Countless times through the years, people have asked if a newspaper career — especially writing things like sports — is as much fun as it appears to be. I’ve always replied favourably, adding that I’ve never considered it to be work.
Like anything in this life, however, there can be exceptions.
Take this past week, for instance. I was sitting at my computer and attempting, over and over again, to start writing my weekly column for The Advocate. The interest, the enthusiasm just wasn’t there like it normally is. I couldn’t concentrate properly.
My mind wasn’t in it.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the heart-breaking story that was developing that morning a few minutes’ drive away in Spryfield. I surely don’t need to explain the details to any Pictonian, any Nova Scotian. The news that seven children, recent immigrants from Syria, had died in a horrifying house fire was on the lips of everyone around me.
As that first day went on, as the news got worse and worse, my thoughts began wandering back 59 years in time, to my very first months working for The Chronicle Herald in its new Pictou County bureau.
Like any new reporter — I was 21 years old in that long-ago scenario — I began keeping clippings of my articles on the county’s biggest news stories. It’s sort of a routine for a short time; then the scrapbooks pile up too quickly. For six decades, they’ve been doing nothing but collecting dust on a book shelf.
My memories — sparked by the dreadful Halifax blaze — were focusing back to 1960 and those yellowed clippings. I had never forgotten the tragedy-filled year my hometown and county experienced in those first 10 months that I was on the job.
The biggest story that year — the worst one I ever had to cover in 65 years in this business — was similar in several ways to the one that just occurred in Spryfield.
It had happened overnight in Priestville, just outside New Glasgow, on the Sunday of a holiday weekend. Six children — five sisters and a brother between the ages of one month and 14 years — burned to death when flames turned their family home into ashes. A later inquest determined that the fire had started in a coal and wood stove in the kitchen. I never forgot what I saw when I arrived at the scene.
Three months earlier, the Herald had sent me to Pomquet, a few miles east of Antigonish, in the middle of the night to photograph a train wreck that happened a short time before. When I got there, flames were dramatically roaring skyward from a CNR diesel. Twenty of 95 rail cars were off the tracks. Worse, three crewmen had died, all residents of Stellarton. Later, I attended the funerals in two of Stellarton’s biggest churches where overflow crowds were paying their respects.
In early May, a 76-year-old Westville man burned to death in his home when he became trapped in his upstairs bedroom.
Only days after the tragic train wreck, the bodies of two Pictou boys, who had been missing for some 24 hours, were found in Lake Haliburton, outside Pictou.
Three weeks following the Priestville fire, a 53-year-old New Glasgow man, his five-year-old grandson and a 36-year-old Westville man drowned in a boating accident during a fishing trip to Hood Lake in the Bridgeville-Trafalgar area.
On the same day, a 28-year-old New Glasgow woman was killed at Loch Broom when the truck in which she was a passenger plunged through a guard rail, over an embankment and came to rest in three feet of water.
Nine days after the boating and truck mishaps, a 12-year-old New Glasgow boy drowned in the East River when he and four other children tried to walk through the water at Blue Acres.
Then, in July, a car accident on the Granton Road killed a 23-year-old Westville man and injured seven other people, including a woman who gave birth to a baby the next day.
In August, a 49-year-old woman was killed after being in a collision with a truck while crossing the road near her home at Mount William. She had only moved there from New Glasgow a week earlier.
Three nights later, a 16-year-old boy from Lismore was struck by a car near his home while walking along the side of the road with three companions.
The 59-year-old caretaker of the Canadian Legion’s Normandy Hut in downtown New Glasgow died in his sleeping quarters on the third floor when an early-morning fire destroyed the building.
In mid-November, a seven-month-old baby girl died when flames whipped through the family’s farm home at Millstream, three miles from Eureka. The fire was spotted by a passing mailman.
Nine days after that, two children – a four-year-old girl and her seven-year-old brother — perished in a fire that levelled the family’s home at French River. The mother, dressed only in night clothes and barefoot, walked a mile and a half to get help.
If you weren’t keeping count, that was 24 Pictonians who died in incidents I covered — all in that 10-month period.
There were 11 deaths by fire, six by drownings, four by vehicle accidents, and three in the train crash. There was another startling statistic: 14 of the 24 victims were children, 10 of them 12 years of age and younger.
And so, going back to my opening comments, yes, most of the time a journalist can consider his work as fun – especially writing sports when you love sports as much as I do. But, as outlined, there can also be some pretty awful experiences mixed in.
What impact can that have?
Even after the passage of almost six decades, I can still close my eyes and envision some of the devastating scenes I witnessed in those 10 months.