A Bolt from the Blue
The true story of how I "accidentally" got into meteorology
“The boss wants to see you,” our TV newsroom secretary told me. “Right now?” I asked. It was only Monday, so I couldn’t have done anything wrong yet. “Don’t worry,” she laughed, “but now would be good.”“
I knocked on the open door of the boss’s office and he waved me in. “Sit down for a second,” he said, “I have a favor to ask you.”
He got right to the point. “Our weekend meteorologist has suddenly left us and I need you to fill in on the Saturday and Sunday newscasts until we find a replacement. Will you do it?”
I was dumbfounded. “You sure you have the right guy?” I asked suspiciously. I was a news reporter, not a meteorologist. I didn’t know a cumulus cloud from a kumquat.
“I think you can do it,” he said. “Besides, you have all week to get ready.”
Five days? I couldn’t believe he actually said that with a straight face. But I had learned years before there was no arguing with the boss. I decided instead to put him off. “Can I have some time to think about it?” I asked. “Sure,” he said, “no problem.”
I walked back to my desk feeling bewildered. Working in television newsrooms for almost fourteen years, I knew how to speak on camera. But I probably knew less about meteorology than a fifth grader. “Evaporation, condensation, precipitation,” I muttered. That was about it. What’s more, I had no idea how our weather guys got their information, or how to operate the computers that generated the maps to show on-air. And how was I supposed to interpret the clouds on those weather satellite photos? No, I thought, there is no way I can do this, not in five days, not in five years.
I looked at my watch. I had scheduled an interview for a story I was working on, and it was time to link up with my photographer and head out. I would break the bad news to my boss when I got back.
Upon returning to the TV station a couple of hours later I was greeted by the assignment editor. “Going to do weekend weather, huh?” he smiled. “What?” I howled. “Yeah, I saw the memo,” he said, pointing to the bulletin board across the hallway. “Good luck!”
I marched over to the wall and in amazement read the words typed on my boss’s stationery: “Nick has agreed to fill in on the weekend newscast, taking over weather duties until a permanent weather anchor is found. I want to thank him for his dedication to teamwork.”
So, I guess that was that. There was no arguing with the boss.
Just then, Larry, the weather guy on the morning show stepped up. “Come by my desk when you finish writing your story,” he said. “I’ll show you what we do.” “Thanks. I’d like that,” I told him, though I didn’t sound convincing.
That week Larry spent hours patiently showing me how to create computer-generated weather maps. “What is this big red L?” I asked him. “An area of low pressure,” he explained. “You know, rising air, so clouds and precipitation can form.” I stared at him blankly. “Don’t worry about that now,” he said, “it’ll come.” He almost sounded confident in me. That made one of us.
Both he and the weeknight meteorologist didn’t rely solely on information from the National Weather Service; they made their own forecasts. But they weren’t taking any chances with me. “Say it word-for-word just like the official Weather Service forecast,” Larry insisted. No problem, I thought. I don’t know any other way.
Saturday came too soon. I spent the afternoon painstakingly following the detailed instructions Larry had given about accessing the official government forecast and how to ingest satellite photos into the computer to use on-air. As I was finishing up he called to see if I had any questions. I asked him, “What should I point out on the satellite photos?” I thought I heard a sigh on the other end of the line. “Those clouds to the west of us will eventually bring rain tomorrow,” he explained.“ Just say that.” I had no idea how that was going to fill my three-minute time slot, but I acquiesced, “Okay.”
“Break a leg,” Larry chimed, and hung up.
Prior to that evening I had considered myself an experienced TV newsman, speaking authoritatively about politics, crime or the economy, interviewing hundreds of newsmakers in all manner of stories. But suddenly I felt like a rookie on his first day out of college. Here I was, in the fourteenth largest television market in the nation, preparing to talk, allegedly with some semblance of expertise, about something I had little knowledge of. I sensed disaster.
And with good reason. I wish I could say that everything went surprisingly well, that I spoke clearly, effortlessly and even cleverly about the forecast, and that afterward everyone gave me a high-five. But frankly I have tried to blot that first experience out of my memory. It was a train wreck. I managed a stumbling explanation that the clouds to the west would bring rain the next day, but there was nothing effortless or clever about it, and there were no high fives when it was over. My friends later consoled me with, “It wasn’t that bad.” My friends were too kind.
Even so, I did the weather segment the following evening, and despite my expectations that I would be called into the boss’s office on Monday and relieved of my weather duties, it didn’t happen. I worked the weather shift the next weekend, and the one after that. I started filling in on the morning show and the noon newscast when Larry took vacation. I even did the weeknight show a few times. People on the street began to engage me in conversations about the weather. I threw myself into the job and began to enjoy it in a way I had never enjoyed news reporting. Reading books about air masses and fronts and how topography and oceans affected our weather, I continually discovered new wonders about our atmosphere and found a growing appreciation of the role and responsibility of meteorologists. My boss never did find a permanent weather replacement. I don’t know if he ever looked.
In time I took classes in atmospheric science, completing a three-and-a-half year university program. I soon met the stringent requirements to be certified by the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association, eventually serving in leadership positions with the latter and often mentoring college students.
Now, as I enter my twenty-seventh year of television weather forecasting, I remind students that they need not be afraid when challenges come from out of the blue. “Life will take you places you never dreamed of going,” I tell them. “So when an opportunity arises, go for it. You’ll find that you are capable of much more than you think.”
And don’t forget, if on the satellite photo you see clouds to the west, it might rain tomorrow.
© Nick Walker 2017
This is one of 101 stories in the new book Chicken Soup for the Soul: Step Outside Your Comfort Zone. Click the book title below to buy it.