I flat-out refused.
Stood my ground in a room full of policemen egging me on. My suit a holdover from the end of my college years. The dark blue find from Filene’s Basement confining my arms as I juggled my notebook and jostled the NBC flag on the microphone.
“The other reporters have done it,” one of the officers said.
My photog took a step back, ducking his chin. Half-smiling, half a little afraid for me. Full of deference to the rank of uniformed men surrounding us in the small room. I pulled at my collar. Scanned the faces in front of me, left to right, my eyes like a cornered cat looking for a way out.
1999. The dreaded Y2K about to descend upon the world. I’d done other stories that week. People stocking up on meat grinders, batteries, hand-crank radios. The world at one as threats of bank failures and stock market crashes sat like a storm cloud above our heads.
The previous night, in the dark lot behind the studio I’d knelt on the ground with a lantern in my hand and a photog in front of me. Trails of cables running from the back of his camera into the blackness where I knew the live truck to be. Connected to receivers and transmitters propped on milk crates.
A lighter felt cold in my hand.
“Try it again,” the photog said.
I shifted the lantern on my knee and struck my thumb down the side of the lighter. Nothing. Saw my photog’s head snap back as laughter roared into his earpiece. The producer in the control room full of amusement at the fact I couldn’t strike a lighter to life with a live shot waiting two minutes away.
“Leave her alone,” he said back. “She doesn’t smoke.”
And I felt ten years old staring into the glass lens of the camera, knowing everyone in the control room was staring back.
The photog put his camera down and ran over.
“C’mon, Melissa.” He put his hand on mine and tried to show me how to get a flame going. Memories of girl scout camp and birthday parties flooded my brain. Of course I could light a lighter. But the more I tried in that dark, cold night the more I felt the clock counting down to the live shot, now just a minute away. My hand froze and my thumb began to burn from the tiny metal gear.
Back behind the camera, the photog yelled at me to hold up the cover of my notebook. “Morse. I need a white.”
I dropped the lighter and flipped my notebook closed, scanning my lines before I did so. Held the slender white piece of cardboard up to the camera so he could focus in on it and reset the white balance. Only away from his camera for a moment, the night as dark as it was before he stepped over to me, he still wanted to be sure nothing had changed.
I saw him rack the focus back out. All set. Gave him a look like, here goes.
“Ten seconds,” he called.
The door to the station burst open. The camera’s light blinding my eyes, I couldn’t see through it to the shadows. Next thing I know a guy who manned the cameras in the studio shoved a new lighter in my hand. Took the old one away. Gave me a huge smile. It felt like a door to heaven.
“That lighter’s junk. I can’t even light it. Use mine.”
And as the photog’s hand shot out under the camera, fingers splayed for the five-second countdown, I looked down at my own hand and saw a lighter twice the size of the one I’d held. No time to test it out, but I knew I would light that thing if I had to break my thumb off doing so.
The man raced back into the building just as my photog’s last finger bent in from the five seconds he’d counted down and pointed at me.
I thought of that moment, back in the room full of police. How I’d been saved from embarrassment. Only here, I knew no one was going to burst through the door again, to help me.
“It’s just a Taser,” one patrolman said. Grinning ear to ear. “You don’t want to get on our bad side, do you?”
I looked at the menacing, pronged device. The whole room wanted to see me shocked. For my live shot, they said. It’d make great TV. I didn’t want to look weak, like a girl who can’t light a lighter or something, but no way, no how was I going to get shocked for television. This surprised the men. Disappointed them, more. They thought for sure I’d accept. So desperate to get ahead.
For the past half-hour I’d listened to the salesman, trying to sell the department this updated “non-lethal weapon.” Its effects rang acutely in my mind. Especially the part about possible loss of bladder control.
Not knowing what to say, I had faith I’d get through this somehow. Tiny drops of faith, but they began to pool.
I looked around at the men. So expectant. So eager.
I asked them, “Have you done it?”
Their faces changed. And with that one line I knew I had them. Deflated their machismo. Saw the ring of them shrink, ever so slightly. Felt the room open up and my chest relax. Relieved. But I also felt surprised. Like I’d won the fight early. I figured they would say “Yes, we’ve all been Tasered,” as part of their training. Thought my back-and-forth would continue, as I fought for other ways around the dare.
Once it came out they were too afraid — I jumped off the hook.
And in the coming days and months I ran full-speed ahead to the next story. The next shoot-out. The next wide-spread panic of Y2K. These little victories carried me on. Just like the small, burning flame I held in my hand behind the station, in the dark, live on the air.