These pieces are not fun to put together. When finally assembled, the picture of Texas looks more than a little unsettling. In fact, it often looks pretty damned backwards. The reverse gear […]
The radio station was an unremarkable brick building encircled by palm and fruit trees. My intention was to use the airwaves of a local broadcaster to launch a journalism career after spending too much time as a disc jockey. A vision of myself reporting from the Khyber Pass was not hard to conjure even as I delivered stories on the air of giant bird attacks and drunks driving into irrigation canals. These were the reports I daily read into the microphone located down at the bottom of America.
The news part was more of a privilege than a job, though. Management really just needed a technician to flip on the transmitter and make the tape player properly function and constantly monitor the carousels. Nobody at the station cared too much about news unless there were advertising dollars to be generated by information from the police blotters or the positive nonsense offered by the chamber of commerce.
“We’ve got a congressman and a mayor, and they run things down here,” Charlie, the station manager said. “But I don’t want any politics on my air. Ribbon cuttings, only. Then get some car crashes, stabbings, robberies, drug arrests, that kind of thing from the cops and I’ll let you do the news.”
We were just married and down from Michigan to the tropics. The radio station owner rented us a portable building for housing and we lived in that just below the transmitter tower. The carpeting was the kind of cheap green fake turf that is used on miniature golf courses and we tried not to laugh every time we walked through the front door. Banana palms grew tall enough near the windows to obscure most of the sunlight and I paid one week’s salary for each month’s rent.
The decision to run for the border was made in the midst of a Midwestern blizzard. I had read in the back of a trade publication that there was an opening at the AM station in far South Texas and I had sent the address a cassette tape of myself reading the news, which had been recorded at my brother-in-law’s kitchen table. Charlie had called the farmhouse up in Michigan where my in-laws lived and had reached my new bride.
“He said he has a cottage in an orange grove that we can rent for cheap and you can start as soon as we get there,” she said. “He said he was going hunting but we could just call and leave him a message to let him know if you wanted the job. Oh, and the temperature was 78 degrees down there today.”
My judgment was impaired because I was in a phone booth outside of a truck stop on I-94 not far from Chicago and snow was almost up to my knees. I had been caught out by a blizzard on a return trip from a job interview at a radio station in Peoria. Although I barely heard the little red-haired girl’s words, I caught the phrases “orange grove” and “78 degrees” and there was nothing else to consider.
“Just call him back and tell him we’ll be there as soon as we can, or leave that message.” I had to almost yell to be heard above the wind. The snow outside was flying horizontally and I realized I was certain to be sleeping that night in a booth at the truck stop coffee shop.
A few days later we loaded our 1968 Opal Kadett station wagon with wedding presents and began driving southward toward Texas. I had always loved reading cowboy stories in school and when my father was not crazed with anger and instability he laid on the couch and watched old black and white westerns with Randolph Scott ridin’ the range alone.
“Looky there, buddy boy,” he used to say. “They got them table top mesas out near Las Vegas. I’m gonna go out there someday and see me one a them.”
My love of the west may not have come from daddy but I have never been interested in anything east of the Mississippi River. The first trip I took through Texas on a motorcycle a few years before graduating from college had convinced my teenaged brain that I was destined to live in the state. This notion surely had a narcotic effect on my sensibilities because I had accepted a job 1500 miles from home without even speaking in advance to my future employer or having any idea of my actual job responsibilities or what I was to earn.
“I’ll pay you $160 a week and you can rent the cottage for $160 a month,” Charlie said after he finally got his wet, unlit cigar out of his mouth. “I’ll need you to sign on in the morning by 5 a.m., do the news every half hour, play some music, get the weather on the air, and then you can do whatever you want from 10 o’clock until 3 in the afternoon but I want you back here to do it all over again until 6:30.”
“That’s not a cottage,” I said.
“You want the job and the cottage or not?”
“Yep, sure do.”
The radio station served a twenty-six city market in the sub-tropical region of Texas known as the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Small border towns had emerged along the northern side of the big river and they straddled a highway that almost paralleled the Mexican frontier as it reached toward the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville. A 5000-watt directional signal pulsed up and down the Rio Grande for hundreds of miles and gave the AM broadcaster a bit of historical market dominance.
We did not, however, understand much about the place where we were now living. A national news magazine had recently sent a reporter to the Lower Rio Grande Valley and had published a cover story under the giant block letters proclaiming, “The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas: America’s Third World.” The story indicated that the valley had the lowest literacy rate in the U.S., highest incidence of intestinal parasites, which was a consequence of the greatest concentration of outdoor privies, lowest average annual income, worst rate of child mortality, and smallest percentage of high school and college diplomas in the entire country.
The news Charlie wanted on his air, however, was not about social ills and bringing attention to difficult issues. Portraying the valley as too troubled would be bad for business and that meant less money spent on advertising and fewer cigars for Charlie. He was happy when he turned on his radio New Year’s Day and heard me reading a report about a giant bird that police said had terrorized several people the previous night.
“I’m telling you, this bird’s wingspan was twice the width of our patrol car,” one of the officers told me. “There’s no bird that big down here but that’s what we both saw.”
A man in Brownsville told police that his trailer was shaking in the middle of the night and when he went outdoors he looked up and saw a giant bird, “taller than a man,” and it swooped down toward him with “huge claws trying to grab me.” A similar narrative came from an agricultural worker further up river. He said he had been walking in an orange grove and suddenly a creature flew at him out of the sky and grabbed his back with talons bigger than human fingers. Skeptics did not know what to think when he showed his bloody back to emergency room doctors who had to patch up shredded skin.
The story refused to die because more witnesses claimed to have seen the great bird. Our phone began ringing with calls from journalists all over the world after the Associated Press sent a dispatch across the wire. Within a few weeks, I was almost convinced I saw the creature buzz a donut shop during my dark morning motorcycle commute to sign on the radio station.
“We should cut a record on this.” Our program director was always looking for methods to keep up the number of our listeners. In Houston, they had contests on the air and gave away new cars but Charlie refused to offer his audience much more than movie passes, which was hardly a reason to tune to our frequency.
“I’m serious,” TK said. “Let’s do one of those flying saucer type interview records where we’ll have a character interview the big bird and his answers will be short clips from current hits.”
The 45-RPM we produced was as silly as the concept but it remained number one on the playlist for three or four months. I wrote a narrative piece about the legend of the Big Bird, which became the B-side, and Charlie took the two cuts to Nashville and had several thousand records produced and shipped back to the valley. TK and I guessed that maybe 20,000 were sold but we never knew because any profits went to Charlie and the radio station.
TK was a slender and soft-spoken man and he loved working at the radio station with a passion that escaped me. Nothing bothered him. He was a black man in a 99% Hispanic population and he programmed the radio station with disco and pop chart songs that had more potential to become popular in Chicago and Detroit than in Donna and Edcouch, little towns along the Rio Grande. His insight, though, was astute and he consistently picked gold and platinum records to play in advance of their national success. His office was lined with gold records from recording studios whose artists he had helped make famous.
None of that made any difference to Charlie. TK was constantly being badgered by the station manager to play different music. We both discovered that little we did seemed to be of value to our radio boss. After winning reporting awards and writing stories that drew national attention to our obscure little operation on the north bank of the big river, I petitioned Charlie for a raise. My tenure on the job as disc jockey and news director had reached eighteen months and I thought I deserved an increase in pay.
Charlie agreed. He told me there was to be a “little something” for me in the next pay cycle. The description was painfully accurate. When I opened my check envelope, I looked at the numbers and did not recognize an increase. Fortunately, Charlie had done the math for me in red pencil on the stub. The numbers were pathetic. He had written, .05 per hour x 40 hours = $2.00 per week x 52 weeks per year = $104.00. I laughed, momentarily, thinking he was kidding and then I went into his office, unannounced and angry.
“Are you serious, Charlie?” He did not look up from whatever he was reading. “This raise on my check. A nickel an hour?”
“I thought you wanted a raise.”
“I did. Not an insult.”
“You don’t want it?”
“I want a real pay increase.”
“That’s what I gave you.”
“No, you didn’t.” I just looked out the window at the orange trees and the sunshine and wished to glory hell I was not in this man’s office. “Tell you what, Charlie. Looks to me like if all you can afford to give me is a nickel an hour increase, the station must be in dire straits and you all must need that nickel worse than I do. Why don’t you go ahead and keep it?”
“Okay, I will.”
Without ever taking the cigar out of his mouth, he went back to whatever he had been reading. My next paycheck went back to $160 a week before deductions, instead of the $162 he had offered. We did not notice the difference in our lives, even though the extra two dollars might have purchased a couple of hamburgers at Mr. Q’s.
The work was never drudgery, though, and almost always inadvertently entertaining. Language differences were a frequent source of humor. The majority of the borderland spoke Spanish as a first language and a significant part of our audience lived across the river in Mexico. Many of the callers to our request lines were children, learning their first words of English, what constituted a verb and how it was properly used. Often, instead of asking us to play a song for them, we were requested to “put” a song. Eventually, I stopped calling our phone tree the “hit lines” and began referring to it as the Rockin’ Rio “put lines.”
The language gap also meant that listeners, regardless of their age, were often uncertain of the lyrics they were hearing. There was also the possibility that we did not understand what was being requested when we took listener calls. I learned this one morning before sunrise as I was recording a caller’s request to be played back on the air as the song was introduced.
“Hello. Rockin’ Rio hit line.” There was a pause and then a tiny voice.
“Mister? Mister? Can you ‘put’ a song for me?” I thought it was a little boy.
“Sure. I’d be happy to ‘put’ a song for you. What would you like to hear?”
“Can you put that song by that Mary?” Momentarily, I did not know what he was asking.
“Uh, you mean the hit song by Mary McGregor?” She had gone to number one with a ballad called, “Torn Between Two Lovers.”
“Yeah, her, mister. Can you put that song ‘Born Between Two Cupboards?’”
I am not sure if the coffee that came out of my nose was heard over the air but I do know I was able to stifle my laughter until I closed the microphone. First, though, I had to introduce the song.
“Direct, from our Rockin’ Rio Put Lines at 686-5454, by request, this is Mary McGregor, and Born Between Two Cupboards.”
Maybe that’s why Charlie took his nickel back: I was too much of a smart ass. But this was border radio and an AM station on the edge of America. We were not changing the world. In fact, the world changed the valley but not until five or ten years after it had finished with the rest of American culture.
I still fell in love with the place, though, and the Winter Texans who drove 35 miles per hour on the inside lane with their blinkers endlessly flashing, the RV parks in the orange groves, long irrigation canals with dirt tracks for running, elegant Washington palms lining every street, authentic regional food from family-owned restaurants, weekend nights and rum punch in Mexico, short drives to the beach and South Padre Island, the way the wind came up off of the gulf every afternoon and cleared out the air, and even finding entire heads of cows sitting up in the frozen foods section of grocery stores before learning they were dropped into holes filled with coals in backyards on Saturday nights and eaten as barbacoa de cabeza the next morning after church.
My career did not advance very far from the Lower Valley. I went upriver about three hours to Laredo and began working in television. The border still felt a bit like the Wild West in those days and there was no shortage of news. Charlie and I never spoke again after I left but I heard that late in life he had opened an ice cream shop down on the island and sent his profits to a home for abandoned children in Mexico. I was pleased to know there was such generosity in his veins.
TK went back to college and got his master’s degree and became an educator and administrator and is the principal of a high school a few miles distant from the studio where he loved to play records and talk. We have remained the best of friends through passing decades, his kindness and sensibilities providing perspective when I lose my way. I still have not made it to the Khyber Pass, though journalism delivered me to many exotic locales and historical moments I never anticipated I might have witnessed back when I was spinning “Born Between Two Cupboards” on a turntable.
The little red-haired girl is still around, too, and I would take her hand again and go back to that corn popper radio station tomorrow and our crumbling adobe under the palms and do everything all over again without the slightest change.
But I might need at least a dime an hour pay hike.
The little girl walking between us held our hands as we crossed a footbridge over the river. Tree leaves were colored red and gold and hues of yellow and orange and a few floated down to the water after light gusts of wind.
“This is pretty, daddy,” she said.
Ten-year-old children are rarely wrong with their assessments of the world. The Red Cedar River gurgled gently beneath our feet on a clear October afternoon up in Michigan and the sky was a blue that might have been as clear as the air has ever been since the internal combustion engine started running.
A stadium rose before us against the sky and thousands of people were gathering in tents and around vehicle tailgates at its perimeter. Band music came down the river and we hurried toward friends who had been absent from our lives for years.
“This is your college, right, Mama?”
“Yes, baby. Daddy’s, too.”
We had been gone, however, for twenty-five years. But I had a rationale for this behavior. My explanation was that the four years out of the century that it had been my good fortune to attend Michigan State University could not be surpassed. We had protested a war, listened to great music and lectures, discovered books and teachers and new cultures that led us to think, and we were perfectly immobilized by the first warm days of spring and green sprigs of grass from beneath the snow.
I did not want to jeopardize those memories by returning to discover they had been distorted by my youthful naïveté. I worried about urban expansion intruding on the campus, encountering undergrads that planned to walk from receiving their diplomas to luxury car dealerships, even a decline of respect for tradition, more pavement, and disaffected students.
I was wrong, terribly wrong, and lost a quarter century connection to one of America’s greatest institutions, consistently and unpretentiously doing the work that improves lives.
MSU is an acronym popping up everywhere on the Internet in recent weeks because of the unexpected accomplishments of its football team, and the perennial emergence of basketball power. The football team, though, is to be met in another stadium in Indiana by Ohio State University, a place of learning that asserts its exceptionalism by beginning its title with the article, “The.” The Ohio State University’s arrival at the conference championship game was anticipated but the journey of the Spartan squad to excellence has not been readily apparent to even sports bookies. The benefit of this development, though, accrues to more than just the coach and players.
Although the argument is generally sound that collegiate athletics are over-emphasized to the detriment of academics and research, the less acknowledged fact is that sports are the best method for delivering a university’s brand. When a team excels, the broader institution benefits. We are all attracted by achievement and seek its association. My curiosity about MSU began as a teenager when I saw the flickering gray images of a football game on our old box Zenith TV. The Spartans had played mighty Notre Dame to a 10-10 tie. East Lansing was less than an hour distant and I had never been there but I suddenly knew where I was going.
A backstory was invisible on that TV screen. A young man from Texas stood in the midst of the game and seemed to change the outcome with his great strength. Bubba Smith had been a legend in Texas high school football and had met with the University of Texas coach Darrel Royal about playing for the Longhorns. Royal supposedly told Bubba, “Son, I’d love to have you but it’s just too soon for Texas.”
No such concern was expressed by MSU coach Duffy Daugherty, and an African-American teenager from the piney woods of East Texas began a football career in East Lansing alongside George Webster and Gene Washington, two more of the black players who both later joined Smith in the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1966, when MSU shared the national championship, the team had two black captains. The University of Texas did not offer a scholarship to a black football player until 1970. MSU’s first black football player, Gideon Smith, earned a varsity letter in 1913.
A small percentage of us do not make good sports fans. We prefer to play more than watch and cheer and we wonder how there are places where multi-million dollar weight rooms are considerably more important than classrooms. But we also know the value of sports to inspire and illuminate human potential, even to hint at what might be achieved by nations operating with a commonality of purpose for a greater good.
Silly overstatement? Maybe, unless you consider what happened at Jenison Field House set close by the banks of the Red Cedar. A half-century ago, MSU hosted what became known as “The Game of Change.” Mississippi State University had qualified to play in the NCAA tournament but Jim Crow laws in Mississippi were preventing the basketball team from playing schools that had integrated their rosters. They were scheduled to meet Loyola, which had four black players. The Mississippi coach snuck his team out of state and traveled to East Lansing with his all-white squad. Loyola defeated the Bulldogs from Starkville by ten points and went on to win the national championship in 1963, but men of principle and honor had helped to clarify who we really might be as a people.
Michigan State’s current athletic director Mark Hollis saw the historical and marketing value in commemorating the “Game of Change” and facilitated a game between the Spartans and the historically black Tuskegee University. A plaque was unveiled outside the old field house as part of the ceremonies to memorialize an event that today prompts as much pride as the 1979 season in the same building when Earvin Johnson led a national championship basketball season for MSU.
Hollis, whose business acumen also created the “Carrier Classic” basketball games, has an insight on what works at his university. He led the effort to bring football coach Mark Dantonio back to MSU. The stern-faced Dantonio does not trifle with inadequate preparation or partial effort. He talks about graduation rates almost as much as he does pass routes. There are tricks in his playbook and a belief that the mundane repetition of practice and execution can lead to greatness and his psychology has taken MSU back to national prominence in football.
Which matters because more people will learn about Michigan State University. And they will ask questions. What makes the president of MSU, Lou Anna K. Simon, refuse the offer of a “significant salary increase” for the past five years? Simon and her husband are members of the Clifton R. Wharton Donor Recognition Society, which honors donors of more than $2.5 million.
Maybe people watching the game will hear about how Athletic Director Mark Hollis and his wife Nancy gave the university $1 million for academic scholarships and arts programming. Or they might learn about basketball coach Tom Izzo and his wife Lupe’s $1 million dollar gift to the university, the institution that provided a diminutive free throw shooter from the Upper Peninsula a path to the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
Possibly, someone will talk about the day a University of Michigan fan spent several thousand dollars to have a skywriter leave the message, “Go Blue” floating above Spartan Stadium and how Scott Westerman, the Executive Director of the Alumni Association, took to social media and turned the blue into green as a fund-raising challenge to fight cancer. More than forty thousand dollars were raised for ovarian cancer research in the state.
There is considerably more that those of us who are prideful would like to share. We think it is significant that the Department of Energy has chosen our university for a $730 million dollar facility to conduct rare isotope research; The Institute for Scientific Information lists 27 MSU researchers among the top 250 “highly cited” scientists in the world; the Journal of Product Innovations Management ranks MSU third in the world for effective technology transfer from invention to marketplace; MSU is among the top five universities in the U.S. for sustainability practices; was chosen by the Carnegie Foundation as one of the nation’s first “community engaged universities,” U.S. News and World Report picked the elementary and secondary education programs as the best in the country for the 19th successive year as are the graduate programs in nuclear physics and the College of Natural Science along with the undergraduate discipline in supply chain logistics. There are far too many accolades to mention.
We also have a football team.
And one of its achievements this year is to bring attention to what has been happening at Michigan State. The sons and daughters of auto workers and teachers and waiters and bank tellers and carpenters and truck drivers are able to matriculate at a university that has given them an opportunity beyond the reach of their parents. In return, those students have completed research that expands our understanding of the universe, become doctors, actors, written great literature, and engaged in countless other important endeavors.
The three greatest living writers in America, Jim Harrison, Richard Ford, and Thomas McGuane, all took their undergraduate degrees from Michigan State. Harrison, whose books are likely to be as eternal as Mark Twain’s and Ernest Hemingway’s, has been guided in his work by his simple proclamation, “I seek the substantial in life.” I have concluded in my own retrospection that is what drew him, the son of an agricultural agent in Northern Michigan, to East Lansing. There is a crucible at the old school and minds issue from it with capabilities not previously even contemplated.
I was not yet a published writer that autumn day we escorted our daughter to her first MSU football game but I was falling back in love with the campus after a long separation. Our daughter went to an MSU homecoming later as a teenager and concluded she was going to leave Texas. She had been given special encouragement in her decision from the late governor of Texas Ann Richards. Amanda Noelle spent two of her four years in East Lansing as a resident advisor and after graduation began her career as an academic recruiter, convincing other Texas young people to attend MSU.
Her mother, the little red-haired farm girl who has stood beside me and also stood me up every time I faltered since we met one spring day on campus, has become a kind of international MSU brand and stepmom on social media. She is a friendly shoulder for homesick Spartan students and offers as much friendship as advice. Known as the Crazy MSU Lady, she maintains a constant flow of information about the university, its programs, students, and alumni. She still falls into my arms but these days it is sometimes because she loses her balance while standing on top of a table at a sports bar as she screams and cheers for Sparty on TV.
I mostly just stay out of their way, except when I am caught up in these big moments. And then I can’t help myself, either.
I get a bit proud.
Storm chasers are not crazy. They are either scientists or journalists doing their jobs. Anyone might make an argument that by choosing those endeavors for income they lacked a spoke from one of their wheels but the truth is that some times things choose us. And they become our jobs, our lives.
I never chased tornadoes as a TV news correspondent. Hurricanes, however, I raced in their direction, thrilled by the logistical challenges and slow motion drama that unfolded. I did run to the aftermath of twisters, though. In Wichita Falls in 1979, there were people found inside their cars a few miles from where they had last been seen at stop lights, their vehicles crushed by falling from the sky. Parts of the asphalt were torn back like an earthen scab by the F-5 that passed through Jarrell, Texas in the late 90s, and the Chihuahuan Desert town of Saragosa just disappeared in the first tornado ever recorded in Pecos County, Texas back in the late 80s.
But reporting on what a storm hath wrought is almost cowardice compared to going close to see and understand its power. I always thought tornadoes were to be run away from, not chased. The scientists try to get close enough to determine the funnel’s path and then set instruments in front to see if they can gather data that may one day help predict formation and, as a consequence, save lives. But what about the news crews? Why are they taking these risks?
One answer is that their editors in New York want drama. The closer a camera gets to a tornado the more a video can be promoted and drive viewership. Videographers share some of the guilt. Most love risk, getting close to the flame. A combat photographer once told me in Central America that, “After you hear a bullet whiz past your ear, it changes your life. Everything is different.” I somewhat glibly responded that, “And the day a bullet enters your ear it changes your life, too. It ends it. That’ll be really different.”
All of this is prompted by injuries to a friend who is as fine a person as I have ever known and who was a long time colleague in the TV news business. Austin Anderson and I began working together in the early 80s when he was a student at the University of Texas, where his father, Al Anderson, was a legendary journalism professor. There was nothing Austin would not do to get the video to tell the story. We chased criminals across the Caribbean and presidents and hurricanes across the U.S. and he was always where he needed to be with his lens. He made every correspondent with whom he worked look like they were great journalists even when they were often nothing more than the benefactors of Austin’s entrepreneurial determination. The lazy ones could’ve sat at the bar and waited for him to come back with the video, and I know a few who did.
Austin was driving the Weather Channel’s Tornado Hunter car near El Reno, Oklahoma when a funnel abruptly changed course and lifted his vehicle. Reports vary on how far it was thrown through the air but it was discovered on the far side of a barbed wire fence after rolling over several times. Mike Bettes, another journalist riding with Austin, said they were “weightless for a moment” and then started tumbling. He escaped serious injury but my old friend Austin is in a hospital in Oklahoma City where he is facing surgery for a broken breastplate, ribs, and damaged vertebra. He is, however, alive. A doctor has indicated it will be at least three months before he can again pick up a camera. But he will pick up a camera again. And he will still be one of the best in the business.
A few of my colleagues from my days in television, and those who never worked in that industry, have expressed dismay that a person might put themselves at risk to get a better, more dramatic piece of video. But that is the mandate of the profession: get more and better than the other crew. Great photographers are also subject to a psychological phenomenon called “distancing,” which allows their brains to process what they are seeing through their lens as not real or a part of their immediate environment. There is no other explanation for combat photographers getting video in the midst of firefights or my friends Jim Peeler and the late Dan Mulloney who stood with their cameras in the crossfire between ATF agents and the Branch Davidians of David Koresh to record some of the most famous news video in history.
I believe in another kind of “distancing.” I believe in the kind that puts distance between any tornado and me.
Americans, Texans in particular, have gotten pretty good at poking holes in the ground to find oil. But we are not that innovative or visionary regarding the more precious resource of water. We continue to act as if there is a bottomless well. Hell, we even use water to force oil into wells to make it simpler to extract the energy source. But we won’t really need oil if we run out of water.
And that is actually possible.
Up on the South Plains in the Texas Panhandle, the water source used to irrigate cash crops, the Ogallala Aquifer, is drying up. The 175,000 square mile underground sea is believed to be the largest source of freshwater on the planet and since humans started pumping it up from the ground it has dropped as much as 50 feet in about 10 percent of the area. The worst parts of Texas and Kansas have seen water level declines of up to 200 feet. If we use it up, getting a refill won’t be easy. Aquifers take about 6000 years to recharge and one of this size might take a few more millennia.
What’s happened? The usual: greed, stupidity, and political obliviousness.
In the Sandhills of Western Nebraska, where nothing but grass has grown natively, center pivot irrigation has been transforming the environment for decades. Shallow aquifer wells are used to almost flood the hills with water that has been mixed with ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and suddenly the sand hills become covered with cornstalks. Rising prices of grain and the demand for corn to create ethanol on global markets have made it profitable for corporate agricultural interests to grow cash crops on sand that was meant for wildflowers and wild grasses bending in the wind. And the result is that the aquifer shrinks back from its furthest reaches down into the Texas South Plains.
Where the Edwards Plateau Aquifer runs down to Van Horn and the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, there are vast groves of pecan trees. They grow as a result of irrigation, farming, not nature. Texas, like much of the west, uses frontier water rights laws that are referred to as first in time, first in right. The owner of the land, therefore, can irrigate as much as he or she might like as long as they are the first ones to pump the ground water. Subsequent rights owners can use as much water as they want but they cannot impede upon the rights of the first in time owners of the water.
There are even more fundamental problems than outdated law facing the arid southwest. Texas government is estimating as many as 1800 people daily move into the state. They will all need a drink of water and many of them think they need a lawn. If the numbers are accurate, there are about 45,000 new people living in Texas every month. Many of them come from the Midwest and are used to abundant rainfall and lush yards around their homes. They arrive in Texas, plant water thirsty grass, put in irrigation systems, and marvel at their green lawns. Up market neighborhoods even have covenants requiring lawns, which is criminally unconscionable.
Much of the state’s newcomer population will live along the I-35 corridor, which roughly traces the Balcones Escarpment, a break in the topography that runs from west of San Antonio to near Fort Worth. Geologists often describe the formation as the place “where the south ends and the west begins.” To the east, there is black land farming that succeeds frequently on natural rainfall while west of the escarpment there is an increase in limestone, desert vegetation, and little topsoil. Generally, the entire region is arid and water may soon be worshipped.
The great glaciers of ancient times did not make it this far south and, as a consequence, Texas really only has one naturally occurring lake, (maybe two if it is considered that the trees and animal activity across a creek that created Caddo Lake are natural.) Lakes in Texas are reservoirs, manmade by spanning rivers with dams. The most famous is probably Buchanan Dam, which brought electricity to the Hill Country for the first time in 1937, and created a lake that rose up to the size of the Sea of Galilee. After years of drought, however, and constant population growth, Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, critical water supplies for Central Texas, are below 40 percent of storage capacity.
The governor of Texas has lately offered as a solution that the state’s residents ought to pray for rain. More enlightened leaders in the legislature have passed a $2 billion dollar constitutional amendment that will be used to create new water supplies for the future, if voters approve. But there has to be water before it can be captured and stored. And there are already legal disputes over shrinking supplies.
Rice farmers near Houston have long had historic legal claims to millions of acre-feet of water from Lake Travis but the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) is compelled to seek different uses for the shrinking resource. Meanwhile, San Antonio, which is the largest city in the US without a reservoir, wants to build a pipeline to transfer water from Lake Travis to the Alamo City. San Antonio voters have refused several times to approve bonds to build a reservoir, in part, because they sit upon the Edwards Aquifer, which has seemed an endless supply. But it’s not. Each year measurements show a drop in sustaining levels of fresh water, and the springs stop running at 95 percent of the aquifer’s capacity. We clearly are not good stewards of the resource.
All of those people moving down from Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and the lake-dotted states may one day find a reason to go back north: a simple drink of water. The Midwest, once called the Rust Belt, will likely rise again.
Because nothing grows forever without water.
It’s an odd little spot, really, sitting between the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and Highway 90 as it runs through Alpine, Texas. Not much bigger than a convenience store parking lot, the location is flat and sometimes dusty when summer hovers relentlessly over the Davis Mountains. The great freight trains rumbling through toward California often rattle the bones of people arriving to hear a night of music at a venue known as Railroad Blues.
When Soul Track Mind performs, the wooden dance floor gives off its own sweet vibration. While the notion of popularity for soul music in remote reaches of the Texas Trans-Pecos might seem improbable, the appearance of Soul Track Mind in the mountain town of Alpine is an event of some note. The cowboys and accountants, secretaries, cooks, mechanics, college students, and a few housewives are jumping shoulder-to-shoulder and toe-to-toe listening to the notes of seven white musicians who play well outside of ethnic expectations.
“I started this less than five years ago with an ad on Craigslist,” said front man Donovan Keith. “And now I think we’re the perfect example of the old school blue collar band where we work for everything we get, fight for respect everywhere we go, slowly work our way up from small clubs to bigger clubs, and earn every fan with the intensity of our live performance.”
The coming together of a seven-piece soul band on an Internet ad site is not unremarkable but there is a certain level of amazement when their talent is gathered on stage. Soul Track Mind’s performances are not just stylish trumpet or sax solos and blurry guitar riffs; they are a cultural exclamation point about American music. Only one band member has any African-American lineage but they were all drawn to the sounds of rhythm and blues with a touch of Motown and a bit of basic guidance from classic soul. They come out of a gritty melting pot that includes seasonings from Booker T and the MGs, Otis Redding, Billy Preston, the later works of Ray Charles, and more contemporary influences like the Black Keys and John Legend.
“But we don’t emulate,” said trumpet player Zach Buie. “We innovate. We love playing up the fact that we are one of very few bands making the effort to have a horn section, which really splits up our money. Lots of soul bands just fire their horn sections. Our music is original.”
Those other soul stylists also do not over expend too much creativity on plaintive ballads and keyboards, which Soul Track Mind indulges in on their just released album. Keyboardist Sam Powell’s touch is a perfect emotional bed for Keith’s mournful voice on the cut “Remember Me.” In fact, almost every track on the band’s new album seems ideally arranged and mixed in a style that, after one listen, imprints the song on the memory in a way that it is impossible to imagine any other production of the music and lyrics.
Ballads are not what get the house bumpin’, however, and the night STM played Railroad Blues the necks were probably too sweaty from swinging to be nuzzled during the slow dances. Donovan Keith’s style as a singer and dance performer is under the deep and abiding influence of Sam Cooke. Keith’s voice has the approximate range of Cooke’s and also suggests sufficient time in down and out clubs to have some similarities in character and tonality. The closest association, however, is the unconstrained movement that travels through him from his band’s music. There are no joints in his skeletal frame that are not committed to the song, and the crowd gets it on the dance floor.
There is one point of “emulation,” however. Cooke was the first black musician of the modern era to closely tend to the business side of his art. All seven of the artists in Soul Track Mind understand they are in an industry that is still being transformed by the Internet and digital music. They build their lives and income around touring and playing gigs anywhere they can gather an audience. CDs, vinyl, and even digital downloads are loss leaders. Money comes from being onstage and filling the house. The show is the product, not the album. The album promotes the band’s live appearances in the same fashion an author’s book positions him as an expert speaker earning fees to give talks to organizations.
“We understand we are operating within a modern business frame,” said guitarist Jonathon Zemek. “You aren’t getting anywhere with album sales. Even if we sold a million, we’d still make more than a year’s worth of living for each of us by traveling the country and doing shows. Instead of using the old school model of having a record label, everything is at our fingers now with technology. We are doing our best to predict a future sustainable model.”
They have been sustaining themselves from the time Keith initially arrived in Austin and began searching for musicians to create a band. There might have also been a touch of destiny in Keith’s discovery online of the great Earl Thomas of San Francisco. Thomas possesses the sound of a well-traveled voice and leads a large diverse band that blends musical roots from genres that include African pop to blues and American folk ballads. (Not many singers can get away with mentioning the Book of Revelation’s “Seven Seals” in a lyric.) Donovan Keith was entranced by what he heard of Thomas online and sent the Californian a message that included a few vocal tracks. Keith just wanted to know if he had talent.
“I didn’t hear anything for six months,” he said. “But then I got a message back telling me that I did have talent but I needed to work on it. He told me I needed to move to a place where I could perform and play and get better. He really guided me every step of the way. I just saved up money and moved to Austin.”
The song that had convinced the exquisitely talented Earl Thomas that Donovan Keith had promise was a karaoke track called “Little Red Heart,” which appeared on the band’s first album in 2010, “Ghost of Soul.” Keith’s initial recorded performance on the song cannot be equally compared with Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” but the commonalities of what they accomplish with their vocals are undeniable. Young bands can lose lyrics in their music or they can rely too greatly on vocal talent but Soul Track Mind knows when to let the horns blow, the moment to free up Michael Mancuso’s bass line to parry with Doug Leveton’s percussions, and be led off by Buie’s trumpet, George’s sax, and Zemek’s guitar.
Maybe the most encouraging characteristic of the early accomplishments of the band is that they do not come from a group of middle class young people that act entitled. When Keith arrived in Austin and assembled Soul Track Mind, they were happy to get a residence gig on the city’s mostly black east side at a joint called T.C.’s Lounge. A style was developed in front of an audience that included University of Texas students, hippies and hipsters, older black neighborhood residents, and a few crackheads in off of the street. Ceilings swayed low toward the sinking dance floor and there was no ventilation to carry away the smell of untended and ancient rest rooms. There was, however, a big pot of whatever Baby Girl was cooking and patrons brought in their own bottles. Baby Girl, a petite black lady around 40, ran the door, cooked red beans and rice, and held down the house while Soul Track Mind found its sound.
“The locals were impressed by our ability to play soul music,” Keith said. “And they treated us so great. We would not be anywhere without those crucial development years. I thought if, I of all people, this red headed white kid, could impress these older black folks with their own music then maybe we have something here. Because they’re the kind of folks that will let you know if you’re not doing it right.”
They were doing it right. And still are. Even more encouraging, culturally, is that a band of white suburban kids playing and singing soul and R&B music is no longer that much of an anomaly. These assimilations do not turn heads the way they did when African American Charlie Pride built a career in country and western music, (though it’s still likely we might be slightly distracted hearing Bobby Blue Bland sing a John Denver tune.) But with an average age of only 26, Soul Track Mind has both a musical maturity and a creative process that delivers new songs through a work ethic that involves every member of the band. Ideas are assembled into songs. A hook pops into someone’s head. Two of them start jamming around the words. The bass player might add his line. A melody is grabbed out of the air. A recorder is hooked up for more vocals. They work and rework. Throw it out if it does not measure up to standards.
“Some of our songs happen fast,” said Buie. “And others take months and months and are painfully slow. We all have a say and majority rules. Our feelings don’t get hurt like they used to. We just can’t take anything personally. We’ve got to create music and we want it to be great, entertaining music that moves people to dance.”
Which is what happens. Over and over and over. Everywhere Soul Track Mind performs. Their new album has a mix of soulful and slow pieces that tear at the heart and bang ups of horns and strings that will not allow the listener to just observe and not dance. The band is set for a long summer tour of the U.S. and they will become a favorite in every town where they stop, even when they are playing by the railroad tracks out in the lonely stretches of the Chihuahuan Desert in Alpine, Texas.
And their music will move your little red heart.
Like almost anyone who lives in Texas, I have visited the town of West, uncountable times. Nobody drives I-35 through the middle of the state without stopping for the famous kolaches. Hardly anyone else knows much about the little community. But it is about to become an icon of our failures to properly oversee dangerous businesses and manage our governments.
Let’s concede the remote possibility there may have been a criminal act involved. David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound at Mt. Carmel was only 15 miles distant, and, as we already know, the Oklahoma City bombing was a criminal response to the federal government’s actions. This week in April, as has been shown by events like the Boston tragedy and the Ruby Ridge shootout, can deliver us unto evil in America.
But what happened in West is probably more about government inactions.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) acknowledged today that it only inspects plants like West Fertilizer on the basis of complaints. The most basic interpretation of that statement is that a mechanical issue has to be failing so badly that someone outside of the facility is able to notice and then file a complaint to the state agency. A worried employee providing information would be the only other cause to investigate. According to TCEQ records, the plant has not been inspected since 2006 after a nearby resident complained of a “strong ammonia smell.” A fine was issued for a “failure to apply for or obtain a permit.”
The EPA fined the plant that same year, too. According to WFAA-TV in Dallas, the facility paid a $2,300 penalty for “failing to have a risk management plan that met federal standards.” This is nothing more than a basic outline to ensure that chemical accidents don’t happen and there are institutional safeguards that make these types of tragedies preventable.
Why the obvious, even more attendant risks were ignored in West, is a more unsettling question. The state issues the permits for nursing homes and it appears there was one virtually across the street from West Fertilizer, in spite of the known dangers of the manufacture of ammonium nitrate. Not far away, a building permit was granted for a small, two story apartment complex. Is this good judgment by state and federal, and even local agencies? It’s not like ammonium nitrate fertilizer hasn’t been known to detonate in the past. The 1947 explosion in Texas City of a ship carrying the compound killed 500 people and remains the largest industrial disaster in American history. West happened 66 years and one day after Texas City.
Texas is home to most of the nation’s petrochemical industry, and it has provided jobs and important products. But we never seem to know if sufficient safeguards are in place to prevent events like West. In fact, we know the exact opposite. According to the 2011 budget submitted to congress by OSHA, which provides most of the federal oversight for that industry, there are 7.5 million workplaces in the U.S. and only 2,218 inspectors to check them for safety violations. The number of employed nationally means that there is one inspector for every 57,984 workers. One analyst reported that means OSHA has the capacity to inspect a business work place once every 129 years. Fortunately, state level OSHA workers aren’t as pressed and they can get to a facility every 67 years.
West might be the latest failure of our commitment to provide the resources to protect our communities and our environment but there is no shortage of similar examples. The BP well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, which continues to destroy sea life, was a product of lax enforcement, infrequent inspection caused by staffing shortages, and an intermingling of personnel between the regulated industry and the federal oversight agency. Generations from now the Gulf of Mexico will still be suffering and people may find it hard to understand what we allowed to happen in order to hold down our tax burden and to let industry create jobs and find energy without government meddling.
How damned many times do we have to see these images and fail to connect cause and effect? Americans continue to elect and tolerate politicians that tell them everything is fine and we don’t need to invest in infrastructure and safety and there is too much regulation. There is no reason we can’t have businesses that are both profitable and safe. But we have to be willing to spend the money to fund the agencies that provide the oversight. That’s not government meddling; that’s common sense. Elected leadership does not hesitate to spend your tax dollars on fear driven industries like the TSA or defense contractors, but a few inspectors or laws to keep a nursing home away from an ammonium nitrate fertilizer plant is considered too much government?
And now we have to endure those same politicians who are quick with the budget cut running to the site of the tragedy to claim empathy and understanding. How dare they? Why do we never demand accountability until people are dead? The owner of the plant was quoted on television as saying, “This kind of thing just isn’t supposed to happen here.” It isn’t supposed to happen anywhere.
We just let it.
“Remember when we listened to the radio
and I said that’s the place to be?
And how about the job as an FM jock
the day you married me?” – Harry Chapin
The town had two exits off of the Interstate and I thought it was the perfect location to launch a career as an international broadcast journalist. Rows of beets grew in every direction and during harvest the big container trucks carried the produce to sugar mills in Denver after migrant workers up from Texas had brought in the crops. Out on the Colorado and Kansas line the land of the High Plains was eternally flat and on the very clear days after a storm you might convince yourself the Rockies were visible 150 miles distant.
Less than four thousand people lived in the town but there was a local radio station that sat in one of the beet fields not far from the frontage road of the super highway. A tower steadied against the wind by strong wires stood out back with a red aircraft warning light that blinked at night. I had seen the structure from a distance when I hitchhiked over from Goodland, Kansas and I asked the trucker to drop me at the first exit so that I could leave a tape of my college radio broadcasts and apply for work. By the time I had walked a mile down the dirt road to the station’s parking lot I am certain I looked more like a drifter seeking food or other handouts than I did a prospective employee but the receptionist accepted my tape and resume’ and I went back out to the highway.
My home phone number was on the documents I had left and a few weeks later the general manager had called my Ma to offer me a job while I was camping down in Southern Utah. When I got in touch with him he offered me $550 a month plus an extra $25 a week when I did a half hour roundup of local sports each Saturday. I thought my wandering was coming to an abrupt end but it was really just getting started.
A diminutive man with an outsized voice was the program director of the AM station and he was my boss. His name was Tom Toomey and during his on-air shift he referred to himself as Tom “”Sock-it” Toomey and he was always talking about going out to the country club after he got off the air to eat a greasy plate of Rocky Mountain Oysters. Tom was from upstate New York and had become inordinately fascinated by the fact that he could consume fried bull’s testicles every night of the week. I did not begrudge him this intrigue but I thought it slightly an odd thing to speak about every day as he was wrapping up his four hour broadcast.
Tom did not want to work mornings so I was tasked with signing on the radio station at 5 a.m. and hosting the first broadcast for the next five hours. My initial morning Tom met me in the lobby holding a large Styrofoam cup of coffee and a burning cigarette with a dangling ash. His expression as he looked at me was one of skepticism and I sensed he had not been fond of the decision to offer a job to a hitchhiker with a backpack. Tom’s attitude grew out of his personal belief that not just anyone was able to operate a radio station and entertain and inform the public and the airwaves ought not be turned over to itinerant drifters.
“Morning, Tommy,” I said, which was apparently a bit too collegial.
“No Tommy, please. It’s just Tom.”
“Okay. Sure. Just trying to be friendly.”
“There are other ways. Follow me. Let’s get to the control room.”
As we walked through the hallways of the portable building that comprised the studio he looked back at me to see if there was wonder on my face at the fact I was being given access to the broadcast booth. There were only three switches on the transmitter to flip and Tommy showed me the readings to take and how to log them and then he led me to the control board.
“Okay,” he said, “those dials are called pots. You roll them up to control volume to your microphones, the turntables, tape machines, and the network feed.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve had a couple of radio jobs before I got here.”
“College radio hardly counts.”
“Okay, but I worked at a station up in the mountains in Eastern Arizona, too. That was kind of a real job. Just didn’t last long.”
“How nice. Well, we are a professional operation here and you’ll find things a bit more challenging.”
“I certainly hope I can live up to those standards.”
I was struggling not to be sarcastic but I wondered what kind of excellence was demanded by a listening audience of farmers and ranchers and gas station operators and a few restaurants, nursing home residents, and a couple of doctors’ offices. Tommy was almost imperious in his determination to protect the multiple hundreds of daily listeners from my looming inadequacies. By the afternoon he would be flawlessly playing songs by “The 1910 Fruit Gum Company,” “The Archies,” and “The Ohio Express.” He doubted I was qualified for a similar endeavor.
“Okay, this pot is the network news feed,” he said. “Click it all the way to the left so you can hear a tone cue over the monitor and as soon as you do roll it up and ABC Radio News will be on the air here from New York.”
“And while that’s on, pull some wire copy with Colorado regional news and weather. The local forecast is on there, too. You read that over the air at the end of the national news and then play a record. Pick out some songs for your first hour.”
I ran to the Associated Press wire machine and tore off news copy and then quickly sorted through a tall stack of 45-rpm records and sat two of them on the turntables, dropped the needles into the grooves, and cued them for play. When the network newscast concluded I threw the toggle switch on the microphone pot and began my first morning newscast on the eastern plains of Colorado.
“Good morning, it’s 28 degrees with flurries at 5:15. In Colorado and local news…..”
Nervous energy made the newscast seem brisk and short. I signed off with my name and started the turntable spinning with music as Tom’s hand touched me on the shoulder. I pulled off my headphones.
“We’re a bit more straightforward here,” he said. “Less earnestness is what works for our broadcasts.”
“Okay, well, I’ll tone it down. Guess I was just over-caffeinated or over-enthused.”
“Very well, then,” Tom “Sock it” Toomey said. He took a step back and folded his arms across his chest and waited for what I might say next when I opened the microphone.
I said, “Music radio. This is Michael Martin Murphy and ‘Wildfire,’” and I turned off the microphone switch.
He again tapped my shoulder. “Please, no ‘music radio.’ That’s big city stuff. We just give it to them without flash. I spent a lot of time developing this format. And it works. Please stick to it.”
“I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to say certain things,” I said. “Is there a list?”
“Don’t try to be funny your first day on the job. And especially not your first day on the air.”
“You’re right, I suppose. Humor never works anywhere. I’m sure there’s no place for it on the radio out here.”
“That’s correct. We are a time, temperature, and news format.”
“That’s a format?”
“Yes, it’s our format and it works quite well for our listeners. We don’t use personality.”
“And you developed that?”
“Yes, I did.”
“I guess I have a lot to learn.”
“I believe you do. But that’s what I’m here for.”
“Well, I wondered.”
There was not much time for me to interject any personality into a broadcast even if I had one to share. The entire morning news block was consumed with network and local news, a farm and ranch report, weather, announcement of the school lunch menus, obituaries, swap shop, a few songs, and the daily hospital report.
Community radio was always exploring new concepts for making money and the business managers that had made the strategic decision to employ me had also decided that there was an audience for a daily reading of the admissions and dismissals from the county hospital. Sponsors fought over the availability of buying commercial time on the “Hospital Report.” I was a bit stunned that such private information was broadcast but the list of names was in front of me and I read it without any trace of earnestness, much less irony. The health reason for their admission to the hospital was also a part of the information we broadcast and just to keep listeners tuned in we broke up the announcements of names and ailments with the sponsor’s commercial.
“I’ll be right back with a list of today’s dismissals from the county hospital right after these words from….”
After I had informed everyone in the bi-county area about who had been admitted and released from the local hospital, I got back to music. As the musical intro was playing to a Gordon Lightfoot song, I related a quick anecdote about seeing him in concert and the fact that he had been so drunk he forgot the lyrics to a couple of his songs. When the recording ended, I added a few more bits of information about that concert. Sock-It Toomey was standing behind me wagging his finger.
“Really, what am I supposed to do? Just throw switches and share the time and temperature? Who in the hell goes into this business to do that?”
“It’s what you were hired to do. Nobody needs your little stories.”
“Jesus, I wish I’d known. Maybe I should quit before the day is over. But why don’t you just get the fuck out of here and let me do my job?”
Tommy Toomey’s eyes went wide with an expression that was an indication he had not ever heard such a vile word. He was also pointing behind me. I did not care.
“I asked you to get the fuck outta here. Now please go.”
His pointing turned into jumping up and down histrionics. I turned around and discovered that the microphone light was still on and the morning audience had heard our entire conversation. The “Great Voice of the Great Plains” was swearing at people as they rolled out of bed.
“Oh fuck,” I said one last time before I turned off the microphone.
Fifteen minutes later, in the pre-dawn dark, the pastor of the Lutheran Church was in the lobby waiting to talk to the new announcer. I made profuse apologies and denied I was routinely profane. Tommy Toomey kept giving the pastor skeptical looks and I knew I would have to work hard to gain acceptance into the community. But I was too much of a smart ass to try very hard. I suppose I was also arrogant and viewed the little town on the Interstate as a rest stop on my road to broadcast glory. I grew up to hate guys like me.
I settled into an adobe, played softball and watched the wind blow dirt across the plains in broad clouds of brown darkness. Because I did not have a radio, at night I often sat on the ground next to my old Opel station wagon and listened to the A.M. radio signal of KOMA in Oklahoma City. The sound of the announcers’ voices and the music made the cheap speakers rattle and sent silly dreams through my head that I might one day work in such a fantastical operation. The night sky was alive with music.
The most exciting part of every broadcast hour on KOMA was always the station identification at the top of the hour. A 50,000 watt clear channel license, the signal bounced off the ionosphere at night and sent radio to remote locales that were known in legal language as “dark areas,” un-served by the publicly-owned airwaves. The station ID began with a loud explosion and then a bass voiced announcer who said, “Serving 22 states and three countries, (another explosion), this is KOMA (dramatic pause), Oklahoma City.”
Which gave me an idea. A very, very bad idea.
I went to the radio station that night after the transmitter was shut down and recorded my own local version for our little beet field town. My voice was squeaky from yelling at that night’s fast pitch game and a couple of beers had pumped up my puny courage and I struggled hard not to laugh as I produced the station identification. Instead of an explosion, I began with the tinkling of cowbells, and then said, “Serving 22 homes, three gas stations, four donut shops, and ten thousand pickup trucks, this is KNAB Burlington, Colorado.”
My sensibilities, if I had any, were not yet to be found the next morning and I played the station ID over the air just as the general manager was parking her car out front. She let me keep my job but I was pretty certain I was never going to be asked to speak at the Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon. I moved on in a few months and 38 years slipped past without me really taking notice. The general manager became the owner and she still runs the station out near the Kansas line. I sent her an email recently just to say hello and apologize for my youthful indiscretions. She never answered.
She might still be embarrassed I was ever hired.
“The truth is beautiful, without doubt, but so are lies.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
The timing was a thing of pure political beauty. President George W. Bush was only a few days away from speaking to the United Nations’ General Assembly about Iraq’s renewed efforts to acquire banned weaponry. And, in a month, the president was going to Congress to seek a resolution approving of a war against Iraq. A Sunday morning story, September 8, 2002, in the New York Times made the U.N. speech and the congressional debate much easier for the White House.
Under the headline, “Threats and Responses: The Iraqis; U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” a 3603 word story by Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller detailed the administration’s case against Saddam Hussein related to weapons of mass destruction. America was about to be scared. Citing “administration officials,” “Iraqi defectors,” and “intelligence sources,” Gordon and Miller wrote that Iraq had attempted to buy the type of aluminum tubes needed for the construction of a gas centrifuge to develop nuclear materials.
“In the last 14 months,” they reported, “Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.”
According to the newspaper’s report, the specifications, including diameter and thickness, had persuaded American officials that the tubes were meant for Iraq’s nuclear program. The duo ticked up the national pulse rate with the news that, “Iraqi defectors who once worked for the nuclear weapons establishment have told American officials that acquiring nuclear arms is again a top Iraqi priority.”
If, however, what Gordon and Miller’s sources had told them was true, and the shipment of tubes had been intercepted in “recent months,” a contradictory opinion on the tubes might have saved them from relentless criticisms, and spared America unnecessary angst. It might have also helped to stop a war.
“I had no reason to believe what I reported at the time was inaccurate,” Judy Miller said during an extensive interview with me in 2003. “I believed the intelligence information I had at the time. I sure didn’t believe they were making it up. This was a learning process. You constantly have to ask the question, ‘What do you know at the time you are writing it?’ We tried really hard to get more information and we vetted information very, very carefully.”
The claims in the Times’ story, however, were not able to be independently corroborated at the time of publication. Miller and Gordon wrote that officials told them that, “the aluminum tubes were intended as casing for rotors in centrifuges, which are one means of producing highly enriched uranium.”
While senior administration officials insisted to the two journalists that the specifications of the tubes, length, thickness, and number, indicated they were destined for use in a gas centrifuge, those specifications were not included in the story the pair filed for the paper. The Times reported that the sensitivity of the intelligence kept the officials from divulging where the tubes came from, or where they were intercepted.
The truth about the scary tubes wasn’t easy to access. But it was available. Correspondent Judy Miller said she and Michael Gordon made numerous calls in an attempt to get differing opinions on the tubes from the intelligence community prior to publishing their original report.
But no one was willing to talk.
“We made many, many calls,” Miller explained. “All of these intelligence analysts and operatives said the same thing, ‘We are not having this conversation.’ Someone had ordered them not to talk. This [story] was a hot one, and they weren’t going to talk about it. Nobody was willing to speak until after we published the first piece on the tubes.”
According to a story in the Washington Post, published almost a year later, the senior administration officials speaking to Gordon and Miller appeared to be talking about a shipment of 3,000 aluminum tubes intercepted in Jordan, bound for Iraq. In July 2001, exactly fourteen months before the Times printed its front page exclusive, a CIA operative, working with Australian intelligence, discovered the tubes going to Baghdad from China. Even though the timing of the delivery coincided with the fact that Iraq had depleted its supply of rocket body tubes, the operative set about trying to convince analysts the tubes were part of an Iraqi scheme to build a gas centrifuge.
The Post’s Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus wrote that missile assembly lines in Iraq had thousands of crated rocket motors and fins awaiting arrival of the tubes at the Nasser factory north of Baghdad. But that information was not reported in newspapers until long after American citizens had been convinced the tubes proved Saddam Hussein was chasing a bomb.
During the late summer of 2002, however, when journalists were first learning of the aluminum tubes, Gellman had trouble finding someone to disagree with the administration. Contradicting science on the purpose of the tubes was gathered between the fall of 2002 and the spring of the war. Throughout the course of this work, government scientists refused to speak with journalists.
“The scientists who disagreed with the White House were effectively silenced,” Gellman said. “The intelligence types were told to keep their mouths shut all the way up to the end. I heard from a lot of people that they weren’t authorized to talk and they weren’t going to, even though there was strong disagreement with the White House over what these tubes were for.”
Judy Miller, who broke the story, encountered the same politically enforced silence within the government. She does not appear to have looked very hard outside of the government.
“We tried to get other intell types to talk,” Miller added. “I went all over looking for data. The White House knew we had been working on this for weeks. And remember what it was like at that time. The drums of war were already beating. But the White House manipulating the New York Times is just bullshit. The timing was ours, not theirs. But they may have worked with it. I mean, if you were the administration, wouldn’t you have used that tubes story for your cause?”
That is exactly what happened. Knowing that the war effort required coordinated information and messaging, Bush chief of staff Andrew Card organized the White House Iraq Group in August. The strategists on that team included the president’s senior political advisor, Karl Rove, who had sharpened his media manipulation skills during the Texas gubernatorial terms of George Bush, and a tough presidential campaign. Karen Hughes, communications counselor and Bush confidante, and Mary Matalin, Republican media expert, also worked with National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby. Stephen J. Hadley, deputy to Secretary Rice, was also a part of the assembled big thinkers.
Convinced that the war’s promotional effort required a constant message campaign, the White House Iraq Group (WHIG)coordinated with senior staffers in Tony Blair’s administration in the United Kingdom, and was in constant contact with U.S. military officers in Kuwait, who were conducting briefings each day during America’s morning network newscasts. The aggressive approach drove the daily news cycles and editorial content of the media. Rove and Hughes, two of the best practitioners there have ever been at “gaming” the media, guided the WHIG. The president’s two closest advisors, Hughes and Rove are masters of an evolutionarily new version of media relations, which they practically invented. The method pitches political interpretation as fact, even in governmental, nonpolitical environments.
And they were all so confident of their skills; the WHIG members chose to let Americans know what was coming. Two days before the New York Times’ story on the tubes of terror, Andy Card was quoted in the paper, explaining why talk of Iraq and the war had diminished during the summer months.
“From a marketing point of view,” he explained. “You don’t introduce new products in August.”
Sunday morning, though, the product was delivered on the front page of the nation’s most influential newspaper, and the story carried the White House’s message of fear, invoking the image of a mushroom cloud over America. The long article offered no voices of dissent on administration claims that Iraq had accelerated its pace of nuclear development. The journalistic coup, however, was by White
House design, and not just a failure of the Times’ writers. The WHIG had sent out word to the government intelligence and scientific communities that no one was to dispute administration claims about the aluminum tubes.
The lie was, however, in danger of being revealed. The White House was in a hurry to give the story some validity because, in the intelligence community, the allegations about the tubes had already been discredited, if not publicly. When journalists finally spoke with scientists about the discovery, they were certain to learn the administration’s charges about Saddam Hussein and the aluminum tubes were, either uninformed, or blatant lies.
To create the beginnings of war hysteria and nuclear phobia, the White House Iraq Group had planned to immediately execute a tactic that created a media echo chamber. The same Sunday morning that the tubes story was splattered on the front page of the Times, the Bush administration dispatched the vice president, the national security advisor, and the secretary of state, to elevate the buzz on the network talk shows. A false story had been planted, was given credibility by a leading publication, and then the people who benefited from the one-sided information appeared on national television to corroborate the value of their bad evidence.
On NBC’s Meet the Press with Tim Russert, Vice President Dick Cheney warned Americans that Hussein was taking all the steps necessary to end up with a nuclear warhead, and he made it sound as if the question of the aluminum tubes was not subject to verification by science.
“And what we’ve seen recently that has raised our level of concern to the current state of unrest, if you will, if I can put it in those terms,” Cheney told Russert. “Is that he now is trying, through his illicit procurement network, to acquire the equipment he needs to be able to enrich uranium to make the bombs.”
“Aluminum tubes?” the moderator asked, having read the Sunday Times.
“Specifically, aluminum tubes,” the vice president explained. “There’s a story in the New York Times this morning, this is, I don’t, and I want to attribute the Times. I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it’s now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge. And the centrifuge is required to take low-grade uranium and enhance it into highly enriched uranium, which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.”
Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, who cannot hide his discomfort when nuclear explosions are mentioned, went on Fox News and mentioned “specialized aluminum tubing,” and referred to the Times’ piece with the words, “We saw in reporting . . .”
The strongest assertions were on CNN’s Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, where National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice insisted that the tubes were “only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs,” and she argued that Hussein was “actively pursuing a nuclear weapon.” Almost astonishingly, Rice parroted words the reporters had used in their story in the Times, raising immediate suspicion she was one of the unidentified sources of the story.
“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” she said.
The smoking gun to prove that these tubes were not for use in a gas centrifuge was likely an Internet address. According to Newsweek magazine, Iraq’s purchase order for the aluminum tubes was posted on the Web. The White House surely did not think Hussein wanted the United States to get advance notice he was working on a nuclear bomb. Clearly, a vast intelligence network was not essential for the Bush administration to learn about the tubes. Hussein had put the information on the Internet.
Regardless, a frenzy of follow-up stories covered front pages of newspapers and filled the broadcast and cable news shows for days.
In some cases, reporters did not even bother with attribution for claims about the tubes. Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, in her nationally broadcast story the next day, flatly stated, “They were the kind of tubes only used in a centrifuge to make nuclear fuel.” Her colleague, White House correspondent Norah O’Donnell had already called the tube news, “An alarming disclosure.” By the time President Bush stood before the United Nations’ General Assembly later that week, the aluminum tubes had slipped into the national collective consciousness as indisputable proof Saddam Hussein had his finger on a nuclear trigger.
There were several resources in a position to discredit the Bush administration’s allegations about Iraq’s aluminum tubes after the original story had broken in the Times. Andrea Mitchell must have failed to order her producer to make a call to the International Atomic Energy Agency; had she done so, she was likely to have been told the specifications of the aluminum tubes meant they were going to be used in rocket production. An Italian rocket, the Medusa 81, used body tubes that matched down to the fraction of a millimeter those being pushed by the White House as proof of a nuclear weapons’ gas centrifuge under construction in Iraq. All of the dimensions and the type of alloy were precisely the same as those needed for Iraq to create copies of the Medusa 81. Further, U.S. analysts in Iraq had taken a photo of one of the tubes, which appeared to be identical to those intercepted. The logo of the Italian manufacturer of Medusa was on the side, and, clearly visible, was a label: “81mm rocket.”
When he spoke before the United Nations, however, Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to deflect the idea that the tubes were meant for rocket production. He argued several batches of tubes had been intercepted and that they showed a “progression to higher and higher levels of specification, including in the latest batch an anodized coating on extremely smooth inner and outer surfaces.”
“Why,” Powell wondered, “would they continue refining the specifications, go to all that trouble for something that, if it was a rocket, would soon be blown into shrapnel when it went off?”
Unwittingly, the secretary of state had confirmed that the tubes were not for a gas centrifuge, though neither journalists nor the wider world happened to notice. Anodized coating helps aluminum resist corrosion, and rusted rocket bodies had ruined most of Iraq’s previous arsenal. More specifically, according to scientists later quoted by the Washington Post, the anodized coating had to be removed for the tubes to be used in a gas centrifuge. What the White House also knew from intelligence reports, but refused to share with the American public, was that Iraq had two blueprints for a gas enrichment centrifuge. Those plans had been stolen somewhere in Europe, and required a hard steel alloy, not aluminum, for the rotors.
The specs for the other stolen design listed carbon fiber rotors. In fact, aluminum rotors had not been used in centrifuge construction since the 1950s, and the shipment being touted as evidence of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions were too long, the walls excessively thick, and the tube diameters too narrow.
These conclusions had all been reached by scientists after the details of the intercepted tube shipment had been circulated through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a year earlier. Their unanimous findings were supported by Houston G. Wood, III, who founded the Oak Ridge centrifuge physics department. Considered to be the world’s expert on the subject matter, Wood said, “It would have been extremely difficult to make these tubes into centrifuges. It stretches the imagination to come up with a way. I do not know any real centrifuge experts that feel differently.”
Wood’s scientific conclusion, and those of his colleagues, was known to the White House almost a year before the story about the tubes appeared in the New York Times. The White House Iraq Group, however, had managed to suppress dissenting opinions within the government’s scientific community to the point that none were available when Miller and Gordon were making calls for their initial report. Not surprisingly, either, no one bothered to include Wood’s opinion in the National Intelligence Estimate, being prepared for the White House as the tubes story was playing out in the media.
Eventually, in front of the United Nations, Colin Powell included the esteemed scientist Wood in the same category with the Iraqis.
“Most U.S. experts,” Powell said, “think they [tubes] are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Other experts, and the Iraqis themselves, say the tubes were really for rockets.”
Powell, whose reputation for integrity was unparalleled in Washington, was either easily hoodwinked by government bureaucracies, or he simply lied. The vast majority of scientists with expertise in the development of nuclear material disagreed with the White House about the tubes.
In the Post, Wood described Powell’s statement as a “personal slam at everybody in the DOE.” [Department of Energy]
“I’ve been grouped with the Iraqis, is what it amounts to,” he said. “I just felt that the wording of that was probably intentional, but it was also not very kind. It did not recognize that dissent can exist.”
The Institute for Science and International Security was busily dissenting, regardless. Based in Washington, the organization had prepared a report analyzing the White House’s allegations related to Iraq’s nuclear potential. The lengthy treatise, written by nuclear physicist David Allbright, an Iraqi arms inspector during the 1990s, concluded the Bush administration’s claims about the aluminum tubes were without merit. Allbright, who had been a member of a team sent to Iraq by the International Atomic Energy Agency, interviewed a number of researchers and analysts for his October 9, 2002, report.
The findings showed that the anodized coating of Saddam’s tubes was the surest sign that they were not designed for use as parts in a gas centrifuge. The coating had to be machined off before they were installed in any kind of uranium separator. Allbright had also spoken with scientists at Oak Ridge’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in California, who strongly disagreed with the White House’s analysis of the tubes, and they told Allbright they had been ordered by the Bush administration to keep quiet.
“This is the problem with reporting on the intelligence community,” Judy Miller said. “You can only write what you know. And if no one else will give you contradicting information, you try to give your readers a sense of where the information is coming from that you are using. The naysayers on that [the tubes] story did not come out of the closet until afterwards.”
London’s authoritative International Institute for Strategic Studies, though, also issued a report about the same time as Allbright’s organization. The data was counter to the paranoia the White House Iraq Group was selling to the public.
“Iraq does not possess facilities to produce fissile material in sufficient amounts for nuclear weapons. It would require several years and extensive foreign assistance to build such fissile material production facilities,” the report stated.
The absolute refutation of the aluminum tubes story was already more than a year old when Michael Gordon and Judith Miller broke the aluminum tubes story in the Times. Apparently, though, they were unable to immediately find opinions divergent from the “administration sources” and “intelligence analysts,” whose frightening assessments of the tubes meant that, if we did not act, there were certain to be “mushroom clouds” in America. Presumably, the reporters contacted non-governmental organizations in Washington that monitor nuclear weapons issues, as well as government agencies.
Miller and Gordon, who were later accused of being used by the administration, found themselves in a tough spot. Over the course of several weeks, they had been developing sources that had told them the tubes were a part of an attempt by Hussein to build a uranium enrichment facility. But they did not come up with sources to refute that allegation. Ethically, were they supposed to not report this information if they were unable to find a different scientific opinion? The most brutal criticisms came from people who argued the two simply did not try hard enough to find other perspectives.
When I asked Judy Miller if she had contacted any of the nongovernmental organizations about scientific data on the aluminum tubes, she demurred.
“I’m not about to discuss whom we called,” she wrote in an August 2003 e-mail. “That would get into sources, the protection of which is sacrosanct as far as I’m concerned.”
But Washington was supposedly filled with people who knew those aluminum tubes had nothing to do with nuclear proliferation. One of them was Greg Thielmann. He was retiring as the head of the State Department’s Office of Strategic Proliferation and Military Affairs. According to Thielmann, “The most knowledgeable people in the U.S. government believed that this was not the kind of aluminum that the Iraqis would have been seeking to use in centrifuges for uranium enrichment.”
Drama-driven, oh-my-God journalism, had, however, taken root, and fear was selling newspapers and cranking up television newscast ratings. By the end of the week, the President was before the United Nations’ General Assembly, adding White House authority to the fable that the confiscated tubes were for making nuclear fuel.
“Iraq,” he told the world, “has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon. Should Iraq acquire fissile material, it would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year.”
Reporters covering the president’s trip were given what was labeled as a “fact sheet,” detailing claims made in the president’s speech. In it, White House analysts said Saddam Hussein was trying to make chemical weapons, biological agents, and was pursuing a nuclear program.
Less than a week from their story that had launched the aluminum tube hysteria, Judith Miller and Michael Gordon were once more reporting what they were told by the Bush administration. In a piece about a third as long as their previous Sunday expose, they did finally acknowledge that there was a debate about the purpose of the aluminum tubes. Unfortunately, the reporters did not include anyone in their story who disagreed with the White House’s version of reality.
A “senior administration official” told them that it was a “minority view” among intelligence experts that Iraq had acquired the aluminum tubes to construct a multiple launch rocket system. Karl Rove, who has always insisted on being referred to as “a senior administration official,” and his White House Iraq Group were running so fast that the truth did not begin to get real traction until December.
Bob Simon of CBS’s 60 Minutes interviewed David Allbright, the weapons inspector whose findings had strongly contradicted the president’s charges against Iraq. According to a transcript of the interview,Allbright indicated there was almost no support for the administration’s suspicions of the tubes as parts of a potential centrifuge.
“People who understood gas centrifuges,” Allbright told Simon, “Almost uniformly felt that these tubes were not specific to gas centrifuge use.”
“It seems that what you’re suggesting,” the correspondent said, “Is that the administration’s leak to the New York Times, regarding aluminum tubes, was misleading?”
“Oh, I think it was. I think it was very misleading.”
Judith Miller vehemently denied she was a recipient of a White House leak.
“We worked our asses off to get that story,” she said. “No one leaked anything to us. I reported what I knew at the time. I wish I were omniscient. I wish I were God, and had all the information I had needed. But I’m not God, and I don’t know. All I can rely on is what people tell me. That’s all any investigative reporter can do. And if you find out that it’s not true, you go back and you write that. And I did that. You just keep chipping away on an assertion until you find out what stands up.”
Of course, that’s not the way journalism really works. Otherwise, reporters could easily be replaced with stenographers and people to read and publish e-mail news releases. Actually, if Miller had spoken to one of the various scientific organizations when she wrote the first story, including the leading groups in her own country, she would have learned there was almost no chance the tubes were going into a centrifuge. Her list of interview subjects needed to include contradictory voices and opinions on the uses of the aluminum tubes. There was certainly plenty of them out there.
There remains the confounding matter of a journalist’s obligation to report. Presented with authoritative sources making claims that an enemy dictator is trying to build a uranium gas centrifuge to make a nuclear weapon, the journalist is compelled to deliver that information to the public. In a story of this nature, are the assertions may be too significant to be withheld until a skeptical source can be developed? This reasoning often creates misleading impressions. If a reporter writes only what they know at the time and that data comes only from a source with one perspective, a reader or viewer can readily conclude they have just experienced fact. A refutation, in the form of a follow-up story, often does not receive the same prominence or promotion, and that results in the original report having greater veracity. Either way, in the case of the aluminum tubes story, it was too late. The story was alive, and it was never completely retracted or repudiated by the prominent newspaper that had initially put it in front of the American public.
Miller and Gordon’s inability to find a divergent opinion in a city full of political minds, scientists, and think tanks, has remained a perplexing mystery among their colleagues. But the words of war had been written. And more were coming; equally flawed, potentially lies.
The White House had mixed up journalists’ ambitions with misleading intelligence and brewed up a myth that yielded a powerful national belief in its illusion. A political Sasquatch, the aluminum tubes story was the first to begin banging the drums of conflict. The truth, finally, was tortured until it was no longer recognizable.
And the sons and daughters of America were sent marching off to war wearing the boots of a well-told lie.
The war in Iraq began ten years ago as American forces began the invasion. In a few days, we began counting our first casualties. Within a few more weeks, I was on the road traveling the country to talk to families of people serving in the conflict. Some of these were families of the fallen. Eventually, I was also able to interview survivors and commanding officers who had been involved in the initial tragedies of friendly fire deaths and a battalion that lost its way. This is the first of two parts of that story.
“Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.” – Otto von Bismarck
When the orders came over the radio, both of the young Marines were worried. 1st Lt. Ben Reid, and the platoon’s other officer, 2nd Lt. Fred Pokorney, talked quietly about the sudden change of strategy from battalion headquarters. A month had been spent working out a detailed plan to bypass the Iraqi city of Al Nasiriyah, after Charlie Company had crossed the Euphrates River. Three companies of Marines, Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, were to secure three separate bridges on the north and south sides of Al Nasiriyah.
Already, though, something had gone wrong.
“If we don’t take those bridges now, regiment will give away our missions.” The battalion commander’s voice over the combat network was clear, and distinct. “So, we are going to run the gauntlet. Alpha, you take the southern bridge. Charlie, you take the northern bridge.”
Reid and Pokorney spoke privately, acknowledging their fears to each other, but not their troops. Pokorney, though, had no doubt about what the orders meant
“We’re dead,” he told Ben Reid.
Tanks, which were supposed to provide them armored support, had just been called away on a rescue mission, and still Charlie Company was being ordered to go straight up “ambush alley,” a main thoroughfare in the center of Al Nasiriyah. Commanders had decided there was no time to wait for the return of the tanks. Al Nasiriyah needed to be controlled by the Americans, and neither Pentagon planners nor the White House was exhibiting much patience for a more calculated approach to battle. There was tremendous political pressure to prove that a small invasion force had the strength to move quickly and decisively onto Baghdad.
The stretch of road in front of Charlie Company was known to be occupied by Iraqi irregulars, and Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen fighters, who had set up firing positions, and were hiding in buildings, waiting to attack. This information was the reason leadership had chosen a strategy of skirting the city, after taking the southern bridge over the Euphrates. Alpha and Charlie companies were then expected to close on the two northern bridges across the Saddam Canal.
A few hours earlier, Ben Reid and Fred Pokorney had gotten their first look at combat. Charlie Company, positioned at the rear of a column advancing up the main supply route, had moved northward as part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade at 3:00 a.m. Around first light, the two young men saw Iraqis firing at the approaching Marines.
“From what I remember,” Reid said. “First contact with the enemy was a few mortar rounds the Iraqis were shooting at us from the rooftop of a building. The front of the column also came into contact with machine guns, and I remember the anxiousness of the Marines in contact to employ their weapons systems.”
As he listened on the radio, Reid gathered information on enemy positions, unfolded his map, and marked Iraqi and friendly positions with blue and red dots. Information off the combat network radio led him to believe the Marines out front were doing a good job of hitting their targets. Reid was encouraged. In the middle of the night on the Iraqi desert, while his platoon was preparing to move out, Ben Reid had spoken with several soldiers in a huge convoy moving through his own company’s lines. He was surprised to learn that none of the personnel, junior officers, or senior staff non-commissioned officers had any maps of the area in which they were being deployed. Reid was pleased that he and Pokorney seemed to be more prepared for the coming challenges.
The morning of March 23rd was already expected to be significant in the military career of Fred Pokorney. Not only was he getting his first combat experience, the 6’7” Marine was scheduled for promotion to 1st Lieutenant. Ben Reid had told his friend to plan on a brief ceremony acknowledging Pokorney’s rise in rank, after they had accomplished their mission of taking the northernmost bridge over the canal.
Pokorney and Reid had become friends on the long ocean voyage from the U.S. to Kuwait. The two had shared a state room on the ship with several other junior officers. Pokorney was with Bravo Company, and had been attached to Charlie Company to serve as an artillery forward observer in an infantry rifle company. Standard Marine procedures, these types of rotations are designed to give officers experience in a number of different military disciplines. Pokorney, however, might have remained with his artillery unit, and been relatively safe in the rear.
But he asked for a change of orders.
His wife, Chelle Pokorney, did not learn of her husband’s plans until he was preparing to leave for the Persian Gulf.
“After September 11th, Fred was very eager, and willing to do something about what had happened to our country,” she said. “But he didn’t tell me he was going over with the infantry until the last minute. He was in the infantry before he became an officer, and joined the artillery.”
If the Marine Corps’ advertising agency had ever stumbled across Fred Pokorney, Jr., they might have used him as the new, national poster board Marine. Pokorney’s dark eyes conveyed the kind of determination Marines have used to accomplish history’s most difficult military goals. A photo during his days as an enlisted Marine showed him kneeling in the front of three officers, and holding the company banner on a guidon.
Discipline was not what Fred Pokorney was looking for in the Marines. He already had that characteristic. Born with a hardened will, no one had ever heard him indulge in remorse or self-pity. Things were just what they were, he believed; you learned how to deal with circumstance, not make excuses, and if you were man enough, you excelled. Nonetheless, Pokorney was probably hoping the Marines might become his family. As a child, his existence was disrupted by the divorce of his parents, and the nomadic nature of his father’s work. Fred Pokorney wanted a permanent home.
After a promising basketball career was ended by an injury during his freshman year in college, Pokorney went to work in the silver mines of Tonopah, Nevada, where he had attended high school. In a few years, he enlisted in the Marines; his focused self-discipline, and rigorous attention to detail brought him a quick promotion to sergeant. In Pokorney, Marine commanders knew they had a natural, and they offered to pay for his college education, which, ultimately, qualified him to become a commissioned officer after attending Officer Candidate School (OCS.)
Wade Lieseke, a decorated Vietnam veteran who became Pokorney’s adopted father, was worried about his son joining the Marines.
“I remember when Fred said he was gonna be an artillery officer, I was thinking, ‘Oh God, at least he’ll be safe.’ The artillery is in the rear. It never occurred to me they’d have an artillery forward observer. In my day, airplanes did that.
“But he wanted to be a Marine,” Lieseke said. “He said they were the best and he wanted to be part of the best.”
Before the Marines sent him off for an education at Oregon State University, Fred Pokorney was stationed at the Bangor Marine Barracks in Washington State, a submarine base. He met Carolyn Rochelle Schulgen, a nursing student, and they married. Around the time he earned his degree in history and political science, the Pokorneys learned they were going to be parents. After Chelle pinned his officer’s bars onto his shoulder at a commissioning ceremony, the young family, Fred, Chelle, and Taylor, went east to the Fleet Marine Force at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He spent more than a year in OCS and artillery training. Upon completion of those courses, Fred Pokorney became a “Mustang,” an enlisted Marine who had earned the rank of officer. He had finally achieved the stability that had been missing from his childhood; the honor and pride of the Marines fortified his already strong personal character. The Marines were his family, and his devotion to the corps took him away from Chelle and Taylor.
During the two hundred kilometer roll from northern Kuwait to the Jalibah Airfield south of Al Nasiriyah, where the Marines were to encamp, Pokorney frequently brought up the subject of his wife and daughter to Lt. Ben Reid. Inside the amphibious assault vehicle, as the tracks ground against the desert sand and the rank smell of diesel filled their lungs, Fred Pokorney was sharing pictures of his girls playing in the snow back in the Carolinas.
“Here we are, advancing on the enemy, and he’s showing us all pictures of Chelle and Taylor,” Reid said. “He was so proud of them and loved them so much. Fred was, I mean, Fred was a great husband, and the most honorable guy you could ever meet. He had good, strong values. This was the kind of guy you would want your own daughter to meet and marry.”
He was also the kind of Marine that Reid wanted in his unit as they approached enemy fire. Up ahead, the tanks from Marine Task Force Tarawa had been sent forward to rescue soldiers from the 507th Mechanized Company, a maintenance and technical support group from Fort Bliss, Texas, which had lost direction, and had fallen victim to an Iraqi ambush. Lacking adequate communications, and their automatic weapons jammed by desert sand, the mechanics were pinned down by withering Iraqi fire until the Marines pulled them out for evacuation to the rear. A series of wrong turns had led the 507th to disaster.
On the combat radio network, Reid heard a voice claiming that the 507th was attacked by Iraqi soldiers faking surrender. The description of events indicated the Iraqis had been waving white flags to lure the Americans into a position where they were easy targets for machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Although there is no evidence, or narrative testimony to prove the deception actually occurred, the information was repeated by battalion communications headquarters, picked up by embedded journalists, and dispatched to the United States as fact. Before the day of March 23rd had concluded, the story was also used to explain what had happened to the fifty four man platoon commanded by Lt. Ben Reid. But nothing of the sort ever happened to either the 507th or the Marine companies. Neither the Army nor the Marines offered any understanding of where the story originated, or why it was never clarified.
“I still don’t know where that came from,” Reid said. “It was just on the comms net, and the reporters started broadcasting it. A lot of stuff that’s been in the media, about what happened to us and the 507th, is wrong. It needs to be cleared up.”
As Reid and Pokorney’s unit edged up the road with their company just south of Al Nasiryah and the Euphrates River Bridge, they saw Cobra helicopters, and F-18 Hornets making passes near the city. The helicopters fired at a tree line, and red smoke from the trail of their Zuni rockets floated across the sky. Reid, the fire support team leader, wanted to know who or what was being engaged by the aircraft, and radioed battalion for information. The positions of the targets might be valuable when he began to coordinate his own combat fire. Although he reached commanders on the combat network, Reid got no answers. Just short of the bridge over the Euphrates River, Charlie Company came upon burning T-55 Russian tanks. A few, unmanned, also appeared untouched. Several vehicles belonging to the Army’s 507th Mechanized were in flames. A ball of fire consumed a large, armored truck used for logistical support.
Alpha Company, which had taken the Euphrates Bridge, had set up in a herringbone position to protect their location, and as Reid and Pokorney’s Marines moved through their ranks to cross the river, sporadic small arms fire was audible on the edge of the Iraqi city. Original orders for Charlie Company were to follow Bravo Company to the east, and avoid “ambush alley.” Unfortunately, visual contact with Bravo had been lost, and simple radio communications failed.
“I hate to say this, sir,” Ben Reid explained. “But you gotta remember, our radios were built by the lowest bidder. We had all kinds of problems with our combat comms network. And once all these different companies started taking fire, there was an unbelievable number of people trying to talk on that one combat net. Anything you wanted to say kept getting stepped on by other people jumping on the air.”
As a result, Reid’s company commander had no idea what had happened to Bravo after it had crossed the Euphrates. If Bravo was stuck in the mud off to the east, Charlie was certain to jeopardize the mission of securing the northern bridges by taking the same route. Everyone might end up bogged down, immobilized, and exposed to Iraqi attack. Reid was told by his commander that it was likely Bravo had made a run up “ambush alley” to get to their objective of the first canal bridge. But he didn’t really know what maneuver had been executed by Bravo. Immediately, Reid knew what that meant, and when new orders from battalion command passed over the net confirming his fears, Charlie Company began moving into the city of Al Nasiriyah, making a direct course up “ambush alley.”
Very quickly, Reid and Pokorney’s men encountered small arms fire. Their ten amphibious assault vehicles, (referred to by Marines as amtracks, or tracks,) and two Humvees, were armed with .50 caliber machine guns and nineteen 40 millimeter grenade launchers. Returning fire, the convoy hurried through the crude urban reaches of Al Nasiriyah. Bullets pinged off the side of the Americans’ tracked vehicles, and enemy fire dramatically intensified the further north they traveled into the city. While the Marines configured their armor in a combat-oriented position, on their right, to the east, they saw modest, low structures, mud huts uncommon in more developed cities. The other side of the road was lined with office buildings, and architecture slightly more peculiar to the commerce of a mid-sized city, though few structures rose to more than four or five stories in height. Iraqi gunners had set up fields of fire from hidden posts inside of mud huts, and the more modern, small office structures.
Ramp doors at the rear of some of the tracks were partially open. Lt. Fred Pokorney, and the mortar men, who would not be active until the convoy stopped, were using their M-16s to return Iraqi fire. Pokorney called out that a track, just to the rear of the one in which he and Reid were traveling, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and caught fire. Four Marines were wounded. But the platoon kept pushing up through Al Nasiriyah. Exposed through the open door, Pokorney was suddenly hit in the right arm by a bullet, and fell to the floor.
“Hey, I’m hit,” he yelled to Reid over the intercom. “Hurts like hell. I’m fine. I’m fine. I was just nicked. I’ll be all right. Don’t worry about it.”
Still under attack from RPGs and small arms weaponry, Reid’s platoon crossed the two northern bridges over the canal. In the center of the road, 200 meters north, a track was burning. Reid’s own track #C-208 stopped between the bridge and the burning vehicle. The remaining vehicles in his platoon quickly configured into a combat position on either of the road. As Reid hastily jumped down, he saw dusty agricultural fields and drained swampland spread beyond the canal and the raised roadbed. Iraqis were directing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at his platoon from a few nearby buildings.
Reid and Pokorney, like the men serving at their side, had little intelligence about the military strength of their enemy. Political pressure from the White House had led commanders of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to portray an excessively optimistic and expeditious campaign. Briefings in advance of the attack on Al Nasiriyah indicated the operation to secure the bridges, and control the city, was expected to take about six hours. Instead, fighting went on for eight days before the Marines were able to take complete control. Intelligence was supposedly unclear on Iraqi troop numbers in the region, and whether the soldiers were Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen fighters, Republican Guard, or Iraqi irregulars and citizens, who often acted as observers or carried bombs.
Foreign intelligence sources later reported the Americans were battling an estimated 40,000 troops of the Iraqi 3rd Army Corps. Armaments deployed against U.S. soldiers, most of them oblivious to what they were confronting, included 250 tanks, approximately 100 mortars and 100 artillery, as well as 1000 rocket propelled grenade launchers and anti-tank guided missiles. In terms of sheer troop strength, the Iraqis doubled the number of American soldiers approaching from the south in the U.S. 3rd Motorized Infantry Division, though the U.S. offensive was supported by considerably more armor; 200 tanks, 150 artillery pieces, and 600 armored vehicles. By doctrine, U.S. military planners always try to have a three to one force ratio against an enemy. In this case, the Americans were simply outnumbered.
Grabbing the maps he had marked, and his flak jacket and helmet, Reid threw them to the ground as he jumped. The ramp at the back of the track was still up and he banged loudly to order his men out of the vehicle to take cover below the roadbed, along the canal. Reid began linking up his mortars to return fire on enemy locations. Using the guns on the tracks first, he got one of them to focus on a huge building near the T-intersection on the east side of the road. The two other weapons mounted on the track were pointed back to the southwest in the direction of Al Nasiriyah, where Reid assumed most of the heaviest fire was originating. Over the noise of explosions, he shouted at his Marines to pick up the pace of their fire. The mortars began to hit the targets Reid had selected. But there was trouble with the fire support team on the track.
Radio communications were not working.
“We’ve got no comm. on arty conduct of fire or our 81s,” Pokorney told Reid.
“Okay,” Reid answered. “Let’s forget those nets. Take a look at this map.” Lt. Reid pointed at spots he had marked. “We need suppression or duration suppression on these positions. See if you can pass them over the battalion net.”
“Got it,” Pokorney answered.
“I’m going to fight our 60s,” Reid said, as he left the safety of the track. “They’re all we’ve got right now.”
Outside, Reid moved along the road, trying to find targets. One of the Marines in his platoon pointed out a group of vehicles, and Reid ordered all the guns on the tracks to try to take them out of the fight. Directed fire from the Americans did not appear to reduce the intensity of the Iraqi attack.
Staff Sergeant Phil Jordan ran up the road to talk to Reid.
“Sir, Torres has been hit,” Jordan said.
There was no way Reid might have prepared himself for such news. His first time in combat, the young lieutenant was stunned by word that one of his men was down. Briefly, Reid admitted, he lost his focus. Jordan, who must have seen the shock on his commander’s face, offered reassurance as RPG explosions, and rounds from small arms filled the air.
“Don’t worry, sir,” Jordan said. “I’ve already killed two or three Iraqis, so we’re even.”
“Okay, Staff Sergeant,” Reid answered, regaining his composure. “I need you to run and get the fifty cals focusing their rounds back into the city. Have them fight the close fight. I’ll get the mortars to take on targets 2000 meters and beyond.”
As Jordan ran off to find machine gunners, one of Reid’s forward observers was coming down the road with the radio. Another platoon had called asking for fire support because they were taking incoming from Iraqi mortars. On the radio, Reid said he had all of his weapons in the fight, and he was doing everything possible. Seconds after the Marine had left with the radio, Reid found himself on his back, looking up at small arms rounds cutting through the air.
“Get the fuck down,” Fred Pokorney screamed. “You’re getting us all shot at.”
Reid had been tackled by Pokorney, the Tonopah, Nevada All Star football player. Before leaving to call in the artillery missions, Pokorney had noticed that Reid was standing up, and seemed almost oblivious to the danger he was attracting to himself and the rest of the Marines.
“I was glad Fred told me I was being an idiot,” Reid said. “He probably saved my head from getting blown off. “
Only seconds after Pokorney had rolled off of Reid, Phil Jordan returned to ask his commander how they might be able to improve their combat posture. The two Marines agreed their mortars needed to be more widely dispersed.
“Espinoza, come up here and take my place spotting,” Reid yelled. “I’m going to take Garibay’s gun south.”
Reid ordered Corporal Jose A. Garibay’s mortar crew to follow him down toward the canal, a spot about sixty meters south of their present location, but still north of the bridge. Staff Sergeant Phil Jordan followed with two cans of ammo. As they ran, Reid failed to notice their positions were being bracketed by Iraqi RPG gunners. One round landed long. The next fell short. The subsequent explosion was long, but closer to the Americans. The Iraqis were walking their shots onto target by adjusting off of each previous explosion.
As Reid and his men set up the mortar, they realized they did not bring a wiz wheel, which was needed for calibrating the range of their targets. A Marine ran back to grab the device while Reid put in the aiming stake. His men, however, were unsure of shooting without precise calculations from the wiz wheel. Reid told the mortar crew to estimate an elevation based upon previous missions fired. The lieutenant grabbed a round, and dropped it in to sink the base plate. Down range, they spotted the location of the explosion, and Reid dropped two more rounds into the tube to make corrections on the targets based on where the previous rounds had landed.
“I guess that was kind of stupid,” Reid said later. “I had no idea really where those rounds were going to land. But I wanted to get a round out there quickly, and adjust off of it. Besides, I didn’t want to just sit there, and do nothing, while we were under fire, other than wait for a wiz wheel.”
When the Marine returned with the wiz wheel for the mortar, he was trailed by Fred Pokorney. Most of the gun crew was provided protection in a partial defilade around the mortar. Reid was up near the aiming stake, spotting the mortar rounds. Iraqi RPG explosions were coming closer, each concussion registering more powerfully on the Marines’ eardrums.
“I got those nine arty missions passed over the battalion net,” Pokorney yelled to Reid.
“Are they the positions I gave you?”
A few seconds after Pokorney had spoken, an explosion knocked Ben Reid back onto the road. The force of the blast was felt in his arm, which Reid thought had been blown off. When he saw the arm still hanging at his side, Reid assumed it had been broken by the explosion. The lieutenant lay in the road waiting for the ringing in his ears to cease.
The first words he heard were devastating.
“Sir, Buessing is dead.”
Ben Reid, the young Annapolis graduate, in his first combat command, had suffered an initial death among his men. Turning, Lt. Reid saw Lance Corporal Brian R. Buessing, and recognized from the wounds that his Marine had been killed instantly. Buessing died serving in the same Charlie Company mortar squad in which his grandfather had won a Silver Star during the Korean War.
Reid was uncertain of what to do next, both fear and responsibility for the rest of his men racing through his head. Two other bodies lay not far from where Buessing had fallen. Reid ran to the nearest and rolled the Marine over to see who it was. Staff Sergeant Phil Jordan was also dead. The other man down was 2nd Lt. Fred Pokorney, his hulking frame lay twisted near where the round had exploded. Reid assumed Pokorney had also been killed.
“I didn’t go check on Fred,” Reid said. “I just assumed from the way he was laying, he was dead. I know he wasn’t moving. But I couldn’t see any physical injuries. I know he was at least injured by that round. I just made an assumption about Fred. Maybe it was a bad assumption.”
In a moment of doubt, Reid worried that his men had been hit by his own improperly calibrated mortar rounds. On the road, the men were slightly down range from the mortar positions, though they were considerably offline from the guns’ directions. Reid also feared that he had given Pokorney the wrong coordinates of Iraqi targets to radio into artillery operations.
“I don’t think that was it, though,” Reid explained. “If an artillery round had landed there, it would have killed all of us. And I know I wasn’t off by five kilometers on the coordinates. There’s no way I could have missed by that far.”
What Reid described as a “magic round” had also wounded three of this other men, including Coporal Garibay, Corporal Jorge A. Gonzalez, and Private First Class Tamario D. Burkett. Uncertain of the extent of injuries to his troops, Reid ordered Garibay to keep everyone in place until he returned with medical assistance. RPG rounds were consistently exploding closer and closer to Reid’s platoon. Crouching down, he turned and ran in the direction of his track.
In the low sky to the north, an American A-10 Thunderbolt jet, known as the “Warthog,” and the “tank killer,” made a turn and lined up for a gun run down the raised canal road where Reid’s men had fallen.
Twenty years ago today TV cameraman Kirk Swann and I raced to a spot outside of Waco where ATF agents were in a firefight with a religious fanatic and his followers. The next 51 days turned into an American tragedy that I don’t believe we’ve bothered to take the full measure of. Below is my final report on the US Government’s standoff with the Branch Davidians. It is nothing like what we are being asked to believe. – JM
A gray, photocopied map with the tracings of yellow highlighter was on the passenger seat of the new Isuzu sport utility truck. Jim Peeler was trying to drive, read the map, and talk on his cell phone. The lowering sky and wet roads complicated his tasks. Frustrated, he touched a speed dial button on his cell phone.
“Dan, I can’t find this place. Are you sure you know where it is?”
“You just need to find EE Ranch Road, Jim.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do for about an hour, Dan. This map ain’t much of a help, either. And the weather sucks.”
Waco television photographer Jim Peeler had been given only vague directions to his destination. His KWTX-TV colleague, Dan Mulloney, was taking the lead on the story. Mulloney’s sources had told him to be near the location of a religious commune east of Waco, off of U.S Highway 6, EE Ranch Road, and the Old Mexia Road. Reporter John McLemore and Mulloney were to approach the site along the ranch road, which dropped south off of the state highway. To ensure the TV crews did not miss law officers as they arrived or departed the location called Mt. Carmel, Mulloney had asked Peeler to come up the two-lane from the south and be ready with his camera.
Out the window of his new truck, Peeler saw the buffalo grass lying flat with moisture and the winter fields in a lingering brown. A year earlier, February had shown a bloom of wildflowers; bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush in purples and red had spread across this same section of Texas prairie. Peeler wished for a bright day. He did not like the feel of this heavy air and its cold weight. Before he had loaded his camera gear into his truck that morning, Peeler had been disturbed by a lack of information about this assignment. Just the day before, on Saturday, the television photographer had confided to his wife and a close friend about his discomfort over the upcoming story. The weather had felt like an additional clue to a dread he had begun to sense.
“Have you ever felt darkness?” he asked. “Or just blackness. I honest to God felt that all weekend long and when I got up that morning. I told my wife about it, what I was feeling, and she told me not to go. But, you know, I had to. It’s my job. I’ve got a family. And I thought I was just being silly, you know, superstitious. But I think it was what most people feel before lightning strikes them.”
“Just don’t go, James,” Peeler’s wife had urged.
All sinew and bone with narrow hips and overworked shoulders, Peeler had dressed for the weather, putting on a heavy pullover with the British Broadcasting Corporation’s logo on the front, a tee shirt, and a windbreaker. The extra layers made him less agile in dealing with his bulky TV equipment. Behind the wheel of his truck, Peeler looked at the scattered ranch houses and mobile homes, trying to find the cutoff to the ranch road. Nothing promising or hopeful had yet occurred that morning.
Within a few hours of Peeler’s wandering lost on the back roads outside of Waco, I, along with dozens of other journalists from across the planet, found ourselves racing to a remote location where federal agents surrounded a community headed by a religious zealot. We listened to daily lies, distortions, and calculated misinformation that we had no real way to contradict or question because of a lack of alternative sources. Fifty one days were to pass before the unimaginable conclusion. My friend Jim Peeler still blames himself for much of the tragedy.
Relentlessly hard working, talented, and likable, the Waco TV photographer Jim Peeler ought to have reached financial comfort and professional acclaim. Both had eluded him. A man with a soft voice and abundant thoughtfulness, Peeler was earning around $17,000 annually the year he stepped into the political and weapons crossfire of the Branch Davidian standoff. Individuals like Peeler, in any profession, were not expected to fail. Unfortunately, success in television journalism often requires deft political as well as reporting skills. Peeler did not possess that kind of personality.
The morning that Jim Peeler and two of his KWTX-TV colleagues approached Mt. Carmel they were certainly not oblivious to the potential dangers of their assignment. The Waco Herald-Tribune had begun publishing a series of stories about the people living in a commune referred to locally as Rodenville. Mark England and Darlene McCormick’s articles had suggested the leader of the religious sect at Mt. Carmel was an evil zealot. According to the newspaper’s sources, Vernon Howell, who referred to his followers as Branch Davidians, was being investigated for child sexual abuse, drug manufacturing, and illegal weapons possession.
Howell, soon to adopt the biblical name of David Koresh, had attracted dozens of adults and their children and convinced them to make their home in his wooden castle at the end of the world. Set upon a wind-scoured rise of bald land named Mt. Carmel, Koresh’s believers lived behind clapboard walls on the edge of McLennan County, waiting for Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil predicted in the Book of Revelations. A few of them had grown impatient, however, and had left for California. They were some of the sources of information for the series of reports the Waco paper had entitled, The Sinful Messiah.
As disgusting a character as David Koresh was, there was nothing incontrovertible to prove that he was living outside the bounds of the US Constitution. Texas child care workers had investigated allegations of pedophilia several times and found nothing. The religious leader was also accused of having sex with the wives of male members of his congregation but that appeared to be at the consent of the married partners. Koresh, in fact, was guilty only of participating in American conservative endeavors: practicing his religion and acquiring weapons to protect his property and way of life.
Finally having the name of his destination, Jim Peeler tried to recall what he had heard about Rodenville. The name came from George Roden, the man who had founded a branch of some kind of church or religious sect. The newspaper’s articles indicated that Koresh had taken control of Rodenville in a power struggle against Roden, which involved a gunfight. Rodenville was supposed to be a series of ramshackle houses built around a circle but Koresh had ordered the homes torn down and rebuilt into a single structure.
Lost and increasingly frustrated, Peeler resisted using the two-way radio. The team of TV reporters did not want to prematurely alert authorities to their presence. The 41 year old Peeler was struggling with his nascent unease, however, and he needed to hear another voice.
“I was distracted,” Peeler explained. “I kept thinking about the day before. My best friend Woody Bland had come up from Marlin and we went over to the hardware store to look for something he wanted. On the way over there I told Woody I had an awful feeling about a big deal I had coming up the next day. And he said, ‘Just don’t do it. You gotta pay attention to that little voice, Jim. I know what that feels like. I had it once and I ignored it. And I ended up in a serious motorcycle accident.’ I guess I should’ve listened to him and my wife.”
A television photographer in Waco might be forgiven by his profession, if not his employers, for refusing to put himself at risk. An annual salary that left his family of four qualified for Food Stamps provided only modest motivation for accepting dangerous assignments. Jim Peeler was working a Sunday to earn precious overtime dollars from KWTX-TV. Although his wife had a staff position at a nursing home, Peeler took on jobs mowing lawns and taping weddings on weekends to support his two young daughters. In the newsroom, few of his colleagues had ever seen Peeler actually eat. Living on coffee, he rarely brought a lunch, never purchased even a drive-thru burger, and waited for whatever his wife prepared for the evening meal with his family. Either his income was too sparse to spend on food for himself or he was a nervous, hyperactive man who did not overly concern himself with nutrition.
Jim Peeler had been my friend for almost a decade the morning he scrambled down the back roads near Waco and searched for Mt. Carmel. As a correspondent for a Houston TV station, I had met Peeler at one of the many news stories we both covered in Central Texas. He consistently shared information, interviews, and videotape, and never cared who got credit for his work. Peeler’s videotape and sources were invaluable to me and every other journalist who reported on the federal government’s standoff with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. The 51 days I spent at Mt. Carmel leading up to the final conflagration were all made easier by the assistance and friendship of Jim Peeler, Dan Mulloney, and John McLemore.
In the collegial community of Texas television photographers, Peeler was considered more craftsman than artist because he worked too hard at his daily assignments to devote himself to award-winning special reports. Nonetheless, a number of golden statuettes from the Dallas Press Club decorated his work cubicle. Small market television does not provide the time or resources for employees like Peeler to produce the types of eye-catching segments needed to advance careers. Jim Peeler’s days were normally spent taping more than a half dozen different stories while a photographer in nearby Dallas might be given a dozen days to shoot one high-profile piece. Peeler’s ambition and creativity were being consumed by pressures for functionality and job security.
He picked up the cell phone and called Dan Mulloney again, hoping for more detailed directions.
“Mulloney, I’m tellin’ ya, I can’t find this place. Help me out, will ya?”
“Well, you see anything goin’ on? Any suspicious looking vehicles, like unmarked cop cars or feds?”
“No, man. How do you know anything’s gonna happen, anyway?”
“It’s big and it’s gonna come down this morning, Jim. I need you to get in place. You need to find EE Ranch Road and then call me.”
Peeler continued looking for a roadblock Mulloney had insisted had already been established by the Texas Department of Public Safety. A small, white station wagon was in front of his truck. Presently, the car turned around and sped off. Peeler watched as the driver repeated looping back to the same spot in the road.
“Jim, go up there and see if you can see anything,” Mulloney insisted.
“There ain’t nothin’, Dan. I told you that.”
“No cops? No noise? No cars or anything?”
“Nope. Nothin’. Just this Waco Herald-Tribune car coming back and forth and throwing gravel when it spins around.”
“How do you know it’s theirs?”
“Trust me. I know.”
“They don’t have markings on their cars.”
“It’s them, Dan. I know their people as well as you do.” Exasperated, Peeler repeated the question he had been asking all morning. “Are you sure this is gonna happen, Dan?”
The people who had informed Dan Mulloney that a cadre of federal law officers was going to arrest David Koresh were solid, dependable sources. Mulloney, known for having his own network of reliable informants, had cultivated the confidences of police, ambulance drivers, defense attorneys, dispatchers, bail bondsmen, and anyone connected to criminal activities around Waco. In this case, though, a radio operator for an emergency medical transport company, a woman with whom Mulloney was living, had been corroborating his information. He also told me that he had been tipped by one of the reporters from the Waco newspaper. Peeler’s anxiety, however, prompted Mulloney to double check the info with his girlfriend. His call to the emergency hotline was automatically recorded and became a part of the body of evidence related to the Branch Davidian raid.
“I thought you said this was happening this morning for sure,” Mulloney said. “We don’t see a thing.”
“It’s happening,” his girlfriend said. “They’re already out there and they’ve asked for body bags to be brought with rescue.”
The confirmation was passed on to Peeler, who had made his way around to Old Mexia Road and had pulled off on the shoulder to study his map. The window was down to let in some cool air when a Buick with faded paint stopped near the driver’s side door. U.S. Mail carrier yellow lights were attached to the roof. The man behind the wheel of the Buick leaned over to speak with Peeler.
“Hey buddy. You lost? I’ve been watching you drive up and down this road out here.”
“Yeah, matter of fact, I am,” Peeler admitted to the stranger.
The two men got out of their vehicles and stood beneath a tree.
“It seems like there’s a lot of traffic on this ole country road today.” The observation sounded innocent to Jim Peeler. “What’s goin’ on?”
“Mister, you know where this place is they call Rodenville or Mt. Carmel?” Peeler had ignored the question put to him.
“Sure. See that big yellow building over there with the satellite dish on the roof? That’s it.”
“Yeah? That’s it? How do you know?”
“I’m a mail carrier. I used to deliver mail to them.”
“Yeah, and they are all crazy down there. They used to ask me into their house and all. I got along with them okay. But I don’t do that road no more. I deliver in the China Springs area now. But something’s goin’ on out here. Something ain’t right. Hey, is something gonna happen out here? You know anything?”
“Yeah. Could be. But I’m not really sure.”
“You with Channel 10?” The man had finally taken note of one of the KWTX-TV markings on Jim Peeler’s news truck.
“Yeah, I am.”
“Oh yeah? Me and my wife, we live in a trailer house out on Beaver Lake Road and we watch Channel Ten all the time. I reckon we’ll tune in tonight and see what’s gonna happen.”
The mail carrier’s name was David Jones, a slender, six foot blade wearing a brown and red plaid jacket that looked like a shirt. Peeler remembered Jones listening to everything he said with his arms folded across his chest. A baseball cap was on Jones’ head and long, straggly blonde hair hung out from beneath its edges.
A distant fwop-fwop of helicopter blades interrupted their conversation. Jones kept talking as Peeler walked toward the nearby fence line and scanned the horizon to confirm what he suspected was the source of the sound.
“You hear those helicopters?” Peeler asked Jones.
“I don’t hear nothin’. I just hear that dairy over there. Used to be a dairy made noises over in that direction. But I don’t hear no helicopters.”
Suddenly, the rotor slap got louder and Jones knew Peeler’s assessment had been correct.
“What’s helicopters doin’ out here? Something’s gonna happen. I know it. But them are Apaches and Chinooks. They damn sure don’t belong on this side of I-35.”
“How do you know so much about helicopters?”
“I was in the service. I used to be a helicopter mechanic. You learn the sound.”
Peeler watched as the choppers passed low in the sky between him and the yellow building with the satellite dish on the roof. Jones followed him back to the car as Peeler ran to answer his chirping cell phone.
“Where are you?” Dan Mulloney’s voice sounded desperate.
“I’m with a mailman,” Peeler said.
Mulloney repeated to reporter John McLemore what Peeler had said and then spoke back into the phone.
Peeler did not know if David Jones had heard Mulloney’s complaint on the other end of the line. Jones resumed talking about Rodenville and said he had read the morning paper about how David Koresh and his people were supposed to have guns inside their compound. Gunfire was sometimes heard at Mt. Carmel but Jones said he thought it was mostly shooting at jackrabbit and javelina. Subsequently, Jones got back into his car and pointed it in the direction of the big yellow building with the satellite dish. Peeler noticed the car’s old paint was probably yellow or gold. Jones stopped beside the KWTX-TV truck as he completed turning around his car. Peeler was listening to his two-way radio.
“Hey man,” Jones said. “I’m gonna go down there and see if I can tell if anything’s happening.”
By the time Peeler had turned his head to respond, the Buick was moving toward Rodenville. He phoned the television station to give the news director an update on the situation.
“Hey, a bunch of people been stoppin’ to ask me what’s goin’ on out here,” he told Rick Bradfield.
“Okay. If anyone else asks what we are doing, Jim, tell them we’re doing a garbage dump story.”
“Okay. I’ll get back with you later, Rick.”
Unexpectedly, three unmarked Texas Department of Public Safety cars roared past Peeler’s parked truck. A dark blue Plymouth was leading them in the same direction that David Jones had earlier traveled. Peeler started his truck, dropped it into gear, and slipped in behind the speeding procession before he keyed his radio microphone and alerted Dan Mulloney.
“Hey, man. It looks like it’s goin’ down now.”
The gloom that Jim Peeler had been feeling for the past day was becoming more of a physical presence as he raced to catch up with the lawmen. In the pre-dawn, the TV photographer had been on his knees, beside his own bed, praying for the feeling to pass. Morning prayers were a ritual he had performed without fail for thirty five years. The day federal agents surrounded Mt. Carmel, Peeler had asked God if his worries were only his imagination. He told himself that he would be back from his Sunday morning assignment in time to attend regular services with his family at their church in Marlin.
Peeler will never understand why his God led him to a chance meeting on a country road with a mailman named David Jones. He will always believe that the lives of the Branch Davidians were destroyed by the almost incomprehensible circumstances of that encounter and he has spent many years accepting blame for their deaths. Mail carrier David Jones was a Branch Davidian and close confidante of David Koresh and after talking with Jim Peeler he had hurried to Mt. Carmel to inform Koresh that law enforcement was approaching their compound.
“The night before I was lying on the floor watching TV with my little girl,” Peeler said. “I can remember this like it was last night. She had her little head right here on my shoulder, just above my arm. And I told her, I said, ‘Your daddy’s got to go to work tomorrow but it doesn’t feel good. I just don’t know about it.’ And you know what she said? Hell, I should’ve listened to my six year old, too. None of this would’ve ever happened.”
“Don’t go, daddy,” she begged. “Please? Just don’t go.”
A break in the topographical surface of the land traverses Texas, north and south, from just outside of Fort Worth to the Hill country beyond the reaches of San Antonio’s western suburbs. The Balcones Escarpment is a minor geographical separation of the rocky, unforgiving ground, which has left the sunset side eight hundred to a thousand feet elevated. Geographers argue that along this frontier is where the South ends and the West begins. The evidence is not easy to ignore. Westerly, trees begin to lose their stature in the heat and cholla cacti proliferate. The soil fades into unpromising sandy loam with rocks protruding above the surface and rainfall accumulations are modest. On the far side of the Edwards Plateau, along the Concho River Valley and west of the branches of the Llano River, the South surrenders to the ocotillo, huisache, mesquite, and varieties of cacti that populate the Chihuahuan Desert.
Looking eastward from the top of the escarpment, dark, hopeful soil spreads toward the Gulf of Mexico. Neat fields of corn and cotton are visible all the way to the horizon and rainfall is greater. The land is greener. In an airplane, the contrast is stark, sudden, and unsettling. No real connection exists between the two ecologies. These two worlds are intuitively disassociated while still being physically adjoined. The escarpment has become the only explanation for a number of strange people and occurrences around Waco, as if the lack of a geographical transition between the two topographies has had an effect on psychological development. The pecan bottoms along the Brazos River Valley and the black pasturelands of Central Texas seem to have produced a disproportionate share of tortured souls.
Before the Branch Davidian shootout, Waco was known for more than being the town where the Dr. Pepper soft drink was created. A seventeen year old black man, who was being tried for the murder of a farm woman, made the mistake of admitting the killing in open court. Jesse Washington was convicted of the slaying of Lucy Fryer in the 1916 trial. Although the law called for a life sentence, Washington was surrounded in the courtroom and dragged outside where a chain was slipped around his neck and he was dipped in hot coal oil. A crowd estimated at fifteen thousand watched as the uneducated farmhand choked slowly to death hanging from the branch of a post oak tree, his flailing legs speeding suffocation.
A photographer recorded the lynching of Jesse Washington and witnessed body parts being cut off and passed through the crowd for souvenirs. The mutilated carcass was placed in a burlap sack and dragged behind a car before the remains were then hung from a pole. The photos and written descriptions were distributed nationally and the rest of the U.S. began to refer to the mob justice as, “The Waco Horror.” Of the 4742 lynchings known to have occurred on American soil between 1882 and 1968, Jesse Washington’s actually had a sociological impact. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People employed the record of Washington’s death as a tool to get the nation’s first anti-lynching law passed by Congress in 1921.
Waco and vicinity are replete, however, with more modern examples of ruined individual minds. David Koresh was simply a prime time, internationally broadcast episode of the region’s dark history. The other stories are as fundamentally frightening. Possibly the most unsettling is the tale of Kenneth McDuff, a man who tortured cats as a child, was convicted of multiple murders, and sent to prison. Raised in a crossroads rural town with a café, feed store, and a water tower, McDuff got out of prison as part of an early release program and then hurried back to killing. He left an unknown number of victims buried in unknown locations. McDuff was finally run to ground by U.S. Marshals Parnell and Mike McNamara and executed by the state of Texas.
George “Jo Jo” Hennard’s heinous act was a single incident of astonishing violence. Whatever was screaming at Hennard’s consciousness on a sunny afternoon south of Waco, it caused him to point his pickup at the front wall of a Luby’s cafeteria. He accelerated into the glass and his truck came to a stop inside the dining room. Hennard stepped out of the cab of his truck and walked around the shattered cafeteria systematically executing the mostly elderly diners by pointing his handgun at the back of their heads and pulling the trigger. Twenty three people lay dead before Hennard decided he was finished. The horror concluded when he put the gun to his own head and fired.
No one in Waco had any reason to be contemplating the past in February of 1993. Wildflowers and warm days were close and the city was about to entertain a convention of travel professionals. There were significant clues, however, danger was afoot in Waco. The Chamber of Commerce had scheduled the tourism convention for the weekend of February 27 – 28 and had booked every hotel room in the city for travel industry writers and executives. The U.S. federal government offered no explanation when it ordered the rooms turned over to agents of various unspecified operations. The travel professionals moved to the closest hotels in Hillsborough and Temple. At the Waco Convention Center, which is part of the Hilton Hotel complex, men wearing nylon jackets bearing “ATF” stitching were walking the hallways with travel conventioneers. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms had also booked a room at the convention center for a 4:00 p.m. Sunday news conference.
Federal agents had done nothing to disguise their identity over the course of several days in Waco. The Waco Herald-Tribune’s reports on the Branch Davidians ought to have been motivation for them to take off their marked jackets and badges. Instead, they talked openly about why they were in town. At a downtown bar, agents had brashly drawn an outline of the Mt. Carmel compound on a napkin and carelessly left it to be recovered by a waitress. KWTX-TV’s Rick Bradfield is still in possession of the haunting sketch. Possibly more astonishing was the appearance of agents at the city’s charity ball a week before the Mt. Carmel raid. KWTX-TV General Manager Ray Deaver told investigators that he had seen BATF officers walking around the ballroom wearing the government insignia.
A hundred miles north on Interstate 35, the Dallas regional office of the BATF had been busy making cryptic phone calls to journalists telling them about an impending event near Waco. Public Information Officer Linda Wheeler had contacted television news departments in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to inform them of potential “good visuals” associated with the execution of a search warrant. One day prior to the Mt. Carmel incident, Don Marion, news director of the Waco ABC-TV affiliate, was asked by a Dallas television station if he was planning to have cameras at the location when the warrant was served.
“Absolutely not,” Marion answered. “Of course, we had no idea what might happen.”
The conscientiously ignored truth about what was unfolding outside Waco is that the entire community had been inadvertently placed on alert. Prisoners in the county lockup had information about the BATF’s plan. A jailer told KWTX-TV photographer Dan Mulloney he had heard an inmate talking about the raid two days before it had happened. Ambulance drivers, local police and fire departments, and rescue teams had all been placed on twenty four hour call. A two part, front page newspaper series, commandeered hotel rooms, media tips from government offices, and law enforcement warnings meant that, if the Branch Davidians did not know the BATF was coming, they were the only souls in a five county region who did not. Photographer Jim Peeler’s chance conversation with mailman David Jones was only one more piece of information; not the sole cause of the tragedy.
Photographer Dan Mulloney told me several years later that he had gotten his advance information on the raid from Tommy Witherspoon, a reporter for the Waco paper. Mulloney and Witherspoon had become friends through their mutual interest in the courthouse and police beats. According to Jim Peeler, Mulloney had also informed him that the tip came from Witherspoon. The newspaper reporter has refused to speak to anyone about his sources on the Branch Davidian tragedy. Mulloney confirmed Witherspoon’s information by checking with his law enforcement contacts and then encouraged Peeler to help him cover the story. He did not, however, provide Peeler with details.
Dan Mulloney had a thick silver beard, long gray hair and a gruffness that did not offer comfort to people sitting for interviews in front of his camera. Generally, television news photographers with Mulloney’s experience have moved on to larger markets and more lucrative paychecks and his failure to make that transition gave him some resentment. He was, nonetheless, a very capable photographer and an even better newsman. Uninterested in artsy features, Mulloney released his energy and talent by covering hard news, breaking crime, and disaster stories.
By 7:20 a.m. on February 28th, Mulloney had already been in his first minor dispute of the day. Reporter John McLemore, who had been called in to write the story of the impending arrests, had demanded that he ride to the site with Jim Peeler because he wanted to enjoy Peeler’s new truck instead of Mulloney’s overworked old Ford Bronco. The aggressive and confident McLemore had often irritated Mulloney with his comments and field directions on how he wanted a particular story to be taped. This morning Mulloney was not listening to McLemore’s insistence on riding with Peeler.
“I’m going to be on the front side, John,” Mulloney explained. “If anything happens, that’s where it will happen and that’s where the reporter needs to be.
McLemore dropped his arguments about riding in the other truck and as he and Mulloney traveled down U.S. Highway 6, the photographer began to fill in some of the blanks for his colleague.
“You read the paper, right, John?”
“Yeah, I’ve got the basics.”
“It’s pretty unbelievable, actually, but the feds managed to get that story killed twice before it was published. They went in there and told the editors they couldn’t publish. Said it would cause a big legal problem. They were threatening and all. Said they had been working on an investigation of Vernon Howell or David Koresh or whoever in the hell he is for about a year and publishing the story would blow their chances at arresting him. Such bullshit, man. I guess the paper’s editors finally got some balls and said they were tired of waiting on the feds.”
If any law enforcement official had wanted a simple, risk-free method for arresting Koresh, almost any co-ed at Baylor University might have suggested a plan. Koresh was a regular at the Chelsea Street Pub, a popular hangout for Baylor students. He also patronized the same grocery store each week and jogged almost daily at a scheduled time on the Baylor running track. A great portion of Koresh’s day was also spent refurbishing automobiles in a small garage near U.S. Highway 6, an aluminum walled structure referred to as the Mag Bag. Koresh was often curled over the fender of an old muscle car, his head peering under the hood as he worked alone.
Unaware of the Mag Bag, Mulloney’s Bronco passed it on the left as he and McLemore turned south along the ranch road. Phone calls kept coming from an agitated Jim Peeler. Peeler and Mulloney were best friends but Peeler’s calm and unflappable demeanor often irritated the unsettled Mulloney. Peeler, however, had always proved reliable, both professionally and personally.
In a low spot, Mulloney positioned his car where he and McLemore had a view of the road leading to Mt. Carmel. No law officers would be able to pass without being observed by the photographer and reporter. They got out and stood by the road. A Waco Herald-Herald Tribune vehicle had also stopped at a location that afforded an expansive view of the rise of land topped by the yellow compound. Mulloney assumed the reporters who had written the special series on the Branch Davidians were inside the station wagon with a photographer. Phone calls from Peeler had ceased after he got directions from mailman David Jones and McLemore and Mulloney waited for federal agents to approach and arrest David Koresh.
The cell in Mulloney’s car squeaked again and he knew it was Peeler. “Hey. A bunch of marked cars with feds in ‘em just passed me. Looks like this thing is finally goin’ down.”
Mulloney told McLemore what Peeler had just said and instantly caught sight of a flatbed cattle trailer being pulled behind a truck. A tarpaulin covered the bed of the trailer and it flapped in the wind, undulating up and down as if some large live beast were struggling beneath for release. In a rear corner of the trailer, two men in blue garb with bulky chest armor raised the cover and revealed themselves to Mulloney and McLemore. They smiled and offered a friendly wave, leaving the two journalists with the impression there was no cause for concern. Clearly, the presence of reporters was not a surprise to the BATF agents. They wanted a public record of this moment when the BATF expected to cover itself in law enforcement glory.
Mulloney jumped into the passenger’s seat with his camera and quickly powered up the Sony. McLemore accelerated the truck and caught up with the trailer loaded with armed federal agents. As the caravan rolled onto Branch Davidian property, the lawmen began to release the stays of the tarpaulin and prepared to hit the ground running. Dan Mulloney and John McLemore were still expecting to be back at the television station’s newsroom within an hour.
Unmarked autos stopped in front of Jim Peeler. Drivers and passengers jumped out, popped open trunks, and began putting on bulletproof armor. Peeler turned on his camera and taped the men checking their weapon loads. Two young agents left the car’s doors open and turned up the volume on a two-way radio. One of the agents realized Peeler was taping and pointed to the gravel shoulder of the road, ordering the photographer to keep a measured distance. Peeler still heard the radio transmissions and was able to record them with his camera. A rancher drove up to the roadblock established by the BATF agents and Peeler heard the man say he needed to go up the road to get to his house. The man was informed the road was closed but was expected to be open in about thirty minutes.
The loud aerodynamic noise of rotating helicopter blades caused Peeler and the officers to look up as the choppers moved into view.
“There were three of them,” Peeler remembered. “I don’t know anything about helicopters but there were two big ones and one small one. I know that much because I taped them. And I heard them over the radios in the ATF cars and I recorded those transmissions, too.”
Situated about a half mile from the tower of the Davidian compound, the roadblock where Jim Peeler and the federal agents were located had an unobstructed view of the helicopters as they dipped in closer to the structure.
“Tell the trailers to move up. Tell the trailers to move up. There are no weapons in the tower. There are no weapons in the tower.”
The pilot’s voice on the radio sounded easy and reasoned in Peeler’s earpiece. Through his viewfinder, the choppers looked closer to the compound than they actually were because of the compression effect caused by the focal length of the lens.
Another report came back from one of the helicopter crews. The voice on the radio this time was frantic and worried.
“We are taking massive fire. We are taking massive fire.”
Presently, Peeler’s camera recorded smoke coming from the tail boom of one of the helicopters. Peeler tracked the ship downwards with his camera as the pilot prepared for a hard emergency landing.
A popping sound of automatic gunfire was suddenly being broadcast on one of the two-way radios. Astonished by the significance of what he was hearing, Peeler looked at the agents to see if they were reacting. One of them touched the gun in his hip holster and made a smirk of acknowledgement to another officer. Peeler unsuccessfully attempted to contact Dan Mulloney on his cell phone.
When gunfire finally made its deceptively harmless sounding pop-pop-pop on the radios, Peeler noticed a white Herald-Tribune wagon being halted by DPS officers and BATF agents. Darlene McCormick, one of the two reporters who wrote the series on the Branch Davidians, was lying in the back seat, face down, crying. She composed herself enough for Peeler to ask her a few questions.
“Darlene, what in the world is going on over there?”
“It’s bad, Jim,” she sobbed. “It’s real bad.”
“You see Mulloney and McLemore?”
“Yeah, they’re all over there. They’re pinned down. God, it’s so awful, Jim. I don’t know if Rod and Mark and Tommy have been shot. Jim, can I use your phone?”
“Sure. Can you reach Mulloney?”
“No, I already tried before my phone went dead. I need to try to call inside to speak with Koresh.”
“I was supposed to have an interview with him this morning. But we had this tip that something was going to happen. I was afraid of going inside their compound. The ATF guys kept telling me Koresh might take me hostage and that he was some type of desperate character.”
“Why’d he want you to come inside, Darlene?”
“He was pissed about our series. He said I could just come in and look around and talk to him about anything I wanted. That they had nothing to hide. But I’d gotten afraid. Those ATF guys had gotten to me. I don’t know. God, this is just horrible.”
McCormick handed back Peeler’s phone after she had dialed the number inside the Branch Davidian compound. She had picked up a busy signal. Peeler returned to his camera as a dark blue GMC sport utility arrived at the roadblock. The driver was immediately recognized by the other officers. A brief conversation followed and the dark-haired man began to wail, banging on the roof of his car. Peeler was close enough with his camera to record the emotional outburst.
“God, why? Why? I told them not to come. I told them. Why did they do this? They knew we were coming. I called the commanders. I told them they were aware we were on our way. Why in the hell did they do this?”
The man cradled his face in his arms and sobbed. Jim Peeler did not learn until viewing the tape many days later that the man was Robert Rodriguez, an undercover agent who had been living with the Branch Davidians and providing investigators with information. Through the camera lens, though, Rodriguez was just another frightened witness on a Sunday morning when the air filled with the thunk and snap of discharging guns.
“Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. Let’s go, John. Damnit. Dan Mulloney was loading tape into his camera as he urged reporter John McLemore to increase their speed.
“I’m hurrying, Dan.”
The two were already hearing reports of gunfire as McLemore brought the Bronco to a stop near a bus, which was parked, improbably, in front of the Davidian’s home. BATF agents had scattered across the open space between the bus and the compound. Several were advancing closer to the yellow walls. Mulloney ducked out the door of the Ford, dragging his camera and tripod, hunching low beneath the bullets zipping through the air.
McLemore tumbled out and tried to get a sense of what was happening. Moving over on the other end of the gray bus, he saw the blue-jacketed BATF agents pointing their automatic weapons at targets as indistinct as walls and windows. Splinters of wood blew off when bullets tore through the thin clapboard. One agent was already lying on the ground, motionless.
Near the front of the bus, Dan Mulloney had spread the legs of his tripod, snapped down his heavy camera onto the plate, and began recording. Mulloney would have been safer if he had hand held his camera and crawled under the bus. Instead, he had positioned himself just inside the field of fire and concentrated his lens on a spot where agents were bringing forward a ladder. He taped as BATF officers climbed up on the roof, clawed at window frames, punched out glass with the stock end of their weapons, reached in and began firing blindly. In one sequence later broadcast around the planet, a Branch Davidian behind the wall fired through a second floor dormer where an officer was positioned. The BATF agent watched the bullets explode the wooden slats on either side of him and then slid down the roof to his ladder. Wounded were staggering away from the building with their blue uniforms darkened by blood. Bullets pinged off the side of the bus where Mulloney was standing next to his camera. One tore into the doorframe of the Bronco.
McLemore got Mulloney’s attention and pointed out action the photographer was unable to see through his viewfinder. The reporter was watching scenes he wanted captured and did not think Mulloney was recording enough of the standoff. Mulloney resisted and asked for more tape from the car. The gunfight had been going on long enough that the photographer was worried about his twenty minute cassette being expended. Unseen people fell behind the walls and bleeding government agents were screaming for help.
McLemore eventually worked his way back to the news truck and phoned in several descriptions of the battle. Station archives record him saying he and Mulloney were, “pinned down by a firefight,” and weapons fire from within the compound. Mulloney moved his camera and taped McLemore hunkered down on the front seat below the level of the windshield as he spoke to the station. McLemore was in a position to see Waco Herald-Tribune reporters Tommy Witherspoon, David Sanderford, and Mark England, who were flattened out on the ground and exposed to harm. Bullets sent up puffs of dirt as they landed on their periphery.
“I could not believe how unorganized and chaotic everything was,” Mulloney recalled. “It just seemed like nobody was in command and agents were running around everywhere, just shooting and shooting in the direction of the compound. A bunch of them were trying to get those big doors open at the front and another group was going up on the roof. Nobody looked like they were working with anybody else to get anything done. There just didn’t seem to be any kind of a plan.
“Everybody was panicked, I can tell you that. Especially those guys who had been hit. They were screaming. I think one or two of them got hit in the gut just below their armor. You just could not tell what anyone was trying to do. No one other than the ATF and the Davidians knew what started all the shooting.”
The BATF officers went ahead with their plan of attack even though they had been told by their own undercover agent, Robert Rodriguez, that the Davidians were ready and itching for a fight. David Koresh had been tipped by David Jones, the mailman who had met Peeler on the country road. The Davidians must have been blind if they did not pick up on many other developments in Waco that indicated this was to be an unusual Sunday morning. A parade of agents in their personal cars had stretched out over two miles up Interstate 35 as they drove up from their training grounds at Fort Hood. The team assembled at Bellmead Community Center where highway 84 and Loop 340 intersect. Even on a Sunday, there was passing auto traffic as the agents milled about the parking lot wearing their Kevlar suits and BATF insignia. The raid team on the cattle trailers also passed the Mag Bag where three Davidians had been hanging out and working on cars. In the fifteen minutes it took the BATF raid team to drive between the Mag Bag and Mt. Carmel, one of them could have easily phoned Koresh inside of the compound to offer a warning.
Gunfire stopped and Mulloney and McLemore saw the wounded BATF agents lying in front of the compound. A cease-fire had been negotiated over the telephone and injured were being evacuated. Mulloney changed tapes in his camera and slipped the first one down the front of his pants because he was worried that police or BATF officials might try to confiscate his recording. He walked over to his KWTX-TV news truck, which was one of only two vehicles capable of carrying the wounded. Three seriously injured agents were loaded into the Bronco, holding their open wounds as McLemore drove them back to meet the Lifeflight helicopter for transport to a hospital. BATF officers thanked Mulloney and McLemore and credited them with saving the lives of the agents. The two journalists had also assisted with communications. The BATF had asked them to call for medical help because radios being used by agents, absurdly, were not programmed to communicate with the command and control center.
Mulloney backed away from his truck with the camera rolling as McLemore eased his passengers across the gravel to the hardtop road. The photographer had chosen to walk out and look for the microwave relay truck that he expected KWTX to have parked close to the scene of the shootout. The tape Mulloney recorded during his exit, which was never nationally broadcast, is the most revealing documentary record of the standoff. Before reaching the ranch road, Mulloney taped five agents as they carried out the limp body of a fallen officer. The man’s neck dripped blood in a trail across the ground. Mulloney turned around near the fence line and saw agents walking beside his news truck with one of their fellow officers draped across the hood. They were holding onto the man, offering encouragement as they tried to reach the medical evacuation point. All of the agents scowled at Mulloney and his camera.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Mulloney spun to face the accusatory questioner, one of two sheriff’s deputies.
“You don’t belong here,” the second deputy said.
The camera recorded a dull whacking thud and Mulloney crying out in pain. The camera was taping as Mulloney was attacked by the lawmen. Blows came from nightsticks and fists. Angry voices are heard on the videotape.
“Damn you. You’re the cause of this happening.” McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell was making the allegation. “You know better than this. Goddmanit. Who the hell do you think you are? You got no business here and you know it.”
More blows landed on Mulloney from the lawmen. The camera’s viewpoint jumped around and tipped as he was being hit. Mulloney moved off and made no attempt to defend himself because he did not want to be arrested and surrender his historic videotape of the shootout. Hands grabbed at his camera.
“Let go of my camera,” Mulloney protested. “Leave me alone. This is mine.”
Deputy Sheriff Coy Jones attempted to kick Mulloney’s legs out from under him as the BATF agents and the sheriff reached for the camera. His retreat marked the last time there was any neutral observer near the Branch Davidian compound before it was consumed by fire.
“I don’t know any other way to say this except the honest way and that’s that they were all assholes. The ATF screwed up. They knew it and I had it on tape. I had pictures of their guys dying for no reason. I had pictures of them assaulting citizens who were exercising their right to practice religious freedom and to keep and bear arms. It was all there on tape. They just wanted us there, originally, so that we could videotape them playing cowboy, making Koresh out to be Satan and them being the great heroes to protect us all. That’s obviously why they had their people call us from Dallas and tip us. What a bunch of bullshit. You know my job was never to take sides on this thing and I didn’t. I just recorded it as it happened.”
Mulloney had recorded the deadliest day in the history of U.S. law enforcement. Four BATF agents were dead, seventeen injured, and an untold number of Davidians were dying and bleeding inside of their flimsy compound. Eventually, the gun battle was also going to destroy Dan Mulloney.
On his way to the newsroom the next morning, Jim Peeler stopped at a Shell gas station to buy newspapers and see how the story was being reported. A woman working behind the counter was making breakfast tacos. She noticed Peeler’s interest in the front page headlines.
“Looks like them religious fanatics got them some trouble, don’t it?”
Peeler offered no response.
“Yeah, that mailman of theirs? He was in here just yesterday trying to convert all of us.”
“Mailman?” Peeler asked, shaken.
“Yeah, he comes around here in that old, yellowish gold Buick he drives on his route.”
Rolling up the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle as he walked, the TV photographer found a trashcan and tossed away the newspapers. He said he felt like he had taken one of the Branch Davidians’ bullets in the gut.
“I know in my heart I wasn’t responsible for what happened out there that day. But, you know, I don’t think they would’ve been prepared if I hadn’t run into that mailman. The whole surprise thing would’ve still been working for the ATF. I don’t know. I’ve got to live with the guilt of what happened because a lot of people think I’m responsible for those lives, the agents and the Davidians.”
There were many people who agreed with Peeler’s critical self-assessment. On ABC-TV’s Nightline a reporter from the Houston paper, Kathy Walt, who later become press secretary to Texas’ Republican governor, went on the air and repeated information planted from BATF sources that claimed TV crews were hanging out of the trees when the cattle trailers arrived at the compound loaded with agents. Desperate for someone to blame for the epic failure, the federal government pointed investigators at Jim Peeler, Dan Mulloney, and John McLemore. The BATF turned the three KWTX-TV employees into suspects and accused them of tipping the Branch Davidians. They were innocent of doing anything other than acting with great courage to report on a story of profound national importance.
Jim Peeler still worked for almost the same salary at the same television station in Waco more than a decade later. He also kept the clothes he was wearing the morning of February 28, 1993 and they are crumpled in a box at his home in the Waco suburb of Hewitt. The BBC pullover, nylon windbreaker, and his jeans have never again been worn. Back in the corner there are also some colored drawings. His daughters, who were then attending a Christian school, had told other children of their father’s work as a photojournalist at the shootout. The girls’ teacher allowed the class to make colorings of how they thought things looked that morning at Mt. Carmel. Across the top of one of those drawings, Peeler saw a child’s large block print. “You must be a hero.”
“Not only was I not a hero, I was the opposite of a hero. I don’t care what you say; it would have all been different if I hadn’t talked to that mailman. Everything that happened that day was sad. I feel sorry for all of those people, the adults and the kids. But you know what? I got it, too; just in a different way.
“You ever see that movie? The Sixth Sense? I’m like that guy in that movie. He’s dead but he just doesn’t know it yet. That’s me. I’m dead. My body’s alive and everything, sure. But otherwise, I’m just as dead as they are.”
As crushed as they were by being blamed for causing the tragedy, Peeler, Mulloney, and McLemore were diligent and productive during the 51 day standoff, often breaking stories the national journalists were compelled to chase. None of the three ever seemed to leave the narrow stretch of ranch road that had turned into a media compound.
I was working twenty hour days with Kirk Swann and Victor Cooper and was afraid to leave for food or even sleep. Finally realizing that a hot meal at a table might help me escape the daily death watch, Kirk and I ventured into Waco for lunch at a café along the Brazos River. As our food was being delivered, a television screen above the bar showed smoke rising from within the Branch Davidian compound. We raced back to the scene to report on the fatal fire. Peeler, McLemore, and Mulloney were still standing their watches, delivering the news, underpaid and unrelenting, as dozens of Koresh’s believers and their children were consumed by the federal government’s prairie fire.
Dan Mulloney and John McLemore joined Peeler in becoming casualties of the fight between the Branch Davidians and the United States of America. McLemore, a talented young reporter, was never able to get hired at a major market station even though his work was consistently strong and he had performed ably during great danger. He left television, entered public relations work, and was deeply troubled by his memories of that day. McLemore’s marriage failed and he left his wife and child in Waco and went to live in Houston. He has finally recovered and built a successful life as an executive in the energy industry.
Mulloney’s decline was precipitous. Peeler was often called by his friend to bail him out of messes when Mulloney had been drinking. His videotape of the shootout never received any kind of national recognition and Mulloney left KWTX-TV to try freelancing. He made enough money to pay rent on a second floor walkup apartment on the edge of Waco, which is where his landlord found Mulloney’s body when he died of natural causes at age 52. Mulloney’s drinking, combined with Hepatitis C he had contracted during a blood transfusion, had destroyed his liver.
I drove to Waco for Mulloney’s funeral. He had been a friend who had always been generous helping me produce my own stories. We saw each other frequently on various assignments around Texas. I sat next to Jim Peeler as Rick Bradfield, news director of KWTX-TV, eulogized his lost photographer. A handful of people were in the chapel of the funeral home. Peeler kept looking over at me, shaking his head in disbelief as if he feared the same premature end as a result of the things he carried with him from Mt. Carmel.
“You know, Dan’s partly responsible for what happened to him,” Peeler told me afterwards. “You can’t fight stuff by getting’ drunk. But man, he got screwed, too. He should have won every award there was to get for them pictures. But it’s almost like he didn’t exist. His own profession wouldn’t even acknowledge him. It was like everybody in TV believed that Dan and John and me were the cause of it all. Well, we weren’t.”
U.S. Marshal Parnell McNamara, who had directed the early investigation of the shootout, stood near the door of the funeral home talking to friends after the service had concluded. He and his brother Mike had initially been suspected as possible sources of the leak about the raid to the Branch Davidians in spite of their impeccable record of nearly three decades in law enforcement. As I shook his hand and said hello, McNamara agreed with Peeler that Mulloney was just another fatality of the Branch Davidian and federal government shootout.
“Hell, we all died out there that day,” McNamara said. “It’s just taking some of us a little longer to get into our graves.”