For the past 14 years — since I landed the job many have described as the best newspaper gig in the state — I’ve looked forward to late winter for a number of reasons. Among those: When the snow starts to melt, it also signals the arrival of annual outdoor expos like the Eastern Maine Sportsmen’s Show, which welcomes thousands of folks to Orono each year.
Last weekend, the first of those shows, the Penobscot Fly Fishers’ Cabin Fever Reliever, took place, and as has become our custom, the BDN had a great time staffing a booth at the ‘World Famous’ Brewer Auditorium.
To be sure, the show was a return to my roots, as I spent hundreds of enjoyable hours in the building that served as the recreational hub of my hometown. And since the show moved to Brewer a number of years ago, I’ve come to think of the Cabin Fever Reliever as my ‘hometown’ outdoors event, even though I don’t live in Brewer any longer.
With that said, the Cabin Fever Reliever has still remained a professional event for me, with all the trappings of the other outdoor shows we’ve staffed over the years, in spots like Orono, Portland, Presque Isle and Augusta.
The day usually looks something like this: We arrive early to set up our booth. Then we stand for most of the day, chatting with visitors about what it is that the BDN is up to. We talk about our stories, and listen to suggestions for potential future projects. We field criticism from those who find our pages too liberal, or too conservative (yes, we hear both complaints, often within a five-minute span). We sign up folks for our “Win a Drift Boat Trip” contest, and we show them the awesome videos that my colleague, Aislinn Sarnacki, has produced.
Some of the visitors are people we know, others look familiar because we’ve talked to them at past shows, and still others are complete strangers who stop by because they’re either exceedingly polite or curious, or because they share our passion for the outdoors.
For the record, any of those reasons to stop and chat is OK with us.
But at this year’s Cabin Fever Reliever, things felt different around the bright green BDN booth. I felt it. My boss, Sarah Walker Caron, felt it.
Failing to recognize what was going on, and failing to tell BDN readers that we noticed, and that we appreciated their efforts, would be a major mistake.
For the better part of two days last weekend, a steady stream of show attendees stopped by our booth, just like they do every year. But this year, dozens came not to hear what we had brewing, but to share thoughts with me.
Back in December, as some of you may have read, I suffered a stroke. It was not my first (though I never knew about either of the previous two until evidence showed up on a scan of my brain). I missed a few weeks of work, came back at the first of the year, and dove back into my job.
I also tried to be as honest about my health woes as possible. To that end, while I was still in the hospital I told my boss that it would be OK if she wrote a little item for our pages, letting people know that I’d had a setback, but (you have to read this next phrase in your best “Monty Python” accent) “I’m not dead yet.”
The reasons for my honesty: I wanted folks to know that I’d be back, and I didn’t want people to think that I was lying on my back, unable to help myself.
I wanted people to know that I was lucky, and that I’d be back, perhaps not as good as ever — I’ve still got some tingling in my left-side extremities — but in a passable form.
And I wanted to say “Thanks.”
Then, last weekend, a single question kept cropping up, just as I prepared to swing into my customary BDN show spiel.
“How are you?” dozens of visitors asked, for hour after hour, eyeing me from toes to nose, just to make sure that my answer backed up their personal observations. “On the mend? How do you feel?”
Some hugged. Some offered a pat on the back or a squeeze of my arm. Nobody really cared what I had to say about the BDN, or our future offerings.
But that was OK.
They cared about me.
As the show neared its end on Sunday, I finally had the chance to consider what had transpired, and to appreciate the outpouring of support from a wide variety of people who share only one common trait: They read the newspaper that I’m fortunate enough to have worked for for the past 24 years.
Those readers have welcomed me and my peers to their breakfast tables each morning, and many have adapted to reading us on their phones or tablets over the years.
And on one amazing weekend in my hometown, some of them took the time to tell me they wanted me to remain upright for a few more years.
One man, a retired teacher from my alma mater that I was never lucky enough to have had in class, grasped my arm and said a few words that I’ll continue to hold close.
“Take care of yourself,” he said. “I can’t afford to lose another friend.”
After arriving home, I found myself wishing I’d known how the weekend would have developed. If I had, I told myself, I would have taken a photo of every person who took the time to stop and share those kind words. Then I would have made a bulletin board on our website, and said a few kind words back to each of them.
Of course, that plan came too late, after the show was over, and hours after our booth had been packed away.
So I’m left with this. It might sound familiar, and I might have said something similar after I returned to work last month.
Still, these closing words are all I’ve got.
I’m feeling fine, and continue to make progress as I continue to become aware of how lucky I truly am. And thank you, for your words, wishes and prayers.
I’ll see you at the next show.
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke