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ROBERT PRICE: Only after he put the camera down did the journalist find what he was looking for

It’s funny how the smallest, most insignificant detail can stand out in one’s memory of the most traumatic day of one’s life.

For Bakersfield’s Steve Stranathan, it was the boots. His stepfather, Jack Stranathan, yelled at him for wearing inappropriate footwear on their Central Coast deep-sea fishing trip. Hey, Steve was 15 and he liked to wear Levi’s and cowboy boots. Sneakers hadn’t really occurred to him.

Steve was the youngest of the six who boarded Jack Stranathan’s brand-new 28-foot cabin cruiser that Friday afternoon in March 1972 — exactly 50 years ago — for what was to be a weekend salmon-fishing expedition. He was one of the three who survived.

A giant swell, described by some as a rogue wave, tore the boat in half that Saturday morning, splitting the top section from the hull. All six men were tossed into the churning Pacific off Morro Bay. Two of them, including Jack Stranathan, drowned. A third, Alan Champagne, was lost at sea.

Steve Stranathan and two of his stepfather’s friends managed to swim to land.

“It never leaves you,” said Stranathan, now a 65-year-old Bakersfield real estate agent. “It’s always right below the surface.”

It’s funny how the smallest, most insignificant detail can stand out in one’s memory when the traumatic day occurs when one is 5 years old.

For Brian Champagne, it was his first day back at school two days later. Yes, he remembers all the crying after word reached the family of his 32-year-old father’s fate, but it was the way he was greeted by fellow kindergartners that still stands out to him: “Did you know your dad died?” The tragedy had been bannered across the front page of the previous day’s Bakersfield Californian, and they were kindergartners. Yes, he knew.

Today Champagne is a 55-year-old broadcast journalism professor at Utah State University and a disciple of the bare-facts style of news reporting. “If you hear about somebody getting in trouble for bad reporting, they weren’t my students,” he said. “We don’t do fake (news). I don’t even let them use adjectives. Maybe ‘blue’ and ‘yellow.’ Maybe ‘the sky was cloudy.’”

Which made last week’s quest, a mission both personal and journalistic, something of a challenge. Champagne — who still does a little freelance reporting on the side for a Salt Lake City television station — returned to Central California to solve something in his head, and to document it. He brought his 26-year-old son Nick, the second-oldest of his four — and a broadcast-quality video camera — 700 miles from Logan, Utah, to Bakersfield and then Morro Bay.

But how does one tell one of the defining stories of one’s life, describe its greatest tragedy, its single most enduring mystery, without adjectives? How does one reference one’s sense of loss and longing without describing emotion — which is, in a sense, the human manifestation of an adjective? That would be one of the things Champagne would just have to discover.

The old newspaper clippings only helped so much. “Boat Flipped by Wave,” read the headline published two days after the incident. “Fatal Mishap Hazy to Survivors.” “It all happened so fast,” said Irlan Warren, a 39-year-old probation officer who made it to shore. “There didn’t seem to be any great warning. … I still haven’t been able to put it all together.” He had no interest in describing what he saw after the boat capsized. “I’d rather not comment on that portion,” he said.

Harry Morlan, a 58-year-old probation officer who also swam through cold, tumultuous water to safety, would offer no comment at all. “Everything has been said,” a Morlan family member announced.

The bodies of Jack Stranathan, a 58-year-old Kern County Sheriff’s deputy, and Dr. Joseph Boydstone, a 65-year-old Kern County jail physician, were recovered. That of Alan Champagne, a young Navy veteran, now a probation officer, was not.

“He was seen in the water afterward, conscious, by a 15-year-old survivor (Stranathan), but then not again,” Champagne said. “They scrambled Coast Guard, a helicopter, boats went out, and they found possibly a kelp bed that might have hung him up. But never found.”

Champagne graduated from Highland High School, Bakersfield College and Cal State Bakersfield. As a college junior he was hired by KGET-TV, where he operated the screen-captioning and audio boards. “When you don’t hear your anchor for a second, sorry, that was me,” he said.

His primary job, however, was as a videographer: Press conferences, football games and tragedies. He moved on to TV stations in Santa Barbara (where he met wife Jami, an Ojai girl), Sacramento, and finally the Provo bureau of CBS Utah. He started his career as a university professor in 2010.

Over the years as a veteran television cameraman and reporter he covered more than a few water rescues — and some body recovery efforts.

“As the guy who was behind the camera for years, I’ve been to those things where they were trying to recover a body,” Champagne said. “And I don’t flash back or anything like that, but you have a little more insight into it, what the people are going through. And I don’t march up and announce that I’m like them. But just, as you shoot, it’s different.

“Terrible things happen to people. And when a boat splits apart, and people are lost at sea, that’s ‘Wow, isn’t that a horrible day?’ Yeah, it’s a horrible day, but also lives went — whoosh — sideways that day.”

Like they did for Champagne’s mother, Lynn, and the family. “My mother became a single mom before it was cool,” Champagne said. “She was left with five kids between the ages of 3 and 10.”

The loss was compounded by the fact that Alan Champagne’s body was never found. The toll was not just emotional. There was the uncertainty.

Without a body, “you can’t get (a payout from) life insurance for a year,” he said. “And we struggled.”

And then, without a body, conspiracy theories are bound to emerge.

“You can put an end to those if you’ve recovered a body,” he said. “If not, who knows? I can list … (the alleged) mysterious things: ‘Oh yeah, this’ and ‘Oh yeah, that.’”

After all, his Navy training would have helped him survive — that was the speculation. Perhaps there, in the water, even as others died, maybe Alan Champagne decided to get away from an unhappy marriage. So he faked his own drowning to start a new life, with a new identity. Yes, the Champagne family actually had to deal with nonsensical conspiracies like that.

In Morro Bay on Thursday, March 11, the anniversary day, Champagne and his son shot video of Coast Guard boats going out on patrol. They shot video of the spit of land extending out into the water that Steve Stranathan finally managed to reach, gasping and sputtering, after being nearly swallowed by the sea. They shot video of the cool beach where the boy staggered, speechless with exhaustion, trying to summon help.

Champagne and his son found a kelp bed that must have looked a lot like the one that entangled his father 50 years ago, and they filmed that too, for the documentary the journalism professor will make about their quest.

He shot it all through the lens of a career newsman, his camera’s viewfinder serving as the detachment filter it always has. This time, again, the viewfinder permitted him to shoot the place where his father died 50 years ago — and shoot it with the same necessary, dispassionate objectivity that allows journalists, police officers and battlefield surgeons to function without melting into quivering puddles of uselessness.

But Friday night, on the road headed home, he telephoned to say that the weight of his visit had finally hit him.

“I've seen just horrible things” as a television videographer, Champagne said. “My son's sitting next to me, so I won't even tell you. The haunting things. But I've been able to shoot (video) because of the barrier that my viewfinder (represents) between me and that (victimized) human being. And so yesterday in Morro Bay I'm shooting video, and like always I put the viewfinder between myself and where I was and what I'm actually shooting. I was thinking ‘Oh, these are cool shots,’ as opposed to really putting myself there that day, which is what I think I was there to do.

“Then, about 100 miles ago, it hit me. I didn't have my viewfinder to protect me. It's kind of a dangerous to drive when your eyes get cloudy. But I had that moment in the middle of Nevada.”

Brian Champagne said he doesn’t remember ever crying about his father. He was 5 years old, and it just didn't click. But well into Friday night, somewhere in the blackness of Interstate 80 east of Carson City, 300 miles from home in either direction, it clicked.

Robert Price’s column appears here Sundays. Reach him at RobertPrice@KGET.com or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz. The opinions expressed are his own.