Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dying on the job: it’s a mean surprise

I talk to truckers all the time about cases where drivers have heart attacks or strokes or some medical event that ends their lives while on the job. Recently, one driver told me he figured as much time as he spends alone in his truck, he thinks about it a lot and this is where he thinks he will draw his last breath. In his opinion – and I agree – getting killed on the job would be one very tragic way to be outta here, but dying from natural causes while on the job would be a lousy kick in the teeth.

We were discussing the most recent case where a Canadian driver went missing while driving in Wyoming. Clark Sutherland of Langley, BC, last spoke to his wife on May 29, at which time he complained he was sick. Christine Sutherland drove her husband’s entire route to Cheyenne stopping at truck stops and passing out flyers.

On June 9, Sutherland was found dead in his truck in a rest area. The early assessment is he died in his sleep.

I don’t know how many times I have worked on stories like this one, where the driver was talking to his wife on the phone earlier and said he did not feel well, or had to lie down awhile. And then she couldn’t get him on the phone. Usually, bad news is not far behind.

If you’re a trucker, you have to wonder if this might happen to you. But you are not the only hard worker to think about this morbid subject.

On June 13, when I heard that NBC’s Tim Russert had collapsed at his Washington office while doing voiceovers for his evening show, I could relate. It shocked me, like every other journalist in the nation. Not only was he a first-class newsman, but he typified the best of my generation. Russert was a hard-driven, high-octane kind of journalist who really pushed himself through long stressful days. As you probably have heard it said a hundred times this week, for 16 years he moderated “Meet the Press” and was NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief. He went to Woodstock and, in my book, he gets extra points for that.

He had heart problems but kept them at bay with exercise and meds. On the afternoon of June 13, Russert was doing voiceovers for his evening show. That’s a technique where an “off-camera” voice is prerecorded to be used as commentary with whatever show or segment you’re working on. Mark Reddig, host of “Land Line Now” stays late and does voiceovers all the time. Often, it’s late, you’ve worked all day, haven’t got more than 10 feet from your chair twice all day, and you and the sound engineer are both dog tired.

In this way, journalists like us are more like truckers than you would think. All of us who work like maniacs are fearful of departing this life while on the job. I’ve been listening to what everyone says about Tim Russert’s untimely demise all week long and making comments like: “when it’s your time, it’s your time” or “there’s worse things in life than death,” or a number of such Woody Allen-type quotations. But the truth is, there’s nothing that makes that sudden, unplanned, very permanent exodus OK.

Leaving that way is a really mean surprise.

Monday, June 16, 2008

On my honor …

Reporters and editors are famously calloused. Covering car wrecks, suicides and awful crimes can occasionally cause a person to be flippant or cynical, if for no other reason than to deal with the shock to one’s system.

News this week that four Boy Scouts in Iowa were killed this past week when a tornado hit their campground was particularly striking for me and my family.

Our hearts went out to the families of Scouts Sam Thomsen, Aaron Eilerts, Josh Fennen and Ben Petrzilka, who died Wednesday, June 11, when a tornado hit the high adventure Little Sioux Scout Ranch.

In conversations with my brother and mother, we recounted some of the many great experiences we had in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, and were thankful that the spotty weather we encountered never got worse.

I’m the oldest of three brothers, all Eagle Scouts, who spent 10 days every mid-June at the H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation in Osceola, MO. Camp Bartle is famous for the Tribe of Mic-O-Say honor society.

As the bugler for Troop 59 in Kansas City, MO, I was responsible for playing taps at the end of troop meetings and other ceremonies. It was a responsibility I upheld most of the time, except for the time I took a bet that I could stretch taps beyond four minutes.

Using every ounce of oxygen my lungs possessed, I did stretch the song to four minutes, earning whatever wager I felt was necessary.

“So Charlie – what took so long?” Scoutmaster Steve Walton’s voice boomed over the phone line later that day.

Telling him the truth and promising not to disrespect the troop was just one of many Scouting experiences I’ll never forget.

Being a Boy Scout allowed me to grow as a person at a critical point in life – bridging elementary school to high school – and provided another community beyond school and church.

During one 10-day backpacking trip to the mountainous Philmont Scouting Ranch in New Mexico, a group of us were caught in an afternoon storm with lightning strikes coming closer every few minutes. As we were told to take our packs off and instructed on how to situate our bodies so a lightning strike would leave our bodies as quickly as possible, I was reminded of the one-death-per-summer average we’d recently learned.

Fortunately, the lightning moved along as we approached a cabin on the vast, 130,000-plus acre ranch.

I’m thankful for experiences I gained at camp, such as spending a night under the stars with only my sleeping bag and a flashlight, winning intramural water polo games, and exploring caves.

Weekly troop meetings instilled the importance of showing up, and dedicated volunteer leaders reinforced respect of others and duty to God, family and country.

Many campsites are low-lying, near large bodies of water, and a lot of camping is done during storm season. I hope this week’s incident doesn’t discourage anyone from joining or participating in Scouts or camp.

I’m continually amazed at how often I’ll think back to lessons learned over time spent swimming, hiking on trails, or enjoying peach cobbler cooked in a Dutch oven.

Sam, Aaron, Josh and Ben were reportedly handpicked for their trip to the Little Sioux Scout Ranch based on their leadership skills and potential. Emergency workers noted their fellow Scouts were steadily efficient in looking for missing boys, and an Associated Press story here briefly details the boys’ interests.

A nation of Scouts of all ages mourns those boys lost Wednesday.