Breaking news materializes out of thin air. I was running later than I liked but still expected to be on time for my Sunday afternoon meeting at church. After saying goodbye to the cat and bounding down the steps, I opened the front door to see smoke rising up from a neighboring hill. The flashing lights of emergency responders pulsed in the distance. Meanwhile, much less visible, I could feel my own plans going up in smoke.

I rushed back inside to grab my phone and a high-collared jacket that I threw over my outfit.

“Fire near my house. I may be late,” I texted my pastor. As I headed down the street, I was second-guessing my word choice. I should have taken the conditional “may” out of that message, I muttered to myself.

While trying to make myself more presentable, I made a beeline for the police cordon on Walnut. Alternatively, I was rustling in my bag for my notebook and pulling up my collar. It was important that I had my shirt tucked in.

The police officer was a professional. He asked me where I lived, and I indicated the apartment complex up the hill. I then identified myself as a representative of the Rocket-Miner newspaper and asked what he could tell me about the fire.

Details were limited, but he related the basics that were known. We were occasionally interrupted by a driver who was told to turn around. They’re just trying to get a look at what’s going on, the officer told me.

As we talked, the tower of smoke had mostly dissipated. I thanked the officer for his assistance and headed farther down to street in search of a clear view where I could take photos but stay out of the way and off private property.

Once the smoke ceased, I headed back to resume my original schedule. In the distance I watched officers confer, reopen the street to regular traffic and start to drive away.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Following my meeting, our teen group was going to play paintball, and we were warned to wear clothes that could be trashed. Going through my closet, I selected the outfit I wore in the Run for Your Lives zombie run back in 2012. The idea of this race is to run a usual 5K course while dealing with the extra obstacles of zombies. Each runner started with three flags, and if they completed the course without the walking dead ripping off all three targets, they “survived.”

My friends and I had volunteered to be zombies. We showed up early, dressed in costume, and went to the makeup tent. There they accentuated our undead appearance by creating gruesome designs, adding rips and tears to our clothes, and pouring on a generous amount of grime and fake blood. I was sporting a police uniform I had left over from a high school production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” and looked like a rookie who had been torn to pieces while fulfilling his oath to serve and protect.

That’s why I added a layer of clothes on a summer afternoon before I chased after the fire. The whole time I had been talking to the officer, I was wearing a blood-splattered blue uniform and red-stained T-shirt. I was afraid he was going to notice the gore and say, “Now that I’ve answered your questions, I have a few questions for you,” causing me further delay and leading to me to miss out on the story and paintball.

Moving quickly toward my parked car, my heart skipped a beat when the cruiser swerved toward the shoulder of the road I was standing. Had my crimson shirttail popped out? Was I going to be accused of impersonating an officer?

Unaware of my inner fears, the officer leaned toward the window and politely told me the fire had been knocked down and that I should contact the Rock Springs Fire Department for additional details. I promised that I would and thanked him again for his assistance. He drove away, leaving me sweating but smiling. I didn’t take my jacket off until I walked into the church meeting on the other side of town.

While the staff Rocket-Miner relies on press releases, scheduled meetings, online posts, and tips to help us find stories, it’s also important that we keep our eyes open. Some of our best stories were covered because a reporter noticed something unusual going on and stopped to investigate.

One of my favorite memories is when we were in the conference room for our weekly staff meeting, and a truck carrying a giant potato drove by. “Go chase that truck!” I remember my boss shouting.

That’s how we got the details of the Big Idaho Potato Truck passing through Rock Springs as The Tater Team promoted tourism in our across-the-border neighbor.

We continue to rely on our observational skills in addition to our regular sources (I can’t tell you how many ideas I’ve gotten from conversations at church), but additional hints from the public are always welcome. A heads-up in the afternoon may lead to a front-page splash in the afternoon. The more we know, and the earlier we get the hint, the better we will be able to plan and share stories with others. And maybe next time I’ll have enough time to change my outfit first.

For a photo of the blood-splattered outfit, go to rocketminer.com. Caleb Michael Smith is the editor at the Rocket-Miner. He can be reached at editor@rocketminer.com.

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