Reflections On A Bond Forged Through Storytelling
Friday is the National Day of Listening, a chance to sit down with a loved one, turn on an audio recorder and ask that person about his or her life. You can find tips on how to record your conversation at nationaldayoflistening.org.
When Morning Edition host Renee Montagne thinks of her longtime producer Jim Wildman, she goes back several years to their reporting adventures in Afghanistan.
The two spent a total of six months there over the course of five trips from 2006 to 2011. "I always felt like you were taking care of me," Montagne says. "That's why we could go to these places that sometimes were far enough away and isolated enough that they were dangerous."
She remembers the only time she was afraid when Wildman couldn't help her: They were walking along a very high, unprotected ledge above where the Bamiyan Buddhas had been before they were blasted apart by the Taliban.
"I got scared because it was a strange sensation: If you slipped, you went down. You died," she says.
The story they were working on at the time, Wildman remembers, was one they "absolutely" had to report. But first they had to move along that terrifying ledge.
So how did Wildman cope?
It was simple, he says. When he heard Montagne's voice rise in fear, he knew he had to calmly move them forward – with the audio equipment recording, of course — "because at the end of this walkway is a stunning view of the Bamiyan Valley, and if I can just get Renee to that vantage point, it all makes sense."
Finding a way to describe moments of their (sometimes harrowing) searches for stories to tell in Afghanistan is not easy, Wildman says.
"We know it's there, but we don't know what it is yet," Montagne recalls.
"It's a little bit like when we came back down out of the Buddha, there was a warehouse full of giant stones that had once been the Buddha, and they were trying to catalog these stones so that perhaps one day they could rebuild the Buddha," Wildman says. "And in many ways, that's the task that we do in Afghanistan is walk around those stones and try to piece it all together."
After 16 years, Wildman is leaving NPR for new adventures with his family.
"I'm sure we'll have other occasions to do this, and we don't have to do it on the air, necessarily, but I do want to say goodbye ... to you," Wildman says.
"How about farewell or a bientot or until next time?" Montagne says.
Wildman offers ghoda hafez, a gentle goodbye in Persian they learned in Afghanistan.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
When MORNING EDITION producer Jim Wildman was in Afghanistan, he sent an audio postcard back to all us in Washington, D.C.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
JIM WILDMAN, BYLINE: Hey, this is Jim. I'm still in the middle of my first kite fight.
GREENE: He was standing on a hill in Kabul, where kite fighters compete with sharpened strings. They try to cut each other loose.
WILDMAN: Oh, no. It just popped away. We just lost. Oh, man. Somebody just popped our kite string, and this kite is flying away into the dusty Kabul sunset.
GREENE: Jim has traveled around Afghanistan many times with our own Renee Montagne. They share vivid memories, including one of a harrowing walk along a narrow ledge leading to where the two colossal Bamiyan Buddha statues once stood before those cultural treasures were blasted apart by the Taliban.
Today, Renee talks with her longtime producer. It's our way of observing the National Day of Listening, a day to sit down with a loved one and a tape recorder. Renee says that when she thinks of Jim in Afghanistan, she thinks of how people were drawn to him, and of how he delighted in the company of kids.
RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: Remember when we went bicycling in Kabul, and you ended up trying to race these boys - and ended up hitting a car?
WILDMAN: And breaking the bike.
MONTAGNE: Well, not really.
WILDMAN: When we go on these trips, we jump in with all that we've got. And I realized early on, in one of our earlier trips, that one of the first things that I started missing about my family was how my boys felt on my shoulder. That is perhaps why I sought out those margin experiences, with folks who are on the sides of the stories where we went, because they reminded me of my family.
MONTAGNE: The one thing about these trips - I mean, we've spent together six months cumulatively, being in Afghanistan. I mean, I always felt like you were taking care of me. That's why we could go to these places that sometimes were far enough away and isolated enough that they were dangerous. The only time I was ever afraid when I was with you in Afghanistan was, really, when you couldn't help me. We went up to the top of the Bamiyan Buddhas - the Buddhas are gone, but we're walking along a ledge. How high up was that? Many, many stories high.
WILDMAN: Yeah. I mean, it was...
MONTAGNE: And I got scared, because it was a strange sensation. If you slipped, you went down, you died.
WILDMAN: Right. And it was a story that we absolutely had to do.
MONTAGNE: Yeah. We had to get to the top, and we had to look down and we had to walk this ledge. And I got, at one point, I just couldn't go back. How would you describe yourself in those situations?
WILDMAN: Like, it got really super-simple. Like, you and I are climbing up here, and I'm realizing, as I hear your voice rising, you start to freeze a little. Jim, I need you to hold my hand. You know, I'm thinking, all right. We just need to get over this gap. I need to hold onto Renee, and we're rolling tape. Let's get over to this place, because at the end of this walkway is a stunning view of the Bamiyan Valley. And if I can just get Renee to that vantage point, it'll all make sense. It's so hard to explain what it's like there.
MONTAGNE: You mean there, in Afghanistan, trying to tell stories.
MONTAGNE: But there, you mean these moments of stories being inchoate, and you're trying to find it and you're trying to live through it. Right?
MONTAGNE: We know it's there, but we don't know what it is yet.
WILDMAN: Right. Well, it's a little bit like it when we came back down out of the Buddha. There was a warehouse full of giant stones that had once been the Buddha. And they were trying to catalog these stones so that perhaps one day they could rebuild the Buddha. And, in many ways, that's the task that we do in Afghanistan, is walk around the stones and try to piece it all together.
MONTAGNE: You are leaving NPR now after 16 years...
WILDMAN: Sixteen years.
MONTAGNE: ...to go onto other adventures. This is what you want to do with your family and your three little boys. Do you think we'll lose touch with each other?
WILDMAN: I hope that doesn't happen, Renee. I'm sure we'll have other occasions to do this, and we don't have to do it on air, necessarily. But I do want to say goodbye. I do want to say goodbye to you.
MONTAGNE: How about farewell or abiento, or until next time?
WILDMAN: (Foreign language spoken). That's right, (foreign language spoken). Good.
MONTAGNE: All right.
GREENE: That's a gentle see you later from Renee Montagne to producer Jim Wildman, and, man, are we going to miss him. The National Day of Listening is tomorrow. Hear more interviews and upload your own at NationalDayofListening.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.