The first hard story

I’m not a big Twitter person, no matter how much my writing partner describes the enormous missed opportunity I’m overlooking to market my writing. She uses the word platform an awful lot. It’s not that I’m shy about people seeing my work. For one thing, I use Facebook to post writing samples as an editing tool, to view the words in a different venue. And I spent a good chunk of my early career writing and taking pictures for newspapers and news agencies.

Time for a quick story that goes back to my first weeks on the job at a newspaper in Salisbury, Maryland. Days were spent shooting grip and grins, another term for checking passing ceremonies. They entailed a business or rich person handing over a sometimes comically enlarged check to a charity. It’s lovely and honorable, but the twenty-second time I photographed Frank “It Takes a Tough Man to Make a Tender Chicken” Perdue giving two hundred bucks to the Junior Chamber of Commerce or Big Brothers, I was more than numb to the warm and fuzziness. I did what any hungry young journalist would do, which was to live with a police and fire scanner in every room of my house, as well as in my car.

The second weekend of following the scanner and learning the Ten Code, a call came in for a possible drowning in the Wicomico River. The roads were barren at two in the morning as I broke a dozen traffic laws and slid into the parking lot of the public marina in the poorest section of town. There were three fire trucks and two ambulances already on the scene as I hurried to the water’s edge, cameras and lenses bouncing from each shoulder. I took my place among twenty or thirty bystanders, many of them kids up late on summer recess. I remember that some were in wet clothes and realized they might know the missing kid. It was quiet except for the crackle of the scanners, including the one dangling from my camera bag. One fire truck had lit the muddy water with a spotlight and there were swirls of blue from a city cop car’s rack.

Forty minutes passed before there were shouts from the rescuers and everything became confused and chaotic by screams and even angry shouts. An elderly woman collapsed next to me.

I was twenty three when I saw my first dead body pulled from the water. Later, as a war correspondent, I’d see hundreds more. But I remember the first one as if it were yesterday and not 1984. Perfectly limp, were the words that came flashing to the front of my mind. I learned that when we first die, we become perfectly limp. I also remember the fireman carrying the boy looked very sad, as though he’d failed. I took their picture as the fireman trudged out of the water, harsh images from a direct flash. Five, maybe six pictures. And from next to me came the small voice of a shirtless child, his jeans still damp.

“You’re a ghoul,” he said. Not angry, just matter-of-fact.

What a strange word for a kid to use — ghoul. Years later, I would sometimes think I should have said that my job as a journalist meant I had to hold a mirror up to the community and reflect the events. But that wouldn’t have meant anything to the friend of a kid who’d just died. Back then I only shrugged my shoulders and took a few more pictures. I gathered my caption information, talked to a cop and a few witnesses, then headed to the newspaper.

I developed the photos and wrote the story. I was the only reporter or photographer who had been awake and at the scene. Despite hearing the boy’s voice calling me a ghoul for taking pictures of his dead friend, I described what had happened. From my notes, I wrote what his grandmother told me was his favorite thing to do — swimming in the river at night. The friend was right in a way. I was a ghoul for taking the photos. Would kids stop swimming at night in a dangerous stretch of river because they saw my photos and read the story? As a journalist, I didn’t care. My job wasn’t to warn people from dangers, but it was great if that was what they took away from it. Same as with the dozens of fatal fires and drunk driving accidents.

What I took away from that first deadly night was the necessity of writing no matter what. Of telling a story despite the voice of doubt. Writing is about exploring. You might sometimes find yourself trespassing, but you have to keep moving forward.

About colealpaugh

Cole Alpaugh's newspaper career began in the early 80s, starting with small daily papers in Maryland and Massachusetts, where his stories won national awards. His most recent job was at a large daily in Central New Jersey, where his "true life" essays included award-winning pieces on a traveling rodeo and an in-depth story on an emergency room doctor that was nominated by Gannett News Service for a 1991 Pulitzer Prize. Cole also contracted with two Manhattan-based news agencies, covering conflicts in Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Thailand and Cambodia. His work has appeared in dozens of magazines, as well as most newspapers in America. Cole is currently a freelance photographer and novelist living in Northeast Pennsylvania, where he spends afternoons in a virtual running race around the equator, and evenings watching his daughter's magical stage performances. You can find him online at
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