A Baptism of Fire

by Steve Ricci

In 2003, I was working at a marketing agency that was celebrating its 20th year in business. They asked their employees to create something in honor of the number 20. I resurrect it in honor of The Refugees:

Stood there boldly

Sweating in the sun

Felt like a million

Felt like number one

The height of summer

I’d never felt that strong

Like a rock

I’d spent the first half of that August day in 1983 meeting co-workers and filling out forms at the bustling headquarters of Catskill, New York’s, venerable newspaper, The Daily Mail. Introductions and deductions completed, I reported to the satellite office in Coxsackie, a tiny village about 10 miles north that would be my regular beat. Here, as a staff writer for the company’s weekly sister paper and a correspondent for the daily, I would begin my first professional job since graduating from college the year before, and in the interim, shampooing at least a thousand rugs for a one-van cleaning company. It was a month before my 23rd birthday.

Barbara—who answered the phones, took classified ads, typed copy, wrote a regular column and knew virtually the entire town on a first-name basis— welcomed me to the world of small-town journalism with a 30-second tour of the newsroom: three desks, one computerized typesetting machine, one police scanner, and a bathroom in the back. Unsure what to do next, I sat at my desk and began sorting accoutrements: a reporter’s pad, a pen, a phone, a typewriter, a dictionary.

My hands were steady

My eyes were clear and bright

My walk had purpose

My steps were quick and light

And I held firmly

To what I felt was right

Like a rock

The scanner went off about 10 minutes later. Volunteer firefighters were being called to a hay fire at a nearby farm. I listened to the dispatcher call out trucks and give the location.

“That’s interesting,” I told Barbara, who shot me a look one might give a puppy with its head stuck in a boot.

“Well, go get it!”

“Huh? I don’t even know where it is.”

“Turn right at the light and stop when you see flames.”

“But I don’t have a camera yet.”

“You won’t need one. It will be out by the time you get there.”

I got the sledgehammer hint, grabbed the pad and pen, and ran to my car, a crumbling Volkswagen Rabbit that was two parts rust and one part automobile. I tore down the road; my heart fibrillating and my mind leafing through Pulitzer-worthy incendiary adjectives: blazing, blistering, fulminating, smoke-choked. Two minutes later I arrived at the scene expecting to see fearless firefighters hauling heavy hoses (quite alliteratively) into the cataclysmic inferno that threatened the utter immolation of our fair village. I saw, instead, a wispy column of thin smoke curling pathetically above a dry field, where two volunteers were rolling up a dribbling hose.

Barbara had been right. The volunteers had already been there, doused the fire, and were reloading the truck. Convinced I’d missed my first story, I now conjured exactly the right incendiary words: “You’re fired.” Except they would not be mine, they would be my editor’s. I quickly grabbed an older man whose helmet had the word “chief” on it.

“So what happened?”

“Dunno,” he shrugged. “Probably kids smoking.”

I scribbled on the first page of the freshly opened pad, “Probably kids smoking.”

At a loss for another question, I stood in the stifling midday heat and watched the chief sweating through his insulated coat, imagining myself ankle-deep in suds-covered carpeting well into my retirement years. I had to think of something.

“Um … Was it hard to put out?”

He gave me the puppy-in-the-boot scowl, shook his head, and got back in the truck, which was pulling away as I realized I’d forgotten to get his name. Back at the office, a brief description to Barbara netted me the chief’s name. I wrote up my story and sent it down to the main office, neglecting to write a headline; an oversight I’d soon regret.

The next day, the one-paragraph item ran deep inside the paper under the headline, “Coxsackie Firemen Had Hay Fire,” as though the event were staged with the help of a planning committee. But I didn’t care. I’d had my literal and symbolic baptism of fire and written my first real news story. Though I’d covered high school baseball in my senior year of high school, turned out numerous assignments for college journalism classes, and written several freelance articles (free being the operative word) for advertising flyers, this was the first thing I’d ever written as a true professional. I was a journalist.

And I stood arrow straight

Unencumbered by the weight

Of all these hustlers and their schemes

I stood proud, I stood tall

High above it all

I still believed in my dreams

In the next three years, I covered much more serious fires, as well as floods, shootings, explosions, and traffic accidents, and saw how tragedy can punish capriciously and with dazzling speed.

I sat through sleepy school board meetings, riotous town council meetings, well organized union protests, and frenzied election night tallies, and observed people reveling in their right to govern themselves.

I rode in police cars, covered trials, and snapped pictures at “perp walks,” and learned that true justice is an elusive ideal, one that requires constant vigilance.

I interviewed farmers, parents, shop owners, laborers, students, and prison inmates, as well as mayors, governors, senators, and presidential candidates, and discovered that everyone’s opinion matters.

I wept at my father’s funeral and, just a few months later, attended the funeral of a 21-year-old colleague, a brilliant photographer and friend, and I came to understand that grief can cripple and strengthen at the same time.

As I mastered the profession of journalism, the art of interviewing, and the craft of writing, I amazed myself with my own abilities. I reported facts, wrote editorials, edited copy, took photos, developed film, printed pictures, laid out pages, wrote a regular humor column, and drew a weekly cartoon strip, all in the same five-day week in which I now find it difficult to complete 10 push-ups. I even won a few awards, accepting the rewarding psychological boost as compensation for the near poverty-level salary.

But I was young, impatient and bored by what I perceived as the going-nowhere tedium of small-town journalism. Infatuated by wanderlust and dreams of things bigger and better, I fled the dreadful upstate New York winters for exciting, sultry South Florida. Only the perspective gained through the gift of many birthdays would show that I had learned more in those three years than I would in the 17 that followed.

Now, as I face down the encroaching middle years and settle into their attendant comforts, I’m consistently remembering the haunting lyrics of Bob Seger’s wistful reflection, Like a Rock:

Twenty years now

Where’d they go?

Twenty years

I don’t know

I sit and I wonder sometimes

Where they’ve gone

And sometimes late at night,

When I’m bathed by the firelight

The moon comes calling, a ghostly white

And I recall. I recall.

Perhaps it’s because the song has, sadly, become a jingle to sell pickup trucks that it so often comes back to me. More likely, it is because it is such an easy metaphor for someone I miss dearly: the eager green reporter unaware of what lay ahead yet racing toward that burning field, fully engulfed in the thrill of the moment, consumed by a brilliant new passion, disappointed by the gap between the facts and the fantasy, but ready to follow the next siren into another adventure.

And I recall.

© 2009 Steven Ricci



Filed under Journalism, Posts by Steve Ricci

3 responses to “A Baptism of Fire

  1. Steve – Jon Pine shared The Refugees blogs with me not knowing that I had worked with you at SFNN back in 1993-94, what a coincidence? Loved your entry and could identify with a lot of it. Back in journalism after nine years out, I’m experiencing the newness and excitement all over again and it’s great. Hope all is well with you. Lisa

  2. Robert Smith


    Such nostalgia. When I was through reading, I found myself choking back tears…mainly because I closed my laptop on my junk, but such memories….

  3. jonpine

    Excellent, Steve! By the time I was dropped into the same office you were an old pro already. So my baptism was so much easier, with you around.

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