A Lesson From Oliver

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.

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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 …

A Lesson From Oliver

.. had little wish to draw him into this conversation. I decided to change the subject quickly. “Coincidentally, yes sir. Why I’m calling, though, is to inquire about the number of outboard motors that have gone missing since last week.” “Pardon me?” 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.

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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 television. “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, either. 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 wooden hips. “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 Lindberg.

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. Cops! 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 Barb: “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 blockades.

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 warrant. “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: “Sor-ry.” 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 anyone. 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 where?” “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 and everything..” “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 dissidents..” 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 mid-morns.” “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 again now. “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, uh..police..” 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, right now..” 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 hall. My situation had progressed to that of a student pilot whose flying instructor had just bailed out..and taken the plane with him. I wa.

x

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