Friday, April 25, 2008

The old beat...

Switching markets is as common as getting a new suit in the field I work in. Quite frankly, that's one of my least favorite parts of being a journalist, and I think most reporters would agree. But if one ever wants to make enough to support a family, they're faced with the options of marrying someone with money, turning to the dark side and working for public relations or getting bumped up the market ladder several times. I would be perfectly content to work in Madison for the rest of my life, but by then, inflation will likely have outpaced my annual raises by so much, I'll be a ward of the state. We'll see, I guess.

But it's not all about money. Before I worked in Madison, I was a newspaper reporter for the Portage Daily Register for two years. I was lucky enough to slide into a broadcast job that overlapped this market, so I still still have a number of good connections -- good friends -- in the area.

The thing is, the longer you stay in a market, the higher the likelihood that the person trapped in that burning car, pinned under the flattened house or mauled by a ravenous pack of rabid racoons is going to be someone you know and care about.

In today's case, it was almost the house scenario, and it was a close call. Columbia County Sheriff's Deputy Scott Oelke was always among my favorites to encounter when responding to a call. He's middle-aged, unapologetically a country boy at heart, and he's got a contagious grin that I'd wager has helped hundreds of accident victims pull through a difficult situation.

Scott tells me he was hanging around, monitoring the radio calls about this evening's tornado warnings, when he heard a rumbling to the south of his home, which is south of Wyocena. He jogged out into his backyard just in time to watch a tornado drop from the clouds at the edge of his treeline. He only had seconds to act, but he grabbed his two boys and their friend, who were rocking the game cube at the time, and pelted down to the basement, where he used his body to shield to the two youngest boys. His son told me that.

Fortunately, it was a heroic, but moot, gesture. The tornado levelled two barns within thirty feet of his house, but did nothing more than blow the windows out of the dwelling itself. And in the midst of all this, lightning struck the house and started a small fire that smoldered out within a few if the tornado wasn't enough. Scott and the boys were unharmed, though his squad car was flattened by the barn as it blew apart.

When I talked to him, he was all grins. "I've been after the sheriff to get me a new car," he laughed. "That one had 125,000 miles on it."

And I enjoyed seeing him, as I enjoyed bumping into Chief Deputy Mike Babcock, Sheriff Dennis Richards and Daily Register reporters Matt Call and Shannon Green on the scene. It was a stunted homecoming to a place I only ever commuted to, but came to think of as a home anyway. But it was also a sobering reminder that the people in the headlines I read every day have friends and loved ones, too.

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