(current bio at the end)
When I finished high school, like many, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living. My only passions in school were music and gymnastics. I loved gymnastics and competed extensively but I didn’t picture myself in the Olympics and an injury kept me from competing in my senior year. I also loved music and studied the French Horn in school and at the Royal Conservatory of Music. For a short while after high school I played with the North York Symphonic Repertory Orchestra. I also played guitar casually and performed at most high school talent shows. But frankly I never considered a career as a musician. I wasn’t at that caliber.
Now free from the shackles of high school, I had to find a job. My parents were asking for rent and I had aspirations of living on my own. But I wasn’t delusional. I knew that the lack of a post-secondary education would be a ball and chain. And it was.
After a couple of years and two very low paying jobs I decided I needed something fun to do outside of work. I responded to an ad in the Toronto star for a piano player and songwriter who was looking for a guitarist who could sing. I didn’t do either very well but I had nothing to lose. Meeting musicians through the newspaper is a little like a blind date without the pressure. I met Terry a few days later and we seemed to connect – musically. Clearly he was the better musician of the two of us, but our voices harmonized nicely and we started playing at talent shows for fun. Soon after we met Bob, a lead guitarist, who suggested that we put together a band and go on the road. I thought the idea was insane but Terry agreed we started auditioning drummers and base players. Within a few weeks we had a band, we all joined the musician’s union, we found an agent who was kind enough to accept an extraordinarily high percentage of our earnings and we set off for stardom in northern Ontario and parts of Quebec.
I enjoyed playing music professionally. Apart from surviving on peanut butter sandwiches most days and watching people beat each other up every night over some beer enhanced sense of chivalry, it was fun. In fact the second time our band, “Portrait”, played in Blind River, Ontario, people on the dance floor were actually singing the lyrics to some of our original songs. We were stars!
A year and a half later the band split. It was unfortunate. We were actually fairly good – not American Idol good, but good enough to play the bars. I returned home and immediately wanted to get out on the road again, so I looked for another band and found one. It was a “Show Band”. That means that they played classic cover tunes from the 50s and 60s. The music we played was horrible, but the musicians in the band we the most talented I had ever met. We hit the road and two weeks into our tour our motor home broke down in Hurst, Ontario. We spent a week there in a motel waiting for the engine to be replaced. I shared a room with the drummer who suffered from ADHD or may have been on amphetamines. I knew nothing about drugs, which might sound strange since I was a musician. But remember, I wasn’t a good musician. My drummer roommate had miniature drum pads, like the ones used in Nintendo Wii, and he beat the crap out of them all day long and sometimes until three o’clock in the morning. That experience left no doubt that I was not cut out for a life time of being a musician. But the alternative of living at home seemed even less appealing. I loved my parents but I was young and needed to be free!
After the engine was replaced, the seven of us, including the wife of the lead singer and a dog set off to Thunder Bay. The saxophone player was having an affair with the lead singer’s wife. Who could blame her – her husband looked like a fat Elvis and saxophone players get almost as many chicks as drummers; just not our drummer who suffered from some sort of perpetual rhythmic seizure with drum sticks. Everyone in the band knew about the affair except fat Elvis. He was either in denial or had the IQ of a dinner bun. The saxophone player and I never spoke but as he walked passed me he always gave me a look as if to say “if you tell fat Elvis I’ll pound you to a pulp”. Maybe I misinterpreted his expression or maybe my amused expression ticked him off.
It was late on a February night in northern Ontario when we hit the road again. Several kilometers (half the distance in miles for my American friends) outside of Hurst the motor home broke down again. I was trying to sleep in the birth above the driver’s seat. After a week of the rat-a-tat-tat sound of drum sticks beating these rubber pads, which were more resilient than my mental health, I was ready to fall asleep standing. Fat Elvis got on the CB radio and called for help. What trucker would take a guy who sounds like Elvis seriously? Fortunately somebody did and a tow truck arrived thirty minutes later. With seven people and a dog now tilted at a thirty degree angle with the front wheels in the air, we set off for Long Lac, the next closest town. After another twenty minutes the tow truck driver stopped and came to the back to ask someone for a cigarette. Cigarettes disgusted me but I was cold and asked if I could sit in the tow truck with him for the rest of the trip. The lead guitarist, the only truly nice guy in the band, took my place in the birth above the driver’s seat. The saxophonist looked at me like I had beat him to the punch, but I was too cold to be unselfish. The wife of fat Elvis gave me a wink as I left the motor home.
I buckled up in the passenger side, and the driver glanced at me like I was an urban idiot who had more brains than testosterone. I sure wouldn’t fit in around these parts wearing a set belt and all, I imagined him saying, though his mouth remained closed tightly around his smelly cigarette. That’s not actually how northern Ontario people speak, but in my mind’s eye I could see him addressing me in a southern drawl. I felt the tension in the air, like this was my last chance to show that I was a man, undo my seatbelt and ride unrestrained. I kept it on and I swear I saw his eyes roll even though I didn’t look at him. I said thanks for letting me sit in the tow truck and described how cold it was in the motor home. He didn’t speak. I stopped talking.
I remember the smell of beer on his breath, but it didn’t occur to me that he might have had too many until I began to notice how slippery the highway had become and that he didn’t adjust his speed for the conditions. Between the all occasional violent jerk from one side to another as we hit patches of black ice and the motor home swayed one way while we try to counter in the other direction, I got up the courage to ask him if he would mind slowing down. When he cursed in response his speech was slurred I knew then that we were in trouble. I tried to speak in a friendly non-threatening tone. I told him we weren’t in a hurry. He told me not to tell him how to drive and he lit up another cigarette. I held my breath for long periods because he didn’t want the windows open and the smell of cigarette smoke was torture to my eyes and my sense of smell. I grew up in a smoke filled home and I learned to detest it.
After he put out his smoke we began a descent down a long hill. Within a hundred meters we over compensated for a shift in the motor home and went off the road in what seem like a surreal slow motion nightmare. He turned the steering wheel sharply to the left leaving us perpendicular to the road and the motor home swung around hard and down a snowy embankment behind us. When we came to a stop I could feel the motor home sliding down the embankment and dragging us with it. Then a crunch and we stopped completely.
I took a deep breath and muttered something vulgar under my breath. I stepped out of the tow truck to see that the motor home was partly on its roof and pinned against a tree at the back. I learned the next day that if the tree hadn’t stopped us the motor home and the tow truck would have likely slid down and through the ice covered lake below. I stepped through the deep snow toward the back of the motor home where a metal panel was torn off and the saxophone player slipped out. “Is everyone else ok?” I asked. “I don’t know” he replied in a worried voice. Before I reached the back, several others were filing out one by one, including the dog. The Motor home then suddenly began to shift. I had to run and jump several feet to get out of the way. When I looked up the hill I saw the tow truck driver had unhitched his truck and was spinning his wheels in an attempt to get off the slippery shoulder and onto the road. “What the hell are you doing”? yelled one of the band members. But the truck was back on the highway and disappeared down the long hill and into the night. The motor home settles and everything went silent for a few seconds and we looked at each other bewildered. “Help” came a faint and desperate voice of someone still in the motor home. We all looked around to see who was not standing among us. It was the lead guitarist, Steve.
Steve’s voice was distant. I tried to look through the back of the motor home to see him but it was dark and the motor home was now too unstable to step inside. I tried a couple of steps anyway but Steve screamed and said that his arm was being crushed when I moved inside. I stepped out carefully. I walked around to the front of the overturned motor home and looked for signed of him. There was a full moon that lit up the sky fairly well but not enough to see Steve. I maneuvered myself to where I could hear him best and asked what I could do. When I looked under the folded metal again I thought I could make out an arm and what looked like blood dripping from it. “Are you bleeding?” I asked.
“I think so. It just hurts!!”. “Where are the rest of the band member? Are they alright?” he asked.
“They’re fine. They’re all up on the side of the highway waiting for someone to drive by flag them down for help” I said feeling annoyed that I was the only one knee deep in the snow trying to help Steve.
There were no cellular phones then and our CB radio was out of reach and too dangerous to try to access anyway. The other band members stood on the road waiting. There was no wind that night and that was the only thing that kept us all from dying of hypothermia. Steve was in tremendous pain and was certain he was going to die. He asked repeatedly when help would arrive. I didn’t have an answer, except to lie and say “soon I think”. Some of the other band members said that they smelled propane and that I was going to be killed if I didn’t get out of there. I was scared. But I knew that I wasn’t nearly as scared as Steve and I had to keep reminding myself of that. I convinced myself that I was prepared to die if there was an explosion because I couldn’t bring myself to join the other band members whom I could hear complaining about the destruction of their musical instruments and what a pain it would be to get them replaced through insurance. I wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t a musician of their caliber and I wasn’t about to abandon someone who is scared for his life. So I stayed. I did very little except talk.
Forty five minutes later a police car arrived. Two to three minutes after that an ambulance and fire truck arrived. One of the ambulance attendants descended down the hill and came along side me and asked how many people were inside. There was sincere concern in his voice and a confidence that put me at ease. He seemed like a pro. I explained everything that happened but had to repeat myself a few times because I was shivering, my teeth were chattering and my mouth felt half frozen. He listened while he directed his partner and communicated what I had told him to the firefighters. He told me that I could stay but that I would want to move back a few feet to be safe. I offered to hold one of the ambulance bags and he handed it to me. As I grabbed for the handle of the bag I felt a large coat being thrown over my shoulders by one of the firefighters. I felt like I was part of the team. Steve kept asking for me and I suspect that was part of the reason they allowed me to stay. As I watch them shore up the motor home and begin cutting through metal to get better access to Steve, I became immersed in the moment and felt like I was witnessing a team of angels who had come to pluck us out of this February nightmare. I was sure that Steve would now survive even though no one knew that for sure. I just felt a calm from the ambulance and fire crew that just seemed to wash away all worst case scenarios in my mind. I watched them and prayed for Steve, which was odd for me since I was a non-practicing catholic. I felt even more distant from the other band members and knew that our relationship was now irreparably damaged. I was with the wrong crowd. I missed the members of my former band. They would have been down here in the snow helping a friend.
I don’t remember how I got to the hospital or where I slept that night – at least not until the morning when the fog began to clear from my brain. In the day light it seemed like the events of the night before could not have possibly happened. When I woke, I sat of the side of my bed. I was alone; not drummer and not a sound anywhere. I got dressed and stepped outside to get my bearings. I saw a motel sign and I learned from fat Elvis that we were in Long Lac. My wrist was sore and was wrapped in a tensor bandage. Seeing the tensor I vaguely remember being at a hospital and there was no x-ray tech. available. One of the other band members said that Steve had been transferred to a larger hospital in Thunder Bay for surgery to his arm.
After breakfast I packed my bags and told Elvis that I was going to return home to Toronto but that I would re-join them where the insurance replaced the motor home and all the equipment, which I imagined would take at least a week.
With a small duffle bag in hand I walked out to the edge of the highway with a cardboard sign that read TORONTO. The fire crew was able to recover most of our clothes so I was warmly dressed and fortunately the wind was still mild. I stood on the shoulder of the highway humming tunes and not thinking about much of anything. I stayed close to the motel in case I wasn’t able to get a ride.
I started thinking. I fact I did more thinking than I had ever done in my life at that point. I was humming “Caroline in my Mind” by James Taylor and when I didn’t think anyone could hear me I sang it out loud over and over again. It help me escape my pathetic circumstances. I paced back and forth when there was no traffic and when cars or trucks came I tried to look like a clean cut student looking for a lift home. I tried looking the drivers straight in the eye. When that didn’t work I tried looking up and down with the shy demure look, especially when the women drivers passed. Most drivers looked at me and some even seemed to hesitate as if they thought about stopping. Maybe I looked too nice. Watch out for the nice ones.
“In my mind I’m gone to Carolina…can’t you see the sunshine, can’t you just feel the moonshine. And ain’t it just like a friend of mine to hit me from behind. Yes, I’m gone to Caroline in my mind.” The song made me feel warm. It transported me to a nicer place with beaches and the ocean. Then a truck barreled by and the cold turbulence blew my hair back, flattened my face and puckered my cheeks like a jet fighter pilot whose windshield had come off. Then it was silent again. I looked at my cardboard sign and wondered if I’d ever make it back home. I hitchhiked for almost 12 hours and walked back to the motel feeling completed defeated. Fortunately my room was booked for the week and the insurance was paying the bill. I ordered pizza to my room and avoided the other selfish band members who continued to complain about their great hardship. They stood outside and complained. And when they came inside I could hear them complaining through the walls. The cynicism was enough to make me want to stand out on the highway all night. But it was cold and I was confident I would get a ride the next day.
I woke up early the next morning thinking that the truckers would be trucking early and I walked across the highway from the motel and started all over again. I took the tensor bandage off my arm in case passers-by thought I had sustained an injury from a fight and saw me as a thug. I started to think about how we perceive. How does a driver size me up in a three second drive by? Do I look like a nice guy? A psychopath? A musician? A homeless bum? I tried to look intelligent. I was careful to make sure my posture was good and that the look in my eyes exuded intelligence. Then I thought I might look safer if I looked dumb, so tried that. It didn’t work.
On the third day I dragged my sorry butt across the road and stuck my thumb out for the first truck because I didn’t have time to get my sign out quickly enough. I think the driver accelerated and drove closer to the edge of the road to give me a near-death experience. I hope he was amused because he managed to scare the crap out of me. By lunch time I had pretty much decided I wasn’t going to continue pursuing music as a career. Although just a day earlier I had convinced myself that I had a strategy to become the best singer guitar player that had ever existed. I was bitter that the peanut butter sandwiches I had grown up on and loved were now a survival meal. I was bitter that the other band members never talked about Steve. He was just a dispensable studio musician type and there were plenty around ready to replace him.
I sank deeper into my thoughts. I remembered Steve in pain. I remembered the ambulance attendants descending on the overturned motor home. The one ambulance attendant seemed to be in charge. He coordinated things with his partner and communicated to the firefighters at every step so that Steve remained protected while the firefighters cut through the vehicle with speed and precision. They were like a tight band where each person knew his instrument and his part and although there was a lead singer, no one competed for the limelight.
Just after lunch on the third day a trucker picked my up. He drove me all the way to the outskirts of Toronto and I was so happy to be home and so broke that I walked almost nine hours the rest of the way home. My parents weren’t expecting me because I couldn’t afford a phone call. They just looked at me perplexed. I explained what happened and went to bed. I was exhausted to the point of delirium.
The next day when my father asked me what I planned to do, I spontaneously suggested I might want to work on an ambulance. I had not seriously considered that as a possibility but I felt the need to give him a quick answer so that he could stop worrying about his misguided, undisciplined and uneducated son. His reaction was skeptical. What the hell was I thinking telling him that? I was equally septical, but I let the dust settle and rode it out. I didn’t say that I was going to work on an ambulance. I just said that I might. I ate my breakfast and told my father not to worry – that I would find another job in the meantime. I would not be a parasite on the family. My mother and father were both very good to me. I just felt guilty and didn’t want to be a disappointment to them.
After several days the idea of becoming an ambulance attendant became increasingly appealing. I cared about people. Blood didn’t bother me unless it was mine and I had certainly smelled and stepped in as much vomit platying the bars as any ambulance attendant.
The ambulance crew near Long Lac left a lasting impression on me. They were calm, professional and compassionate. Everything suddenly felt safe when they arrived. It was under control. Nothing phased them. They took charge and worked together like a well oiled machine. I realized even before they arrived on the scene that I was not interested in traveling with people who cared more about themselves that an injured band member. I also knew in my heart of hearts that music was not going to be a life long career for me. Now I aspired to be like that ambulance attendant. I was truly inspired.
Over 25 years later…
I currently teach the Primary and Advanced Care Paramedic Programs at Georgian College in Ontario, Canada. I also work part-time as an Advanced Care Paramedic with Halton EMS, a paramedic service 45 minutes west of Toronto.