Thursday, October 3, 2013

My Tribute to Uncle Butch

My Tribute to Uncle Butch

October 2, 2013 at 11:13am
To me and my family, it is known simply as “The Bridge”.  Others would say there’s nothing particularly special about the drawbridge that runs across the Halifax River along High Bridge Road in northern Volusia County.  You might even question why they call it High Bridge Road, since the bridge isn’t really that high.  After all, it is just a drawbridge… it’s not high enough for a lot of the boats that travel up and down this section of the Intracoastal Waterway to safely pass underneath.   But what it lacks in size and engineering uniqueness it has always made up for with meaning to our family, and never more than now.

No matter where I go, when I hear the sound of tires buzzing across the steel grates of a drawbridge I will always think of The Bridge.  Late at night while dangling a fishing line off the side of that lonely bridge and into the Halifax River, listening to the sounds of nature, the light slap of saltwater against the catwalks, and the occasional pop of a snook on the surface of the water, the hum of a passing car was the only man-made sound you could hear other than the much more frequent, belly aching laughter caused by my uncle Butch.

As a kid growing up in north Georgia in the suburbs of Atlanta, we would take frequent trips to Florida for vacation, staying at the house where my aunt and uncle, Patty and Butch, lived in Ormond Beach, just a short drive from The Bridge.  Every year through my early teens, we would make the trip down in February for the Daytona 500, which my dad attended with my uncles, Bobby and Butch, my brothers, and my grandfather.

We would also often head south to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, since we had no immediate family in Georgia.  On those trips, we would spend the day watching football, sit down for dinner with all my aunts and uncles, cousins, and my grandparents, and then watch my dad and Butch itch for the go-ahead from their wives and Grandma to jump in the truck and go fishing.  While I was young, I do remember this game they played… it was like a couple of kids who had to eat their peas before they could go back outside and play.  They would just look at each other like “hey, you think if we just snuck out anyone would notice?”  No amount of tryptophan was going to stop them from spending all night out at The Bridge.  When we got older, my cousin Greg (Butch’s son) and I were allowed to tag along, and we’d all squeeze into Butch’s single cab pick-up truck and take off.

The Henry “Butch” Konietzky I knew was a simple man.  He could make anything out of what most people would see as nothing.  He was the kind of guy you would want to have by your side in the old frontier days or in one of those disaster movies in which we are being attacked or you are lost on a deserted island after a plane crash.  He knew how to survive living off the land, and enjoyed doing it.  He was as good a fisherman as anyone I’ve met, if not better, and could catch fish in any body of water under any situation.

When he fished at The Bridge, it wasn’t with store-bought shrimp or artificial lures.  It was with shrimp he caught himself at a place near The Bridge called “the pump house”, where the night of fishing would usually begin right after dinner.  A bumpy dirt road would take you slowly along a dark, tree-canopied barrier between the Halifax River and its backwaters.  Along this road, along with all kinds of wildlife including the infamous “black thing” my dad swore he saw in the trees one night, there were a few places where culverts would allow water to flow from the marsh into the river when the tide was low and vice versa.  Here, we would set up dip nets to catch shrimp as they were carried through the current.  If the tide wasn’t right and the water wasn’t flowing, we got to see Butch use his cast net.  It is a skill that takes a ton of practice and one that I never learned, but Butch was great at it.  In a few hours, we could usually catch enough shrimp (our goal was around 100) for all of us to fish into the wee hours of the next morning.  We would then pack everything up and take our buckets full of shrimp to The Bridge to start fishing.

By the time we reached The Bridge, it was usually 9 or 10pm, and only occasionally would there be anyone else there except the bridge tender, who sat in a small building on the side of the bridge and was probably sleeping most of the time.  We would park on the side of the road, grab our shrimp and fishing poles and usually set up shop at the mainland side of the bridge.  You weren’t supposed to fish beyond the “no fishing” signs that stood just before the concrete road turned to the steel grates that made up the drawbridge in case they had to lift it, but some of the best fishing was along the catwalk that ran underneath, so sometimes we would cast our line out and leave our fishing pole there, and just stand on the other side of the sign and wait for the tip of the fishing rod to bend.  This usually wasn’t a problem because at that time of night, we rarely saw any large boats going down the river.

The fish didn’t bite every night we went or the whole time we were there.  In between casts to relocate our bait or check to see if it was still on the hook, we told a lot of stories and had a lot of laughs.  Most of this came from Butch.  I don’t know enough about his past (before I knew him) to speak of it here, but it suffices to say he’d been through a lot, seen a lot, and lived a lot, just like all the best of story tellers.  He just had a way of making you laugh, even if it was something stupid.  He was full of one-liners, and our funny memories are a classic case of “you had to be there.”  Some of my favorites among many great childhood memories come from that bridge, even though I was only able to go there a couple times a year at best.

The one thing that will always stick out in my mind though when I think of Butch and The Bridge is “The Light.”  Another simple name from a simple man who I think may have loved this place more than life itself.  “The Light” is just a lamp hanging off the end of the catwalk extending out from underneath the bridge so that the water level measurement is visible, but to us it was a prime spot for catching one of the most popular game fish in Florida, the hard-fighting snook.  The light would attract shrimp to the surface, and the snook would dart out from the submerged portion of the catwalk and grab them for an easy meal.  The trick was casting a shrimp into the light, as close to the catwalk as possible without snagging the hook on it.  Butch could make the perfect cast every time.  That was his spot.  That’s where the big ones were.  He wasn’t the only one who knew about this spot, but I remember him always catching more fish there than any of us, and anyone else we ever saw fish it.  I guess that’s why I don’t have a problem telling you about it.  Nobody could fish that spot like Butch.

Patty and Butch moved to Georgia in the 90s and later to Lake Hartwell near Anderson, South Carolina, where they both were able to share Butch’s love of fishing, even if it was no longer in his favorite body of water and their focus was on a different kind of fish, freshwater bass.  It didn’t take long for him to start bringing in big largemouths and stripers.  But after a while the idea of moving back to Florida lured them into putting their lake house up for sale and planning a return to their home.  Drought would put a hold on their plans though as Lake Hartwell began to get lower and lower, and coupled with the struggling economy, it was tough to sell their house.  Finally, earlier this summer, they had sold their house and bought a new one in Palm Coast, conveniently and certainly not coincidentally just up the road from The Bridge.  Butch was back in his favorite place.

On Saturday, September 21st, 2013, Patty and Butch decided to go crabbing along High Bridge Road, in the canals just a short distance from The Bridge.  It was something they could now do at the drop of a hat.  At some point while standing or wading in the water that he was so familiar with and had enjoyed for decades, Butch was completely unknowingly infected with a bacteria called Vibrio Vulnificus.  He later noticed a lesion on his ankle that looked odd, and felt very sick early Sunday morning, but thought all of this was a reaction to something like a spider bite.  Patty took him to the hospital on Sunday, when things had progressed much worse, and by Monday evening, despite tremendous efforts by several doctors, the bacteria had attacked his entire body and taken his life.

Since this tragedy, Butch’s daughter Shelia and my aunt Patty, with support from our entire family, have gone on a crusade to inform people of the danger, however rare it may be, that took the life of my uncle.  They have reached the masses, with the story making local and national headlines and being featured on newscasts such as Good Morning America.  It even showed up last week in the United Kingdom.

Anyone who knows me knows I love to fish and enjoy the outdoors in general, especially in Florida. Some will say that this is too reactionary and panic should not be caused... We aren't doing that here. We are simply trying to make sure people, especially those in the area where my uncle was infected (since there was at least one other case in the same area), are informed of the danger so that they can make their own decisions on how to react to it. Will this keep me out of waters like those found along High Bridge Road in northern Volusia County? No. Butch wouldn't have wanted that. Will I be better informed of the dangers of going into the water with open wounds even as small as an ant bite, and wear protective gear such as waders or boots just in case? Absolutely. I never would have thought twice about doing the same thing my uncle did.

I will forever miss Uncle Butch.  Family gatherings will never quite be the same without him, but his stories will live on for sure.  Through them, his spirit and ability to make us all laugh and smile will always be with us.  Last Friday evening, along with close family and friends of Butch, I dropped a white stemmed rose into the water at High Bridge Park in his memory.  Everyone had their own way of paying their respects that night, but for me, I could only think of one place my rose should go.  So I walked out onto the dock, said a prayer, and tossed the rose into The Light.

You’d be proud, Butch.  I hit the spot perfectly, right where you told me to throw it.

“In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  -John 1:4-5

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Happy Anniversary

The last blog I wrote was titled “I Am the Luckiest Man on Earth”.  In it I talked about how fortunate I was to fall into the energy meteorology world four years ago when I accepted a job offer in Houston, Texas, but mentioned there were a million other stories that could be told about how lucky I am.  On May 29th (or legally, May 30th) my wife Ashley and I celebrated our 8th wedding anniversary.  As is  typically the case on special occasions like this, I blew it… errr, maybe that’s not the best choice of words... I ruined it by not only not having much of anything planned for the day, but also by getting sick just as we were headed out the door to take the kids out to dinner with us.  I spent more time hugging porcelain than my wife on our anniversary, we'll just leave it at that.

So in trying to make up for it, here is the the story of what really makes me the luckiest man on earth.  Warning: Reading this could be hazardous to your health, and it may be so sappy that the keys on your keyboard and the scroll wheel on your mouse get stuck.

So it may be hard for all my friends to believe this, but I was never all that good with the ladies.  I know, shocker, right?  Unlike in the movies, the shy, quiet kid didn’t always get the girl.  My mom tells me I was the playground heartthrob in kindergarten, but I can't confirm that (can anyone else?  Just curious....).  My first kiss was with a girl I met on a cruise when I was twelve, who I had to say goodbye to a few days later.  I had a couple of girlfriends after that and got my heart broken early in my senior year.  No I don’t want any cheese and please stop doing the little violin with your fingers.  It’s all part of the story.

I went off to college not knowing anyone at all, and considering I wasn’t much into partying and clearly wasn’t very outgoing, I knew that would be a bit of a challenge for me, but so is college life in general.  As mentioned in a previous blog, I became quite the karaoke king… which can never be a good thing.  And it wasn’t.  While singing a song at Riverfront, a dance club in Tallahassee, I met an English major who was a senior at FSU, and we dated for the next few months.  She lived in a little guest cottage in her parents’ back yard (they did OK), seemed to be beyond the partying phase of college, which seemed to suit me well, and I felt like I needed someone.  I can hear those violins again… dang it. 

Suffice to say I had made a mistake (shoulda known, she was a Jeff Gordon fan), and it ended awkwardly during winter break in my freshman year while back at home (over AOL instant messaging, I think!).  When I returned to FSU, my roommate at the dorm had gone crazy and started sleeping during the day and staying up at night.  One night he rode his bike ten miles to Wal-Mart and came back with probably ten bags full of junk he’d bought using his student loan money, for some reason including flashlights (which of course were in those impossible to open plastic packages that he had to open right when he returned at 3:00am) and cheese puffs, which he apparently also couldn’t wait to crack into.  And I do mean crack into… nothing like the sound of a guy chomping on cheese puffs in a quiet dorm room at 3 AM.

The second semester of my freshman year was horrible.  I wasn’t far enough into school to get into the fun meteorology courses or really become involved in the on-air operations we had there, and other than a great friend (an older, local guy) I had met who occasionally took me fishing, I had very few friends and spent a lot of time alone.  The one place I had become comfortable going on Friday nights had been ruined because I didn’t want to run into my ex-girlfriend.  I think I drove home on a lot of weekends.   Fortunately gas was still cheap back then!

After freshman year I went home for the summer and started hanging out with some of my high school friends a lot more, and was desperately trying to feel as happy as I “used to be”.  I don’t think many people, my family included, realize just how unhappy I was.  Sophomore year was going to be much harder in terms of class workload, as physics, calculus, computer programming and two meteorology courses were now on the schedule.  I had met a few people through intramural tennis and decided to rent a house with one of the guys and his girlfriend (not an ideal situation, I came to find out).  At least I wasn’t going to have to live with the nocturnal nut anymore.  But I was really starting to worry that I’d never find a girl who I could really relate to or who would have an even remotely similar personality (very few people I know do!), and with all the time I was going to have to spend on school work, I didn’t see it getting any better for me sophomore year.  On top of that, a couple weeks before I left home, I had decided I needed to get braces since I was going to make a career out of being on TV as a meteorologist, and we all know how important looks are for the job!  I figured that would seal the deal for me to stay single.

But one night late that summer I got an email from someone who I’d never met, who had stumbled on my profile on AOL and seen that I was an FSU student.  Her name was Amanda and she was from south Florida and would be starting school as a freshman at Florida State.  She left her email address at the bottom of the note in case I wanted to write back, but I noticed it was different than the address in the “from” box at the top of the page.  So naturally I looked up that email address and found out that it was a different person named Ashley, also from South Florida and also heading off to FSU for her freshman year in a few weeks.  Her profile showed that she enjoyed lobster diving and going out on their boat, and that she was going to be a meteorology major.  Hmm…  

So I decided to send this “Ashley” an email and tell her that I was going to be a sophomore meteorology student and maybe we’d run across each other down there.  I don’t remember all the details of what I wrote or what she wrote back, but will never forget the night she did and the weeks after that.   That night, my “uncle” George, a good friend of my dad and neighbor from down the street, had come over to give me a hard time and say goodbye, since we were about to go on a trip to New York for a while before I headed back to FSU.  He mentioned something about me finding/not finding a girlfriend at school (most likely it was very inappropriate) and never coming back to see him as he walked out the front door, but I remember telling him about the email I’d gotten and rubbing it in that I was going to run off to Florida and do a bunch of saltwater fishing with this girl and her family in Pompano Beach.  A couple emails later and while vacationing in New York, I remember talking to my aunt up there about this girl I was kind of looking forward to meeting when I got back to school.  Who knows, at least we had an interest in meteorology in common.

When I got back to FSU, reality began sinking in just how tough 18 semester hours of core courses were going to be.  I didn’t have time to do much of anything, but did email Ashley back and forth a few times during the first couple weeks of the semester.  We’d tried to arrange to meet a couple times, but never could make it work, and I honestly started to lose interest because it seemed the feeling was mutual.  But one night while headed to the mall with a friend she called me and asked if I wanted to meet her and Amanda, her close friend, at their dorm.  Ashley told me she was having trouble with her algebra and thought maybe since I’d already taken it that I might be able to help.  (Ha!  If I’d only known what a line that was!).  

So I agreed to meet her one night, though I had no idea what she looked like and how I was going to know who I was meeting, especially since I was just going to the dorm, calling her, and waiting for her to show up at the front door of the building to let me in. That led to the most pathetic first impression I think I've ever made on someone.  While standing outside the door, I saw a few people come out and wondered... "is that her?  No.  Is that her? No."  Finally a pretty girl with long brown hair came down and opened the door, looked at me, and I said "Mike?"  Yes, that's your name you idiot... good job.

Amazingly, and perhaps regrettably for her, she let me in (after laughing or something, I don't know, I can't remember her reaction because all I was thinking was what a dumba$$ I was).  Before going up to her and Amanda's dorm room, she walked over and got a Diet Coke out of the machine (another shocker, if you know her!).  Those are honestly the only details I remember of the night.  I know we went upstairs and I met her roommate and the girl who started this whole thing, Amanda... Ashley was playing some music on her computer, we did actually look at the Algebra homework and I attempted to help, and that was pretty much it.  I remember thinking I was interested, but was afraid to get too excited about anything as I didn't want to just jump into another relationship.  After going out a few times with her and her friends, I kept that same mentality... trying not to get too attached or rush anything.  But after a while, it was like I didn't have a choice.  As much as I tried not to, I fell in love with her (cue the "awwwwwww").  

Our first real date was at Riverfront (the place I had met my ex-girlfriend!) on September 21st, 2000.  Perhaps appropriately since we were both meteorology majors, it was raining as the remnants of Tropical Storm Helene were passing through.  We went with a group of her friends and one of mine.  I thought I might be able to impress Ashley with my singing.  I didn't.  We went over to the country dance floor and I asked her to dance.  It was a slow dance and she wouldn't even look at me (she says because she was embarrassed... not of me of course, just being out on the dance floor).  Great first date- she seemed real into me!  It actually was a great night and we had a lot of fun while I wasn't singing and we weren't dancing.  She was just like me in all the right ways, and different in all the right ways as well.  Truly a match made in Heaven, and she came along just in time.

The rest is history, and would take months if not years to write (and probably read too!), but in the nearly 12 years we've known each other, we've made a lot of memories together.  She's always been there for me.  I realized I was going to marry her one day when I sat in the living room of the house my friend and I had rented with a high fever, chills and a throat so sore and swollen I thought I was going to die (seriously).  My roommates didn't care about me, just wanted me to stay away from them, so I called Ashley and asked if she would take me to the hospital.  It was late at night during finals week (she and I both had finals the next day) and neither of us even knew where the hospital was (pre-smart phone era, remember... we actually got directions from a pizza guy we stumbled upon in a parking lot!).  She stuck with me the whole night waiting in the ER and took me home after they told me I had mono.  She even went out to a gas station after midnight to buy me some Motrin (that's big for her!).  

It takes a special person to deal with me and my obsessions.  Since then she has worked at bass fishing tournaments for me, given me the best present ever in a ride-along ticket for the Richard Petty Experience at Atlanta Motor Speedway and understood when I bawled my eyes out after finding out Dale Earnhardt died.  If she stuck around through all that, I knew I had to marry her!

We had the most perfect wedding on May 29th, 2004 in her hometown of Pompano Beach, Florida, shortly after she graduated from FSU and while I was working as Chief Meteorologist in Macon, Georgia.  Perfect as it was, the weekend didn't start that way.  Being in TV, it was mandatory to work during "sweeps" months and May sweeps are the most important.  I couldn't leave for Florida until early the Thursday morning before the Saturday wedding and we were going to have to go straight to the courthouse to get our marriage license in time.  When we arrived, we were told there was a three day waiting period before we could get married because I was from out of state!  So, after freaking out about how we were going to get married in two days, we talked to the pastor and he told us he would sign the marriage certificate and date it May 30th, though the ceremony was held on May 29th.  

Even with two actual anniversary dates, the 29th and, for the State of Florida's purposes, the 30th, I still managed to ruin this year by being sick!

After being starving meteorologists at separate TV stations in Macon, Georgia together, she gave up her career as a meteorologist for me so I could take a new job as a starving meteorologist in Savannah.  She worked hard to get a teaching certificate so that we could make ends meet and start a family.  She taught 6th grade math during her first pregnancy and stuck it out so that she wouldn't miss any paychecks, and gave birth to our first daughter, Lily in 2007.  She gave up her teaching career to become a stay at home mom (talk about a real career) when we moved to Houston for my job, and has since brought into this world two more beautiful little girls, Delaney and Maggie.  I do my best when I am home, but she has raised these kids, and they are the best you'll find.  Lily is a mini-Ashley, which is both scary and relieving to me, because I know what she'll be like when she's older.  They all have Ashley's smarts and thankfully her nose.  How she deals with all three of these kids, good as they are, getting them to and from dance and mom's club and the grocery store and the doctor... is all still baffling to me. 

Ashley still puts up with my ridiculous obsessions, the worst of which being my stubborn determination to keep alive an attendance streak at NASCAR races in Atlanta (I didn't say she likes them, but she puts up with them!).  She has given up so much for me, and given me so much, and I know there is no one else in this world who could possibly be better for me.  The eight years of marriage we’ve shared have been the best years of my life, and I can’t wait to go through the years to come with her, by my side as always.  

Happy Anniversary, sweetie.  I love you.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Luckiest Man on Earth

So in a previous post, "The Weatherman", I mentioned that in a later post that I would talk more about how a change in my career made me the luckiest man on Earth.  The truth is, landing my current job was just another event on a long list of things that have left me wondering, in a good way, "how in the world did this happen to me?"  My family is and will always be my greatest achievement.  I have two loving parents who raised me right and a couple of older brothers who always looked out for me, even through their own struggles.  I met my soul mate in college, someone who truly understands me like so few people do and can put up with my crazy ideas and obsessions, and she gave me the three most beautiful little girls I've ever seen.  There are probably a thousand blog posts that stem just from those last two sentences, but today I'll stick to the story of how a shot-in-the-dark job application, weather radios and a whole lot of luck led me and my family to a better life in Houston, Texas.

In the summer of 2007, I was living and working in Savannah, Georgia.  That June, our first daughter was born, and as they say, our lives changed forever.  I was the weekend meteorologist at WSAV-TV, and my wife was teaching middle school math.  Together, we made just enough money to pay the bills and usually make ends meet, but knew that with the new baby and daycare looming when my wife went back to work, times were going to get a little tougher.  And they did.

When our Chief Meteorologist announced he'd be leaving for a new job, I saw an opportunity to be promoted to mornings or even the Chief position, which would bring a better salary and a little peace of mind with the added expenses on the way.  The morning meteorologist and myself both made our bids, but after seven weeks of busting our rears, trying to impress station management and working six-day weeks to cover the empty role, the company chose to hire a new face for the weekday evening weather, and we were left right back where we were.

During the interview process, when asked by my news director what I thought about the person who was eventually hired, I told him that she seemed very nice and would be easy to work with, but I was concerned about her experience as a meteorologist since she asked me to remind her what the strongest part of a hurricane was (being in the coastal city of Savannah, the potential leader of the weather team asking this question raised a few red flags for me).  When he told me that there were a lot of meteorologists in TV who were great at knowing and explaining the science of weather, but "quite frankly, they suck on the air", I began to question my career path.  When the decision was made to hire her, I decided to start looking for a new job.

Since December of 2007, I had been sending demos out to other TV stations and talking to meteorologists at the Charleston, SC National Weather Service office, but also kept an eye on the online job sites such as and, applying for anything that had the word meteorologist in it.  I even (somewhat reluctantly) sent a resume for a job titled "Trade Floor Meteorologist", even though my perception of the position was that it would be an extremely stressful job with crazy traders jumping up and down yelling and screaming like you see in the movies at the stock exchange.  My contract was going to expire in May of 2008, and though I felt like the station would offer to renew it, I had decided to leave one way or another.  I enjoyed working with most of the people there, and it wasn't a horrible job by any means, but I didn't feel like I was appreciated by station management for the work I was doing, and was tired of busting my butt for nothing.  When I told my news director I wasn't going to stay, I still hadn't found a new job yet.  At my salary, I figured I could do just about anything and still make as much money.  It was a risky decision, but I wasn't about to sign another contract for a job that wasn't making me happy OR paying the bills.

While on my way back to Savannah from the NASCAR race in Atlanta in early March, I got a phone call from my first News Director, who I worked with in Macon.  He had just taken a job at a new TV news station in Myrtle Beach, and was looking for some meteorologists and asked me to send him a resume and demo.  He said he couldn't guarantee a Chief position for me, but was interested in having me join the team as a morning or weekend meteorologist.  Finally, I had something promising!  After several weeks of waiting and after visiting the station and meeting the GM, he offered me the weekend meteorologist position.  It was a lateral move for both my title and salary, house prices in the area were a little higher, and moving to South Carolina meant my wife would have to work to get her SC teaching license, but I liked the people on the news team and really enjoyed working with the news director when I was in Macon, the meteorologists seemed like they'd be great to work with, and it would be a fun place to live that was still close to family.

On Monday, April 21st, I signed and faxed a 3-year contract to Myrtle Beach to accept the weekend meteorologist position.  Three days later, I received another phone call from a guy named John from PPM Energy. 

Ahhh yes, I remember that job posting... I applied for that job way back in December, and that was the crazy "Trade Floor Meteorologist" position.  All I kept thinking while listening to John tell me about the company and what they do was that I had just signed a contract for another job, and I couldn't back out of it (at least I didn't think it would be worth trying at the time).  I was honest with him and said that while the job certainly interested me, I had just accepted another job.  Also, I was a little unsure if a move all the way to Houston, Texas was in the cards for our little family.  John was persistent, however, and decided to put me on the phone with one of his meteorologists already on staff, Ankit, who also came from a background in television.  After talking to him and hearing how he had been so successful in his transition into the energy industry, which I had expressed as a concern for myself since before this phone call I had no idea what the job really entailed, I realized just how great an opportunity this was.  When I learned that the salary was as much as I would have made as the Chief at WSAV, and there was potential for something called a bonus (Bonus??  There's a meteorologist job which comes with bonus pay????), I knew I had to give it a chance.

Perhaps I shouldn't go into so much detail, but I have to at least talk a little about the interview process.  When I interviewed for my first job in Macon, I was moving from Tallahassee back home and literally stopped at the station on the drive up to Atlanta.  For my job at WSAV, I drove from Macon to Savannah one morning, had a brief interview and station tour, bought myself a hamburger and fries from Wendy's and drove back to Macon so I could work that night, all on my dime.

When PPM Energy (now Iberdrola) brought me in for an interview, of course I had to fly to Houston.  When I arrived at the airport, there was John, my future boss, waiting at baggage claim to pick me up and take me to dinner.  A step up (or a thousand) from Wendy's, he treated me to a steak dinner at a very nice restaurant I've only since been to once, with my wife for our anniversary.  About ten people interviewed me the next day, and one of the other meteorologists, David, took me to lunch and then drove me to the airport.  A couple weeks later, another round of interviews took place at our Portland, Oregon office, where I think for the first time in my life I stayed at a four-star hotel downtown.  I met the CEO of the company, was treated to lunch, and flew back home the next day.

While all this was going on, I was still technically committed to working for the TV station in Myrtle Beach, but wasn't scheduled to start working there until June.  I spoke to a TV news contract lawyer who said I shouldn't have a problem getting out of the contract, however, and called my News Director friend to tell him that a different opportunity arose, and he was more than understanding of the situation.  The rest is history.  I started working at Iberdrola in June of 2008 and it has been the greatest thing that ever happened to us.  Now I have a job I love, weekends and holidays off and two more little girls who were born here in Texas.  When I think back about how disappointed I was not being promoted at WSAV, how stressed I felt when I had turned down a new contract there without having something new lined up, and how the Myrtle Beach job may have just been a pacifier to get us by for a month until the time was right for Iberdrola to call, I know that God was watching out for us.  And trust me, not a day goes by that I don't thank Him for this opportunity, and I still often find myself walking into the office in the morning or sitting in a meeting listening to traders and managers discuss strategies and wondering, "how in the world did this happen to me?"  I guess I'm just the luckiest man on Earth. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

You're a NASCAR fan??

The son of a native New Yorker and a Floridian with deep family roots in Michigan, I grew up in the middle class suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.  I had an early interest in math and science as a kid, and went on to become a meteorologist after getting my degree in meteorology from Florida State University.  I have no discernible accent, and my blue jeans come from Old Navy (I think), not Wrangler.  Despite the fact that at one time as a kid, I had what some might classify as a mullet, most people are surprised when I tell them that I am a diehard NASCAR fan.

Why?  I have no idea.  I understand the sport’s roots, much more than people who criticize it in fact, and to some extent can understand the stereotypes that are placed on its competitors and fans, but it bothers me that every time I start talking about how big a fan I am, I get that same puzzled look and hear, “you don’t strike me as being a NASCAR fan”.  I simply don’t understand what that means, but I also realize that there are a lot of people who have never taken the time to actually learn what the sport is really about, instead of writing it off as a bunch of rednecks driving around in circles as drunken spectators wait for the next wreck.  No, it’s nothing like Talladega Nights (why NASCAR ever endorsed that movie I will never understand). 

This past weekend, I took a group of guys from work to the NASCAR race at Texas Motor Speedway.  For those who don’t know, I’ve been to at least one race every year since 1985, mostly at Atlanta Motor Speedway with my dad (In fact, this was one of only 3 or 4 races I've been to without my dad).  These guys have heard my stories, and they all wanted to experience the same thing I have every year since I was four years old.  Though all of them had an interest in racing, three of them had never been to a NASCAR race before, and none of them had ever camped in the infield for the weekend.  My job was to show them what NASCAR is all about- not just the racing or the drivers, but the whole NASCAR experience.  Though they will tell you that it was nice having someone with them who knew a lot about the sport and could point out drivers, crew chiefs, owners and media members in the pits and garage, I think just being there was enough to get them hooked.

Here’s an example… When we arrived at the track, a couple of the guys were anxious to use our garage passes (thanks aunt D!) and went in before I could go with them.  Within five minutes, they had not only seen Richard Petty, but gotten his autograph.  One of the guys said he’s not really into getting autographs, but when he saw “The King” he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  As a long time fan, I can assure you that Richard Petty taking the time to talk with fans and give them his famous John Hancock is not unusual, but to these new fans, it showed them how much those involved in the sport care about its fans.  They were quick to point out that all-time greats from any other sport probably wouldn’t have given them the time of day, let alone a free autograph.

Years of telling my stories have piqued the interest of some of my friends, and maybe gotten them to watch a few races, but if you really want to know why someone like me- a well educated, white-collared, south Florida-born regular guy who rarely drinks beer- would be so into NASCAR, do me a favor and go to a race.  Get to know the drivers and where they come from (you’ll find that few are from the south, and most are from the west coast or the Midwest).  Learn the rules and discover the technology involved in building the cars and fixing them to beat the competition, and keeping the fans and competitors safe.  Smell the burning rubber and racing fuel and hear the rumbling of 800+ horsepower as the cars go by.  Be entertained by the sights in the campgrounds, especially at night when the party begins.  Feel proud as an American when the National Anthem is performed and the F-15s fly over the track.  See the up-and-comers, from the 8-10 year-old kids on the quarter mile track racing Bandaleros (like full-bodied go karts) to the “young guns” trying to make a name for themselves in the Camping World Truck or Nationwide Series.  Start a tradition of going to races with your son or daughter that just might last a lifetime, like my dad did with me in 1985. 
It's something that can be hard to explain, but if you're one of the many who "just don't get" NASCAR, take my advice and give it a try.  As their slogan says, "everything else is just a game".  There's something for everyone, even a regular guy like me who until this weekend, had never had a beer at the more than 50 races I've attended (I was outta control after my two Bud Lights Friday night!!).  And if you don't know where to start... just tell me you want to go and I'll help you get there.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Karaoke Fuori

One way to get over your fears is to jump right in and face them head on.  Like someone skydiving to get over a fear of heights, I somewhat routinely sang karaoke in college to get over a little stage fright.

If you knew me back in grade school, you probably knew me as the shy, quiet kid that played tennis.  I had a lot of friends, and since I lived in Roswell most of my life and went to school with the same people for years, most everybody knew me, but I certainly wouldn’t have called myself “popular”, which was fine with me.  I wasn’t interested in a lot of the things everyone else did, and vice versa, so I think that was a big reason why I was so quiet- I didn’t relate to a lot of the kids in school.  But, without getting too into the psychiatry of this, I do think there was always some social anxiety involved.  I HATED being in the spotlight, speaking in front of the class, presenting projects, etc. 

I remember doing a presentation during my senior year… we had to pick something we were interested in and talk about it in front of the class, bringing in props and doing demonstrations.  I was really into bass fishing at the time, so I brought in all my fishing gear- rods, reels, lures, even a video.  The class was actually pretty interested in it, but since there were kids from other grades in the class and I didn’t know many of them well, I was incredibly nervous.  I’ll never forget holding up a fishing lure in front of me and my hand shaking so much that you could hear the rattle inside the bait!  <smh>

So when I decided I wanted to be a meteorologist on TV, understandably a lot of people were surprised and skeptical.  I don’t think very many people thought I could do it.  The thing is, when I am talking about something that I am really interested in, I actually talk so much that it’s annoying (just ask my wife about me and NASCAR!).  I knew I’d have to get over some of the nerves I felt speaking to an audience, but I also knew I would have no problem talking about the weather on TV.  Like I mentioned in the last post, I actually had to convince my best friend from high school that I was on TV by directing him to my station’s website so he could see my picture.

Late in my senior year of high school, I went with a group of friends on a camping trip to Lake Altoona.  We spent a couple days there, and one night while sitting around the campfire I think someone started talking about music, and one of my friends started singing a Tim McGraw song that was mentioned.  Being a fan at the time, I joined in.  We just sat there singing songs and laughing about it for probably an hour.  Someone said they thought I had a decent voice, so naturally I immediately thought I was good enough to someday get a record deal.  Seriously, if American Idol had been around back then, I probably would have signed myself up (and subsequently been one of those people they show during the auditions that gets the boot, then walks out the door saying “they’re crazy, I can sing… I can sing, I just need another chance, I’ve just got laryngitis right now!”)  That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it was a nice boost of self-confidence nonetheless. 

When I went off to college at Florida State, I knew NOBODY there.  My first friend in town was a fishing guide I met who was married with two kids.  Since I wasn’t the most outgoing person, to say the least, I didn’t have a whole lot of friends early on. 

Every time I walked through the student union, I would see a sign on the window of the “Club Downunder” advertising karaoke night.  I kept thinking, “One of these nights I need to just go in there, sing a song and see what happens… might be a good way to meet people”.  So one night I gathered up the courage and went in there, alone of course.  After sitting at a table, ordering a Coke and staring at the song list for a while, I picked a song.  I think it was one of the sappy Garth Brooks songs… Unanswered Prayers or The Dance, or something like that.  I don’t know if I was any good, but I got up on that stage and sang, didn’t get any boos, and when I walked off the stage a group of four girls motioned me over to their table.  I don’t know what was more surprising to me… that I actually got up in front of 40-50 people and sang a song, or that a group of girls was telling me to come talk to them!  After that night, I wound up singing a lot at a place called Riverfront, a weird combination of country music and dancing on one side of the building connected to another club with loud rap music and a totally different kind of dancing (and crowd).  In between was the karaoke room where I sang Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, George Strait among others and even did a horrible rendition of Bon Jovi’s Dead or Alive.

Obviously I didn’t quit my day job… I’d like to say that I turned down record contracts because my real passion was in meteorology, but that’s only partly true.  But I figured if I could sing sappy country songs to a small crowd and not get kicked out of the place or be accused of singing drunk, surely I could talk about the weather on TV.  Even my mom, after hearing that I had gone to a club alone and got up to sing, said she didn’t think I had it in me! 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Singing in an Empty Parking Deck

If you follow me on twitter or facebook, you might have seen this post from me recently:
"Its fun to sing in a quiet, empty parking deck. Sounds like you are performing on stage, and best part is no one can hear if you're off-key!"
I know this had to leave a few of my friends scratching their heads, especially given the time of day that I posted it (4:29am on a Wednesday morning).  No, it wasn't a drunk tweet.  If you really know me, you would know I wasn't drunk!  The two people who did comment on it sounded like they were a little concerned about me though.
I have an awesomely short commute to work... just about ten minutes in the morning, since there is no one on the road.  I pull into the parking garage at about 4:15am or so every day, and I am always the first person to arrive at the office complex.  When you wake up that early every day, you need a little something to get you going, and I don't drink coffee.  I always like to get the day started with some good music, so that I have a song in my head all day that I actually like.  
Everybody sings in the car (come on, you know you do).  There are all different types; the ones who sing quietly and barely move their lips so no one can see they are singing, the ones who get really into it until they pull up next to someone and they immediately stop because they are afraid they look stupid, and then there are the ones who don't give a crap who is looking or listening.  On the way into work, I will admit, I am pretty much in full-on concert mode.  So last Wednesday, when I pulled into the parking deck and shut off my truck in the middle of a song, I decided to carry it on as I walked to the door!  Nothing wrong with that right?  Here is what I was singing, if you are curious.   I highly recommend David Nail... great new country artist.
Anyway, with the slight echo effect you get inside a parking deck, it does sound kinda cool.  I know one day I'll be walking into work though and around the corner will be the security guard, laughing.  Or worse, he joins in and starts singing too... that would be awkward. 
I love to sing, and as weird as this might sound, I kinda wish I had taken that chorus class in middle school that I think I wanted to take just because there was some girl I liked in it.  Instead I took German???? Like I said, I am a dreamer... I'd still like to learn to play the guitar and sing, and I've always thought it would be the coolest thing in the world to write a song and hear it on the radio, even if it wasn't me singing.  A lot of old friends might find it strange that the quiet kid wants to be a singer.  Then again, it took a news station website with my picture on it to convince my best friend from high school that I actually talked for a living as a TV meteorologist.  On that note, in my next post, I'll talk about how getting up on stage to sing karaoke one night actually helped me get over a little stage fright.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Weatherman

People who really know me know that I have always been, and always will be a dreamer.  I come up with some of the craziest ideas and goals, and I don't know that I'll ever really grow up.  When I was a kid I wanted to be a lot of things... first, of course, a NASCAR driver, then a paleontologist, a professional tennis player (I'm still holding up hope that I can get on the track someday!)... but I finally settled with "meteorologist" on the morning of March 13, 1993 when I witnessed one of the most intense and impactful winter storms in history, the March 1993 Superstorm.  While I had already been interested in the weather for quite some time, seeing this storm pretty much sealed the deal for me that I was going to go to school to study meteorology, and go on to forecast these storms in a career as a TV meteorologist. (Stay tuned for later posts on how I became a meteorologist and how my career has evolved!)

As I write this, I am reading reports of a tornado near my old stomping grounds in the Roswell/Marietta, Georgia area and watching radar as best I can while taking care of things at home.  Eight years ago, I would have been getting ready for a potentially very long night covering severe weather as Chief Meteorologist of Fox 24 News in Macon.  Five years ago, I'd have been tearing apart weather models in Savannah to see if I would need to go into work early tomorrow to cover potential severe weather on WSAV channel 3.  Now, I'm in Houston, Texas.  I'm no longer in the TV business, don't have to worry about staying up all night watching the radar for work, and my Saturday will be spent hanging around the house with my family.

The life of a TV meteorologist is not as glamorous as many people think.  The hours can be ridiculous (I have worked as much as 32 hours straight, and 17 days in a row on different shifts), the pay is horrible (unless you are much better looking than me!), and the business can be very cruel and artificial (I won't elaborate on that).  The reason I went to Florida State was to learn the hows and whys of weather and also craft my on-air skills through its outstanding TV weather program.  When I started school there and began performing weathercasts on the university's cable television channel, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.  My dreams were coming true.  I wasn't just presenting the weather, I was also forecasting it, and being able to explain it and get the forecast right on the air really meant something, because I was trying to impress my peers in the meteorology department, as well as dignitaries within the university and government (our broadcasts were often viewed by politicians since we were in Tallahassee, Florida's capital).

After graduating from Florida State, I landed a job in Macon, Georgia as Chief Meteorologist and worked there for almost two years.  I had a blast working there.  I had the "Chief" title (I was the only meteorologist there), and the flexibility to do just about whatever I wanted with my weathercasts.  I even worked out a deal with my News Director to let me produce and anchor a weekly NASCAR news block during the sports segment!  Because I was the only meteorologist there, and I was responsible for all severe weather coverage, I still had the same feeling I had in college.  I felt like I was the "weather authority" and that my accuracy and knowledge was more important than anything else.

In 2005, I started working at WSAV in Savannah, Georgia as the weekend meteorologist.  I was the low man on the totem pole, working as a weather producer and fill-in talent during the week.  No disrespect to Fox in Macon, which has improved tremendously since I was there, but WSAV felt like a major market to me, with a much larger staff of experienced journalists and more substantial on-air presence. Over time though, and not really at the fault of anyone at the station, I think I transitioned into more of a "weather guy".  I was no longer the Chief or "weather authority" all the time... Except on weekends, I was the supporting role.  I found myself spending less time on the forecast and more time on working on presenting the forecast.  How I looked and sounded was becoming more important than what I was actually saying on the air.  Consultants were telling me I needed to "smile more" and show my personality more.  What happened to keeping people safe, explaining the forecast and teaching people about the weather, educating them about weather safety, and just being myself?  It worked in school, and it seemed to work in Macon... 

The reality was, I was in a bigger market, working for a major television news corporation, and in front of a larger audience.  I had reached the point where just knowing your stuff as a meteorologist wasn't good enough, you had to entertain people too.  I was the first person in the Savannah market to earn the "Certified Broadcast Meteorologist" seal from the American Meteorological Society, an accreditation that requires not only certain broadcasting skills, but passing a written exam to ensure you do actually "know your stuff"... but it didn't matter to anyone.  It wasn't even really promoted, in my opinion, because wouldn't it look weird to promote that I was a "certified" broadcast meteorologist when the Chief wasn't?  In late 2007, with my contract about to be up the following year, I started looking at other options, both inside and outside of TV.  Among other things, I think it was the day that we were taping our first HD promos and talent ID's that I decided I was ready to do something else.  As I sat in a director's chair with a makeup artist dabbing way too much stuff on my face, I thought "I'm not sure this is really me!". But when someone told me that there were a lot of meteorologists in TV who were great at the science side of things, but "quite frankly, they suck on the air", it truly hit me that I was in the wrong business.  Was I one of those people?

In the Spring of 2008, after a lot of reflection and prayer, and even with our first child (not yet a year old) at home, I informed station management that I was not going to renew my contract, despite not having anything new lined up.  The details of what happened to my career after this are better left for another entry (probably titled "I Am the Luckiest Man on Earth"), but suffice to say my family and I went through a period of great uncertainty.  It was a tough time for me professionally, too... I did feel as though I was giving up.  I wanted more out of my career, whether it was in TV or something else, and if I was going to leave TV, was I going to regret it because I didn't realize my full potential or never felt like I had really "made it"?

On Saturday, March 15th, 2008, I kissed my wife and little girl goodbye and left for work at my normal time of 1:30pm.  It was the weekend of St. Patrick's Day, and in Savannah they celebrate BIG.  Downtown became a huge party by evening, just as severe weather began making its way toward southeast Georgia.  I began cutting into programming after the six o'clock news as storms rolled into the viewing area.  Not long after, I noticed a strengthening storm that was threatening Effingham County, where my wife, daughter, and dog sat alone at home.  There was no warning out for it yet, so I first called my wife to tell her to take cover in the bathroom of our small one-story home.  I then went on the air and started covering it.

In between live cut-ins, I tried to call my wife and update her, as the storm had knocked out power and she could not see me on the air.  I felt totally helpless not being there for my family, but at least had the peace of mind knowing that my wife was also a meteorologist, and knew what to do.  The only thing I could do was go on the air and try to warn others.  Have you ever been watching a show and had it interrupted by a severe weather update for a county or city 50 miles from you?  Did it make you angry?  Well, because of this and because there are paid commercials that are scheduled to air, many stations have policies for their meteorologists to follow so that they minimize disruption of programming, but it is usually the responsibility of the meteorologist to decide when to cut-in.  I think in part because I knew I wasn't going to be staying at WSAV and didn't care if I got in trouble for any reason, I made sure I stayed on the air.  I didn't care what programming was on... I knew this was a dangerous storm and people needed to hear about it.

As it turns out, the storm did produce a tornado.  It was an EF2 that dropped near Springfield, went through Stillwell, and finally lifted at a power plant just a few miles away from our home. The tornado traveled right along a path of high voltage transmission towers straight to the power plant, which provided power to downtown Savannah.  Remember I said that there was a huge party going on downtown for St. Patrick's Day?  Yeah... several thousand people were there when the city went dark.  It was chaos.  Thousands of drunk people, walking around by the light of their cell phones!  But the bigger story was just down the road from where my wife, daughter and dog were thankfully safe and sound.  This tornado damaged or destroyed several homes in these small towns, leaving people homeless and some injured.  I later heard a story about some kids who were thrown from their mobile home into the nearby woods (but somehow avoided major injuries).

It was a long night for the weekend news crew.  We were short-staffed, I don't think any of us had eaten anything since lunch, and we stayed on the air beyond our normal 11:30pm sign-off because there were so many people affected by power outages, and police were trying to take care of the mess downtown.  But toward the end of our newscast, our anchor told me that someone had called the newsroom, not to complain about us cutting into programming for a small town tornado, but to thank me for being on the air, warning those in its path of the danger.  The other day I googled my name randomly, just to see what I might find, and came across this archived article written on a couple days after the storm.  Couple Says WSAV Warning Saved Them from Tornado. A couple months later, and just one month before I would start a new career outside of TV, I covered another weekend severe weather outbreak which spawned even stronger tornadoes in parts of southeast Georgia.  Several emails and phone calls came through the news room thanking me for my coverage.

With the storms rolling through the southeast tonight, I am reminded of that night and what it meant to me.  First, I realized that if I could help it, I never wanted to go through another situation where I was on the air covering a tornado and couldn't be at home with my family, helping to keep them safe.  At the same time, I remember how happy I was that night to hear from my co-anchor that my work had made a difference in someone's life.  It was the only time in my short TV career I got a little choked up on the air.

TV meteorologists go through this stuff all the time.  Several of my friends in Atlanta and Macon are dealing with a much more significant outbreak than I ever covered right as I write this.  What I did was nothing unprecedented.  There are a couple things I really do miss about working in TV... talking to school kids about the weather, and trying my best to keep people safe during severe weather.  Though I've made the switch from warning the public about tornadoes to warning natural gas traders of impending cold weather (or this year, the lack thereof), I still find myself going into severe weather mode sometimes when storms threaten my friends and family (I did a little of that tonight!).  But for me, after receiving the phone calls and emails from people affected by those storms in the spring of 2008, I was able to walk away from the cameras feeling like I had made a difference, and that's all that any of us weather nerds really want to do. To this day, and especially after finding that article again, I still have no regrets.