When you’re a reporter, there comes a time in your career when you have to knock on a stranger’s door. The questions you ask and the answers you receive will linger long after the “news” is over.
The news of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., will have largely faded by the time this column appears. But not for the reporters who covered it. Even now, nearly 30 years after the incident, I still remember the day searchers found the bodies of missing climbers — 10 of them high school students — who had been lost on Mount Hood, failing to return from a one-day spring hike to the summit.
As a police reporter on a slow day, I made the drive from Portland to Timberline Lodge to file what I thought would be a short story. When I arrived, I knew it would not end well. A terrible storm had hit the mountain. Although the four-day search eventually became a national story, for a time I was the only reporter there.
I became close with some parents who’d come to the mountain to wait for what they hoped would be good news. One of those parents was sitting in my car while I monitored the search via a police radio. I’ll never forget the sound of the father screaming when we both heard a report that searchers had found a snow cave, but that most of the students were dead. All of us — reporters, parents and searchers — were stuck in this bubble of waiting, just the way those in Newtown found themselves.
I reported, asking questions, pushing for interviews to get the kind of details that add power to a story: The eight climbers huddled inside the snow cave were so cold that intravenous lines could not pierce their frozen skin. And then, as will happen to the reporters who covered the Newtown shooting, I moved on.
Later that summer, though, while in a shopping center parking lot, I ran into the father who had been with me on the mountain. I was holding my baby daughter. I felt embarrassed and awkward while cradling this living reminder of what he had lost.
A decade later, when I wrote about the anniversary of the tragedy on the mountain, I framed the encounter this way:
I made small talk and tried to ease away. But the father clutched my shoulder.
“Cherish her,” he said quietly.
I thought it was over then — until this anniversary, when I again travel this highway, a journalist in search of a sequel. Now that I’m at the base of the mountain, I’m a father who wonders whether he understood what happened on that mountain, to those who survived, to those who died, to those left behind.
I re-read that story recently — a story that has an unusual structure in that the story unfolds like the search itself — thinking about what I would advise young reporters who one day will be knocking on that door. I thought about making a list, but I decided it would be more useful to run an excerpt from that anniversary story because it allows journalists to see what it’s like to deal with real-life grief.
The woman at the front desk would be about his daughter’s age. Another one of those reminders. He strides into the reception area, dispenses a handshake and leads the way to his office.
“The Oregonian made this dreadfully difficult 10 years ago,” Don McClave says. “Pursuing information about the insurance settlement; harassing families about the investigation. Ghoulish behavior.”
He shifts in his chair. He moves as if his shirt is too tight or the chair too small. He braids his hands behind his head, tucks them between his knees. Anger and disgust seep out of him. He hasn’t been asked about the climb for eight years. But if there is to be a story, he wants his say.
He waits for the questions.
He gives terse answers.
He bristles against a long silence.
Then he fills the gap.
“Losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a parent,” he says. “All of us were beset by the media, by movie companies, by television producers, by insensitive and self-serving groups trying to capitalize on the incident.”
He is proud that none of the families sold its story.
“We didn’t hurt each other,” he says.
He and his wife didn’t know most of the other families. The climb was for sophomores. His daughter, Susan, was a senior. She had made the climb as a sophomore and went along to help.
Her father softens.
“It never goes away,” he says. “You learn to live with it with the help of the church, professional help, friends. But we deal with it every day of our lives. We always will.”
We face each other across a gulf miles wide, each in our roles. Me the inquisitor. He the guardian of the past.
He snaps to attention.
“My son is grown and married,” he announces. “My wife and I are here. Other than that, I’m not going to talk about our lives. Anyone interested in reliving the accident can read the papers from 10 years ago. It was awful then. It is awful now.”
Two years ago, while writing my latest book, “A Stranger’s Gift: True Stories of Faith in Unexpected Places,” I tracked down a mother I’d met in a neo-natal unit. She and her husband had given me permission to be there the night their baby died. That moment made for a powerful scene in my newspaper series. But when I sat across the table from her in her home years after that night, she reminded me of a truth about our business: I only visited her world.
And then I got to go home. Remember that.