by Jen Lynds
Like everyone else who heard the news, I am saddened by the death of a 4-year-old girl in a car accident in Presque Isle on Wednesday. One of the best things about living in Aroostook County is that when tragedies occur, residents step up and offer whatever support they can to those impacted. Benefit suppers are organized to help with medical or funeral expenses, church parishioners cook and take up collections to add further assistance, and condolences are expressed by those who may not even know the relatives of the deceased. In The County, even when you are cloaked in the heaviest, blackest veil of despair, you are not alone.
This morning, as I was talking to an individual about the accident, I was awestruck by something he said.
“You reporters must love that,” he told me. “I bet there are some dull news days when you guys hope for a fire or an accident or something, just to spice things up.”
I tried to respond as politely as possible to such an insulting utterance. That is like saying that doctors wish for people to come into their emergency rooms near death or dead so they can cut them open or shock their hearts with defibrillators, or that firefighters gather at the station and hope someone’s house starts burning down so they can bring out all of the equipment and blast the fire truck horns as they zip to the scene.
I know that some people think that journalists have all adopted the mantra that “if it bleeds, it leads,” but I don’t know anyone in the profession who believes such a thing.
A few years ago, I remember getting a bit rankled when an official gave me some off the record information and followed it with, “If you burn me, you will never get anything out of me again.”
“Hey, I am me first, not a journalist,” I replied, trying to quell the edge in my voice. “And I am not the type of person to ‘burn’ anyone.”
I know that a lot of people see the occupation of the person before they see the actual individual. Even on the weekends, out of uniform at a store, Joe Smith is still the police chief, and Lynn Smith, sitting at church in a dress instead of a white doctor’s coat, is still “Dr. Smith.”
It is a hard habit to break.
As a journalist, I have written about a lot of deaths and a number of funerals. But even though years have passed, I still remember every name and the details of how their lives were snuffed out.
I will pass the road where a teenage boy died because he was just a bit careless behind the wheel, like all of us are at times, and see his specter next to the stop sign. I pass locations that have become crime scenes and the names and faces of the victims drift through my mind.
Whenever I am in Ashland, I think of the “four sisters.” I could never forget their names: Paige Long,16; Mindy Long, 15; Victoria Basso, 5, and Trinity Basso, 3. The sisters died together on April 17, 2006, in a car accident on Route 11. Paige was driving the girls just a short distance away from their home to attend Mindy’s softball game. But for just a second, she drifted out of her lane. A trailer truck driver tried but failed to avoid them. The sisters were all killed on impact.
I covered their funeral, which was attended by more than 700 people.
Throughout the service, I could not take my eyes off their brother, Thomas Long Jr, who was 13 at the time. He spent thousands of hours with his sisters. But it only took a few minutes for him to become an only child.
It is the same with the funerals I have covered for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I did not know any personally, but I grew to know them through their funerals, the interviews I have done with their families and friends and the pictures their loved ones have shared.
Each time, I quickly decided that if I had known them, I would have liked them. We would have been friends.
When I went to a minor accident scene a few years ago to take pictures and gather information, one of the firefighters looked at me and yelled “caw, caw” implying that I was like a buzzard, swooping over a scene of death or gore.
It was shocking. I had no idea what to say, what to do. The firefighter didn’t even know me. He just saw my camera and the press badge dangling from my neck and decided that I was a terrible person.
Journalists have to go to accident scenes. When a person is murdered or a soldier dies, we have to call their families and friends to see if they want to talk. I hate it, as do my colleagues, but it is part of our jobs.
But in many of my experiences, people have wanted to be a voice for their deceased loved one, to talk about how they loved helping others or were dedicated to their children, their jobs, the military and more. And others have just wanted their privacy at such a time. And we give it to them.
We are all human. We have all had personal struggles, loved ones we have had to mourn. We all have our own sense of loss.
Most journalists are not “buzzards.” We do not pray for murder or fatal accidents.
But we have to cover them, just as lawyers have to take cases that sicken them personally and bankers have to foreclose on homes occupied by parents and children who really have no other place to go.
I am sure these individuals hate that part of their jobs, just as I hate to interrupt a family in their grief.
Author S.E. Hinton said it best when she wrote one of the signature lines from her 1965 coming of age novel, “The Outsiders” — No matter where you live, no matter what your job, “things are rough all over.“