I spent 25 years as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Florida, Nebraska and California. Over that time I wrote thousands of stories and edited almost as many. A lot of those stories are lost to me because they were published before we had electronic archives. Yeah, I’m that old. I wrote on an electric typewriter when I was at the University of Nebraska.
There were some stories of note from those days. I covered the riots in Miami’s Little Haiti after Papa Doc Duvalier was deposed in 1984. I covered an airline crash in Sioux City, Iowa, for the Omaha World-Herald in 1989. I went to Pakistan in 1987 to write about a University of Nebraska program there for Afghan refugees. Photographer Bill Batson (RIP buddy) and I spent three days in a Pakistani prison before I was able to bribe a guard to call the consulate and get us released.
Ah, the good old days.
But all that happened when I was younger and not as experienced. My best work, I think, came later, when I was at the San Francisco Chronicle.
Here are links to my best and favorite stories:
Iraq Part I
In 2003, I was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. When the United States went to war in Iraq, I rode along with a Marine infantry battalion as an embedded journalist. The unit, the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment out of Twentynine Palms, saw a lot of action, starting in Basra, through Diwaniya and Al Kut, and then to Baghdad.
I got to know the nature of war very well. I ate, slept and worked next to those Marines for more than a month. Along the way, four would die.
When I returned to San Francisco, I wrote a six part series about my experiences. Shortly after, I was contacted about turning the series into a book. My baby, “McCoy’s Marines: Darkside to Baghdad,” was published by Zenith Press in 2005.
Going to war scared the shit out of me. I was a husband and the father of a 7-year-old boy. I did not want him growing up calling another man “daddy.” I figured, however, that if I were careful I could make it through alive.
The Marines have a saying, “No battle plan lasts after the first shot is fired.” And so it was for me. The battalion crossed into Iraq and attacked an Iraqi Army base near Basra. That went smoothly enough, but things got worse as we went along. One Marine drowned when his Humvee went into a canal. The unit saw heavy fighting in Diwaniya and Afuk.
In Al Kut, the driver of the Humvee I was in, Cpl. Mark Evnin, was shot as he stood 10 feet from me. He died on the way to the aid station.
A couple of days later, McCoy’s Marines were ordered to secure one of two bridges across the Diyala Canal leading into Baghdad. The Iraqis fought hard, and lobbed a barrage of artillery our way. One shell hit an armored personnel carrier, or AmTrak, about 20 feet from where I stood. The blast killed two Marines, wounded four others and knocked me to the ground.
The battalion took the bridge and rolled into Baghdad. A day later,, we ran into the international press corps at a traffic circle. They had been abandoned by their Iraqi minders and were looking for the safety of a U.S. military unit. McCoy took them and the Marines to their hotel next to Firdos Square, where an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein stood. The Iraqis wanted help bringing down the statue, and McCoy obliged. Those were the Marines who pulled down the statue in the iconic video seen round the world.
Here then are some of my stories from that adventure:
I returned to Iraq in the summer of 2004 to see the emergence of the insurgency and the U.S. attempts to rebuild Iraq. It was not pretty. By then, American contractors had been ambushed in Fallujah and roadside bombs were killing people nearly every day.
I found out firsthand outside Ramadi while riding with an Army patrol.
Finding Mary Alice
Every journalist knows how to do basic investigations. Some specialize in it and form special investigative teams. I was not one of them. I learned my craft well enough over the years, but I never had the patience to sit at a desk for months poring over documents, looking for that one little piece.
Mary Alice Willey changed all that. I spent six months investigating her death and I finally got the piece published about a month before I left the Chronicle.
The story came to me simply enough: The Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department put out a press release indicating they had identified the remains of a woman found murdered in 1971. The story was, a body had been found floating in a water canal outside Modesto on September 11, 1971. It was a young woman, probably 16-20, and she had been stabbed 65 times. The Sheriff’s office had tried for 37 years to identify her. And then a fluke happened; they figured out who she was. I tracked her back to San Francisco. To the protests and violence and carnage of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. And there, amid all the history and chaos of the San Francisco Haight Ashbury free love and “Off the pigs!” mentality I found a little girl with high ideals who played a dangerous game. And got killed for it.
The Golden Gate Bridge is beautiful. It’s the entrance to the San Francisco Bay and one of the prettiest cities in the world. It’s also a magnet for suicides. Every year, 20-40 people leap to their deaths from the span. Since the bridge open in the 1930s, nearly 2,000 people have jumped into the icy waters and died.
The Chronicle assembled a team of reporters to write about bridge suicides. My colleagues wrote about the nature of suicide, public policy involving anti-suicide barriers, psychological issues and the like. My job was to write about death.
The Chronicle always had a contentious relationship with the San Francisco Police Department. It was not uncommon for cops to ignore or stonewall our efforts to get cop and crime stories. Even stories that made them look good. It was a mutual hatred.
One day, Police Chief Heather Fong had it out with my boss, Executive Editor Phil Bronstein, at a party. The result was that Phil asked me to spend some time riding with the cops and showing them in their natural habitat. So I embedded myself with them. I hung out at Mission Station, the Gang Task Force, and Central Station for the better part of 2007.
Here are some of my stories from the series we called “The Badge”:
When I got back from Iraq in 2003, I worked with a new editor at the Chronicle. Carolyn White had worked at newspapers back east and edited books. She was awesome. The best editor I ever knew.
Carolyn was fascinated by the open sexuality of San Francisco and she asked me to write about it. I did that for several months in 2004. It was a lot of fun. I went to sex clubs, saw sex shows, witnessed porn being made and talked to some fascinating naked people. In the end I asked to move on. I like the stories but I never saw myself as a someone who would write exclusively about sex. It felt like I was always eating dessert, never an entree.
Here are some of my favorite stories from the series we called “Skin”:
And here are a handful of other stories I liked, for various reasons. I hope you like them.