Monday, September 17, 2007

Investigation 101

Don't mean to bore you all with another story about writing, but someone wrote recently--after a new cover story investigative piece of mine came out in the local alternative weekly I work for--and asked how long it took me to dig up the dirt I was dishing. He wrote because he's about to enter journalism school and was thinking about being an investigative reporter.
I told him about the weeks/months/dozens of interviews involved but the real key, aside from always making another phone call, doing one more interview, cross-checking one more time, is being creative when you have to.
I just wrote about the circumstances of how I became a writer, but I didn't say how I became an investigative journalist. This is it.
I'd done some stories for High Times on ayahuasca, nu-nu, the phychedelic plant doctor and maybe one other, when I got a call to come to the offices. There, my editor in chief talked to me about Earth First! There had just been a big story about them in, I think, Rolling Stone or Esquire, and my boss wanted the High Times version. The big story was wonderfully written, but as Earth First! leaders were all wanted by the FBI at the time there was no new talk from any of them in the piece. So my boss, Steve Hager, told me he wanted an interview with Judi Bari or Darryl Cherney of Dave Foreman or any of them. "Something fresh. Something nobody else has," he said.
Which was great. I had no idea where to even start. Hell, if the FBI couldn't find them, how the heck could I?
I'd never done an investigation before, at least not like this. So I went back over the piece in the other magazine. Over and over. I looked at the pictures of the people in Earth First! to see if there was a clue. Nothing.
Essentially, I was perfectly willing to give up because it was an impossible task. I had nothing to go on at all.
And then maybe two or three weeks after Hager had asked for the story, I was watching a football game in my apartment in NYC when a lightbulb went off over my head. I jumped up and went back to look at the pictures of the Earth First! crew again. And there it was: Dave Foreman looked like a bear of a man. A big guy. The kind of guy who probably played high school football. And probably still liked to watch football. And maybe liked to drink beer while he did.
The article said that Foreman had grown up--if I'm remembering correctly--in Wyoming, or had some Wyoming connection so I decided to start there. There was no Internet at the time, and I wouldn't use a computer for another 3-4 years (I think this was 1988), so I got on the horn and called Information and got the first five alphabetical names and phone numbers of bars/restaurants in Wyoming. Five was all the phone lady would give me. So I called back and got five more. And again and again until I had I think--again, if I remember correctly--283 bar names, addresses and phone numbers for the state. Thank god it was Wyoming and not California.
Then I began making calls. It took days. At each I'd say something like "I'm Peter Gorman from High Times magazine. I'm trying to reach Dave Foreman. If anyone knows him can you pass this number along? I want to talk with him."
I think I was through about 130 or so, about half the list, a week later, when I was watching football on the next Sunday again and the phone rang. "Is this Peter Gorman?" "Yes." Click.
The next day it happened again. "Is this Peter Gorman?" "Yes." Click.
There were no phones with caller ID back then, or redial, so I had no idea who or what it was about and didn't think about it much.
The next day the same phone call.
And then the fourth day it started the same. "Is this Peter Gorman?" "Yes." Pause. "This is Dave Foreman. You wanted to talk with me?"
Man, you should have seen my heart beat just then. I was on the phone with a guy the FBI was actively looking for and couldn't find. What a thrilling moment that was.
I don't know that my interview was all that great, to be honest, but it still made the cover of High Times and from that point on I thought of myself as an investigative reporter.
Years later, while I was interviewing everyone I could think of that was connected with early years of LSD, from Leary to Beresford, to Ram Dass to Ginsberg to Hofmann, I was trying to reach Ken Kesey. Wavy Gravy had given me Kesey's private line--I think it was Fish Lips or some such--but warned me that Kesey didn't generally take phone calls. I called his home and spoke with his wife--she said he wouldn't speak with me. I called the Fish number several times and got no answer. But I really wanted Kesey to be part of the 50 Years of LSD special issue of High Times that Bill Weinberg and I were putting together.
And then it was a Saturday and I was in the apartment and the Oregon college game was on in the background. And then it hit me, just like it hit me with Foreman: Kesey was a wildman but must love football. Still, if he did, he wasn't going to answer the phone during the game. So I waited till halftime and the moment the half ended I was on the phone and sure enough he answered. I blurted out: "It's halftime so I know you got 10 minutes. I want to talk about LSD. This is Peter Gorman and I already got Ginsberg and Ken Babbs and I need you...."
It all came out as one long word, I'll bet. Nonetheless, he laughed. "How the fuck did you know I'd be watching the game? And don't waste time, the clock's ticking."
And then he told me about LSD.
So I guess football has been very very good to me.
And investigations, when they pan out, are freaking fantastic.

1 comment:

Rocket Johnson said...

Hi Peter,

You are a fascinating man from what I have extracted so far. It's about 3:00am and I rarely get to sleep before 5:00am these days as I can't stop learning about the realities of God's most recent mission for me.

My wife Brenda and I have been thrust into the drug war for divine reasons that are just beginning to be revealed thanks to the cops that showed up one month before our wedding last year. Every rose has its thorns, just like every night has its dawn…grin.

I am not sure if you would be willing to help, but I thought it wouldn't hurt to pose the suggestion. I am an avid adventurer myself, placed by God into the southernmost metropolis of Miami, but led to the southernmost region of Alabama by my own volition.

I need and independent, unbiased perspective written for my wife and I as we are headed for a jury trial in the next few months. As a child I used to worship Bill Haast... do you remember him? He’s another fascinating person. He turns 98 next year. Not all substances known to be poisonous will kill you if you are strong. Never mind, I'm getting tired... I guess I was just noticing the parallel interest we have in misunderstood living organisms.

I generally avoid the poisonous ones, although I've been know to handle a few every now and!

Anyway, I hope this message finds you in good spirits. If there is any chance you would consider lending a helping hand, we would be honored.

You can start at Wikipedia, we are on a common list. My mind is an open book for anyone willing to read it. Now I need someone to write it. When the darkness reveals to light, we would love to join you on an adventure to Peru or elsewhere.

Rev. Bruce Shoop