In our own backyard... There's a sense of community even in tragedy
Remember the old saying, "Nero fiddled while Rome burned"? The tale that filtered down through history had it that as an emperor, Nero was something of a heartless tyrant. And whether he was jaded enough to merrily fiddle while Rome was in flames...
Remember the old saying, "Nero fiddled while Rome burned"? The tale that filtered down through history had it that as an emperor, Nero was something of a heartless tyrant. And whether he was jaded enough to merrily fiddle while Rome was in flames will never be known. But in any case, that phrase was what kept running through my mind last Friday night.
Editor Lisa Baumann and I had been at a Blandin Community Leadership Retreat for newspaper editors and publishers ever since Wednesday afternoon. As embroiled as we were with our work sessions, neither of us had a chance to check in with the office more than once. And so, it came as a complete surprise when one of our newspaper colleagues came up to me at dinner and commented, "Saaaay, it sounds like that was quite a fire you had in Cloquet...." Bewildered, and still feeling somewhat distanced from the whole hometown news scene, the first thing that came to my mind was the Fire of 1918. I figured she must be some sort of a history buff.
She must have seen the blank look on my face, however, because she went on to explain, "When I watched the news a few minutes ago, I saw a blurb about it run across the bottom of the screen...."
Realizing the fire was happening in real time and not out of the annals of history, I gasped, "What happened?"
She explained that a lumber yard in Cloquet was on fire and crews were still trying to extinguish it.
It was then I realized, with shock, that our entire news department (Lisa and I) was over in Grand Rapids - some 85 miles away.
Lisa appeared in the dining room just then, and she had that same "deer in the headlights" look on her face. It seems she had just heard about the fire from someone else at the retreat and was running through the same mental calisthenics that I was.
"Wes!" I blurted out. "We've got to try to reach Wes (Wes Vork, one of our freelance photographers) and see if he can go down there!"
Lisa left her dinner plate sitting in front of her and sprinted out of the room, trying to find a spot in the remote lodge where her cell phone could get a signal. By the time she returned, her dinner had grown decidedly cold, but she had a grin of satisfaction on her face.
"I reached Wes, and he had already gone down and taken photos at the fire!" she announced triumphantly. And then she went on to report what little she was able to learn about the fire - that it was at the Cloquet Home Center (just a few short blocks from our office), that blessedly no one was hurt, and that firefighters were still on the scene battling the smoke and flames.
Feeling somewhat relieved - but nonetheless guilty at not being there - we went back to our dinner with a collective lump in our throats.
When I returned home on Saturday night after the retreat was over, I checked my voice mail at work and discovered a message from Dolores Crestik of Cloquet Sanitary Service (located right across the street from the fire). She informed me that one of their employees, who she said just happens to be a "cracker jack photographer," had taken photos of the blaze from start to finish and offered to share them with the Pine Journal.
On Monday morning, I had a voice mail message from Bruce Munter of CAP Trico, offering photos of his own that he'd taken at the scene of the fire.
And then at the morning staff meeting, co-worker Julie Schulz reported her husband had taken a handful of photos of the fire, and that Todd Defoe of the Fond du Lac Tribal Center had come into the office late Friday afternoon with a series of fire photos he, also, had taken, which she said were absolutely spectacular (see the front page of today's paper).
It was then I began to fully realize that our entire community suffers the defeats and heartbreak of tragedy collectively, just as we celebrate our mutual successes and victories. What happens to one of us happens to all of us. And though only a small handful are actually paid members of our newspaper staff, the entire community takes this sort of loss to heart and is willing to do their part in recording it for posterity.
For the first time since the devastating fire struck last Friday, and discovering Lisa and I were not around to cover it, I felt an unexpected warmth began to dance around in my heart.
It truly is "Your town. Your news. Your newspaper." Thank you, Cloquet.
Pine Journal Publisher/ reporter Wendy Johnson can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org .