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Doing what good sportswriters do in once-in-a-lifetime conditions

What does a sportswriter say when his vacation is interrupted by an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster?

This: "Hello, friends. Just quick update. My Japan vacation has turned into bit of a work trip."

It's Rick Maese tweeting: "Not sure what we'll find, but currently making our way north toward area damaged by quake and tsunami."

Maese works the Redskins beat for The Washington Post. He and his wife, Erin Cox, a reporter for the Annapolis Capital, were in Hiroshima when the earth moved, an ocean spilled over, and a nuclear plant went ker-boom. So they did what reporters do. They went to see.

Tweet: "Not simple. 5 hrs last night on road 2 so far today. And still maybe halfway there."

They looked like highway bandits – if highway bandits rode in the back seat of a taxi and traded wisecracks about radiation poisoning. They wore red knit caps tugged to their eyebrows. They tucked white tissue under their glasses and let it hang past their chins. They were in this get-up in a taxi on a mountainside road. They had brought the knit caps because a friend wanted a picture of a Washington Capitals' cap in Japan. Intending to buy the surgical masks worn by Japanese as safeguard against disease, they had mis-translated a word and wound up with facial tissue. They wore the stuff after warnings to cover their skin. Well, yes. Of course. For sure. When I'm in danger of being lit up by radiation, I want the impenetrable protection of Kleenex.

There was gallows humor born of radiation's fearsome possibilities. "An extra finger or two," Maese said to his wife, "and I'd be the world's fastest-typing sportswriter."

"Maybe our future children will have flippers, not tails," Cox said.

Her husband held in his hand a bag of peanuts, meant for breakfast and dinner, bought as a last resort after grocery shelves had been stripped bare. But now, with invisible peril in the air, a life decision had to be made: to eat or not to eat?

Discretion being the better part of radioactive valor, Maese tossed away the bag. He said, "Nuke nuts!"

And they motored on toward the story that began for them four days earlier in southern Japan, 700 miles from the tsunami damage. There they walked on ground once incinerated by an atomic bomb that killed perhaps 90,000 people by shock wave and radiation poisoning. Maese and Cox were at Hiroshima's train station when they saw people crowding around televisions. They saw images of the tsunami rushing ashore in northeast Japan. In a story for her newspaper a week later, Cox wrote that they saw cars floating upside-down, "joined by sheds, then fishing boats, then entire buildings that rose, bobbed and were swept into a nearby bridge."

When Maese woke the next morning, he heard from editors at the Post.

"I was already on the ground," he said this week. "So the decision was, do we end our vacation and chase the story?"

They chased, together. Armored-up in knit caps and tissues, they chased north. Their taxi driver, a woman named Yoskiko, sometimes peeked in her rear-view mirror at the masked duo and giggled. This while her radio reported 4,000 dead and 10,000 missing. This while running low on gas with no gas stations open. This on empty roads through ghostly towns. This with warnings of another tsunami, three meters high. This after an announcement of a hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Another Maese tweet: "Total car time: 11 hrs. Still ways to go. Just got detoured off the North-South artery cuz of landslides. Good news: I'm not radioactive yet."

The first time Rick Maese walked into the Albuquerque Tribune's newsroom, he knew he wanted to be a sportswriter. His first by-line came on a story about New Mexico high school football players going to Australia. With some pain, he remembers his lede: "Care for a game of football, mate?" He was 14 years old. Today, a star at 31, Maese has been a metro columnist for the Orlando Sentinel and a sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun. He has written the space shuttle Columbia tragedy and the Cal Ripken triumph, the Olympics and a presidential campaign. It took the Post about five minutes to hire him when the Sun was dismembered by its owner, Sam Zell, a loon. Maese can do anything you want done any way you want it – from basketball to tsunami survivors, this on March 1, this on March 13.

So can all the good sportswriters. They come to the business as reporters, not fans, as writers, not fans. An old friend, John Jeansonne, now a journalism teacher, says the first thing he must do with students is "de-fan them." That means disabuse them of the notion that being the world's greatest Giants fans qualifies them to report on the Giants. In fact, it disqualifies them. Yes, the best news organizations are looking for fans – fans of journalism, of reporting, of writing, of thought and fairness and sustained excellence. The title of a Frank Deford anthology, "The World's Tallest Midget," is a nod to the perception that being even the best sportswriter is no big deal. Of course, for decades, Deford himself proved otherwise. He wrote basketball and tennis and life and death. He is a fan of good stories.

Last year, Maese's good stories often involved Clinton Portis, the eccentric Redskins running back. Now, he drove toward a real catastrophe.

"About to turn phone off again." Another tweet. "Driving through Fukushima, which is as close as Ill come to the nuke plant. Gonna hold breath for next 60 min."

After his feature on survivors, Maese returned to Tokyo and for a couple days wrote the Post's front-page story on conditions in Japan. He wrote for print from 4:30 to 6 a.m., slept some, then wrote in the night for the paper's website.
The deadline writing at both ends of the day was nothing new for a sportswriter. Maese said, "And we jump from topic to topic, from basketball to football, accumulating new information, digesting it, and trying to write it in a thoughtful, insightful way. Almost every day, it's a different topic. This time the topic happened to be nuclear disaster."

He wrote from Chico Harlan's office/apartment in Tokyo. Harlan was a Post sportswriter covering the Nationals before taking an assignment as the paper's man in Southeast Asia. "Besides the taxi," Maese said, "the other scary moments were in Chico's place. He's on the 32nd floor. Each aftershock made the building sway. We didn't get much of that in New Mexico, and I'm wondering, ‘Is the building going to stop swaying?'"

Erin Cox flew home first.

Two days later, a Maese tweet: "At the airport in Tokyo, heading back to DC. I appreciate all kind words and well-wishes. I really hope the situation here gets better soon."

He had done above-the-fold stories on a once-in-a-lifetime news event. He had shared a Washington Post by-line with his wife. She had made it home safely, and so would he, just in time for a surprise party planned for her 30th birthday. All good for a guy who – what, five minutes ago? – walked into an Albuquerque newsroom knowing what he wanted.

Now he's back in the Post sports department.

"Looking for features," he said.

And sounding happy.

Dave Kindred's latest book, "Morning Miracle," is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295.  

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