JUNE 20, 2012 10:09PM

Last Call

Rate: 36 Flag


"And everything looks worse in black and white...."                                                                                                                -- Paul Simon

    Nearly last call on a cold November night.

    Carol, the barkeep, one eye on the clock, has already dimmed some of the lights and is wiping down tables while a couple of hangers-on hunch over the bar. One, his eyes goggling, sucks down the last dregs, carefully puts down his empty OV bottle and wanders unsteadily toward the exit. Carol follows, locks the door: No more customers tonight.

    I should leave now, but it doesn't feel right. Not quite yet.

    "Beer and a shot, please, Carol," I say, forearms on the bar. "Beer and a shot before I go."

    Carol looks at me, looks again at the clock, shrugs, draws a draft and fills a shotglass with Canadian Club.

    I toss the rye back, and begin to sip the beer. Suddenly: "Hey -- aren't you that military history guy?"
    I tell the man -- Tim, as it turns out -- I probably am who he means, and we start talking about his family back home in Newfoundland -- The Rock. Some of his relatives had been with the Newfoundland Regiment when it was torn to pieces during the First World War, and he wants to tell me their story.

    While he's rattling on, in the way that semi-drunk strangers in a bar are sometimes wont to do, his greeting echoes around in my head, taking me back to another time, another bar near closing time, another life....

* * *

       "Hey -- aren't you that photographer guy?" He was not quite belligerant, but edging up on it, the way semi-drunk strangers in a bar are sometimes wont to do.

    The barkeep, another Carol, with long curly black hair, a lively face and four kids to bring up on her own, raised an eyebrow, getting a whiff of maybe trouble. It wasn't a biker hangout or bucket of blood, but it could have been without much effort, and she had sensitive, finely tuned antennae.

    "That'd probably be me," I said. "Beer and a shot, please, Carol. I'm cold."

    I was dog-tired, drained and about as miserable as I'd ever been in my life. I'd lost twenty or more pounds, almost down to my high school wrestling weight but without the fitness. Grey-faced haggard all the time, I felt like I hadn't slept for months, not since a third of the town's business district was obliterated by a natural gas explosion. It'd been almost a year since that frigid February, a year of accidents, murders and mayhem. And fires. The fires that always seemed to happen in the middle of the night. Flames, smoke, flashing lights. Body bags.

    It was wearing me down. I had no family any more, no personal life at all. Weeks of twelve to sixteen hour days didn't leave much time for a wife or kids, not when my body and soul craved the rush that action always brought ... although it was probably killing me one crisis at a time.

    The semi-drunk, considerably larger than my nondescript five feet, six inches, self, loomed down the bar. I didn't know what to expect, but ... a tiny surge of adrenaline.

    "You were at that fire last night, weren't you," he said. Not exactly a question, something hovering around the edges.


    "You were there when they brought the bodies out, right?"


    "Those little kids," he said, "that was pretty bad, huh?"


    "I had kids...."

    And he rattled on, the way semi-drunk strangers in a bar are wont to do sometimes, about losing his own kids, not to a fire but a messy divorce, how mothers are always the ones who get custody no matter what. Fathers only get screwed, he said, angrily and sadly at the same time.

    I looked across the bar, caught Carol's expression: She knew exactly what it was like for the women in those situations. I did too. I sank the shot, felt the glow start to seep out. I was hoping he'd keep blathering on about his kids, but he returned once again to the fire, pressing for details, wouldn't leave it alone, until I started shivering, and the beer slopped a little out of the glass, over my hand and onto the bar.

    "You okay?" the semi-drunk stranger asked, surprised. Even Carol, with her seen-it-all eyes, looked concerned.

    "Sure," I said, taking a deep swallow of the beer. "Must've been a cold draft."

    I chuckled stupidly at the lame pun, let them know everything was fine. Truth is, I was cold, and wasn't certain when I'd be warm again. Not since standing just after midnight in melting ice and snow, catching overspray as firefighters tried to get on top of the flames gouting from the isolated two-storey farmhouse. Pumpers from three different volunteer departments ran relays to the nearest hydrant, a half-mile away.

    Six people, they said, six people inside. Three of them kids under five. One look at the blazing disaster as I drove up had told me all I needed to know: If they hadn't made a door in the first few seconds, they wouldn't be coming out at all. Not alive. No smoke alarms, a century-old building and an over-heated wood stove are a deadly combination.

    I was, as usual, by myself, wearing my foul weather gear -- army combat boots and a now-soaked pea jacket, jeans and watch cap. I had my Nikon Fs with a Honeywell strobe, wrapped in the ever-present green garbage bag I carried as an emergency poncho, and all kinds of Kodak Tri-X black and white film. I already had the stock shots of firefighters with icicles hanging off their turnout coats and helmets, of flames shooting through the roof and out windows. Stock shots: Nothing very exciting, just scene-setters. I needed something more ... dramatic.

    Suddenly a shout came from around the back, and I hustled over in time to see a booted figure starting down a ladder from a second storey window, holding something in his arms. Something small. One of the kids. He paused when he saw me.

    I raised my camera and zoomed onto his face, lit with flames, black with smoke and tear-streaked. I zoomed out a little more to frame what he was holding. He stared down at me; I stared up at him from behind the viewfinder, right index finger on the shutter release, 60th of a second at f8, and ...

    ... and I didn't take the picture.

    Instead, I pulled the camera down and took a couple of involuntary steps back. He nodded down at me and began descending again. When he got to the bottom, before he headed for the coroner and the unnecessary ambulance with his small burden, he paused once more.

    "Thanks," he said. "Thanks."

     It wasn't until I tried to nod in response that I realized I was shivering hard.

* * *

    I'll never know why I didn't take the picture. Compassion? Didn't have much. Fear? Not much of that, either. Good taste? Not really -- the focus of attention would have been on the anonymous firefighter's shocked face, not the sad bundle he was carrying. An award-winner for certain, given his expression, except I didn't work for awards. Burn-out? Partly. Maybe. I don't know.

    The moment never happened to me again. A few months later in early spring, I'd capture a scene at another fire, daylight for once, a small, blanketed bundle in a firefighter's arms, paramedic checking for a pulse, cop agitatedly directing people away. That's the shot, I said to myself as I hit the shutter release. That's the one I'll tell them to print out of the 36. And I was right.

    But that winter night haunts me, awake and asleep.

* * *

    ..."Last call," Carol says, as Tim at last lurches toward the exit. "Last call."

    "Beer and a shot, please, Carol. One more for the road. I'm cold...."

Closing time, one last call for alcohol, so finish your whiskey or beer.
Closing time, you don't have to go home but you can't stay here....

Closing time, every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.

                                                                                  -- Closing Time, by Semisonic


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Rated. Free beer TODAY!!!
God! This is as good as it gets, Bones. Felt myself standing at your side.
What a story.

I wonder if many reporters have one like this in which they chose humanity over catching an award winning photo.


Great story. I have a similar one -- I couldn't bring myself to interview the wife of an old guy who'd been shot and killed in his own store by robbers, shot and killed tho he was 77 and on crutches and was no threat to them in any way. I couldn't pull my metaphorical trigger, and that's when I knew I was done with the career in journalism.

In hindsight, maybe I should have stayed. Nobody's asked a politician a hard question since Watergate.
You did take the picture and it will be with you the rest of your life, in your thoughts and in your dreams. I carry many around within myself and they always serve as a reminder in my life that it can be gone in an instant. Great piece Bo, my best as always my friend........o/e r*******
I love these slice of life reminiscences from your past. The details, physical and emotional, really bring this piece to life. I’d still like to think that compassion was the reason behind the non-shot.

OV!! Do they still make/sell it?!
Your writing and this story blew me away tonight. That scene at the fire when you exchanged looks with the firefighter was playing like a video. Excellent.

""............every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.""

Nailed it.......

*This just might signal an end to much that we know.......*

Holy disaster. I feel trite saying great post, well written and blah blah.
Glad too that you didn't shoot that one pic. Glad I got here to read b1
Great post.

Reminded by Tom's anecdote that I once did a phone interview, easy on the details, with someone who'd been sitting beside a person who'd got skewered in some kind of freak train accident. Neither of us was too keen on the whole thing and fortunately the editor was more or less satisfied with whatever it was I turned in.
This was absolutely gorgeous writing. Masterful. So lush. So filled with life experience and the terrible tragedies of life. ... I've heard photographers talk about "life through the lens," and having to put down their gear to really experience situations, to really live them. You showed a lot of compassion and humanity by not taking the shot. R. I'd rate it more than once if I could.
Gripping account Boanerges. Nice to know that some in the journalistic field allow their humanity to sometimes edge out the job expectations.
Bo, You do know I was here earlier and was the first one to rate this but no time (at the time) to comment when you first put this up. I see it still is in the feed among the top rated a day or so later. I remember reading this chilling account. Last call, indeed. Despite what happens to this place, keep the words flowing, virgo brother. Happy Solstice.
Succinct in your exposure, the way you unravel this. Working it a large peds hospital I feel this more than you might know. We had a gallows humour that was quite ghastly but it kept us from going insane at times. Right written Boan, respect.
late night *in and *rightly written
sorry Boan
Stunning. Zumapick. Tears.
this is impressive writing. so well crafted that i am in awe of the way you made it seem so effortless. an absolute pleasure.
The fact that you didn't take that photo says so much. I knew when I first became interested in photography that I could never be a photojournalist, I would always feel like I'm invading someone's privacy, but I admire the people who are able to do it well and with compassion. ~R
Powerful, Bo. And so real I almost grabbed for a notepad.
If this isn't EP then what is?
I hoisted one (maybe more) in your honour last night, Tink.

Thanks, John. It was a night to remember.

Fusun, I'll never know why I didn't take the picture. Never. The other one I was talking about would likely have won some kind of award too, but I didn't enter contests.

I hear you, Tom, about no one asking the questions that should be asked. I don't know what's missing. And I can see where that incident would shake a person up.

I know you do, O/E. And, yeah, life IS fragile and can be gone in a heartbeat. (I'll expand on that later.)

VA, I've thought long and hard about it. I was the least compassionate person I knew back then. Yeah, Old Vienna is still available -- and appears to be the national drink of this ville -- but I prefer Red Cap ale, myself.

Thanks, Lezlie. There were other worse things that happened that night that I didn't include, but it's all there on memory's videotape....

Gotta give Semisonic credit for that line, Sky, but it sure is a good one. I'll check out that link when I'm done with the replies.

Thank you, Trig, my old chum.

On the day I formally retire, Myriad, I'll be reposting probably my favourite piece on here, which alludes to the kind of thing you're talking about.

Coming from another newsie, that's high praise, Deborah. Yeah, the lens distances you from what's in front of you, all right. Problem arises when you have to put the camera down and confront the reality.

Abra, I never told anyone at work about not taking the picture, and as I said, it never happened again. That night remains inexplicable to me.

Well, my sister in nitpicking Virgodom (other people really get hacked off with us, don't they?), I don't know what's happening with this place either. I hope it continues to exist, because I don't know where else I could possibly write about this stuff.

Oh, good grief, Rita, that gallows humour. You didn't want to be anywhere nearby when things got ghastly. I wasn't often fit for polite company back in the day. I don't envy you your job -- working with ailing kids has got to be tough.

Thanks, Zuma.

And thank you too, Lorianne. It was something of a cathartic experience to write it in the first place.

Yah, 'Bug, invading someone's privacy is something you have to get past. We did it on sheer arrogance, mostly. Michael Connelly, in his non-fiction book about crime reporting, basically said: "My best day was your worst day". I hadn't read that when I wrote a companion piece to this, in which I talked about the adrenaline rush of running through the dark to someone else's nightmare.

Thanks, CM. I know you know what it's like.

Thanks, Trig, but I would doubt it'll get an EP, since it's a repost.
Masterly reporting and writing. This is investigative journalism of the finest and rarest kind. It turns the light of inquiry on the self, away from the surface of things, away from the things that make the front page. In lieu of facts and figures, it gives us doubts and fears and plain wonderment at the surprising ways we have of being human in the moment. That moment, when you and the fireman met each other, eye to eye, man to man, and you do what you did and he says what he said is one of the finest depictions of Hemingway's grace under pressure that I've seen.
Masterly reporting and writing. This is investigative journalism of the finest and rarest kind. It turns the light of inquiry on the self, away from the surface of things, away from the things that make the front page. In lieu of facts and figures, it gives us doubts and fears and plain wonderment at the surprising ways we have of being human in the moment. That moment, when you and the fireman met each other, eye to eye, man to man, and you do what you did and he says what he said is one of the finest depictions of Hemingway's grace under pressure that I've seen.
Kind of made me sick just reading this. Powerful, indeed.
It's interesting, JH, how such events live on in the collective conscious. About 25 years after that incident, I was talking with a firefighter from one of the volunteer units there that night. He was far too young to have been involved, but he knew all the details ... including the story of the photographer who didn't take the picture. And thank you indeed for your kind, thoughtful words.

It was an eventful life, Pro. Thanks (but I didn't mean to make you ill).
wonderfully related. I was there.
Thanks, h-J. I'm glad you liked it.

Del, you've been there at the sharp end too. I know you have. It's a peculiar life, isn't it?
Thanks, KK and Bobbot. I'm glad you dropped by.
love this! Now for the beer!
Have a cold one on me, Poppi. And it's nice to see you here again.
Wow, can sure you write, Lee.

Many times I've thought how I'd like to have taken a different path in life and do what you did. Not so sure after this piece.

I've read a lot about PTSD recently and have to wonder to what extent you deal with that?
Dunno, Cappy. I have moments when some stuff crashes in on me, but mostly I dismiss it. And I know I'm far better off than guys who go to war or are cops or ambulancemen or firefighters and so on. They're at the real sharp end. I was just the guy on the other side of the camera.

I'll be reposting a version of this essay
-- http://tinyurl.com/d44bjlx --
on July 21, in honour of my last day in the newsroom.
Incredible story, can't believe I missed this. You capture that circumstance so well. I've been there myself when I simply could not intrude upon the grief of a woman who'd just lost her only son (and only child) to an air accident at the Cold Lake base in Alberta. I went to her house thinking that the military had already told her given the time lapse, but they hadn't -- it was one of the most awful moments of my career. I had a "scoop" and should have insinuated my way into her home and got a picture and an interview. Instead, I looked at her wordlessly, moved forward to comfort her and when she shrank from me, I turned and left. I got very, very drunk that night after filing something, I don't remember what, and of course, caught full shit the next day from the base even though they'd been derelict in their duty. Worth it tho. I moved over to entertainment not long afterward but I have never forgotten that woman's face the moment I told her. Too close for comfort, that one.
Oh, God, that's awful, Emma. I don't think I was ever in that position, or not exactly. I'd prefer to remember the "good" times we had on the Job, what there were of them, but I don't. It's times like what I wrote about that keep me awake some nights.

Years later, when I was back on the street -- my natural habitat -- once again, I was talking to a young firefighter from one of the departments that was involved. He told me my decision not to take the picture was a story handed down by the older volunteers. I guess that's a good thing.