Archive for ‘My Stories’

August 3, 2010

STORY – Tanzania trip teaches many lessons

Mariah Hudson, assistant director for SDSU's Center for Regional Sustainability, who took vacation time and raised her own funds to participate in the Tanzania Project, is mobbed on the morning the group was going to formally present backpacks to every child at the school. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS FROST

July 19, 2010

Two recent stories

For some reason, I can’t get the hyperlinks to work in captions, so click the photo to get the link to the stories.

July 16, 2010

(partial) STORY — Mission Valley fire burns four acres

See the full story here.

My contribution

As the fire continued to burn, parked cars lined both sides of Camino del Rio North near the Courtesy Chevrolet business as motorists stopped to observe and snap pictures of the fire.

In the 15 minutes Jack Ahrens of Pacific Beach had been standing there, the 29-year-old witnessed the quickest fire he’s ever seen. Ahrens was on his way to go shopping when he spotted the flames.

He saw firefighters scurry from the top of the hill to attack the flames and watched as helicopters, which were scooping water out of the nearby San Diego River, made drop after drop.

“I’m definitely nervous for the people who live up there,” he said.

Ahrens said he saw people on Interstate 8 almost getting into wrecks because people were stopping to watch the fire.

View from my cubicle at the Union-Tribune. Notice the houses at the top of the hill.

Random observations

The California summer is everything it’s cracked up to be. The intense desert heat, the flaming sun rays that feel like fire on your face. And of course, the real fires. I witnessed my first today.

The herd of journalists crowding around the window beside my desk signaled the arrival of the dreaded flames. I’d barely had time to snap a picture before someone volunteered me to rush to the scene and get some reactions.

What I saw can only be described as a ballet. The organization and precision with which the city reacted was a dance choreographed both by familiarity with summer blazes and respect for their power.

The swooping planes and the scurrying firefighters pushed back and forth against the fluid fire, rapidly making its leaps up the hill near houses and hotels in University Heights. The helicopters meticulously rushed in and out like a flowing tide. Each shield of water they dropped sent another sizzle into the already rising smoke, which looked like dirty translucent sheets ruffling in slow motion.

Less graceful were the reactions of passersby. Traffic jams and confused or worried pedestrians filled the streets and sidewalks. A contingent of police officers directed the congested motorists and vainly tried to stop people from walking toward the flames. But they had to work or get their cars or meet friends or go to hair appointments and wouldn’t be stopped for the fire that appeared almost choked out.

The activity of the area slowly ebbed out into other parts of the city as the water flowed to the earth and proved its dominance over the flaring hillside. But left behind, with the smoke still rising, was an ashen patch of scortched ground stretching from the top of the hill to the bottom.

July 7, 2010

STORY — American dreams come true

June 27, 2010

STORY — Christmas in June for military families

June 23, 2010

STORY — Soccer fans anxious, then ecstatic at P.B. bar

No side note this time, because I’m really hungry and ready to go get my Subway sandwich. But I will say this was one of the best assignments of all time.

U.S. soccer fan Max Shafer watches in disbelief at Miller's Field sports bar in Pacific Beach as the U.S. team misses a shot against Algeria. PHOTO BY NELVIN C. CEPEDA/UNION-TRIBUNE.

June 15, 2010

STORY — Continuing to help Haiti


Inevitably, tragic events slip out of the mainstream spotlight as time passes. So it’s fortunate for Haiti that there are still groups out there that make it their job not to forget the needs of country destroyed by an earthquake and facing more destruction as hurricane season goes on.

This story was pretty straight forward to write. The most interesting part to me was the descriptions people gave me of what it’s like there. There are so many sick, injured and desperate people living in flimsy tents that wash away with each torrential downpour. Still, many of the Haitian people won’t go in the few still-intact buildings because they don’t trust the structures to stay strong in another earthquake.

The Jan. 12 earthquake simply exacerbated already serious circumstances. The illnesses doctors are treating are often more the result of poverty than natural disaster — though to be sure, the earthquake didn’t help in the healing process.

The most chilling story I heard was from the CEO of Scripps Health. He mentioned that in the long term, Haiti will be dealing with a lot of post-traumatic stress. And not just from the earthquake. They’ve had earthquakes before. They’ve been through hurricanes, rampant disease and extreme poverty for years.

Anyway, the CEO told me when there was an aftershock while he was in Haiti, even if it was a mild one, he would be surrounded by screaming. No doubt, these people were reliving a nightmare that had built over a lifetime.

I know there have been other tragedies around the world that are falling out of the limelight too, but I’m proud to be part of the media still reporting on Haiti. I hope maintaining awareness will somehow help ease the Haiti people’s pain.

SIDE NOTE: I was in a 5.7-magnitude earthquake last night. It only lasted a few seconds in San Diego, but it was kind of surreal. I was telling a friend that it was like walking on a trampoline, only movement is side to side, not up and down. And it’s a feeling of helplessness. You can run for cover from most things, but where are you supposed to go when it’s the ground you’re trying to run away from? I can’t imagine how scary even small ones must be after you’ve experienced something like what happened in Haiti.

June 6, 2010

STORY — Scientists peer into past lives

This was absolutely fascinating to report on. I think the story says that better than I could. The images on the screen just looked like random chalk scribbles on a blackboard to me, but the doctors in the room deciphered them like it was nothing. I was jealous. Stories like this are like candy to me. They’re complicated to understand at first, but once you get the scientists to speak in lay terms, you learn so much that you don’t even know what do with all the information.

Side note: This little girl had her own iPad. Photo by Nelvin C. Cepeda/Union-Tribune

So to recap the cool assignments the U-T has sent me on… Already this summer I’ve gone to a shipyard where they were building Navy battleships, the memorial service for John Finn — one of the most famous Medal of Honor recipients of all time — and a hospital to watch scientists scan 500-year-old mummies in the same machine used on humans every day. I’m in reporter heaven.

May 29, 2010

STORY — Bronze Star, golden moment for Vietnam Vet

JACK WARREN. Photo by Peggy Peattie/Union-Tribune

This is my first published story for the U-T. The man it’s about, Jack Warren, was incredibly fascinating, with his endless stories about combat in Vietnam. But, I guess that’s the way it is for all the veterans. War is definitely not forgettable or boring.

I’m really glad I was able to convey the generational aspect of Jack’s service, because he strives to inspire his family just like his dad was his inspiration. But Jack told me a lot more in our two-hour interview than I could fit in print. He’s never been to counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder. But he said for catharsis, he listens to sound bytes from battle, looks at pictures or recounts his war stories.

Like the time, when he first arrived at Ban Me Thout, that he had to roll out of a plane in the brief period it touched down, leaving him weaponless in unfamiliar territory with no other Americans visible.

Or the time he got an aircraft save for directing a pilot to the ground when his instrument panel was struck by lightning, and he had 15 minutes of fuel left.

The rivalry for who had the most control — pilots or air traffic controllers.

The day he had to manage 27 planes trying land at Ban Me Thout almost at once, with seven of them having to make emergency landings.

JACK WARREN. Courtesy photo.

The gangs of young Vietnamese “cowboys” who would beat up GIs for something as simple as their watches.

The contrast of that with the soldiers’ relationships with grateful Ban Me Thout residents.

The near miss he had when a piece of shrapnel sliced through the tent he’d been standing in during an attack.

When he “went crazy” and stood up during one night’s attack to watch the scene like it was a movie, with soldiers and bombs and gun blasts for characters.

“There was a blanket of red on the ground (from explosions). It was pretty. Deadly, but pretty. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t watch fireworks for a while when I got back,” he said.

At war, you go through stages, he said. Stage one — numbness, associated with the feeling that there’s no way you’re going to get out of it alive. Stage two — a feeling that you’re invincible, and nothing can touch you. Stage three — fear that you’ll never get home, but a strong desire to.

“When you get to the U.S., you kiss the ground,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful place.”

Robert Cardenas, who presented Jack his medal, gave me a couple interesting quotes too, but they didn’t really fit with the story. So here they are.

“What happens in combat is even the meekest and mildest of man can become a hero in a flash. You don’t think, you just do.”

“Now, there is no enemy you can aim a tank at. The enemy is all over the world.”

Oh, and Jack met his wife on the game show “Love Connection.” I just thought that was cool.

May 13, 2010

STORY — ALL THE RAVE: Students try to rebuild rave scene in Bowling Green

Raves are such sensory experiences that I don’t know if any news article can fully capture what it’s like to be at one. I think I could have done a whole article that was simply a narrative on being at one. In fact, I had about a notebook worth of just observations. So let me close my eyes and try to recreate how it felt to be reporting at a big party.

Before I even walked in, I could feel the vibration of the bass. It felt heavy and thick, no doubt the result of professionally-assembled sound equipment. The sound waves literally hit me as I walked in the door, but not in an unpleasant way. My ears were just shocked. Soon they adjusted to the noise.

My eyes were what had to do the most adjusting. There was too much for them to take in. Neon colors tore through the darkness. In one instance, a new part of the scene was illuminated, but in the next instance, before my brain could fully process the image, it was gone. It was like constantly flashing in and out of focus. Faces. Glowsticks. Legs dancing. Music. Lights. Smoke. Fog. Sensory overload. Woah.

But almost as quickly as the Luna Light System sent colorful waves into the atmosphere, my senses had adjusted. They’d tasted the rave and were now plunging into its exquisite flavor. The lights gave the illusion that I was everywhere and nowhere at once. But the music diffusing from the stage through the air — it really was everywhere.

I could see what people meant when they said the music completely consumes you. If you like the music, that is. This would be a miserable experience for someone who hated the mixed up rhythms of electronic dance music, because there was no way you could escape it. It was fortunate, then, that most people there didn’t want to. The crowd on the dance floor moved without inhibition. Some of them on beat; some of them not. Some of them swayed; others jumped. Some dropped their heads and swung their hips; others swung their whole bodies. Some even did the running man. Regardless, they all moved to interpret the music that (they would tell you) they felt moving through them.

Not everyone was dancing. Bystanders on the periphery were still or only slightly moving. Whether from nerves, fatigue or the influence of a substance, they only watched. A few slowly filtered inward, the inhibition they saw in front of them and the persuasion of the music gently pushing them toward the dance floor.

If I didn’t have my notebook and pen to bring me back down to earth, I might have been consumed too, since I love all types of music and the sensory nature of the event is inescapable. As I scribbled a stream-of-consciousness-style list of observations, I realized my own incompetence to be able to paint a picture for my readers of just how sensory and cerebral these events are. It was a trip (pun definitely intended). I also realized the problem I was going to have in reporting this story.


The hardest part about writing for me is that I always seem to have more information than I can use. I ask sources question after question until every line in my notebook is filled with a mountain of information that will never fit into a news hole. It’s a better problem to have than not having enough information for a story, yes. But I struggle to find the balance between over- and under- reporting.

With the story I wrote about students trying to build up a “rave scene” in Bowling Green, I reported for about a month, maybe a little more. I went to three raves and a dub step show, talked to countless DJs and rave promoters and filled up four notebooks. My story had reached about 90 inches (an inch is about the length of a Twitter post in our paper) before I stopped typing up my notes. Then came the painful process of slicing and tweaking away inches of my precious story. It was basically the same as slicing and tweaking away pieces of myself, because I feel about my stories about the same way I imagine I would feel about a child.

So what did I learn? Well I certainly didn’t regret having all the information I could ever want. It was definitely an exercise in putting every interview in perspective and learning how to prioritize information based on how it tells the story. Also, letting other people read the “work in progress” is quite helpful, because you get a different viewpoint on what is really a necessary addition.