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A Grin at the End: Clipped wings … But finding good stories

Carl Sampson

One thing that’s been on my bucket list since before I had a bucket is learning how to fly.

I think it’s in my DNA. Growing up, I spent most of my time on Air Force bases. My dad was in the Air Force 23 years.

When I graduated from the University of Alaska, I was broke. I mean penniless. I gave myself until the Friday after graduation to get a job as a newspaper reporter. If I didn’t have a job by then, I was going to enlist in the Air Force.

At noon on Friday, I got a call from the editor of The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner offering me a job. It ruined my life.

Instead of enlisting and going to flight school and streaking at the speed of sound across the sky, I became a reporter.

As it turned out, I was a lucky reporter. Things just seemed to happen when I was around. My second week on the job, I was heading for an assignment – I think it was to cover a chamber of commerce meeting – and saw a dead body floating down the Chena River.

I told the editor: “The bad news is I didn’t cover the chamber meeting. The good news is I got a story about a murder.”

I moved to Wrangell, a tiny fishing and timber town in Southeast Alaska. The employees at one of the sawmills had gone on strike, and the town’s economy went down the tubes. I decided to go to one of the union meetings. The door of the meeting hall was unlocked, so I went in.

Everyone stared at me.

“What the [censored] are you doing here?” one of the guys said.

“I just want to tell people what’s going on,” I said.

“Well, why don’t you just get the hell out of here instead?” he said.

Then another member piped up.

“Wait a minute. Don’t we want people to know what we’re doing, and why?” he said. A few of the others nodded their heads.

I wrote a story about the union and what the sawmill, which was owned by a Japanese conglomerate, were haggling over. It was a one-of-a-kind.

One morning before dawn, I was going to work at an Anchorage newspaper and I saw a glow on the horizon coming from the direction of the airport. I decided to take a detour on the way into town to see what was going on.

When I got to the airport, everything was shut down. I found a couple of guys from the Federal Aviation Administration who told me that a DC-8 with a load of cattle – yes, cattle – bound for Japan had crashed on takeoff. They gave me a ride out to the crash site. I phoned in details of the story to another reporter, and we had it on the front page by 11 a.m.

I was working in Juneau in 1980 when a cruise ship caught fire in the Gulf of Alaska. It had 525 passengers on board. A reporter who was heading out for an early fishing trip had caught the chatter on the Coast Guard radio. He called me and went to the Coast Guard search-and-rescue center, our photographer chartered a plane to get pictures of what was to become the largest air-sea rescue in Coast Guard history, and I headed to the office with other reporters, who wrote stories about the history of shipwrecks in Alaska and the history of the ship.

We printed an “Extra” before the end of the day.

Yep, journalism ruined my life. And I still don’t know how to fly.

Carl Sampson is a freelance writer and editor. In the past 45 years, he has worked for The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, The Wrangell Sentinel, The Anchorage Times, The Juneau Empire, among other newspapers in Alaska, Minnesota and Oregon.

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