Back in the late 1980s, I was working at the Miami News. One of the ongoing news stories of that time (and still today) was the state of affairs in Haiti.
There was always something going on: a boatload of refugees being hauled in by the Coast Guard or, tragically, drowning; another in a long line of coups; hurricanes; drug smuggling — you name it.
I was dragged in to a lot of these stories because 1. I spoke French, and could get by in Creole, 2. I had been to Haiti and done some reporting there: http://smartblog.smartmarketingnow.com/2010/01/the-trip-to-hell-costs-ten-cents/
On one particular night in June, 1988, there were rumors coming out of Haiti that a military coup was taking place. This news was greeted with a certain cynicism in the newsroom because it seemed there was always a coup d’etat taking place in Haiti. The “governments” changed so often in Haiti that residents would answer a question about their age by telling you who was president the year they were born.
The president in June 1988, Leslie Manigat, was unusual in that he was not a military man, and had been in office only four months.
My job that night was to see if I could get some actual news about what was going on, without actually going to Haiti. That meant what reporters call “working the phones.”
I grabbed some old Haitian telephone directories out of the morgue, and started dialing every government office I could find. Since the state of the telephone system in Haiti was somewhere between the state of the roads (pathetic) and the state of the Haitian air force (non-existent), I did not hold out much hope of getting anyone on the phone, much less anyone who could tell me anything newsworthy.
As it turned out, I was wrong about that.
A couple of hours went by as I banged the phones. Mostly I got no answer, which made sense since I was calling at night, long after government offices were closed. Occasionally one of my calls was answered, but not by anyone who could help me.
Somewhere around my 50th phone call, a man answered the phone and identified himself as an education minister in the current government. Great piece of luck! In fact, he said, he had a house in Miami, where he had lived as a refugee before returning to Haiti in February to join the new government. Excellent luck! And, he said, his wife was a school teacher in Miami. More luck! Finally, he added, he knew the Miami News and would be happy to talk to me. Fabulous luck!
That’s where my luck seemed to end, however. He told me that the rumors of a coup were completely false and that he, and other members of the government were hard at work in the National Palace (since destroyed in the 2010 earthquake). “There is no coup,” he told me. “Everything is fine.”
Ah well, no story. Wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last that I spent a bunch of time and energy chasing a non-story.
But no sooner had Mr. Lescouflair said the word “fine” than I heard the sound of gunfire over the telephone line.
He hit the lights, ducked under the windowsill and while occasionally peeking into the courtyard from his darkened office, proceeded to narrate the revolution to me for the next hour. That narration ended as I heard his office door burst open and the command “Haut les mains!” (“Hands up!”)
“Call my wife,” Lescouflair whispered to me, and then the line went dead.
It was several weeks before I met him in person at the Miami airport. He had been clapped in the notorious Fort Dimanche prison outside Port au Prince. He claimed that my article had saved his life. They didn’t dare to kill him, he said, because the article had made him too famous. Finally, they released him and kicked him out of the country.
The story had caused some hubbub. A TV station came up to the newsroom to interview me, and I was a newsroom celebrity for a day or two. The managing editor, Sue Reisenger, had posted my story on the wall with some flattering comments written across it. She called me into her office and congratulated me. I scuffed my toe on the floor and said (truthfully) that it had been a lucky phone call.
That’s when she delivered the lesson that has stayed with me.
“Some people,” she said, “make their own luck.”