Updated: Sep 22, 2020
...especially in my BL/BG days---that's before Liz/before God days, but I wanted to keep my word to Joy. (I'm already late to the party, Liz and Dan have completed and posted their prequels and Beth is working on hers, has been for a month---I can't believe Harrison beat me to the punch, especially given how he belly-ached about doing this) I understand Joy's first book telling my/our story, in the guise of fiction, is due out in a couple months and she's tasked me with writing my backstory---who and where I was just before Boundary Waters Search and Rescue: Beyond Belief begins. I'll do my best to reproduce what I remember of the man I was on that cold November weekend, right before Thanksgiving. (Sorry about the stupid photo. I'd taken it when looking into one of the clear lakes of the Boundary Waters with water dripping off my canoe paddle. Joy likes it, because it leaves something to the imagination and protects my privacy.)
"You know we're probably in for a century storm starting Sunday evening, I doubt the BWSR (Boundary Waters Search and Rescue) teams will get any call outs after the snow starts. We just need to make certain everyone's out before things get bad. I know you're on call the beginning of next week, but why don't you let me contact you on Monday morning and let you know if you need to make the trip into town."
I should have been pleased by my business partner's words, because they carried the possibility of an unexpected day off, but all I felt was resentment. Sometimes being the Chief of Police in Ely went to Dan Harrison's head and I wasn't in the mood. He and I were and are business partners—he was NOT my boss and he didn't get to tell me when to work and when to stay home. Still, I didn't say anything. The weather forecasts in northern Minnesota were known to change hourly on blustery weekends. Right now, it was Saturday afternoon, the sun was shining, the sky was the most intense shade of blue I'd seen yet this autumn, and the temperature was in the mid-forties. Not bad for the weekend before Thanksgiving.
As for staying home if a storm blew up, there was no way that was going to happen. I wasn't scheduled at the hospital because of my 'on-call' status with the BWSRU and I needed to stay busy at this time of year, especially at this time of year. I needed to help people endangered by the weather. I needed to treat injuries. I needed to focus on others. Why? Because being home alone meant that unwelcome, painful memories kept barging into my consciousness. My wife of five years, Ellie, had died in an early-winter car wreck---a very long time ago. Yet at this time of year, when I thought of her, I was right back in the midst of that awful night. I could still feel the same tearing pain that I'd felt when I opened our front door and found a uniformed officer standing in front of me, his hands clasped formally behind his back and a sad look in his eyes. I was off work that night, while Ellie was at Bible study for the evening. Truth be told, I was irritated with her for not skipping her lesson in favor of spending the evening together. A free evening was a bit of a rarity for me, given my crazy work hours. Still, I hadn't said anything when she left because I knew her faith was important to her, and we had our whole life to be together.
If I’d been on duty in the ER that night, I would have been the physician-in-charge when they'd brought her in---DOA. I guess that was a small mercy, at least I had some time to absorb what officer sad-eyes had told me before I got to the hospital. By that time all I could do was sit by Ellie’s body and try to say goodbye. Her still form didn't look much like my wife. It was kind of twisted and bent, and the fire had burned off much of her clothing. Most noticeably, the spark of animation in her pretty eyes was gone. They told me that she’d lived for a few minutes after being thrown from the car. Then she died in the middle of a busy crosstown freeway, alone, with no one around to ease her passing. Everyone at the scene was too busy working on the lives that could be saved. Briefly I wondered what she was seeing right now, if indeed there was really the kind of afterlife she'd believed in. Mostly, though, what consumed me was grief and anger at my own impotence. There was nothing I could do for my Ells. For all my medical training and education, I'd failed the one I loved most in the world, the one who’d taught me the meaning of joy and belonging.
Time and work had helped dull the pain, but being back in Minnesota, at that season of the year, brought back memories I’d worked 21 long years to bury. I thought being on the other end of the state from Minneapolis would protect me. I was wrong.
I don’t know why I was dwelling on something that happened more than two decades before that afternoon. I'd been in relationships since Ellie died, although with a single exception, they were pretty casual. I kept telling myself that it was better this way. After all, an emergency medicine physician with a specialty in trauma surgery didn't make good boyfriend/husband material. Most of my past relationships had driven home that point with a hammer. Perhaps I was just living in the past because the future seemed pretty bleak from a personal standpoint. I'd just turned 50 the month before, and, apart from a great career, one that involved not only medicine but rescue work in one of the largest wilderness areas on the continent, life was…
No! I’m not going to go there. I want to communicate my perspective honestly from the standpoint of the man that I was, not the man I am. I wasn't lonely and I wouldn’t have described myself as unhappy. At that time, Dan and I had been friends for many years, ever since I'd accepted a position as a physician in rural Montana. It had gotten to the point where I needed to leave Minneapolis after the accident, and I needed to decide whether the practice of medicine was still for me. After arriving in the middle of nowhere Montana, it took time but I found my purpose again. I also met Dan Harrison, who was the Chief of Police of that tiny dot on the map. Somehow, we’ve managed to work together for most of the years since and to remain great friends for all of them. He’s everything I’m not. He’s an extrovert, great with people, and has the loudest laugh you’ll ever hear. He’s a practical joker (I’ve become one in self-defense), a bit crazy, and the summer before that Thanksgiving, he'd married a kind, lovely woman who saw beyond his comedy and cynicism to a man with a very big heart. His wife’s name is Beth and she owns the best bakery/café in northern Minnesota. She also makes a great cup of coffee. The three of us had a lot of fun together, canoeing, climbing and game nights, Dan even said…
I’m sorry. Joy cautioned me about this tendency I have to avoid talking about myself by talking about others. Especially the myself that existed back then. I liked talking about the others that brought meaning into my life in those days. The man I was back then wouldn’t have wanted to discuss being alone, or how tired he was of empty-feeling dates. He wouldn’t have talked about his family, especially not about his father, but he would have talked about work or his few friends. He might even have been pleased to talk about the house he’d built outside of Ely when he moved back to Minnesota.
Great, now I’m speaking of myself in the third person. I'd built my home, or rather I had it built thanks to a friend who happened to be an architect and a superb contractor who has since retired, and I did like talking about it, When I moved to Ely. I did a lot of research on heating systems, power alternatives, siding and roofing. It gave my off hours purpose and filled the time---a busy life suggests one filled with purpose. My place was finally finished in the spring of that year. That weekend just before Thanksgiving would be my first winter storm sheltered inside its walls. The house sits on over twenty acres and the back of my lot abuts the BWCAW (that’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the uninitiated) The house and grounds are everything I wanted, except maybe…never mind. I had plenty of room both inside and outside, but the house, as it was then, wasn't too big for one person, at least not most of the time. The way I spent my off hours was either exercising or reading, and the house and property were perfect for both of those activities.
By Sunday evening of that weekend before Thanksgiving, it was raining---hard! The weather folks still hadn’t decided how much snow we were going to get or how cold it was going to be if the wind picked up. So, I’d set my alarm for the next morning a bit early because I’d already determined that no matter what anyone (insert Harrison's name here) said, I was going into the BWSRU’s offices in town tomorrow as planned. I was going to help Dan through whatever was heading our way whether he liked it or not.
The truth of the matter was, I was nowhere near prepared for the miracle that the next 24 hours would bring. I did get to go out on a rescue the next morning. It just wasn’t what I expected.