A Lesson From Oliver by David Jorgensen Like any other morning I was up at four, the day Oliver met with his violent death. 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 over trivia. 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 impending business: “..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 summers. 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 forever. 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 indecisiveness? 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 department.” 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 seriously? 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 your cup.” 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 console. “Always ask,” Jack told me, “never assume; because when you assume..” 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’ and ‘me’.” 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 “audience-in-theory”. 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 captain. “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..” “Who?” “CJRS Radio.” “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 …