One of the greatest benefits that comes from the business of storytelling is that you get to meet so many interesting people; people from all walks of life, races, colors, and creed. You often are provided with a window into some facet of society that might otherwise be unavailable and perhaps, for a short time, come to imagine what your life might have been, had you made different choices or followed a different path, or simply been born as someone else.
About a decade ago I had the opportunity to work on a film with a man named Albert of the Navajo Nation. Albert was in his mid-eighties and a veteran of WWII. He had seen the worst of humanity, fighting as a Marine against the Japanese on the island of Saipan and other places in the South Pacific. I remember he was soft spoken and had such a profound efficiency with words that he could make his point very quickly. He had warm, kind eyes but behind them, if you spent time with him, you could tell they were eyes that had seen things; things that cannot be unseen.
I spent several months on a film set with Albert and every chance I got I would try and pull a story out of him. I didn’t ever have to try very hard. One day I asked Albert if he thought that violence in television and movies had an impact on the level of violence in our society. Albert explained to me that when a Navajo warrior returns home from a hunt or from fighting an enemy he will sit and tell the story to his family. He will attempt to involve all of their senses so that they can fully understand the experience. If, for example, the warrior has killed an enemy in battle he will pass around his knife as he tells of the fight so that the listeners can feel it and smell it. Maybe he will show them stones from the earth where his enemy had fallen, or grass for them to taste.
Albert explained that if you don’t involve all the senses in the telling of your story, then the listener will not fully understand it. And the senses left out will leave them wanting more and send them out searching for the answers to the missing parts, perhaps to recreate the event on their own to better understand what they had only heard. Albert told me that because television and movies only involve sight and sound, they always leave the viewer wanting more, and never fully understanding what they have only seen and heard.
Albert’s words have stayed with me.
I am tired. It’s just before midnight. Warden Kyle Kroll, my teammates, Jason, Joe and I have been working non-stop for over 15 hours today. Kyle has been hunting an elusive poacher all week and we go where he goes and only rest when he rests. A 40-hour workweek doesn’t apply to game wardens or documentary filmmakers—we love our work, but right now we are all spent.
We are nearly home and Kyle stops for gas. His radio crackles to life. “Shots Fired!”
And we are off, heading deep into the Plumas National Forest. As it happens this night, Kyle is the closest law enforcement officer but is still at least 30 minutes from the remote location. I call Joe and Jason, who are following in our production vehicle on a walkie-talkie, and I instruct them not to try and keep up with Kyle - that it’s too dangerous. We are traveling over 90 miles an hour on winding backcountry roads. I am being slammed repeatedly into the door on my right and Kyle’s rifle rack on my left. We quickly lose Joe and Jason.
Details continue to trickle in over the radio. A homeowner fired at some burglars. The burglars fired back. Someone may be wounded. They may still be fighting. We don’t really know what is happening but lives may be at risk and Kyle is getting there as quick as he can.
I assess my situation. Kyle needs to be 100 percent focused and I can’t turn on a light in the cab to check my gear. I feel around in the dark. I have limited tapes and batteries for my cameras with me, having already been filming for over 15 hours. All additional equipment is in the follow vehicle that is now out of sight behind us, along with my Kevlar vest, which I had removed, thinking our day was done. I am speeding into what may be an ongoing gunfight without body armor and limited camera equipment. Someone named Murphy comes to mind. I hang on tight. It feels like we will spin off the road at any moment. I wouldn’t drive this fast on a freeway but Kyle is skilled and knows these roads well.
Fragmented info comes in over the radio. This backcountry is a maze of trails and roads and we still don’t know exactly where to go. Narrowing in on the location, we intersect a local sheriff’s deputy and Warden Steve Ulrich. Information is exchanged. None of this makes sense to me. We all speed off down a narrow road and I can see a car in the distance, parked awkwardly in the grass near the roadside.
The truck skids to a stop and Kyle is out and moving fast, rifle raised and yelling. Two men limp towards us, hands in the air and covered in blood. I am on my belly in the dirt behind Kyle as he trains his weapon on the men who are rapidly detained. The wardens and sheriffs move on to the car, approaching slowly. I stay back, low on to the ground near the roads shoulder until I get the all clear. Slowly I move in behind Kyle.
The car is a bloodbath of broken glass and bullet holes. Two men suffering grave wounds lay in and out of the car. I move slowly around the car, filming the wardens as they provide emergency medical attention. Who did what to whom doesn’t matter now, only that these men may be dying and they need help. Fast.
Time slows down in these moments. And there is a thickness in the air, as if the incredible violence that occurred here was a fire that left smoke; a smoke or residue that can’t be seen or heard or tasted or smelled but one that can be felt. A thickness that hangs over everything and everyone, pressing down from all around and right into your body. It’s quite cold out but I can’t feel the cold, even in just a t-shirt.
More cops arrive and then paramedics and helicopters and eventually even my teammates manage to find the site. I am happy to see them and happy to see them safe.
Some of the men are taken to jail and some airlifted to the hospital. One of them will not survive. I will remember his face very clearly for the rest of my life. I will remember him in the backseat of the car, his skull mushroomed out where a bullet exited, him muttering very low words I could not understand. I will remember him on a stretcher, neck arched, arms flopping limply at his sides as a paramedic forced breathing tubes down his throat to keep him alive. I remember things I would not point my camera at and things that could never be shown on television.
If you do this kind of work you may get to see a lot of things—wonderful things and horrible things. Things that change everything else you will ever see.
We are the last to leave with Kyle and few of the other cops and it’s a long drive down from the high country to our hotel. When we finally arrive, the sun is coming up and we have been going for over 24 hours. I am exhausted but sleep will not come easy. Albert’s words might just be the only comfort I will have tonight. At the end of the day, this is a story that he would want me to tell.