A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Q&A: Michael Iachetta

By Quill

Q: On June 21, 1982, you clinically died while rafting the rapids in Alaska. Can you take us through that story?

A: At approximately 1:30 in the afternoon, we were hit by an uprooted, 100-foot cottonwood tree while we were hurtling down Whiting River about 26 miles southeast of Juneau, Alaska.

Wilderness guides helped get me to shore, and they applied a tourniquet to my leg as I asked the five Ws and the “how” for what would be either my last letter to my family, my final adventure travel story or a diary that would enable me to write about the accident extensively later.

I never lost consciousness, knowing if I went under I might never wake up again. I was airlifted by seaplane to Bartlett Memorial Hospital in Juneau, underwent nearly nine hours of life-saving, leg-saving surgery when my heart stopped on the operating table. I died, in the clinical sense, and had to have my heart restarted.

In layman’s terms, the tree bounced my left knee down to my ankle, and rebounded it up again, severing my arteries along the way, paralyzing my peroneal nerve (the leg’s lifting mechanism), leaving a hole where the front of my leg used to be, destroying cartilage, ligaments, anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments and more. I underwent several operations in Juneau from June 21 to July 3, then was shot full of morphine and airlifted back to New York City, arriving in time for fireworks on July 4.

Doctors said I would never walk again, never be out of braces and would always need crutches or a cane. I underwent outpatient physical therapy three times a week, and by Dec. 24, miracolo, was walking, never without pain, but walking nonetheless, albeit with a slight limp and braces.

My recovery mantra was: “Someday I am going to climb Machu Picchu and walk into Petra.”

I took early retirement in 1993 to concentrate on my own writing while working on my ongoing recovery. I have been traveling ever since as a freelancer who has, indeed, climbed Machu Picchu and, most recently, walked into Petra, the ancient lost city in Jordan carved into a mountainside.

Q: At want point in your life did you know you wanted to brave rushing waters and climb mountains?

A: From as long as I can remember, I read the Hemingways and wanted to go to the faraways. I began writing for my junior high school newspaper. I came out of Little Italy in the Bronx and got drunk on the wine dark seas while studying the classics at Fordham Preparatory School. In high school, my closest friend wanted to be a newspaper writer for The New York Daily News. He died of Hodgkin’s disease in our junior year at Fordham Prep. I sublimated my life to living his, running his distances on the track team, taking his same subjects, writing for the school paper (The Rampart) as he did, even dating the same girl, and ultimately winning the John Scanlan Memorial Award (given in his honor) as Fordham’s outstanding scholar/athlete upon graduation in 1954 en route to winning a track scholarship to Fordham University.

Q: How did you get your start in writing?

A: As a freshman runner at Fordham, I trained with junior Tom Courtney, who became Olympic 800-meter champion that year. Courtney showed me world-class runners could shift into an extra gear that I simply didn’t have.

But what really changed my life in college was seeing that no one knew what they were talking about in writing track for the college newspaper, The Fordham Ram. So I began covering track as a freshman sports reporter, graduated into becoming Ram co-sports editor, and, most importantly, became campus sports correspondent for 12 area newspapers. That meant filing under deadline pressure after, say, a Fordham basketball game for The New York Times, The Herald Tribune, The World Telegram, The Journal American, The New York Daily News, The New York Daily Mirror, The New York Post, The Long Island Press, The Long Island Star Journal, The Brooklyn Eagle, The Associated Press and United Press International.

Q: You once ran the re-creation of the original marathon. Why?

A: Because it was there, because running in Europe was a childhood dream (the “Flying Finn,” Paavo Nurmi, was one of my role models as one of the greatest distance runners of all time), because we were planning a series of stories on the upcoming New York Marathon at The New York Daily News, and I suggested during a story conference: Why not let me run the re-creation of the original marathon? So I trained for Greece by running through New York’s five boroughs on extended training runs during long lunch hours. And I ran my first marathon, from Marathon to Athens, in 3 hours, 45 minutes, in Oct.,1981.

Q: What advice would you give to people interested in adventure journalism?

A: In the words of Winston Churchill, never, never, never give up – not on yourself, on your story, on your dream. My favorite case in point: Early on, I had an editor who told me I couldn’t write and should find a career in something else. I was then doing some of the first profiles on the Bob Dylans, Barbra Streisands and Edward Albees, people she couldn’t understand. So when I had an advance story on The Beatles and their first upcoming appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, I proposed a feature on them to her. She wrote me back: “No, maybe if we ignore them they will go away.” I took the story and photos I had to our news desk, and they ran it on the front page in a copyrighted story with art.

Q: What is your biggest career regret?

A: That because of Alaska, I will never run again, or be athletic again. But, conversely, because of Alaska I write with a depth of pain, simpatico, understanding and experience that would never have been possible without that horrific hurt – and that may yet enable me to finish the novel I set out to write in my idealistic youth. I am working on it right now, in between travels.

Q: What has been your proudest journalistic moment?

A: This one. And the next one. And being grateful for my next breath, because I never know what is coming into my life next as a globe-trotting journalist. But my first front-page story will always be special. I was a cub reporter working nights as an usher at the Metropolitan Opera House when tenor Leonard Warren died on stage. In my usher’s uniform, I went backstage, got the details, interviewed then haughty Met impresario Rudolf Bing and dictated the story to The New York Daily News, beating The New York Times and Herald Tribune in the process, along with the wire services.