An Elegy for a Friendship Harsh reality: A call in the night tells a reporter that two close friends and one of their children have died in a highway accident, and he must struggle to come to terms with death when it's more than a word in a news item.

January 14, 1996|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

The bad news came, as it always seems to, in the middle of the night.

My wife answered the phone. Shadows cast by the headlights of a passing car rippled through the blinds. "Oh, no," she muttered, still groggy. "Oh, my God. No."

She hung up. "Jeff and Ann are dead," she said. She made it sound as though dead were the most improbable thing anyone could ever be.

"What?"

"And Siena. There was a car accident."

I got up and wandered downstairs. Memories of the Fairbanks family darted through the dark rooms. Everything felt numb, muffled, as if the world had been shot full of novocaine. I sat down on the couch.

That's terrible, I thought. Now go back to sleep!

But I couldn't.

Death is something newspaper reporters deal with routinely. We're like funeral directors. People succumb to cancer. They commit suicide. They're stabbed or shot. They fall in the bathtub.

Lives are obliterated. But they're other people's lives. To a reporter, it's a couple of phone interviews. A few hours' worth of work. A moment's reflection on what fragile, precious objects people really are. A pang of sympathy for their family, for their friends.

Maybe you get inoculated against death, I sometimes thought. Immune to grief.

Except that Jeff, the managing editor of the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune, was a dedicated friend: kind, generous with praise, supportive when you were struggling, never jealous of your success.

Except that Ann, the Telegram-Tribune's senior reporter, was brilliant and compassionate: someone who never held it against you that you weren't nearly as smart as she was.

Except that Siena, just 12 years old, was a quiet, determined child, who held her own in a family full of strong women.

Except that this time, I knew these people. This time, it was my friends whose lives were being distilled into a few pithy paragraphs on the obituary pages. This time, I loved those people disappearing down that dark and bottomless whirlpool.

I lay there all night. Dry-eyed.

*

The accident happened on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I heard about it at 2 a.m. Monday from a friend, Tim Ryan, entertainment writer for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

On Wednesday afternoon, I flew to San Luis Obispo. It was very late. The tiny rural airport was deserted. A van from my motel picked me up; the driver, it turned out, was a neighbor of the Fairbanks family.

I flopped onto the motel bed. Even after the eight-hour trip, I was restless. I kept remembering the connections that had bound us. Grabbing for them. Finding all of them snapped.

My wife, Jane, and I first moved to California from New Jersey in July of 1980. The Telegram-Tribune offered me a job covering a string of communities along San Luis Obispo County's north coast, from the tiny village of San Simeon near Hearst's Castle to the picture-perfect tourist town of Morro Bay. It is gorgeous country.

The city of San Luis Obispo, where we lived, looked as if had been placed in suspended animation back in 1945. It had escaped the explosive growth of the rest of the state. There was no mall, and downtown thrived. Stucco bungalows and spindly Victorian homes sat amid oaks and pepper trees. Cattle ranches and mountain slopes lay just beyond the city limits.

All this was dull stuff for a young reporter. I was near the beginning of my career and burned to be elsewhere: someplace big, bad and urban. Someplace, I told myself, where I could make a difference.

Back in 1980, Jeff was news editor at the Telegram-Tribune, then an evening paper. Ann covered county government. Her desk was just in front of mine. She filled me in on the county gossip and office politics.

We wrote on manual typewriters, then cut and pasted our copy together with big scissors and glue pots. Jeff would come in to work early. He'd stick a pencil behind his ear, pick up a long metal ruler and proceed to read and rip the stuff chattering over the old-fashioned wire machine. As deadlines for local stories approached late in the morning, he'd look up and inquire, leisurely: "How's it coming?"

At first, I shook my head. In my experience, editors cursed or growled or sweated.

Much in common

Gradually, though, I got used to this mild-mannered editor. As it turned out, we had a lot in common. Both of us were California natives from blue-collar families. Both of us were a little shy and awkward. Both of us loved newspapers, and the eccentric people who worked for them.

And both of us had wives who were seven months pregnant. My daughter, Alison, and his first daughter, Courtney, were both born that September, within a week of each other, at San Luis Obispo General Hospital.

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