As a photographer and later, as a reporter, I covered campaigns, news conferences and different events involving North Carolina's governors from Jim Hunt to Jim Martin, Jim Hunt again, Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue. I was the pool photographer on helicopter tours of hurricane damage on the coast and other communities with Governor Hunt and later Governor Easley.
Any of our Sky5 pilots will tell you, I was a white knuckle flyer. The smell of jet fuel by itself made me a bit queasy, but then add a little turbulence, circling around a burning building with a camera view finder pressed against my eye, and it was often a recipe for losing whatever recipe I consumed beforehand. I made it through those governors' helicopter hurricane tours intact.
It was a campaign flight with former governor and then-Sen. Terry Sanford that really tested my gag reflex. There was only room for one photographer on this tour of major cities in the state, and Sanford's staff offered WRAL the privilege of picking a pool photographer to provide video for itself and other stations. They sent me to ride with Senator Sanford and his campaign manager – a cigar smoker. We loaded up in Raleigh on an overcast morning, a day before voters would either re-elect Sanford or vote for his republican challenger Lauch Faircloth in November 1992.
The cloud ceiling was low so we kept Interstate 85 in sight from an altitude of less than 1,000 feet. It was a bit choppy, but I made it to the campus of UNC-Greensboro just fine. I jumped out and got pictures of Senator Sanford meeting students and faculty members. Then it was quickly back into the stench of the smoke-filled chopper and on to a stop in High Point followed by UNC-Charlotte. Same routine at each stop, the crowd awaiting Sanford's dramatic arrival out of the sky, grippin' and grinnin', speechifying and off again.
The last stop was a long ride across the state to East Carolina University. I didn't think I could take the cigar smoke, plus the gassy fumes and the choppy ride to the end of my journey. I knew a rental car was waiting for me in Greenville when I could ride on solid ground. I wasn't assertive enough to ask the burly campaign manager to snuff out the stogie. I just toughed it out. I didn't say a word. I just sat there, turning green and giving my full concentration to avoiding the ultimate embarrassment – up-chucking at the feet of our esteemed 75-year-old senator. In TV news, we try to just cover the story, not "become" the story.
Finally, Greenville was in sight. I wanted to get out of the chopper first in order to get the video of Sanford climbing out to the applause of the crowd, but just lifting the camera to my shoulder during our landing nearly triggered the esophageal eruption. I swallowed hard, unlatched the door and jumped out. I quickly turned my lens toward Senator Sanford's descent from the craft and, with a quick turn of the head while still maintaining my shot, I spit out about a half mouthful of something gross.
I think the camera on my shoulder on one side and the chopper on the other blocked anyone's view of my sick moment. Maybe someone thought I was just spitting tobacco. I refused to heave anymore. I regained my composure, got a few more of the required shots and left the crowd to find my rental car. It's amazing how quickly solid ground can cure you, but the greenish hue didn't totally leave my face until I arrived back in Raleigh. By the way, the long, smokey ride didn't help Senator Sanford's bid. He lost the next day to Lauch Faircloth.