A Lesson From Oliver
by David Jorgensen
Like any other morning I was up at four, the day Oliver met with his
At four in the morning the grass is wet.
Now, it’s still wet at 6 a.m. and even at seven, and these tend to
be the hours of choice for most people wishing to appreciate the phenomenon
of grass wetness. But it’s a tragedy of economics that, when work starts
at 5 a.m., one is not afforded the same time-options for grass appreciation
as members of the sane world.
Nor was this tragedy confined to my having to appreciate the wet
grass while in a metabolic state more suited to hibernation. Four a.m. was
my only chance to absorb all of northern Ontario’s summer morning
treasures. These were numerous and shamefully underrated by my dormant
faculties, so rudely aroused before their time. But here was nature,
determined to be wonderful with or without my participation, and somehow at
some subconscious level, stored for future reference, I seem to have
imbibed her subtle stimuli. Along the eastern shores of the night-sky a
splash of colour would emerge. The all-night cricket band would
reluctantly wane under the first gentle reveille from those “early-birds”
of epigram fame. And then would come the most striking sensation of all:
the smell of fresh dew on the grass – I think the terms “exhilarating” and
“intoxicating” were coined by someone who’d just taken their first breath
of northern morning air (though they likely did so between 6 and 7 a.m.
when one is better primed to wax poetic and the passage of sensory
information from one’s nostrils to the brain is not so hopelessly clogged –
as is the case at 4 a.m.).
All these sensations I can fully appreciate only now, in retrospect
(since at this moment I assure you it is not 4 a.m.).
At four o’clock that morning of June 26, 1979, as I trudged across
the acre-sized lawn to the old shed outside my parents’ modest rural home –
situated along the English Bay sideroad, overlooking the secluded,
sparkling waters of Blue-Pine Lake, some six miles west of the small
tourist town of Thistle, Ontario – the only sensation permeating my groggy
consciousness was the bite of that long wet grass seeping through the seams
of my ancient running shoes. And even this twigged only one, unpoetic
image at 4 a.m.:
“Mom’s gonna make me cut the lawn when I get home.”
The truth of this semi-depressing insight was reinforced as I pulled
up my pant leg to snap an elastic band over the cuff: my ratty jeans were
wet up past the ankle. No doubt about it…the grass length had now
officially surpassed my mother’s tolerance of things long and grassy. This
lawn would be cut. I would be the executioner elect.
I hopped on my ten-speed: second-gear to get up the driveway, a
rather formidable incline from the bike-shed; sixth-gear over the gravel
road, roughly two miles. Then hit the highway, pop her into tenth and
cruise the last four miles to town on glorious pavement. As usual, though,
I’d barely pumped my way out of the driveway before the breeze from my own
modest jet-stream began making my grass dampened feet start wishing for
thermal socks – an annoying irony, considering the broiler of a sky under
which I’d always pedal home later in the day. That’s one point in favour
of 4 a.m., all wet feet aside, it’s the friendliest time of day in the hot
summer months to go long-distance bike riding.
In the dim, flat pre-dawn light I could make out only three distinct
forms. There was the blue-black sky hanging overhead like some bottomless,
gravity-defying lake; there was the ghostly grey strip of gravel tenuously
marking my pathway; and there were the two ominous black walls, shapeless
and unbroken, flanking either side of the road. The cool air licked at my
face and began to wash the throbbing numbness from my head. It also
cleared my eyes and I began to distinguish for the first time the
individual trees – mostly birch, poplar and pines of several variety – of
which those unending roadside walls were built.
I was beginning to wake up.
Accordingly, my thoughts progressed to the next stage of their
traditional morning jog which took them daily from the bed of utter
incoherence, to the streets of trivial musing and – usually, eventually –
to the offices of constructive organization.
For those who don’t know, ten-speeds are specifically designed for
the task of trivial musing.
It is a very simple, relaxing mental calisthenic – you’ve done it a
thousand times. You try to think about something important, something
about which you must make a decision very soon. Before you know it you’ll
have embraced several hundred images, none of which relate in even the
slightest respect to your initial topic. In fact, they probably won’t have
been about anything important at all. You will have successfully mused
At 4:15 a.m. on June 26, 1979 my bout of trivial musing began to
unfold in pretty much typical form:
“O.K., today I’ve got to hit the cop-shop for the scoop on these
outboard motor thefts. What do I ask the Chief? Let’s see, I might…”
But before I could formulate any plan of action on the day’s
“…Whoa, look out for that rock!”
A rock in the road, of course, represents both real and symbolic
justification for changing direction.
“Hm, can’t see squat in this light. Where was I? Oh yeah: what’s
new today? Not much, of course…yet. This month, then?”
Yes, well now, there was food for thought. I’d just finished high
school a couple of weeks back.
“Now for the rest of my life. What next?”
I’d been pondering this one for most of the past ten months.
“University? College? A career? A job? Any meaningful pursuit
whatsoever?” a platoon of guidance counsellors had grilled me through the
mists of my senior year.
“Yes, that’s it,” I’d realized one day, “That’s what I want: a
meaningful pursuit of some kind.”
That had sounded promising. And that, I’d decided, had been enough
decision making to that point in my life. In the meantime I’d resolved to
apply to a few universities I was sure would turn me down, get a relaxing
summer job, put off the whole life’s goals issue till September and just
sit back, relax and enjoy yet another of those famous cottage-country
At 4:20 a.m. I made the highway, pulled off the jaw-rattling crushed
rock and pointed my nose and my worn thirty-inch tires east towards town.
I was glad to be rolling over smooth pavement – this was the best part of
the ride: clean road and no one but the odd semi-trailer truck with whom to
share it. With the transition of terrain came a gliding calm that soon
settled the ringing in my ears – which I’d not even noticed was there till
it had gone away.
My thoughts grew metaphorical: Yes, this old bike may have made it
to the straight and easy highway, but my life was still back there on that
winding, grinding, gravelly dirt-road…groping in the dark (when you’re
nineteen this kind of guff seems profound).
I’ve always imagined that growing up in a small northern community
was an easy, even ideal, thing to do for someone physically suited to the
inherent rigours of its lifestyle. As for myself, I absolutely love the
outdoors and the many forms of physical activity it affords; it is the
outdoors that do not like me. Though Canadian born, my lineage and my
complexion are pure Scandinavian. I have a theory that the Nordic people’s
traditional affinity for seafood has had some bearing on my own annual
ritual of turning the colour of a lobster at the slightest exposure to
sunshine. Incidental to my sunburn problems, there’s the whole business of
the eyeglasses which I’ve worn since age two, the thickness of which I’m
sure may be measured in cubits. Poor depth perception, however, did less
to dampen my spirit for team sports than did the equally poor
perceptiveness of my peers. You might say I was not encouraged in that
direction. Clearly I wasn’t cut- out for the typical menu of local summer
jobs gobbled up by my more robust school chums, which mainly included
lower-rung positions with private lumber companies, cutting down trees, or
the Ministry of Lands and Forests, replanting them. I needed a lower-rung
position in some less obvious sector.
This logically led to the question: “After you’ve planted the trees
and before you cut them down again, what good are they?” I obviously
hadn’t been the first to pursue this train of rhetoric. Every year from
late May till mid-September Thistle, Ontario, on beautiful Lake Norakee, is
a thriving port of call for the tourist industry. Yes, it’s those trees
that bring all them tourists in, by gar. But once they get here they soon
learn they can’t eat the trees, they can’t sleep in the trees and they sure
can’t get concise road directions from the trees. Tourists need services,
and Thistle had plenty to offer for a town in which the entire Chamber of
Commerce, come January, would be run by a retired school teacher and her
cat, Shanks. In the summer the town’s population quadrupled and that meant
plenty of jobs for people like me who turned crispy outdoors and couldn’t
see straight. My task, then, was to decide which aspect of the service
sector most appealed to me.
This too seemed to follow a natural progression. I liked to talk –
a familial trait that manifested itself over a motley collection of subject
areas whose only common link was that at some point they were being talked
about and that it was undoubtedly some member of my family who was doing
the talking. While these interests were rarely common to more than one
member of my family, this did little to diminish the fervour with which we
rattled off to one another, or anyone who’d listen, or anyone who’d pretend
to listen, the latest statistics in our self-proclaimed areas of expertise.
Nor was I by any means the most adamant orator in our clan; that hat
could be shared by my dad and older brother, Donny. I was perhaps the most
active though, having dabbled in my high school’s public speaking
competitions and theatrical productions – to such local acclaim, I might
add, that the battle of heart over head was heavily swaying both appendages
towards the prospect of theatre school…
Here a word of caution to other would-be small town Thespians –
though I will illustrate only from my own experience: achieving recognition
on the stage of Thistle, Ontario is really not the basis for making a sound
judgement regarding one’s odds of someday surfacing on Broadway. The best
log-cutter in Thistle could, perhaps, rationally place himself among the
international ranking of log-cutters. To fairly assess one’s acting
ability, however, requires acknowledgement from an arts centre of at least
the prominence of Sudbury.
Nonetheless, when the local radio station canvassed my school for
promising part-timers (to me, radio was simply “voice acting”) I’d been the
first to sign up. In fact, I’d been the only one to sign up.
I got the job.
I had little to no idea of what the job might entail, but that
didn’t worry me; I suspected the mysterious radio people would have some
clue as to why I’d been brought there.
During the weeks prior to graduation the anticipation of a career in
broadcasting took conquest of my fantasies. I formed a grand illusion of
things to come, eventually developing an entire code of broadcast ethics
towards which I would strive and dedicate my life. In my heart of hearts I
was sure that the face of radio in northern Ontario was about to change
CJRS Radio, 1330 on the AM dial, being the only station in its
market, had the unique position of also being the only station under
official boycott by the students of Beaver Hill Secondary School. This of
course, being the late ’70’s, was not motivated by anything so noble as
political protest, but rather by a disparity between the precise, rigorous
demands of taste outlined by Beaver Hill’s musical elite and the wider
ranging “something for everyone” format offered by the local station,
designed to reach its six-to- sixty audience. CJRS was not “heavy” enough
and even from 8 p.m. to midnight, when they played their selection of
top-forty hits, loyal Beaver Hillers would indignantly pull in the
night-time skip signals from Winnipeg and Chicago. But now all that was
going to change. As an alumni of Beaver Hill’s unofficial garage band
fraternity I had acknowledged my duty to blow the winds of reform over
CJRS…or die in the attempt. How else could I live down the humiliation
of having defected to the enemy?
And so the day after writing my last exam I had solemnly made my way
to work, officially marking my transition from the safety- net life of
proms and pimples to the hard world of pay-slips. I was in the
marketplace, a face in the workforce, a cog in the international economic
gearbox. This was where it all happened, where decisions were made
affecting the lives of millions, where a person could make his mark and
would someday die, accordingly, a success or failure. This was real,
important, what happened here mattered…
In my naivete I harboured but a few small, nagging doubts: Did I
really belong in this network of hustle and bustle, etc., etc.? Could I
hold my own on life’s anthill, or would I be crushed under the oblivious
feet of other workers rushing to do their part, a victim of my own
No. I realized I had to take a stance on something – a difficult
proposition for someone still contemplating how to move out of his parents’
house. To start out I would have to keep my goals simple and realistic.
For now I would content myself with rising to the top of the station ladder
and enacting my sweeping musical reforms. Yes, I would pronounce the
air-play death sentence upon Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and the Laurie
Bower Singers. By the end of the summer only the screaming anthems of
Kiss, Rush, Ted Nugent and Bachman Turner Overdrive would surf the airwaves
from atop CJRS’s transmitter tower. I would become Thistle’s Rock’n’Roll
King, winning the hearts and ears and admiration of hundreds of Beaver Hill
students throughout the district. Here was a goal truly worthy of a
serious champion of the people.
“Alright, Dave, we’re going to start you off in the news
News? – I reflected, in shock – What the hell kind of job was that
for a future teen idol? News? That was the time when you brushed your
teeth after breakfast, just before the sports came on. Here I was wanting
to be taken seriously. What self respecting teenager ever took the news
Obviously not me because I didn’t have the first clue about news.
My tutor was the morning man, Jack Coffey.
“Good morning, Thistlers. Time to wake up with a little Coffey in
At thirty-two, Jack was the oldest employee, next to the station
manager. Two years previously he’d made an abrupt career change from
appliance sales to broadcasting, landed in Thistle for his first on-air job
and with a bit of hard effort and manipulation had soon worked his way into
the morning drive slot, the key position at any radio station. Jack was
nothing if not ambitious and it was apparent from the start that he too had
plans to mould CJRS into a major force in the community. His dream was of
a semi- all-news format and to that end he had initiated his own personal
training program for all incoming on-air rookies, starting with myself.
“We can’t compete with the slick, demographically targeted product
coming out of Winnipeg,” he lectured, “but what we do have exclusive access
to is local news. That’s what the populace of Thistle wants to hear and
that’s what they’ll tune to CJRS for.”
I couldn’t refute the logic of this, yet somehow I felt it didn’t
reflect my own experience as a former member of the local populace. After
all, having attended an institute of almost twelve hundred students for the
past five years I’d had daily access to the opinions of over ten per cent
of Thistle’s entire population. My informal poll results indicated a clear
interest for an all heavy-metal format. Still, there was no point in
attempting a coup for control of the airwaves until I’d first learned a few
things like, for instance, how to turn on the microphone. I’d play
Coffey’s game for now.
Actually I was somewhat in awe of the man for those first couple of
days. Here I was without the slightest inkling of the journey on which I
was about to embark – aside from some vague notion about bestowing rock
music unto all the little people – and there he was: mature, experienced,
self-assured and knowing the purpose of every button on that control
“Always ask,” Jack told me, “never assume; because when you
And here he took a piece of blank paper and sagely drew an anagram
-“ASS/U/ME” – which he proceeded to translate:
“…when you ‘assume’, Dave, you’ll only make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’
How could I not be affected by such life-hardened wisdom? Perhaps we
did not share the same vision of glory for old CJRS but Jack had firmly
established his presence as a deep spring of knowledge worthy of being
tapped. There was so much to learn.
Watching Jack work, my first morning in Control Room A, was like
watching a peacock strutting his plumage, the way he gracefully zig-zagged
from mike to turntable to cassette rack, all from the comfort of his
castered swivel-chair. Like a symphonic ballet every squeak of that chair
indicated a precise and purposeful movement the culmination of which I
could only guess at, while of the execution I could only marvel.
Only with later experience did I come to understand the nature of
the display to which I was being subjected. The morning man of a small
town radio station generally toils in complete isolation. No big budget
producers or technicians to operate his show. He works alone. He arrives
around 5 a.m., rips the national news off the telex machine, looks for any
notes on local news items from the night-jock, spends at least half an hour
trying to decipher them, drinks at least two pots of coffee and grabs three
or four records at random to keep him going till the first commercial
break. Then he’s on the air at 6 a.m., three hours before the office staff
comes in, spinning discs, reading news/weather/sports every half hour, and
playing “spots” – lots and lots of commercial spots, this being triple-A
rated time for which sponsors pay a premium and basically support the other
fifteen hours of air-time presented each broadcast day. In the midst of
this schedule of confusion he tells a barrage of bad jokes, reads amusing
anecdotes from the wire service, rhymes off the current events calendar and
interesting notes from “This Day In History”, and generally attempts to
sound up-beat and positive while clinging bravely to the concept that
somewhere beyond the walls of his solitary confinement someone is actually
listening and/or cares about what he’s babbling.
In short, he performs each day only for – as it were – an
But now here was I, young and naive and in the same room with Jack
Coffey on the air, a live audience whom he could entertain and even
impress! He wasn’t calling that morning show for the four to five thousand
people some ratings sheet had recently suggested were listening out there.
He was calling it for me. Well, actually, for himself, but through me.
And on that one brief occasion I was drawn very close to believing Jack
Coffey was actually as good as he thought he was.
Which is not to say he was bad.
Watching a deejay at work is a little like watching a silent movie
with a noisy projector. There’s a lot of clank and sputter not really
worth listening to…but the facial expressions are amazing! This is
perhaps a big part of why most radio personalities never make the
transition to television (that and their unbreakable habit of wearing
unwashed plaid flannel shirts).
Actually, I can buy the argument that such contortionism enhances
expression and nuance in the voice which is, of course, essential in a
medium limited to communicating by sound. What I’ve never been able to
fathom is why the simple presence of a microphone instantly turns anyone
with a normal, pleasant voice into a brash, phoney, obnoxious retread of
some dated circus barker.
But as I watched Jack read the news I began to understand his
fascination for it. The news is fun to read when you know how it’s done.
There’s a pattern – a kind of code – a selection of variables relating to
the basic elements of speech which, when paired in different combinations,
produce a veritably unlimited range of vocal dynamics for the skilled
broadcaster to employ, entirely eliminating the need for tedious
comprehension. You could read anything and almost sound like you
understood it. Heck, I could read the news. It was no different than
singing rock tunes. You didn’t have to understand or believe in what you
were saying; you just had to sell it.
On the second morning Jack let me sell the 6:30 news.
He’d shown me the day before how to take the print off the teletype
and select the latest news update from Broadcast News in Ottawa, the wire
service to which we subscribed. Proofreading, he’d instructed, was the
next and most essential part of the process, as the machine would often jam
momentarily when no one was looking: an unsprung trap for embarrassment.
Completely separate stories – for instance, the Ayatollah Khomeni’s latest
burning of Americans in effigy and Prime Minister Clark’s promise for aid
in fighting brush-fires in the U.S. midwest – could appear as part of the
same news item. A lazy or unprepared announcer foolishly attempting to
broadcast such a mess might be given cause to trip-up or, worse – as,
regrettably, happened to me in my third newscast – stop to try and figure
out what they were reading. (No doubt I’d grown lax as the initial nerves
of being on the air had worn off. In such an emergency, I learned, it’s
better to just push on and hope the listeners weren’t paying any more
attention than you.)
To my credit I can remember absolutely nothing of what I read in my
debut broadcast. I assume then, by the dictates of the Jack Coffey School
of News Salesmanship, that I did my job correctly.
Jack’s response to my performance was like a father watching his
son’s first step: pride tempered by a sense of new rivalry. I had gained a
measure of independence with that simple newscast and no longer relied
entirely on Jack’s judgement and immeasurable expertise. I now had a taste
of my own experience – slight though it may have been – and Jack was, by
consequence, no longer a solo act. He was now part of a team; a team of
his own creation; a team of which he very clearly wished to remain the
“O.K., Dave, you got through that one. You’re articulation was a
little sloppy there, guy; let’s work on that for 7:30. You pass that I’ll
give you 8:30. Remember, the big news package goes at the top of each
hour. I’ll handle those.”
And with that measure of reserved approval was launched a monumental
career in broadcasting…though the peak to that monument was marked
prematurely and unexpectedly a scant eight days later, June 26, 1979, as my
story shall tell.
After that first day on the air I’d been quickly groomed to the many
responsibilities of the one-man news department. I learned that, in fact,
there was more to the job than just reading someone else’s re-hashing of
another reporter’s by-line from somewhere off in Ottawa or Washington or
Nairobi. Sometimes you had to write your own material.
To me the weight of this task seemed entirely disproportionate.
Writing your own copy I learned was painstaking work. How was it that I
should be able to rip concise, well- written, ready-made stories about
wars, famines and heroic deeds of international consequence from the telex
in a matter of seconds while the details of Thistle’s annual Horticultural
Exhibition would take me over three hours to compile and digest (some
twenty minutes of which was spent checking the spelling of “rhododendron”,
which was subsequently mispronounced by three out of four announcers that
day, despite my efforts)?
Nonetheless, it was all part of the local newsman’s province. In
addition to covering such special events, I was required to check in daily
with the regular hot-spots – the cop-shop, the fire- hall, the mayor’s
office, the tourist bureau and, as a last resort, the local newspaper to
see what they’d already scooped us on (or we them).
I also had to cover town council meetings every second Monday night.
This was a chore even the gung-ho Coffey was hard pressed to justify. The
bottom-line at a radio station is simple: offer a good product to increase
listenership and thereby entice advertising dollars. By this criteria
CJRS’s economic gains, based on the amount of hard news that was ever
gleaned from Council’s bi- weekly session, would have fallen substantially
short of reimbursing my $3.00/hour wages. However, as the station manager
pointed out, I was actually on salary with no provision for overtime pay,
so it didn’t really cost the station anything to send me down there. You
can imagine what a great weight this observation lifted off my chest. The
evening of June 25 saw me dutifully over at the town hall at 8 p.m., where
I spent the next four hours battling my eyelids for supremacy. They might
have won had my eyes not become fascinated with the spittle of Mayor Uwe
Kauffman. His Honour hailed from German soil. No doubt his grade two
diction teacher would have applauded his exemplary capacity to gargle his
“r”‘s in the highest traditions of the Fatherland; I was more taken by the
novelty of watching his water-glass fill up, through the course of the
evening, faster than he managed to sip from it. Only later did I learn
that covering town council had previously been Coffey’s responsibility,
leading me to the conclusion that this, secretly, had been the real reason
for his wanting to create a news department.
But fate, experience and power were on his side and consequently it
was me, not Jack Coffey, who found himself that midnight pedalling six
miles home for three hours sleep, then making the return journey at 4 a.m.
in order to arrive early and write up the details of Mayor Kauffman’s
phlegm-fest for the appeasement of all inquiring minds of greater Thistle.
Actually, that was only the story I was tempted to write. What
eventually got on the air was something about dog licences.
But at 4:45 a.m. that June 26, as I made my right turn onto Main
Street with the sun just peering over the top of the Eaton’s department
store and my feet finally dry but chilled to the marrow, my mind was still
having difficulty focusing on the topics of dog licences and outboard
motors. It was roughly the same mental and physical state in which I
always arrived, but for some reason all I could think about that morning
was: “This is a hell of day to get my feet wet.”
The dog licences got on the air for six o’clock. Through the smoky,
plexiglass haze of the news-booth window I detected a thinly disguised
smirk pasted over the hills and dales of Coffey’s pudgy cheeks. As I ended
with the traditional call-letters-into-an- uptempo-adult-contemporary the
booth door opened behind me and I heard that familiar Coffey resonance:
“Good work, Dave. I’ll make a newsHOUND out of you yet.”
That was all. As he continued down the hall towards the
coffee-maker I was treated to several canine howls, bayed in time to the
distant strains of “Shadows in the Moonlight”, by Anne Murray, playing over
the air. I just sat there, flushed and drained in that desolate little
cubicle, a gentle throb building nicely behind my eyeballs. I sensed that
my “golly-gosh” awe for Jack Coffey of only a week earlier was rapidly
evolving into something a little more consistent with reality.
I stared at my reflection in the booth window and saw a rather sad
picture of one truly dragged-out individual whose morning, week and new
job, it could be said, were all off to a rather questionable start.
What I could not see in that glass, however, was the comparative
insignificance of my current woes when judged beside the harrowing trials
which this day still had in store for me. Had I been granted that
advantage no doubt I’d already have been taking my chances with sunstroke
and the kinder career of tree-planting. But a news-booth window is no
crystal ball and, mortal that I am, I would get no such mystical warning of
the events about to blow up in my face.
The only way to really dry out your wet feet, after all, is with
time…and a little heat.
8 a.m. meant shift change down at the cop-shop. No sooner was I off
the air than I was on the horn ready to start digging into some real news.
I’d heard rumours of a recent rash of outboard motor thefts around town.
Situated on a large freshwater lake, Thistle was rife with pleasure-craft
of all kind, many of them trustingly tied up at the town docks or in the
numerous private marinas. In a town the size of Thistle one such theft was
an incident; two was an epidemic.
“Hello, may I speak to the Chief, please?”
“This is the Deputy Chief. Who’s this?”
The Deputy Chief had a curt, intimidating manner some might describe
as good cop-survival technique; others simply rude.
“It’s Dave Jensen from CJRS…”
“Jensen? You related to Don Jensen?”
Donny, my brother, was a probationary constable with the local
uniforms. He did not speak fondly of the Deputy Chief and I had little wish
to draw him into this conversation. I decided to change the subject
“Coincidentally, yes sir. Why I’m calling, though, is to inquire
about the number of outboard motors that have gone missing since last
The tone of his voice took a sudden sinister turn that sent a twinge
through my bladder. Like the rookie I was, I had made some as yet
unrecognized blunder. I felt the strong urge to conclude the interview
immediately, but it was too late. He knew my name. He knew my brother’s
name. He knew why I’d called. He knew everything. I’d have to bluff past
my own ignorance.
“Well, I was wondering if the police suspected some kind of theft
ring being involved.”
“Who the hell have you been talking to, mister?”
Oh god – that was the mistake! It was Donny who’d mentioned it to
me the other day, in casual conversation. I’d assumed it to be common
knowledge. Everything was common knowledge in Thistle. My mother, who
worked in lamps at Woolworths, the major department store in the Thistle
Shopper’s Mall, generally knew what was going on in town several hours
before the police did. In fact, I realized, I should have conducted this
interview with her because the one I was doing at the moment was about to
get at least one happy-go-lucky constable into a deep pile of –
“Uh, well sir, I don’t think it would be ethical of me to reveal my
sources at this time,” I heard myself stammer. Thank goodness for
“Don’t give me that T.V. crap. Now you tell me who gave you
confidential police information before -”
I didn’t want to hear before what – so I did the only sensible thing
for someone in my position, who was panic-stricken, to do; I hung up. Then
I dropped my weary face onto the cold laminate desktop and slept fitfully
for the full thirty seconds I had before having to bounce in and read the
8:30 report. I could likely mark it as having been yet another banner
broadcast, because I don’t remember a word of what I read that time,
The nine o’clock report came and went, at which point I was free
till eleven. Technically I should have been using the break for some more
phone-snooping, but fear for the consequences of my previous stupidity had
me paralysed. I had no desire to try my luck again. I certainly had no
desire to call the fire department. When Donny was off-duty he was a
volunteer fireman: “No doubt my inquiries into campfire safety will get him
axed from the fire- hall, too,” went my rationale.
At this point I realized I was still dazed; but the fact I knew I
wasn’t thinking clearly only deepened my paranoia, since even when I’d
thought I was thinking clearly I obviously hadn’t been. I decided I’d
better get some advice. Coffey still owned enough of my respect for that.
I went out to the front office.
There were Carey and Barb, “the girls”. I wasn’t too sure what they
did, as yet (not surprising, considering I still wasn’t too sure what I was
doing, yet). Whatever it was it seemed to allow plenty of time for coffee
and cigarette breaks. They never had to leave their desks for this – due
to an office lay out which I suppose was cleverly designed to create the
illusion they were actually working whenever the station manager walked
through. As I only ever saw them in this position, tactically tucked
behind their respective desks, I imagine them to this day as a pair of
unassuming faces and slight-of-build torsos lodged atop a set of very large
“Morning,” I offered hopefully.
“Grunt,” said Barb, the young dark-haired one. Carey, the
middle-aged blond one, was somewhat less responsive. In fact this was only
our second conversation, the first having been my introduction last week by
Jack Coffey, a dialogue not dissimilar in zest to our current repartee. I
elected to take my chances with the more verbose of the two.
“Barb, have you seen Jack around?”
“Gone to Winnipeg,” she said, efficiently doubling her word- count
for the course of our week-long acquaintance.
But that was all it took to remind me that I was on my own for the
first time. Jack had mentioned he was taking his wife and kids to the
Winnipeg Zoo today, soon as he got off the air – no doubt another leg in
his “Freedom for Coffey” campaign, in creating the news department.
Winnipeg was an all-day round trip across the provincial border into
Manitoba making Coffey effectively incommunicado. I slunk back into the
privacy of the news office and closed the door.
As 9:30 edged into ten o’clock I still had not found motivation to
seek out some news. I felt crushed under the weight of responsibility I
did not have the experience to bear. Nineteen years old with a week’s
training and here I was in solo charge of the entire news department. In
any larger market it would’ve taken me three months just to get on the air.
I was in desperate need of guidance with none to be had. Even the manager
was out of town at our sister station in Dresdale. That left CJRS entirely
in the hands of myself, the girls…and the mid-morning jock, Linus
Like myself Linus was local crop, though about six or seven years
older. He’d been on the air for as long as I could remember – longer than
anyone else who was still at the station – and everyone but Linus knew
they’d all be long gone before he ever got his “big break” to elsewhere.
More than anything, Linus wanted to have the same affected sound that all
the “pros” had, and cultivated his version of a “free-wheeling jock style”
to the level of a science; but with his squeaky tenor voice and his thick,
inarticulate tongue that dredged through the consonants like a scow at
low-tide, it may be kindly stated that Linus always fell well short of his
goal. He never seemed to connect his habitual pronunciation of the station
call-letters as “C-Jar-Ahr-S”, with his inability to move ahead in the
corporate structure. But at least it may be said of Linus he was a man of
patience. He stuck it out another two years before his wife finally
browbeat him into a “sensible union job”, sorting mail for the post office
on the graveyard shift.
At 10:15 a.m. on June 26, 1979, I exemplified little of such
stalwart patience; only abject misery and self-pity.
When a town “blue-and-white” (police cruiser) zipped down Main
Street past the newsroom window I made a nervous start, as the thought of
being arrested for withholding evidence or obstructing justice or hanging
up on a deputy chief crossed my mind. This thickened the layer of guilt
that was encasing my conscience and I decided it was time to lighten the
burden by getting down to some work. I started to make my appointed round
of calls to the local news nests – pointedly avoiding the fire-hall and the
cop-shop (if the people of Thistle wanted to hear about outboard motor
thefts they’d have to go down to the Shopper’s Mall and talk to my mom).
Before long I had a lead on an upcoming windsurfing demonstration being
sponsored by a sailboard company from California. This sounded wonderfully
exotic by Thistle standards, and my mood lightened a touch. But before I
could follow it up two more cruisers screamed by, as if to remind me I
didn’t deserve to feel thus unencumbered.
By now I was feeling more than a bit persecuted and decided to take
a brisk walk. I took the side door from the hallway to avoid going through
the front office altogether, since I didn’t feel like talking to anyone
(though I suppose I was in little danger of this from the girls). I
bounded down the long narrow staircase leading to street-level two steps at
a time. About halfway down I could usually make out a moving collage of
legs on the sidewalk as people passed by the station entrance. This time I
froze. The pant legs I saw were all navy blue and had a single red stripe
running down either seam.
My reaction was as decisive as that which had caused me to hang up
on the Deputy Chief. I spun and ran. I ran back up the steps. I ran back
through the side door, straight down the hallway ignoring the red
“on-the-air” light, crashed through the door into Control Room “A” where
Linus was busily mispronouncing the title of his next record, and out the
back door onto the rusty, old fire- escape overlooking Thistle’s scummy,
deserted waterfront along beautiful Lake Norakee.
About a floor down the rickety rod-iron steps I was able to wrest
control back from my reflexes. Realizing there was little hope of escape –
since at least one probationary constable knew exactly where I lived (and
was likely looking forward to taking advantage of that information by now)
– I reluctantly lugged my feet back up the fire-escape and retraced my
steps to the newsroom.
Once there, having returned without police confrontation, I
cautiously peered over the newsroom windowsill facing Main Street and
observed the activity going on below. To my shock there were now five
cruisers parked out front, representing the entire fleet of Thistle’s
finest. They looked for all the world to be readying themselves for a
massive assault of some kind, though their attentions were clearly not
directed towards the lobby of CJRS. In fact, while they were situated on
our side of the street, they were facing the store fronts directly
opposite. Somehow the whole street looked strangely unfamiliar. I studied
all this with slack- jawed wonderment and incomprehension.
The loud buzz that sounded from two feet away made me physically
leave my seat. I could feel the blood hissing through my temples as I
punched the phone’s intercom button and picked up the receiver. It was
“Dave, it’s your mother on line one,” she informed me from the other
end and hung up.
“Yes mom, I’ll cut the stupid lawn when I get home,” I snarled to
myself, before punching over to line one.
“Hi, David?” my mother said from across town.
“Yes mom, I’ll cut the lawn when I get home,” I repeated, leaving
out the emphatic “stupid” bit.
“Oh, aren’t you a good boy,” she sang with her trademark note of
pleasant surprise. I groaned, realizing that that hadn’t been why she’d
called. “But, hey, we’ve got the radio on down here at the store,” she
continued. “Have you heard anything more about the bank robbery yet?”
This time it was my heart’s turn to jump. No – I pleaded inside –
no, please let her be talking about some bank on the news from Winnipeg or
Toronto. Don’t let it be –
When the intercom buzzed again my nerves were getting fed up enough
to ignore the shock. I put my mother on hold.
“Someone on line two wanting the news department,” said Barb. “I
guess that’s you, huh?”
I punched over to line two.
“Hello?” I ventured timidly.
“Hi, CJRS News Department?” came the unmistakable, quaking bass
pipes that could only have belonged to an announcer from a successful
large-market radio station. “This is Chad Hawkins from CPOW News,
Winnipeg. Listen, any more word on that bank robbery?”
From the corner of my disbelief-widened eyes I caught the blinking
flash of an incoming call on line three. As the most visible and immediate
route of escape, I used the excuse to put Chad Hawkins on hold and quickly
punched it up before Barb most likely had had the chance to put her
cigarette down. To my horror the voice that greeted me was even bassier
and more well-modulated than the previous one:
“Hi, Gord Majors, BN National News Desk in Ottawa, here. Could I
have your news department, please?”
“Yes, one moment, I’ll see if they’re in,” I replied and clicked him
on hold. When line four began to flash I was sure this mysterious
bank-heist story had just broken internationally.
“Good morning, CJRS,” I answered hiding steadfast behind my
receptionist disguise. The voice that replied was not Washington’s,
however, but my mother’s.
“Look, David, my break’s over so I just wanted to let you know you
could take me off hold now.”
“No, wait, mom!” I cried, finding my own voice at last, “Bank
robbery! What’s this about a bank robbery?”
“Good gravy, there’s a bank robber holed up right across the street
from CJRS. Half of Thistle is down there watching. You know Mary Striker
comes in to work from eleven till six? She had to detour up Matheson;
they’ve got Main Street completely blocked off.”
I slammed my face into the glass of the newsroom window. That’s why
the street had looked so strange, I realized. Except for the cops, the
cruisers and a few parked cars it was completely empty. As I peered up the
street from left to right, however, I noticed two large crowds of people
about a block away in either direction, squashed up behind two fence
Directly across the road from me and the entire Thistle police force
was the Northern Isles Credit Union. With the sun high and bright and
everything reflecting off the glass it was difficult to see right into the
bank. Vaguely I could make out some movement near the back; whoever was
robbing that building was not in there alone. I looked at the clock. It
was 10:52 a.m. The first cruiser had come by at 10:15. The bank across
the street had been under siege for at least forty-five minutes and I
seemed to be the only newsman in the country who hadn’t heard.
“Thanks mom, gotta go,” I sputtered, hanging up the phone.
For a brief instant I considered what to do about Chad and Gord. I
had nothing to tell them since I didn’t know anything and it was obviously
going to take me some time to find out, first, what was going on, second,
what to do about it and, third, how to go about doing something about it.
“No sense racking up their long distance bills,” I decided and swiftly cut
off all three pulsing lines.
Now I really needed advice – from absolutely anyone who’d worked at
a radio station longer than a week. I charged into the front office. The
girls were in their usual locations but with their necks craned to look out
the window onto Main Street such that they almost – but not quite – had to
get up out of their chairs.
“The Credit Union’s being robbed!” I exclaimed, trying to raise
their attention in as dramatic a fashion as the situation seemed to
“Mm,” Barb replied, her gaze unwavered. She was obviously speaking
for them both. “Started a little after ten.”
I was incredulous. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
The girls looked at each other for a single dumbfounded instant.
Then Barb said:
They both stared at me for a few seconds more, seeking some sort of
acknowledgement for their heartfelt apology. When it was not forthcoming
they returned to their posts of vigilance.
I had been wrong, I realized. I could not seek advice from just
I made my way into the control room. For a moment I thought I might
have to face the wrath of Linus for having bashed through before, while he
was on the air; but no, as I came to discover, you’d have to be far more
unprofessional than that to faze Linus Lindberg.
“So what’s up for eleven, Cronkite?” he asked with half interest.
“There’s a bank robbery!” I wheezed in my breathlessness.
“Oh yeah?” he remarked noncommittally.
“Yeah,” I said, “just across at the credit union.”
“Across the street!”
“No kidding,” he remarked, displaying the first mild hint of
animation in his face. “Wow, that’s a big story. Listen,” he said,
pointing at the forty-five disc spinning on the turntable, “Chuck
Mangione’s gonna come up a bit short, here. Do you mind giving me your
newscast about two minutes early? Otherwise I gotta put on another record
“Linus,” I interrupted, “what do I do about this bank robbery?”
“I don’t know,” he said with some irritation. “I’m on the air here,
Dave.” Then, looking at the turntable, he remarked with some urgency, “and
my bloody record’s got about twenty seconds left.”
Somehow the image of the broadcaster’s gravest sin – “DEAD AIR” –
managed to permeate the turmoil that was plugging my brain cells, and lock
on directly to my motor nerves. Linus’ trivial demand had presented me
with a simple, concrete problem to overcome, one that I was capable of
grasping at that moment. Without analyzing the absurdity of my actions I
raced to the newsroom, ripped about thirty feet of print from the wire and
began madly hunting for BN’s 10:30 update.
I found it and began tearing the other twenty-eight feet to shreds
as the trumpet strains of Chuck Mangione slowly faded into oblivion over
the newsroom speaker, followed by the characteristic “clunk” of Linus
clicking his mike on too hard.
“Fill, Lindberg,” I screamed in my head. “Read a PSA or something,
for Christ’s sake!”
“It’s eleven o’clock…”
“Liar! It’s 10:58!”
“…and here with C-Jar-Ahr-S News is Dave Jensen.”
I ricocheted back down the hall towards the news booth to the sounds
of… nothing…just in time to see an empty control room…and hear the
bathroom door clicking shut. I’d counted five beats of silence before I
managed to say:
“Good morning, Thistle, ‘thank you’ Linus, here are today’s
headlines. The Shah of Iran announced this morning that Muslim
And that was all I remembered of that newscast. I spent the next
several minutes trying to formulate, in my head, while I was reading, some
sort of summary of what I knew so far about the robbery. What I eventually
tagged on the end of the report was something like:
“And in local news, there’s a bank robbery currently in progress in
Thistle over at the, uh…uh, the…uh…well the Credit Union on Main
Street, here. Nor…uh, Northern Isles… Credit Union and…we’ll have
further updates for you as they become further…available.”
Linus, having returned from his pressing respite, came smoothly out
of the news with an album-cut and his turntable still set at forty-five,
blessing all Thistle with a vocal impression of Alvin Chipmunk, by Neil
Diamond. For one brief moment I was actually grateful that most everyone
from the station was safely out of town…and earshot.
But this very thought splashed cold reality back in my face: I was
still alone. Thistle was under siege and somewhere out there the rest of
the world was waiting to hear what I had to say about it…
I’ve often since cursed the man named Marconi whose amazing research
into the physics of radio waves at the turn of the century ultimately made
possible my later traumatic predicament. If not for him, the public’s
definition of the term “news” would have remained considerably more
generous. I’d likely have had several luxurious hours to get this breaking
story into print, by which time someone who knew how to go about that task
would undoubtedly have returned from their distant cavortings…
I sidled my way back to the newsroom, hoping against hope that the
crisis had somehow managed to resolve itself, pack up and move on during my
three-minute news break. From my vantage point at the window it was plain
that, if anything, there were now more police crouched behind the various
hoods and fenders on the street than I’d counted earlier. I also noticed
some of the vehicles were now black and white – the O.P.P. had been called
in for back-up. Each officer below had his .38 revolver drawn, raised and
ready. Reacting to the familiarity of the whole scene – straight out of any
tawdry cop show – I instinctively looked for, and found, the rest of the
SWAT team, with their telescopic rifles poised for business, strewn across
the horizon of rooftops lining the street. In the back of my head a distant
drumbeat began to swell into the throbbing rotor-buzz of a helicopter
maneuvering into position. This was starting to look impressive. It was
about then that my eyes were drawn to a distinctive yellow marquee above
the store front adjacent to the credit union. In large black lettering it
read, simply: “HARDWARE”. All I could think at that moment was, “When they
make the movie they gotta film it right here!”
And it was then I decided it was time to start writing my own
character into the script.
I buzzed the control room on the intercom. I was surprised to hear
the loud, irritating drone at the other end coming back at me over the
newsroom speakers; then I realized Lindberg’s mike had been hot at that
moment. I waited several embarrassed moments while he finished his record
intro; then he came on the line, chuckling:
“Boy, you buzzed me on the air, eh?”
“Sorry, Linus” – I wished I could feel as nonchalant about sounding
completely amateurish and idiotic on the air as Lindberg obviously did.
But there was no time to dwell on that now; I needed information:
“Listen, you know when people call up to wish birthday greetings and
you hear them on the air?”
“Yeah, ‘The Birthday Party’, 4:10 p.m., Monday through Saturday,
1:10 p.m. on Sundays. But I don’t do that any more, now that I’m on
“But do you know how it’s done?”
Even Lindberg was affronted by this questioning of his professional
abilities on the most basic of levels; still, I didn’t know how it was done
and, taking one of those Jack Coffey pearls to heart, I was in no position
to ASS/U/ME anything:
“Hey, Jensen, after doing afternoon drive for five and a half years
I think I can remember how to punch a phone-line onto the air.”
He’d actually only done afternoons once a week, while on the lowly
swing-shift, for five and a half years –
“Good,” I said, taking a big swallow, “because I’d like you to punch
me up, live.”
There was a slight pause at the other end of the com. Lindberg was
trying to figure out what I was up to without having to admit ignorance and
undermine his already fragile credibility. He decided to ease his way in
with a diversionary tactic:
“Whose birthday greetings you sending out, Dave?” He was chuckling
“I’ve got a news report, here,” I answered a bit sharply. My nerves
had me in no mood to diddle around.
“I know, I know, I was just kidding,” Lindberg lied. “Give me a
call at five to, and I’ll punch you up for the noon report.”
“No, no, I mean now. Punch me up now,” some part of me, that was
ignoring the part of me that couldn’t believe I was planning to go through
with this, insisted.
“Now?” Lindberg blurted with a start. “Now? But it’s only 11:10!”
“I know, Linus, but there’s a major news story happening right this
minute that might be over by noon.”
The meek calmness with which I detailed the obvious to him surprised
me. I suppose that deep down I still recognized the extent of his
experience over my own – at least in chronological terms – and was being
sensitive to the fact that I might very well, myself, be on the verge of
screwing up in a major way.
“Why, what’s up?” he ventured next. At this point he’d extended the
limits of obtuseness beyond even my endurance. I had been swearing at
myself all morning; this marked the first occasion in my young professional
career for me to swear overtly at a co- worker. During the course of this
Linus was happily able to recall the matter of the bank robbery in progress
across the street.
“Holy -! You mean that’s still going on?” he exclaimed.
“Yes,” I answered simply.
“I guess it’s okay to break format for something like this, huh?”
He seemed to be struggling with the dilemma of what to do with his records
that would be left over at the top of the hour. Then it must’ve occurred to
him that he was CJRS’s senior exec. for the day. With a sudden bold flex
of authority he said: “Of course it’s okay. Alright, big guy, you’ve got
your live line. Standby…”
I heard myself clicked on hold. I quickly nabbed a pocket radio
with an earplug and turned down the newsroom speaker, to avoid mike
feedback. I put in the plug, flicked the switch, spun the dial to 1330 kHz
and caught “The Last Farewell” by Roger Whittaker, one of Linus’ big
favourites. I took a second to formulate a good opening line and sat in
palm-cold readiness for my imminent feed-in from Linus.
Then I waited.
I took another big swallow, my mouth dry as a brush fire.
I waited some more.
A minute went by. Then it occurred to me: Linus was waiting for the
song to finish. I could imagine this seeming to be “correct procedure”, by
his convoluted brand of logic.
Another half minute went by.
Then he came on:
“And there he is, everybody’s favourite, Roger Whittaker and ‘The
Last Farewell’, on 1330 Radio, C-Jar-Ahr-S. Word is Roger’s working on a
new album as we speak, right down-under in his homeland, New Zealand.
Should be a good one and I know I’ll look forward to hearing the first cut
off that one as much as I’m sure you will also be looking forward to it,
too. Uh…but, hey, now it’s time for a special live news report from
C-Jar-Ahr-S’s roving eye-on-the-town, Dave Jensen. What’s happening down
at News Central, Dave?”
And now it was my turn to pause, in an overwhelming rush of
disbelief: This was it! I was on! A week-long graduate of high school
doing live media coverage of a bank robbery in progress!
I tried imagining the odds of so many unlikely circumstances having
collided at this given place and time. I couldn’t. On the first level, I
wondered, how many radio station newsrooms in the world could previously
have boasted balcony seats to a bank robbery? Added to this, what were the
chances of that privilege finally being granted in Thistle, Ontario? – in
my ten years as a resident on Lake Norakee, this was hands and away the
biggest news event, ever (as I later learned from Thistle “lifers”, nothing
of this magnitude had happened since 1952 when the hockey rink in
neighbouring Kenville burned down…and Kenville doesn’t even have a radio
station!) A third complication of circumstance was that all this chose to
happen on the exact date when the only person available to take advantage
of it had neither the experience nor the training to handle it properly.
The final and most tragic complication was that that person just happened
to be me.
And yet, despite feeling a total lack of confidence in my ability to
perform the task at hand in any semblance of a professional manner, here I
was, ready – if not exactly prepared – to give my all for responsible
broadcast journalism. There was something to be said for my gumption at
least, I acknowledged…
There ensued a brief instant of picturing myself at the fore of a
long line of distinguished correspondents of this century: Lloyd Robertson,
Walter Cronkite (whom I barely remembered), Lowell Thomas (whom I only knew
of at all from watching certain episodes of M*A*S*H); and, of course, the
unshakable Lorne Green, Canada’s infamous “voice of doom”, who’d broadcast
the news of a world at war to the apprehensive ears of a nation. He’d gone
on to become Ben Cartwright in “Bonanza”, blazing the western trail of hope
for other Canadian broadcaster/would-be actors, like myself…Then there
was Knowlton Nash who’d recently taken over the C.B.C. National from Peter
Kent (who’d inherited it from Lloyd Robertson two years earlier when Lloyd
defected to C.T.V.). Like me, Knowlton wore thick glasses. Dared I hope
to one day make the grand leap to television? Knowlton, mind you, had
managed this the sly way. He’d first worked his way up as head of the
C.B.C. news department. Then, when they axed Kent, he’d hired himself as
anchor. Frankly, I didn’t have much faith in my own managerial potential.
I’d just have to work my way up on raw talent…
“Dave?” came the voice of Lindberg from somewhere off in the dark
recesses of the present. Then I heard my own voice joining him there:
“Mired within the darkened lobby of the Northern Isles Credit Union,
here on Main Street, Thistle, a desperate gunman holds hostages in his bid
to escape the societal consequences of a robbery gone awry…Good morning,
it’s 11:14, this is Dave Jensen reporting live, across the street from the
crime scene, right here in the news offices of CJRS…”
Yeah, yeah! – I cheered in my head – what a socko opener! We’re
gonna do this, buddy. We’re gonna DO it!
Then Thistle and I wondered what I was going to say next. It seemed
neither of us had the answer.
“As I speak the…uh, street…is lined with police cars… and,
I’d had an opener but no follow-up!
“They have their weapons drawn…and trained on the bank…
naturally…uh, nobody seems to really know much about what’s going on,
The protection of visual anonymity did little to arrest the
sensation of red heat rising up my neck like a mercury thermometer. It
wasn’t true that “nobody” knew what was going on. It was true that “I”
didn’t know what was going on. I had committed the most basic crime of
responsible journalism: I hadn’t checked my facts. Fact was, I had no
facts, whatsoever. Any of the several hundred spectators coagulated on the
street, who’d been gawking at the scene substantially longer than I had,
could likely have provided harder facts. My mother, who’d gotten her facts
from Mary Striker, had more facts than I did. I knew absolutely nothing
for certain. I’d been in a big panic to take the initiative. What was it
I’d said? A gunman? Hostages? A robbery gone awry? All that made for a
great opening line…but I’d made it all up. The few questions I’d asked
had been the wrong ones of the wrong people.
At that moment I didn’t know where I was going to dig, but I knew it
was time to get some facts. I’d even call the cop-shop – the Deputy Chief!
– if necessary.
I started to sign back over to Linus: “We’ll have more live coverage
for you in a few moments…”
It was just about then I heard the bathroom door slam shut, down the
My situation had progressed to that of a student pilot whose flying
instructor had just bailed out…and taken the plane with him. I was
soloing with no lessons, no control panel and no cockpit. And once again I
was surrounded by that demon “DEAD AIR”, which now I was compelled to fill
– to the death.
How misleading it is that the first test of every living being, our
own births, should, by definition, end in triumph. Such unopposed success
cannot help but fill our unjaded little hearts with the promise of infinite
glories to come. Thus we are doomed to spend the rest of our days
rationalizing our inability to live up to our own expectations.
Self-deceit is our only weapon against failure. It is the way of all
living things. We take succour in its soothing shelter.
Despite this tragic truism, however, I may honestly claim to have
conjured no such illusions regarding the merits of my broadcast THAT
It had none.
If I could’ve blocked out what I was saying as it was being said –
as Coffey the Wise had trained me – perhaps today I could delude myself
into believing I was a big success. But no, even now the whole sordid
monologue appears to me, clear as the waters of Blue-Pine Lake. Whatever I
could not immediately recall old Linus Lindberg was happy to recount, just
as he’d heard it, echoing through the hallways of the radio station from
secure atop his porcelain perch. Whatever Linus missed the whole of
Thistle was readily able to fill in. And whatever else might have been
forgotten was dutifully recorded on the station’s log tape and held for one
month, as per CRTC regulations. This procedure allowed time for many
copies to be pirated and played for the amusement of giddy CJRS announcers
of every shift and format and eventually, I suspect, their future
co-workers from Halifax to Vancouver.
Having one’s lowest achievement perpetually etched and re- etched,
verbatim, upon the brain tends to bias one’s opinion as to the value of
repeating it yet again, in print. I’ve little desire to put anyone else
through my misery. A summary will suffice.
Since I had nothing to talk about I started to describe things.
Naturally I began with elements of the scene most relevant to the crime at
hand. Unfortunately events below had reached a kind of stasis. I supposed
that the police had made phone contact with the suspect, since their
bullhorn had yet to echo through the Main Street canyon, but whatever the
course of their dialogue it was a mystery to the whole of Thistle’s
electronic media contingent. After counting cars, officers, weapons,
describing uniforms from cap to buttons, and a cursory attempt at
simulating the “tension in the air” – during which roots and derivatives of
the word “tension” appeared eight times – I began to give detailed
architectural notes on the credit union, its surrounding buildings and, of
course, the plush offices of CJRS. Next came a series of eye-witness
weather reports. These were eventually embellished by complete three-day
forecasts when I discovered that, oblivious to my personal crisis, the
telex machine continued to perform its duties a scant four feet away.
The final insult came with the tapping of a later report over the
wire in which BN described events at a bank robbery in progress in Thistle,
Ontario – as filed by Chad Hawkins of CPOW, Winnipeg. I wondered how the
resourceful Hawkins had managed to confirm the very details I was lacking.
Floating in the back of my mind was an image of Mary Striker and my mom
sitting in the staff lounge at the Thistle Shopper’s Mall huddled around a
direct line to Winnipeg. At that moment I rationalized I was far too new at
this job to be handcuffed by anything so stuffy as professional pride. I
ripped the bloody page off the machine and read it.
From this Thistle and I learned that, in fact, there was a lone,
masked gunman holding several hostages inside the Northern Isles Credit
Union and that police were currently negotiating for their safe release.
The suspect was also reported to have several sticks of dynamite strapped
to his waist. Primer cord ran from these to a battery pack and an
improvised clothespin detonator, which he was holding clenched between his
teeth. From this description of the apparatus I deduced, on behalf of my
listeners, that should the alleged robber find any reason to stop smiling
the two separated ends of that clothespin would proceed to make contact.
Most of Thistle and I were able to confirm the accuracy of reporter
Hawkin’s sources a very short while later, though it all happened too fast
to allow for any kind of emotional involvement; for once the tempo of
activity on the street surpassed my capacity to describe it.
What next transpired appeared to me as though it were taking place
inside someone else’s sphere of perception – in a distant dream world
viewed through a blanket of gauze:
The bank door opens. Two faces appear: one masked, the other – a
hostage? They approach a red pick-up parked directly out front. Then,
opportunity: for one split second, rounding opposite sides to enter the
vehicle, the two bodies are separated by a ton of GM metal. Suddenly the
entire planet shakes! to be instantly followed by a muffled thunderclap!
and then confusion…numbness! As the ringing in my ears begins to subside
a single voice penetrates the dust pleading through the battalion of pocket
radios tuned in up the street:
“Everybody back! The bomb has gone back!…OFF! The bomb has gone
OFF! Everybody BACK!”
Those words were the most substantiated journalistic assessment I’d
made all day. It was the only thing I’ve ever said that made the C.B.C.
National. I was even introduced by Knowlton Nash – or, rather, my
voice-over was. Footage was supplied by the Thistle newspaper. They were
given name credit; I was “a reporter from a local radio station”. In
retrospect I believe the oversight to have been C.B.C.’s gesture of mercy
on a poor, ignorant rookie announcer whom they deemed might someday wish to
advance in the field.
They were wrong, of course. Certainly then I had no wish but to
retreat under my bed. Instead I continued to sit at that open window,
blood dripping from my nose, and describe badly, if diligently, the
horrific sight that lay before my eyes.
As the smoke cleared the first thing I noticed was the people inside
the bank. Then I noticed that I had not been able to see them before and
that this status had changed because the large, reflective window pane that
had previously guarded their activities was now a thousand pearls of
sunlight, shimmering on the pavement. Only later did I learn the physical
laws at work which had caused this surprising influx of matter towards the
street: the outward force of an explosion creates an instantaneous and
powerful vacuum at its centre which tends to suck-in things like nearby
glass and sinus membranes (my mom heard this from Chad Hawkins, as the
Shopper’s Mall had switched over to CPOW for their updates).
A wad of tissue appeared in front of my face and I saw that, for the
first time, I was not alone in the newsroom. The girls and Brad Wilson –
the late-night jock, who’d run over as soon as he’d caught the station that
morning – were there. Linus was offering me toilet paper for my nose.
Neither his belt nor his fly were done up and his pants were wet. For once
I felt I could relate to Linus Lindberg.
About twenty minutes had passed since I’d gone on. I continued my
gibbering play-by-play for another five minutes before anyone thought to go
back to the control booth and bail me off the air. During the commercial
break I convinced Brad to take over and allow me the opportunity to start
digging into some facts. Brad was an import from Edmonton. A year younger
than me, and with only two months experience, he sparkled that day, by
comparison. Armed with no more knowledge of events than I’d been, it was
apparent Brad had at least mastered the art of “sounding like he knew what
he was talking about” – a skill to which I, and all the Linus Lindberg’s of
broadcasting, have never entirely learned the secret. In addition, he had
sufficient experience to know how to hook up a remote line in the newsroom
so he could go live-to-mike instead of suffering the mediocrity of a
phone-line. Watching young Brad do my job almost correctly was
inspirational. It made me realize where my future did not lie.
Ironically, I would in time feel an even greater jealousy for the
stranger in the mask. Unlike myself – and in a sense Brad Wilson, Jack
Coffey and even Knowlton Nash – he could at least claim to have been a man
of action. His was not the passive role of the leeching news reporter; he
WAS the news. He had not slunk through life hoping for opportunity to pass
his way. He had strode boldly through the front door of this sleepy,
innocuous little town, slapped it in the face and woken it up…
The only solace I could find was that in the end we both proved
equally incompetent in our chosen fields.
I did stay at CJRS another fourteen months, though – I guess to make
really sure that broadcasting wasn’t my life. My ability to “sound like I
knew what I was talking about” improved substantially in that period –
given my familial background it was only a matter of practice, I suppose.
But in the end I opted, after all, for theatre school. In the theatre one
didn’t have to make pretentions of sincerity; an actor is a phoney by
Of interest: I was not alone in the field of professionals whose
career paths were altered that day.
The man who’d accompanied the suspect from the building was a local
who, it seems, had recently made application to join the town police force.
He’d just happened to be in on personal banking business that morning and,
being trapped with the other hostages, had volunteered to drive the gunman
away in his own truck. Meanwhile, the sniper who’d ended the standoff from
his rooftop nest – atop the CJRS building, not six feet above my head – had
recognized the young fellow and had made a snap decision to fire, based on
a split-second of opportunity when the fugitive and hostage had become
separated by the pick-up truck.
While both actions were taken solely on the initiative of the two
men involved, their heroism seems rather evident. Due acknowledgement was
washed aside, however, when a load of dirty laundry got stirred up by
certain questions which were raised concerning the operation’s soundness of
leadership. Namely, who was ultimately responsible for the call? Both the
Chief and the Deputy were reported to have been high above the scene in a
chartered helicopter the whole time.
In the back-stabbing turmoil that ensued the officer who’d killed
the robber simply avoided the mess by opting for early retirement. The
young police hopeful, who’d received only minor contusions from the blast,
saw his application to the Thistle Police Department turned down “for
medical reasons” (he was quickly snapped up by the O.P.P. for whom he still
works today). The Chief managed to hang on another eighteen months till
full retirement. The Deputy eventually transferred to another force in
Banff, Alberta, where he spent several years chasing wild elk off the
streets before dying at the hooves of one particularly stubborn intruder.
My brother never mentioned whether the Deputy had ever managed to follow up
on his investigation of the alleged “press- leak” in the outboard motor
theft case. Given his subsequent time demands, I ASS/U/ME he never did.
As for the catalyst of the day’s news, the forensics lab in Toronto
was never able to make a positive I.D. on him – there was really nothing
left to identify. Local legend, however, has him firmly pegged as a man by
the name of Oliver Towne – “Yep, he was all-over town, alright, heh-heh”.
The joke was fervently circulated in dutiful small-town fashion, like a
chain-letter no one dares to break. After one or two half-hearted
tellings, though, I personally found the will to withdraw from all the fun.
I had never before seen a piece of equipment like the one they used
to clean Main Street that afternoon. It sprayed soapy water on the
pavement and had two large wire brushes that rotated underneath, like the
blades of a lawnmower. This made me think of mom, whom I was sure would
forgive the postponement of my own promise to mow the grass. I knew I’d
have my work cut out till quite late. Indeed, allowed the sufficient time,
my reports grew noticeably more objective, succinct and professional
through the course of the day. When Jack Coffey returned from the zoo,
however, he was haggard, breathless and a spewing fountain of comments on
everything I’d done wrong. When the station manager got back into town I
think Coffey nearly lost his job. He went back to handling his own morning
news. I never covered another town council meeting. In fact I eventually
got a crack at the evening rock-show, when Brad Wilson moved on to
all-nights at CPOW, Winnipeg. For six months I played the heaviest metal
that ever burst an eardrum on Lake Norakee. The teeny-boppers of Thistle
loved me. Somehow it wasn’t all that exciting.
It was about 9:30 that evening of June 26 before I finally finished
up and started for home. Main Street was still blocked off with the
cleaning trucks, so I went out the back way and took my ten-speed down the
fire escape onto the deserted waterfront. The sun had just set and I was
thankful that at least I wouldn’t have to ride home in the usual blazing
afternoon heat. In the dim twilight I could see the silhouettes of two
stray dogs on the shore, intensely interested in a chunk of charred
driftwood. Curious, I walked over and nudged it with my foot. It was soft,
like a piece of meat.
By the time I got home it was after ten and dark. I was about
thirty-five years old, and well beyond exhaustion. As I traipsed over the
uncut lawn to the bicycle-shed, some part of me seemed vaguely surprised at
the sun’s warmth still preserved in the mat of long grass. Then I realized
that usually when I walked my bike through the grass in the dark it was 4
a.m., when my feet were used to getting soaked by the cold dew. At 10
p.m., of course, the grass is no longer wet.
This in itself is no revelation; but sometimes a small fact hides a
deeper truth. For instance I now know that time and a little heat will
eventually dry off almost anything.
Including a rookie’s wet feet.
But occasionally the time must be spent at the school of brutal
reality – and the heat provided by a teacher like Oliver.