What Keeps Me Writing (The Beach, and a Book)

I once dreamed of being a war journalist, a guy who dodged bombs in Beirut, barely avoiding capture. Or I could have been a Washington D.C. guy, shouting questions over the tired press corps, showing them how much better -- or louder -- I was than the rest of them.
02/24/2012 06:47 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2012

I once dreamed of being a war journalist, a guy who dodged bombs in Beirut, barely avoiding capture. Or I could have been a Washington D.C. guy, shouting questions over the tired press corps, showing them how much better -- or louder -- I was than the rest of them.

I got a taste of all that, traveling with an Air Force unit during the Afghanistan war in 2001, and earlier, being among the first to reveal the twisted, molten remains of the World Trade Center that were temporarily stored at a Staten Island landfill, just a month after 9-11.

In the end, however, what really mattered to me was what was here, just a half-hour from my house, just a half-hour north from where I was born.

I see Long Branch, and I remember why I came home. I remember why I came back to the Jersey Shore, wanting to work here one more time.

Here is also where I became a journalist, or finally grew into one. It happened on those white sands that stretch for miles, the finest earth in Jersey, a beach so comfortable that you never need a blanket. It happened near the sand cliff that juts over a beach once called "freeloaders," simply because it was free, where the surfers once caught waves every time they ran out there.

On those same sands, I once felt danger, even while doing my job. In an instance that happened so quickly, some 24 years ago, I was once told I'd be "hurt" if I printed something that could make this person look bad, even if the stuff I had was little more than his name.

It was so long ago, that it seems almost like a dream, and not even a recurring one. But every once in a while, I get reminders.

I remember how threatened I felt, worse than I did when I was mugged in Philadelphia in 1990, or when I reported on a murder in Delaware in 1991, and found myself interviewing the suspect before the cops even arrived.

But these reminders also remind me why I do this -- why, perhaps, somebody threatened me as they felt threatened. I remember why I feel the passion I feel for this job, the only job I ever really knew, other than working actually on the beach.

I've come to realize how words have so much power, and that everything I write -- whether it's in a newspaper, on the Internet or for broadcast -- can change things and morph a peaceful, comfortable place into a haunting reminder.

I've learned how even the smallest stories, the shortest interviews and the fewest words can stand so large.

I saw it this past week, when two foreign journalists were killed by Syrian government troops shelling the southern areas of the country. They were killed when several rockets hit the garden of a house used by activists and journalists, reports say.

This happened just as I was reading a book that brought Long Branch all back to me. This book spoke to the very same threat I once felt -- only with much worse consequences -- and I'm reminded again that what we write, in whatever form, still matters.

As I read it, I'm also reminded how there is still passion in this field, however buried, and however threatened it is economically.

A friend of mine for 20 years, Thomas Peele, probably the best writer I've ever personally known, wrote Killing The Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash and the Assassination of a Journalist.

Tom is not a new voice to me, but he is to millions of others, and a refreshingly brave one in a field whose credibility, safety and economics remain under siege.

He is the kind of writer who can convert the passion of newswriting into an art form, even if it's a subject -- the assassination of a journalist, and the events that led up to it -- that's never pretty nor polished.

Indeed, he managed to take a complex subject -- the rise of a family in Oakland, Calif. that worshiped the Nation of Islam, and then conspired to assassinate a journalist to protect themselves -- and make it simple, dramatic and unique.

We learn how, in this job, what we do and what we write about can merge violently, as they did when Chauncey Bailey, a journalist himself, was gunned down as he pursued a story about the Oakland family and its connection to a movement.

We feel inspired by the fact that -- despite the fact that the journalism profession is threatened more often than people realize by this violence -- journalists like Tom, just as Chauncey Bailey and those journalists in Syria once did, still go to work every day, pursuing the truth, no matter what the risk.

That's what Tom did, doggedly picking up and finishing the story that Bailey wanted to write about the family that exhibited a remarkable amount of power in Oakland, Calif. while carrying the banner of the Nation of Islam.

Woven between the points of history that depict the lingering violence in one of America's major cities are the personal stories of the Bey family, Chauncey Bailey and of Thomas Peele himself, who eloquently describes how he harnessed what was a news tip into a story, then a series of stories, then a project and ultimately, a book.

I've only told my story to a few people, probably because I've felt ashamed that I never put it to words, way back when it happened.

When I was 22, I had the passion, and I had the words, but I didn't yet have the courage that Tom had when he explored the circumstances of Bailey's murder. I didn't feel the impact of my words as, I suspect, the two dead journalists did when they covered the war in Syria.

It happened in 1988, when I was asking people on the Long Branch beach about the summer season, and if they had hopes for a good year. It was a year after a fire destroyed the Long Branch Pier at Ocean Avenue, a fire that we could see miles away.

I talked to a guy who was maybe seven years older than I was. He told me not to print his name. I was interviewing him as he stood the beach, and his polished shoes were dug into the sands.

He was not affiliated with any school system or government. He was just a guy who seemed to be out for a walk, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans on a pleasant, but breezy 70-degree day. He stood stoically, with his arms folded, as I talked to him about the summer season.

The topic was very light, but the man still felt it was too much. He didn't want to say anything bad about business, he said. He said he was somebody who knew people, a guy who had "connections." He was a guy who'd make sure "I'd get hurt" if I didn't print what he wanted me to print.

I was interning for The Asbury Park Press; I went back to the newsroom to tell people about it. I told them what he said, told them how the guy also threatened to sue me, on top of everything else.

"That was probably the most dangerous thing he said!" they told me through laughs.

At first I was annoyed, and perhaps that's why I was ashamed. How could people laugh at this, I thought? Even my father seemed worried, and felt exasperated that, just a year into this profession, I could get something thrown at me that even a veteran would struggle to handle.

But now I know why they were laughing. They probably had it happen to them, too. Maybe they were just waiting for me to show the passion, and the courage, to keep going.

Twenty-four years later, I am.

This post first appeared on Patch.

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