A little over eighteen years ago, two weeks after I started high school at BHS, on September 16th, 1989 my brother died. Stephen was 22, a mentor, good buddy and pretty much all a 14 year old could wish for in an older brother. I spent a week at home, grieving with my family and then, adrift, went back to school. One of the hundred things I never got to tell my brother was that I was a Bathurst High School hockey Phantom, same as him, and had gotten the number he’d worn in high school. (who knows… could have been the same jersey 🙂 ) The hockey team, and the soccer team, were connections, in a sense, to my brother and they were an opening to a whole new world of the ‘big boys’ that a boy from a hamlet of 360 people was more than a little surprised about.
So there I was, sitting in the back corner of the second seat in the high school sports van going to a hockey game, and I heard “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” come wailing out of the speaker next to me. It was dusk, I can still remember the feel of the plastic seats and the weird sense of trying to belong to something I really didn’t understand (and the ever-present smell of hockey gear). Listening to music that was clearly from another world. I remember “Squeeze Box” and “The night they drove old Dixie Down” and, of course, everything Led Zeppelin ever recorded. It was, really, the first time I’d heard any of the music that is pretty much the foundation of the music that I listen to today. I joined the soccer team and the rugby team, and spent alot of that year driving around in the back of a van. The hockey, rugby and soccer games were fun… but belonging to the community was the real worth of the effort…. I eventually go to know some of those huge looming athletes who became new mentors for me, who were, in retrospect, very kind to a little kid who very much needed a place to belong.
Two years later, I remember getting to BHS at about 6am, still barely recovered from the numerous… uh… sodas that I’d had the night before and meeting up with Timmy, the prop on our rugby team. He, the hooker, scrum half and myself took the van on the left, the rest of the rugby team took the other van. One long seat each… and we slept most of the way to Fredericton for a game that I can still remember as clear as day. I ran like my life depended on it that day, if only to keep people from tackling me… I’m not sure my stomach would have handled it :P. I, in my turn grew from that little kid sitting in the van into one of the leaders (if never a ‘looming athlete’, my 5′ 8″ frame isn’t really looming to anyone), was one of the people who made an effort to be kind to the group coming up behind me.
Alot of my high school was spent in the back of the van going to and from some sporting event or other. A sizable chunk of who I am was formed by the teammates and the coaches that I shared that time with. It is a very important part of who I am. So many coaches who took time out of their personal lives (something I understand much better now that I have a two year old) and teammates that I haven’t seen in years, but still remember. Those trips were important and they were fun.
Seven people, somewhere on that transition between “scared first time hearing pink floyd” kid and “ok, we’re the captains of this rugby team, we’re taking this van” kid died this week in a van coming back from a basketball game. Boys just like I was, like those teammates I remember, and most likely like my son Oscar will be someday – they kids almost home who will never now come home. I can’t help but see the faces of my old teammates in the faces of the people in the photographs on the facebook site that the students have set up as a memoriam. Some of them are, probably, related to those old friends of mine. A patch of ice, a slide across the road that all of us in Northern New Brunswick have made at one time or another during the winter. A slide that this time just happen to have the devastatingly bad luck to coincide with the passing of a tractor trailer in the other direction. That’s it. One piece of bad luck.
Another passenger died along with the seven boys. The wife of one of the coaches. Just another person of the throng of hundreds who supports students so that they can get to those games, and have those formative experiences. Another person making one of those tiny sacrifices that keep our society running who was taken away by that same piece of ice and the same piece of bad luck.
To the students and parents of Bathurst High School, my heart goes out to you. You are being thought of around the world this week… we have traveled a long way we alumni, but a sizable piece of who were are was formed by the same walls that you are grieving in today. I wish you strength, and the friendship and solace of those that are around you. To Mr. Lord, who was one of those people who sacrificed his time for me when I was at BHS, I’m terribly sorry. I know it doesn’t help, but I am sorry.
I remember very clearly those first few terrible “this can’t have happened” days after my own brother died over half my life ago. The sharp, terrible clarity of the realization that I won’t see him has faded into a regret of the lack of possible futures with him. I often wonder what my life would be like had he not died, and I still dream of him. And no, they wont be forgotten.