Friday, January 25, 2013

Running For My Life

Stepping outside Apartment 79 at Peppertree complex in north McAllen, Texas, I locked the door for the last time in the dim morning.

"So long," I said. "You've served me well." All the belongings I hadn't shoved into the back of a Mayflower van were now in the back of my Chevy Celebrity, including the dirty laundry on the front passenger seat. I considered it a crude theft deterrent. I'd left a batch of tamales in the freezer for the next occupant.

So it happened on December 18th, 1999, that I began the next chapter of my life driving off into the fog. I wasn't looking back as I booked it for San Antonio, hoping to complete the first leg of my journey from the Rio Grande Valley to Tucson before noon.

Eleven months earlier, I knew I wanted out. I had just been promoted off my weekend producing shift at KRGV in Weslaco and promoted into a new set of problems: egos, amateurs, technicalities, and mostly tempers. Longtime News Director Rick Diaz, the man who hired me, had just retired. Rising to the top was his assistant, who could be either Jekyll or Hyde depending on his mood. I saw both sides of him, but mostly the Hyde, along with the rest of the newsroom.

"If I become News Director here," he once told me, "half the station would quit and I'd fire the other half. But I'd keep you though."

Some encouragement. I wouldn't see much of it from him. After he moved into Rick's old office, I suspect he also started taking on the tasks our General Manager couldn't press Mr. D into doing. That just made the new boss crabbier.

When the competition launched a retooled newscast on a new set, I strolled into the News Director's office after the 6:00 broadcast. I had some legitimate bragging points about the show, including stories with exclusive video.

"Get the anchors off of the damn set!" the boss barked at me as soon as he sawy

No hi, no hello.

He had other gripes, out loud, to nowhere in particular except our new assistant news director, the lady who had mentored and taken me under her wing for the last five years.

"How did we ever stop saying Top Story?" he griped, referring to the competition's branding on the first story of the newscast.

"Because we talked about this with [the consultant]," she said. “You remember the long conversation we had where we decided we wanted to be Big Story?

"Oh [forget] John; I’m the committee now," he growled in my direction. "I’m making the decisions here."

"So that means we’re Top Story now?” my mentor asked.

"Yes that means we’re Top Story!"

"Okay, okay," she said, waving her hands, trying to mellow him out. "We’re just trying to be clear here."

My mentor softly told me I was probably going to have to go back to the old way of doing things.

"Okay," I said. But I left with a parting mumble: "I don’t have to take this."

After he ripped into me for an honest mistake, I'd had enough. He called me a "namby-pamby" and made a vulgar comparison to breastfeeding off my assistant news director. In a lot of places, yelling at somebody like that would be grounds for termination. But since people seemed to accept it as the boss being the boss, and because I needed to eat, all I could do was sit there and take it... and then look for another job.

I warned my mentor that night I was on the way out. She understood. She felt for me, but she knew she couldn't do a lot to help. Besides, the guy was whipping a lot of other people into shape.

Or like me, they just felt bullied. I admitted it sheepishly to one of our junior reporters one night after I landed the job at KOLD in Tucson several months later.

"Oh Pico," she said, rolling her eyes and calling me by newsroom nickname, "that's why everybody's leaving. He's not a leader."

When I went into his office to give my notice, I hadn't said a word before he grumbled: "You can't quit."

Oh yeah?

I spoke my part and then watched him grumble some more from behind his desk while he opened his mail -- maybe it was time for me to go, and I would have to be less tense and not let other people aggravate me... sure, sure sure. He barely took his eyes off the letters in front of him, griping parenthetically -- "No, we don't want that service!" -- as his eyes scanned them over.

Stepping out of his office, our assignment editor shook my hand. I didn't have to tell him what I'd done.

Now I was headed north out of the Valley, growing more confident with each passing mile. As the Saturday dawn broke over Texas, I passed through towns coming out of their slumber. I made it into San Antonio a half-hour ahead of schedule and I phoned home to keep my parents posted. I would call them many times during the trip, filing "Road Reports" on their answering machine if they weren't home.

I gassed up in Segovia, grabbed a bite at the DQ drive-through in Sonora, ate on the road and tried to stay patient and alert while driving through the dusty no-man’s land of West Texas. Only one radio station was on the dial for about 100 miles, and the tape deck didn't work.

Every so often, I would see someone broke down on Interstate 10 as I pushed west, but I kept pushing. One of my anchors had given me an emergency road kit as a going-away present, and I hoped I wouldn't have to use it. I hoped to make it into El Paso by 10pm. I did it at 6, so I decided to press on into Las Cruces before bedding down at a Hampton Inn, scoring a room without a reservation.

Sunday morning rose to find me on the road again, passing through the snow-capped Rocky Mountains as I completed the final leg of the trip. I was on vacation, but with something better waiting at the end of the trip.

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