There was an article in 1998 that warned young reporters were getting their careers turned around by getting too involved with their stories, sometimes even making up details. I know it seems like a simple case of common sense to just not do either, but if you’re in touch with emotions and recording certain events, that’s not always an easy thing.
When I did write for a paper, as a correspondent in the wilds of northwestern Ontario 20 yrs ago, I experienced something similar. Despite the seemingly tranquil setting of an aurora borealis framed mini mecca of 600, called Pickle Lake, I actually wrote quite a variety of stories around events that would rival any city. To be fair, there were another 600 or so in small areas around the town.
My ‘beat’ covered a collection of assaults, robberies, and murder, and my community profiles provided just as much color. All of this belies the fact that despite that record, most people in the area couldn’t be a stronger, kinder, and more generous humankind sample.
I expect I’ll write more about the experiences of Pickle Lake, but for now, I want to recount one story that I wrote then, that I wish I could re-write now.
One of my favorite “P.L.” adventures, which took even me by surprise, was joining the town’s volunteer ambulance service. I studied the necessary courses until I qualified, completed by also getting the license to drive the ambulance aka the ‘bus’, which incidentally also qualifies you to drive an actual bus.
One of the senior Attendants was a fellow by the name of Dave Halteman. Dave was one of those friendly folksy type that make a name for themselves by being ready to help anyone, any time. He owned the local auto repair and service station, which also served as the base for all kinds of local rescue. I think one of his favorites was pulling my car out of a few snowbanks and ditches on those bitter winter roads, and for the record, local jeer-ers, I was not the only one.
Dave was up for anything, which he was called to do often, but most of his town volunteering was devoted to the fire and ambulance departments. He did a fantastic job assisting the oversight of those critical services. Of course, it goes without saying those jobs take some bravery, and it turned out his personal bar was set at -quite high-.
He willingly took on the job to train a skinny, completely citified, 115 lb. greenhorn. Think about what it would take to teach that winning combo how to hoist a 95 lb. stretcher holding a 200 lb. patient into the back of an ambulance and then drive back to the clinic without skidding off the icy roads, and without breaking a nail. Yeah, he was cool with priorities like that.
Dave’s easygoing nature didn’t mean easy; he made for darn sure I knew we were working for lives, for real. Luckily, his patience level was set at -infinite-, because I definitely tested that bar too. When I bungled, I got a stare that I would answer with my own mortified gape. Then this laugh would ring out. Anyone who ever heard it, would agree – one of a kind. Infectious. Unforgettable.
Whoever was treated to that laugh was also served by his decency. He made a friend out of pretty much everyone who crossed his path because of his honest belief in ‘do unto others’. Despite all the heroics of his emergency work, this was probably what earned him the most and deepest regard overall. To say he was beloved to many is not an overstatement, his personality filled a town.
So on that December day, when the news came that his plane went down on the way home from a hunting trip, shock reverberated throughout the region. No one could believe it and no one wanted to. Many of us held hope that there’d been a mistake. We would learn that the crash took not only Dave, but also his endearing and respected son-in-law, Everett Moore. Ev was soft-spoken, tall, handsome, filled with kindness, and so young.
The town became still in the days that lead up to the funeral service. As everyone struggled to comprehend that what happened was real, the two caskets at the front of the community hall laid down all hope for good.
Those of us who served with Dave were privileged to stand in observance as his Honour Guard. The hall seats filled quickly, and everyone else stood outside on a bright, but frigid day listening through speakers. There were several hundred who stood in that biting cold for the entire service and the interment. I’m sure desire for relief from that cold was strong, but it couldn’t overcome the desire to pay those deeply felt respects.
The town took a while to rev back to some kind of normal. We learned there was a lot of navigating to figure out how to carry on without the steady assurances and answers of Dave. We did though, because in many ways, the footprints he laid down were clear enough for us to follow, and so he still shaped worthwhile aspects of our own capabilities.
I wish I could have written all this in that memoriam story years ago, but I was too involved in my own grief. I couldn’t get myself to the place that does justice to the role of reporting, and in service to people who knew he deserved so much more.
I hope what I can put down now, this little bit more, will add to the legacy of how well Dave and Ev impacted people.
One last thing still bears saying too. For a long time, many of us would often say how we’d give anything to hear that Dave laugh again. The truth is, I still do, and I believe that whenever we think of him, most of us still do.
PostScript: I also owe a debt of gratitude to former Managing Editor, Thunder Bay Chronicle, Nick Hirst, for helping me cobble together the part of the story I did then.
Hello to my old friends in Pickle Lake and Mishkeegogamang First Nation who stood out in the cold with us that day.