging, and occasionally screaming for me to pull over. It was more than either of us could handle. Cars and driving are not really my mom’s thing.

When I got my license, my dad helped me pick out my first car – an $800 blue Honda Civic with two gears. It was about the size of a golf cart and probably weighed 400 pounds, but I liked the feeling of power I got when I moved the gear shift from first gear to second, and then to “D” for Drive.

I suspect my dad knew when he helped me select the car that it would not last long. In fact I wrecked it just a month or so later. I was driving back from the home of the cutest guy in school, where we had had a discouraging conversation in his backyard pool. It was just the two of us, and everything was going reasonably well, which is to say that we were kissing.

But something was making me nervous, so I stopped to ask him if we were boyfriend and girlfriend. Actually, he told me, we were not. He liked me enough to make out with me in his backyard pool and to do more if I was willing, but not enough to publicly call me his girlfriend.

Maybe this sounds petty, but I was a little offended. I grabbed the keys to the Honda Civic and left. On my soaking wet and dejected drive home, a guy pulled out in front of me and I totaled my first car. I was 16 years and one month old.

So now I had no car, but I still needed a way to get to my job selling earrings and necklaces at the mall. These are the problems 16-year-old girls dump in the laps of their fathers. First there’s the phone call: “There’s been an accident …” and then, once you’ve explained that you are fine, but property has been damaged and you are stranded, you start thinking about how your parents can solve your next problem.

Dad took me to retrieve an extra car of my mother’s, which she hadn’t been driving for a while. I’m pretty sure it was a beat-up Ford station wagon. (We had a thing for those in my family.) Would you believe that, on that same afternoon, as I was driving down U.S. 50 in Frederick County, Virginia, at a speed of approximately 55 miles per hour, my mom’s Ford station wagon burst into flames? It just burst into flames as I drove down the road on the same day I’d wrecked the Honda Civic after being rejected by the cutest guy at James Wood High School.

I’ll make a long story a little shorter by saying that I survived the day in large part because of my dad. I often think back to that day and reflect on how, if Facebook had existed, I would have had one heck of a time formulating a coherent status update.

My parents were hippies, both of them, but probably not the best match on any other account. My mom is six years older, and, given the maturity difference between males and females, this presented the first of a few obstacles in their union.

They married in a little Lutheran church on a back road in Mountain Falls, Virginia. My mom wore a white sundress, a shawl over her shoulders, and flowers in her hair. My dad wore a brown suit. They lived in a cabin in Shawneeland and had three babies in short succession, all of us born at home.

The problem for my mom was that even though she wanted to live the dream of the peace- and earth-loving hippie, baking zucchini bread and breastfeeding her children into early childhood, she had to earn a living. She was a nursing home administrator, which is a pretty serious job for a woman who had no intention of ever wearing any kind of shoe that is not a moccasin.

My dad worked in a motorcycle dealership.

Both of my parents were smart, but in different ways. I was blessed with two parents who read for pleasure. My mom was a spiritual-philosophical type and she would listen to native tribal instrumental music so that if my dad called home on his lunch break he would think that he had possibly dialed the wrong number and called an Indian reservation or maybe Tibet.

My dad was so smart that he had graduated from high school at 16, but his intelligence just led him to a kind of live-in-the moment nihilism – making the best of things by having a good time because there wasn’t much chance of doing anything worthwhile after death.

A good time for hippies like my parents involved hanging out around a bonfire with a bunch of friends who came and went, pretty much as they pleased. This was the backdrop of my childhood. I’d sit outside making fairy gardens on the mossy mounds of our front yard and when I got tired, I’d go on inside and fall asleep in a crib or a cradle, on a couch or a mattress on the floor.

For people without much money, my parents were gracious hosts and good neighbors. Friends wanted to hang out at our house because my parents were nice enough to share their food and cigarettes and wine. My parents knew how to have fun. I think it was partly due to the fact that they were both the youngest children in their families. Being the oldest child of two youngest children, I didn’t exactly inherit the “fun” gene. I like to say I’m a Granny Smith in a family of Galas.

Everyone in my family loved animals, and I did, too, at first. I wanted a ferret, so my mom got one for me. I named her Baby. We didn’t keep Baby in a cage like you’re supposed to. She slept in my bed and pooped wherever she wanted for a long time.

At age 10, I convinced all of my family members to let me have my own bedroom. I kept it neat and organized; that was my mechanism for coping with the chaos that you realize, as you mature, is life.

My parents made fun of me for keeping my room so neat, and then they resented it. If I could keep my room so clean, why couldn’t I clean the whole house, they asked.

This was an ongoing discussion between my father and me when I lived with him during high school. My room was neat and organized, and I did my own laundry, but I didn’t like to do dishes. I was generally good, but not perfect, just mature enough at times to cause trouble rather than stay out of it.

When I stayed out past curfew and came home after my father was asleep, he would simply remove the distributor cap from my car, thereby rendering me immobile on the next day.

By the time I was in high school, I had outgrown my interest in animals. My dad had this white cat named Fred. Dad would put Fred on his shoulder and carry him back to his bedroom every night before they went to sleep.

One time I joked with my dad that I didn’t see the appeal of animals anymore.

“They take and take and take and they don’t give anything back,” I said. He just laughed.

Fred kept following me around the house on the day I was to graduate from high school. I told my mom it seemed like the cat knew I was leaving.

When Fred died, my dad had him cremated.

I almost cried when my parents dropped me off in front of the dormitory as I started college. The other kids were eager to get to their first frat parties and experience the freedom of being away from their parents, but not me. My parents were no prison wardens. Because of who they were and how they’d raised me, I knew what freedom was just another word for, and by then I’d assigned a higher value to security – the security of knowing that if I was broken down on the side of the road, I could always call my dad to come get me.


Must Love Murder

Kristina was in the middle of reading an email from an angry viewer when Patrick leaned over her desk and smiled.

“Good morning, Sunshine. Can I talk to you in my office for a quick second?”

She grabbed a pen and paper and followed him, a sinking feeling in her stomach. The weekend had been a nightmare, with a fire at the Hampton Paper Plant on Friday night and a rainy parade for the Pear Tree Festival on Saturday.

There was also a fatal car accident involving a tractor-trailer on the interstate Sunday, which somehow Kristina had not heard about until she read a newspaper story Monday morning. It was true that the accident had taken place just over the state line in Virginia, but the truck driver was from Morgan County and, the Daily Register reported this morning, he was being charged with reckless driving. Taking a seat in Patrick’s office, Kristina was prepared to be reprimanded for missing the accident story.

“How was the weekend?” he asked, shuffling a pile of letters that had been sitting on his keyboard. One of
Patrick’s main duties as news director was handling correspondence from viewers and sources. Most of it came as email, but there were a few elderly viewers who wrote him regularly via snail mail to tell him how badly the station had mishandled a certain story. People often complained that Kristina was too easy on sources and had failed to ask “the tough questions.”

In addition to answering emails from viewers, attending Rotary meetings and hiring young, attractive reporters with sunny dispositions and little-to-no experience, Patrick made the final decisions about which events the station would cover and what footage would air, if he was in the studio during production, which he usually was. He often worked 16-hour days Monday through Friday, but his weekends were reserved for family time with his wife Scarlet and their adopted son Pete.

“Honestly, Patrick, the weekend sucked,” Kristina said. “I was at the paper plant all night Friday, which turned into Saturday. So then I got no sleep and got up to go to the Pear Tree thing. No one showed up because of the rain and I was up to my knees in mud begging girl scouts to say something interesting, or something at least cute, while their mothers stood there asking me when it was going to be on TV and what channel was it. As of yesterday, they’re still saying they don’t know how the fire started, but Ron Paxton told me it was set intentionally by an employee.”

“Yeah,” Patrick said, “I just got off the phone with the chief.”


“He said you were giving him a hard time this weekend,” Patrick said.

“A hard time? I was asking him questions. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?”

“Kristina,” Patrick said, “our relationships with our sources are vitally important here.”

Kristina knew why the chief was angry. After calling and emailing him all weekend, she finally decided to go down to the station in person on Sunday afternoon. She left the camera in the van and walked through the doors of the Community Safety Building, right up to the glass window outside his office, where she pressed the button to ring a dispatcher.

“I’m here to see Chief Ricketts,” she said.

“And who are you?”

“Kristina Collins, with WCTV,” she replied.

She looked around the empty room, expecting to be told that he was in a meeting and asked if she wanted to leave a message. Seconds later, the door opened and the chief appeared, looking haggard.

“Kristina, I told you, I’ll send you the press release as soon as we’ve got it ready. The fire is under investigation,” he said.

“Ron Paxton told me it was set by an employee. Did you hear anything about that?”

He fixed her with a stare that was meant to be intimidating, but she could see that his resolve was fading as he had likely had less sleep than her this weekend. His graying hair was disheveled in a way that looked unintentional and he smelled of coffee and cigarettes.

“I told you everything I can right now, Kristina. I’ll call you later.”

“Fine,” she said, and turned to leave.

And he had called her later, when she was driving home, but her cellphone must have lost its signal and the line went dead. It was 11:30 p.m. on Sunday when Kristina got home. She was due back at the station at 9 a.m. Monday for the weekly staff meeting. Whatever the chief had wanted to tell her was probably in a press release he had sent to 20 other reporters right before he called. She would read it in the morning.

Sure enough, the Register had a story on Monday quoting an anonymous source who said the fire was intentionally set. But for Chief Ricketts’ part, the fire was officially under investigation.

“I’m taking you out of the rotation,” Patrick told Kristina. “You never wanted to be on-camera in the first place.”

“You’re demoting me because Chief Ricketts is mad that I called him a bunch of times this weekend?” she asked.

“I’m not demoting you. And I wouldn’t say he was mad,” Patrick said before starting to laugh.

“He said you were acting like Hillary Clinton.”

Now Kristina laughed, too. This was a new one. Last week, her hairstylist had gotten carried away and taken six inches off her dark hair after giving her highlights. The effect of the chin-length blond bob combined with a fitted jacket did make her feel a little Clintonesque.

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” she said. “Maybe the chief’s a Democrat.”

“I doubt that very seriously,” he said. “Haven’t you seen his sticker? He doesn’t believe the liberal media.”

“Well, it’s true,” Kristina said, gesturing toward the newsroom. “The only Republican out there is Bill Withers.”

“Speak of the Devil,” Patrick said. “Bill’s retiring in June. I want you to take his job.”

“You want me to be assistant news director?”

“Yeah. I need someone to rewrite all the sloppy copy they turn in before it gets posted to the website. You hate the camera and you know it.”

“No, Patrick,” said Kristina, “the camera hates me. I’m not pretty enough. Dr. Rosenfeld told me that in Mass Comm 250.”

“He didn’t say that,” Patrick said.

“That’s not what he said, but that’s what he meant,” Kristina said. “Now you’re demoting me because I’m not pretty enough.”

“I’m promoting you because you’re not perky enough.”

“How am I supposed to be perky when I’m talking to about a homicide?” Kristina asked.

“You’re not. You’re done, Kristina. You hate it. I get that,” Patrick said. “Your first assignment is to hire your replacement. And train her.”

“So you want a girl?”

“Yeah,” Patrick said. “Someone viewers will like. Someone entertaining.”

Kristina rolled her eyes.

“This promotion, does it come with a raise?”

Patrick turned away from her, opened an email on his computer, and started reading.

“I’ll get you a raise,” he said. “You’ll be on salary, like me.”

Oh boy, she thought. I have arrived.

The next day, Kristina prepared a job posting for Journalismjobs.com. She typed out an entry:
Must Love Murder: Hard-hitting, hard-working, no-vacation taking, low-pay seeking multitalented female wanted for small-market station with low ratings. Must be willing to ask the tough questions, with a smile. Must be intelligent, but not opinionated. Must love working evenings, weekends and holidays. Must be skilled in videography, Digitex, Softserv Plus, Photo Scan, Photoshop, and Excel. Send resume and clips to kcollins@wctv.com.

She thought about adding, “must be able to write clean, concise copy on deadline,” as a nod to the reporters’ contribution to the station’s website, but that part was asking too much. Patrick always said he didn’t hire TV reporters for their writing skills, an expression that implicitly meant he hired the cutest kid who was also the lowest bidder for the job.

She reread the ad, deleted the “Must Love Murder” line, and changed “female” to “entry-level reporter.” Although this was the first ad she had placed on Journalismjobs, she imagined that insinuating a low pay rate would discourage many male applicants from the start. Men, it seemed, had a greater sense of self-worth than their female counterparts.

To her surprise, she received 80 resumes within two days from men and women all over the country. After reading through the applications, she called four people, all of whom lived on the East Coast within a five-hour drive of the TV station. Even though Patrick had told her to hire a woman, Kristina decided to interview two men for good measure, including one with more than 10 years of experience. While she knew there was little chance she would end up selecting a man, she thought it best to interview more than one kind of reporter. It was possible, she thought, perhaps even probable, that the best candidate to replace her would be someone who was actually nothing like her.

Philip Partlow, a guy in his early 30s living in Virginia Beach, was looking to escape a bad boss and probably romanticizing the idea of life in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. He told her he liked hiking and was hoping to find a rental property in Harpers Ferry. Although he had a good on-air presence, in person he projected a jaded quality that Kristina imagined was the result of too much experience. She was pretty sure his enthusiasm for covering events like the county fair would last three months at best and then she’d be trying to prop up Mr. Cynical Hung-over Bachelor with a Bad Attitude.

Ryan Musateri was about to graduate from college with a degree in music theater. Cute and witty, Ryan had worked as an intern at his college TV station and had strong opinions on all things political. But his lack of objectivity wasn’t the real problem. Instead, Kristina thought Ryan, with his Burberry scarf, was just a touch too glamorous for WCTV. He seemed more like the host of a reality television show than a small-town news reporter. Kristina didn’t think there was much chance he would be able to identify with a family of five displaced by a fire in a trailer park. Ryan would alienate viewers and he would be bored and miserable in Charles Town.

Sun Li was a stunning GMU grad with great bone structure and an impressive grade point average. Although she came across well on-air and in-person, Sun was a bit too serious for Patrick’s taste. Kristina could still hear him requesting “someone entertaining.”

More than that, Sun reminded Kristina of a college roommate, and Kristina suspected that she wanted to move to Charles Town to get away from her parents in Falls Church, but not too far away. They would never approve of her working in Charles Town, much less dating anyone she was likely to meet. Kristina liked a little drama now and then, but they always had more than enough of that at the TV station. There was always someone crying in the bathroom. And so Kristina selected Felicity Hupp, a bubbly strawberry blond in her mid-20s with a freckled button nose and creamy cleavage. Patrick would love her.

It was Felicity’s first experience in television. For the past two years, she had been working at a local radio station, so she was at least used to putting a microphone in someone’s face. She had a flair for style, which Kristina greatly envied. Felicity would remind no one of Hillary Clinton.

Felicity’s first few weeks at the station went surprisingly smoothly. There were a few technical problems as she learned to work the equipment, but the camera loved her and so did the viewers. So did the sources, it seemed. Even at 6 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, after she’d put in a full day, Felicity never dragged her feet out of the newsroom when there was an accident on the interstate. She grabbed her camera and keys, hopped in the van and was off.

“I love breaking news,” she told Kristina one afternoon. “I can’t stand being bored.”

But when Kristina heard the sounds of a female sobbing in the bathroom stall next to her on a Tuesday morning, the day after the arraignment of Kelly Swope on murder charges related to the death of her infant son, she thought immediately of Felicity, who was covering the trial. Sure enough, Kristina could see Felicity’s trademark red patent-leather heels below the bathroom door.

“Felicity,” she said, “are you okay?”

Felicity opened the door and walked out, wiping mascara off her face with a wadded piece of toilet paper. In her other hand, she held a crumpled envelope, which she handed to Kristina.

“Felicity Hupp,” was scrawled in angry letters on the front of the envelope.

Kristina took out the letter inside.

“Dear Miss Hupp, I see you enjoy ruining people’s lives. You must be glad about what happened to little Davonte Briggs because it gives you something to talk about on television. If you had two brain cells working together, you would know that people are innocent until proven guilty. Kelly Swope lost her baby and now you’re calling her a murderer. I suppose helping to convict an innocent woman makes you feel better about yourself, but maybe you could have the decency to wear a top that covers up your breasts so people don’t have to listen to your garbage and look at it at the same time. I just want you to know that people who used to watch WCTV news think you’re trash and we wish you’d go back on the radio where you belong.”

The letter wasn’t signed.

Kristina was used to hate mail, but this was excessively ad hominem.

“Did you show this to Patrick?” Kristina asked.

“Yeah,” said Felicity, letting go of another sob.

“What did he say?”

“He said maybe I should try not to smile so much.”