June 16, 2013 by genelup
I’ll never forget my first night on the police beat. I’ll admit it, I was really scared. The next day the city editor chewed me out too. I had missed a double fatality.
A few days after graduating from high school in 1956, I joined the staff at The Arizona Republic as a copy boy. My job was to make coffee, sharpen pencils, slice up wire service copy, deliver the first edition (bulldog) to the managing editor’s home and even go down the street and buy a racing form for an editor. I did that for two years, then the city editor made me a cub reporter, covering the night police beat two days a week and writing religion stories the other days.
That first night on the police beat none of the law enforcement officers believed I was a police reporter. They wouldn’t let me look at the booking slips and police reports. They wouldn’t tell me if anything newsworthy was happening in the city.
I did manage to come up with a couple of incidental stories that night with which I hoped to impress the city editor. At 1:30 a.m. I went home.
The next day the city editor pushed a copy of The Phoenix Gazette under my nose. I read the banner headline. A double fatality had taken place in the city the night before at 11 p.m. I gave the editor some excuse why I missed the story and then cussed out the Gazette reporter under my breath. I had seen the Gazette reporter early that morning just before my quitting time. He hadn’t mentioned a word about the deaths. But why would he? I wouldn’t have told him if I had gotten the story. That was the first thing I learned on the police beat. I had competition and I had to do my best to scoop the opposition.
I also learned real fast that police reporting lets a person see life in its raw form. You have to be a con man — making friends and have a lot of contacts. A sheriff captain killed a mountain lion and I took his picture with the lion and put it in the newspaper. He was my friend for life and gave me plenty of news tips from then on. Every night on the beat I made the rounds of the emergency rooms at the city hospitals. I made friends with a lot of the nurses. Sometimes it cost me a couple cups of coffee.
Once I gave a nurse at Memorial Hospital a hot lead on a story and I suggested she call a local radio station and give the tip to the news editor. (I never considered radio the competition. Most of their news was re-written from The Republic anyway.) The station used her hot tip and sent her $5 for turning in the best news tip of the day. Ever since, that nurse gave me good stories she ran across in the hospital.
Many times victims of traffic accidents were wheeled into the hospitals. Sometimes I forced myself to look at the mangled blood-soaked bodies. I always got a chill when the doctor shook his head and pulled the sheet over the victim’s head. The next day the paper would relate that the state’s traffic death toll just rose one more notch. I wished I could have shown the public the mangled body so they could have seen what I saw.
One night the office heard that a man had drowned in one of the lakes near Phoenix. They only knew the victim’s name and address. I looked in the city directory and called the house across the street from the victim. I wanted to know where he worked, his wife’s name, and how many kids he had.
When a lady answered the phone, I asked her if she knew the man who lived across the street from her.
“Oh yea,” she replied, “he’s my son-in-law. He went fishing today.”
I asked her where he works.
“Just a minute,” she said. “I’ll let you talk to his wife.”
While I waited, I heard over the phone a couple of kids playing in the background.
The wife answered the phone cheerfully and I quickly got my information and hung up before she had a chance to ask me why I asked her all the questions about her husband.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her husband was dead. A sheriff’s deputy would do that later.
Another time after midnight I learned of a traffic fatality. The bloody body was lying on a marble slab at Memorial Hospital. The head nurse said I had to wait for the detective to give me the details, his name, age, etc. I called the night editor and said I didn’t have the guy’s name, I had to wait for the police to arrive at the hospital.
“You have 10 minutes to get the story,” he barked back at me.
I walked into the room where the dead body was; I looked around and the head nurse was out of sight. I slid my right hand under the corpse trying to feel for the wallet. It wasn’t there. I pulled out my hand, dripping with blood. I then reach under the corpse again for the other back pocket and that time I pulled out a bloody hand with the man’s wallet.
I raced to the hospital phone and read to the rewrite man the information from the dead man’s driver’s license. We got the story — the identification. With a grin, I turned around — the head nurse and a detective were behind me. They scolded me. I sorta apologized and said I would never do it again and then I went home.
I didn’t have to worry the next day the city editor would push a copy of the Gazette under my nose. I got the story first.