At the Miami Boat Show this past February, I was speaking to one of my mentors, Bill Sisson, who gave me my first opportunity as a writer in this industry. Back when I first met Bill, I was a fresh-faced, recently graduated guy living with his mother in Connecticut. I had an English / journalism degree and a decent resume for someone my age. I had been the editor of my college newspaper, the Top O’ the World, and after graduation I got a gig writing for a small weekly newspaper in Ouray, Colorado. But the grind of community journalism had worn me thin, and I wasn’t making any money. I’d work 60 hours a week at the paper and bus tables at a local burrito joint on the weekends to cover my rent. After about a year of covering school board and city council meetings, an awful thing happened that changed my career trajectory.
In the office of the Ouray Plaindealer, the newspaper where I worked, we kept a police scanner. Once in a while something interesting would crackle out of the little speaker on a shelf above the editor’s desk. On this particular day, a call for emergency responders came to assist with an accident at a local gravel mine. The editor told me to go up the hill to the mine and check it out. I had to take my boss’s truck because it was a 4×4 dirt road. When I got there, I saw someone I knew from the local search-and-rescue team. He told me there was a fatality and I wasn’t allowed in. He didn’t want me taking any photos. I kept asking who was killed. He finally told me that it was one of the County Commissioners, the man who also owned the mine.
In this particular county in western Colorado, the County Commissioners were the highest-ranking government officials, voted in by county residents. And this particular County Commissioner was the nicest guy in the lot. He’d gone to the same college as me and he would always smile at me in meetings and show me respect, even when I asked unfriendly questions. The commissioners were all older white men, wealthy and driven by their own agendas. Most of the issues they tackled revolved around land-use issues, water rights and development.
When I got back to the newspaper office and told the editor what I had found out, and who had passed away, he told me to go to the dead man’s house and get a quote from his family. I really did not want to do that.
I knew this family. It was a small town, only 800 or so residents at the time. I knew just about every family. I told the editor that I thought it would be better to give them a little time. He disagreed and insisted I go. So I did.
The man’s wife answered the door. “Hey Charlie, what’s up?” she said.
“I came to talk to you about Joe,” I said.
“Why?” she said. “What’s going on?” She hadn’t heard. My stomach sank into my shoes.
“Well, there’s been an accident,” I said.
Her hands immediately went to her face.
“What happened?” she said sternly, almost panicked.
“He was crushed by a bucket-loader. He’s dead.”
To this day, I don’t know why I said those words. They just came out. I knew it would crush her, just as that giant steel bucket crushed him. I am more sensitive to people’s feelings than that, but this was my job. This was what I was being paid to do.
She cursed me out. Called me a vulture. Screamed in my face.
I went back to the office and quit my job. This wasn’t what I wanted to do.
I broke my lease, packed my belongings into my 1977 Volkswagen camper mobile and headed down to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where a college buddy was working on a farm. He put me to work as a caretaker. I spent the winter on that farm, trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to be. I always wanted to be a writer. That much I knew, but my love affair with journalism was over. Or so I thought. I had always envisioned myself as a correspondent, like Hemingway in his war boots. That vision crumbled into a pile of dust the moment I stepped off that woman’s front porch.
With limited funds and limited options, I ended up driving my old bus around the country for a while. I went to Mexico and camped on the beach with my dog Blue. I spent a few weeks in Scottsdale, Arizona, with another college friend, sleeping on her couch and working at a golf course doing odd jobs. I held a microphone boom for ABC sports in the Phoenix Open. It paid $75 a day. I lived off ramen noodles and Natural Light. Many nights I slept in my van. I guess you could say I was homeless, but not in a way you’d picture a homeless person begging for money. I was just wandering. And that got old pretty quick.
When I’d had enough of being broke and lost, I drove to Connecticut and moved in with Mom and my stepdad Corky. I got a job waiting tables at a recently opened, high-end restaurant located on the waterfront in Guilford. It was a beautiful little restaurant with gourmet food. The prices were expensive and I started to make some good money. I pulled myself out of debt and watched the classifieds for potential “real” jobs. And that’s what led me to Soundings. The ad was for a staff writer position at a boating industry magazine that had just launched a website. These were dial-up days… I applied. Having grown up around boats and fishing, it seemed like a perfect fit. I interviewed in their Essex office, and eventually got the gig. That job changed my life. I’ve been writing about boats and fishing ever since.
I didn’t last long at Soundings, just over a year I think, but I always stayed in touch with Bill. We’d see each other at boat shows and media events. He was always kind to me and I always looked up to him. When I saw him at the last Miami Boat Show, I told him about a boat my father had given me that I was fixing up. He asked me to write a column about the boat for Angler’s Journal, which Bill had launched just a few years ago. I’d been dying to write for AJ and I jumped at the opportunity. It’s funny how things go full circle.