1999

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.

Live.

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.

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43 thoughts on “1999

    1. Thanks! I’m not sure what compelled me to write about this — just this time of year, I guess. It was fall, back in 1999 as we got ready for the turn over to Y2K. Just like it’s fall now. I have a lot more “flashy” stories about my reporter days, but this one about the lighter was what popped into my head. Funny how small things like that stay with you.

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          1. Ok, then, i agree that it had everything to do with tasering. They gave you a bad lighter to begin with but i like how you chose not to let that ruin what you were doing. Keep up the awesome work!

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    1. Thanks, El! 🙂 There’s something about being under constant pressure that’s been on my mind lately. Deadlines. In a different way, at this point in my life, but I’m sure most people can relate!

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  1. Good for you for standing your ground! I can’t believe they thought you should be tasered just for good tv, especially when they hadn’t subjected themselves to it. And gosh I loved the tension around the lighter – whoosh!

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    1. Well, as you can imagine, it takes a lot for police to respect a reporter! They needed us, of course, to spread the word for certain things and crimes, and it was basically a hazing ritual, I guess. Still, I did develop a great rapport with them in the end, but I always knew to watch my back!

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  2. Wow, I felt tense just reading this. I’m not sure I would have been able to stand my ground the way you did (well, I probably would have after finding out none of them had done it, but I don’t think it would have occurred to me to ask).

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    1. The way you put it sounds so nice, but I really felt like I was flying blind. 🙂 I do ask a lot of questions, though, and this time it paid off. Plus, my complete and absolute determination NOT to be tasered helped!

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  3. What a brave young woman you are and what a wonderful writer. You had me hooked from the first line and sitting on the edge of my chair! I’m so glad you stood up to the crew who wanted to taser you, and that you got that lighter lit! And that you went on and on to more adventures – none quite so important as your Mommy journey now of course, but what stories you can tell!

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    1. You and me both, Dor, are glad I got that lighter lit! 🙂 And I completely agree with you that none of these crazy adventures is as important as my Mommy journey (nice way to put it). And yes, I’ve got a lot more stories I can tell, as you said. Ones my husband reminds me of quite frequently, such as the time I went into a burning building. He wasn’t too happy about that! It was with a pack of firefighters, but still.

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  4. Oh my word Melissa I felt myself holding my breath as I waited with you and everyone in the control room as you tried to light that damn lighter because I’ve also tried to use those little lighters and haven’t been able to get a flame. I love that camera operator who raced outside with his lighter.
    Good gracious they really wanted you to get tasered and on live TV just for the ratings?

    Lovely story Melissa.

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    1. Hi Rosie, yes, they really wanted me to get tasered. Not for the ratings, I’m sure they could care less about ratings. But they probably figured I sure cared. As I mentioned to a previous commenter, I guess it was more of a hazing ritual. See what they could get me to do. At the time it was all happening so fast and I kept waiting for it to just peter out. I thought there was no way they were serious. But they were! Like you said, good gracious.

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  5. I had to come back to read this again. Funny how some experiences come back so vividly. This is some good writing recreating this experience where you did stand your ground and with quick wit you asked the question begging to be asked but just might not have been. You certainly passed the test disarming them and thinking on your feet.

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    1. Thanks, Georgette. Yes, this is just one of the many stories burned into my mind with absolute clarity. That part of my life was so brutal, so intense and so challenging. I actually wrote my first book about this sort of thing. Fiction, based on my experiences. It’s not published, but it’s the first novel I wrote start-to-finish. I have no plans to publish that one, but it’s nice to recount some of the real-life stories I remember and see what you feel when they bounce off the cyber-barrier. I appreciate the positive feedback.

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  6. Forget the lighter, Melissa, your writing alone lights up our world as we read about your thrilling adventures, so beautifully written and described with such magnificence! 🙂

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    1. Oh Priya, you are too sweet. Your comment makes me smile (and blush). Thank you! I’m pretty intense by nature — don’t want to miss things, I guess. My birthday is on the cusp between two different star signs. One quiet and gentle and one bold and bright. I’ve often felt torn between the two, but they both lend to intensity. It’s my fate. 🙂

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  7. Great story Melissa! And good for you for having the wisdom to ask if any of the other harassers had been tased before. That was brilliant on-your-feet thinking, and a great way to get out of a jam. And nicely written too! Keep me on the edge of my seat!

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    1. Thanks, Carolyn. 🙂 But I can take no credit for the “brilliant” on-my-feet thinking. That was just luck. Just me searching for a way out, really. I’m surprised you found time to read this!

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  8. Melissa, you kept me hooked right to the end of this post. You are an amazing storyteller. I just loved the way you create the whole scene with your words. I also liked the way you end the post. These small victories actually help us to step toward doing something big. Great post once again Melissa. 🙂

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  9. I love this story. Maybe it’s hard for young men, but there’s truly a challenge for young women to compete, especially in a man’s venue. And you’ve nailed the truth up for all of us, regardless of age to keep as our mantra: Each victory (and even each defeat) carries us to the next piece of life. Thanks for the telling.

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    1. Thank you! Such a thoughtful comment. And you are right — it’s hard to work as a woman even today. Even as far as we’ve all come. That situation in particular was one where I was the only woman in a room full of men. All the cops, and even my photog. So yes, lots of pressure! But I do think in reporting that women have come a long way. There are now, for the first time in my life, women anchoring the nightly news. I just watched a great movie, “Big Miracle.” Based on the true story about the reporter who broke the story about three whales trapped in the ice off Alaska’s north coast in the late 1980s. They had some actual footage from back in the day, and of course the “big three” were there — Brokaw, Jennings and Rather. Now there are women in some of those roles, either temporarily or full-time. And that is good. But network news is not today what it was for generations. It’s not the only portal into people’s homes. With the advent of the 24-hour news stations, I believe there will never be a triumvirate again like we saw with those three men.

      Okay, I’m babbling! Either way, yes, the real story in this story was the small victories, as you mentioned. And no matter where you are or what you do, those “little drops” are the things I believe will pool, and will carry you through. Thanks for your thought-provoking comment!

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  10. Tiny drops of faith, beginning to pool. It takes a lot of patience and courage to wait for the pool to come together. Those seconds (or even milliseconds) can feel like hours. Great story.

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  11. I read this a month ago when it arrived in my email, then forgot to comment. But now I got to read it again, and it’s even better the second time. This post proves — as you’ve done many times before — that a good story doesn’t have to have people falling out of helicopters or being attacked by zombies. It just needs some conflict, a sharp eye for detail, and a skilled writer.

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