The Providence Journal

The Providence Journal is the oldest continuously published newspaper in the United States. My monthly contributions to the paper allow me the freedom to write about things I think are important to the people in Rhode island, and wherever the words end up.

June 15, 2013

Michael Morse: Magical moments in Bruins hockey

The basement was cold, musty and, when I was alone, a little scary. A space heater hissed and crackled — hot to the touch, ugly, yet strangely comforting. Asbestos tile covered the floor. Doors on one…

The basement was cold, musty and, when I was alone, a little scary. A space heater hissed and crackled — hot to the touch, ugly, yet strangely comforting. Asbestos tile covered the floor. Doors on one side of the room opened to a narrow passageway where the furnace, the heart of the home, sat, called upon to provide warmth when needed, forgotten when not. The “Christmas stuff” waited in the little closet under the stairs. Now and then a little smell of Christmas would escape between the louvers of the door, spreading warmth of a different kind into “The Garden.”

A couch sat in front of an old RCA television console, reserved for game night. Wires snaked from the back of the cabinet, stapled against the paneled walls, into the passageway and out the cellar window, up the side of the house next to the chimney and onto the roof. The latest in television technology was planted there, much as the American flag was planted on the surface of the moon earlier that summer, only this was no flag — it was a rotary antenna.

Some nights, when the antenna pointed north toward Boston, the picture was almost clear. Sometimes turning it northeast worked better, and for some mysterious reason pointing it south provided the best picture on the weekends. Even the best picture, though, was always obscured by “snow.” It never occurred to us that some day we might actually see the puck.

But if there is heaven on Earth, it was in the basement of 19 Haley Road on Game Night.

My father, Robert Morse, watched nearly every game on that old TV, inviting his fan club to his lair, where we kids would make it through the first period, slumber during the second and be out cold by the third. Occasionally a thrown empty would crash against the TV screen, the anger directed at some hooligan from the other team, usually a Montreal Canadien, but the bums on the New York Rangers weren’t much better. If the noise woke us, we might see the end of the game before sneaking up the stairs to bed.

In 1989, my wife and I took my father to Boston Garden for a Bruins game. The old place was expected to be torn down at some point. (It was demolished in 1998.) We were afraid we were running out of time. Turns out we were, but not for the reason we expected. My father died a year later, at 61.

He had followed the team since the 1930s and had never set foot on the hallowed ground. It was a magical moment when he entered the arena and stopped in his tracks as he looked toward the ghost-filled rafters and saw firsthand the championship banners that had collected over the decades.

It was if the Earth stood still. He stood, hypnotized, tears filling his eyes but not escaping; never escaping, and took it all in. For a man who started following his team by listening to the National Hockey League’s “Original Six” franchises — the Bruins, Canadiens, Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs — on the radio it was a near perfect moment.

It certainly was, too, for his son who spent the best years of his childhood in a magical basement.

November 11, 2013

Michael Morse: Uncle Tony made it home

Uncle Tony sat in a lawn chair, watching, a content man approaching his 91st year. He didn’t know that I was mesmerized by his presence, inspired by his courage and proud to call him my uncle. Some weeks before, he had ordered the Lisi family reunion to take place once more, after the annual gathering had somehow fallen off the radar. He called Cousin Lisa, the one most capable of pulling it off, and pull it off she did. Fifty of us enjoyed each other’s company on a warm late summer’s day at a picturesque park in Connecticut.

Where did all of these kids come from, I wondered, as they ran here and there, and everywhere — babies, 3-year-olds, 7-, 8-, 13-, 16-year-olds, dozens of them; leaders, followers, watchers and the indifferent ones, all drawn together by the man in the lawn chair. He watched them, and sat with his wife of 66 years, taking it all in, alive in the moment and loving every second of it.

After all he has gone through, how wonderful it must be to wake in the morning, look to the heavens and be thankful for another day, another 24 hours with the woman he loves, and then spend a day in the park with his family! I watched him enjoy the moment, and closed my eyes and thought of his story, the one that he told me and my cousin Dennis one day, some years ago, and only after we insisted — the story of his service during World War II. It is the story that he had never shared fully with anybody, except Auntie Rose, and she kept their secrets well.

Dennis recorded the hour-long conversation, persuading Uncle Tony that it was the right thing to do. The family deserved to know. They needed to know. They didn’t know the 19-year-old soldier who captured a German officer and earned a Bronze Star by crawling through the battlefields of Italy, establishing communications between the front lines and the artillery, was the same man who had grown old, run a successful business and gone on with his life after returning from the war.

Once he got going, the stories flowed, and he was comfortable telling us all about it, and we ate it up, listening as history came alive.

“The Germans would shell us at night and the phone lines would get blown up. Somebody had to put them back together.”

“Did you wait until the next day when the shelling stopped?” I asked.

He tilted his head and grinned. I saw the fearless 19-year-old in his eyes then, as he described running in front of the artillery to repair the broken lines.

“We went at night, followed the lines until they came to an end.”

“While they were shelling?”

“While they were shelling.”

“You shouldn’t be alive,” said Dennis.

“I never expected to come home.”

A peaceful silence filled the room as we absorbed the enormity of what Uncle Tony survived.

“How did you capture the German?” I asked, not wanting to change the subject but afraid this “small” task might be overlooked.

“I needed his motorcycle.”

“You captured a motorcycle?” Dennis asked, completely charmed.

“Got tired of walking. I was a little different then,” he said, his old eyes sparkling as I imagined they did when he commandeered a Luger and a motorcycle from a German officer in 1944. “Wasn’t afraid of anything. My family doesn’t know it, but I was a crazy son of a b — — .”

I believed every word. He survived the Battle of Anzio. Fought with General Patton in the First Armored Division, marched into Rome and saw Mussolini and his girlfriend hanging at Piazza Loreto in Milan. He joined the 10th Mountain Division for the Po River Valley campaign, survived when German fighter jets strafed their position, was separated from his unit and hidden by an Italian family. Ten days later, after some “crazy times,” Uncle Tony returned to his base to find that his unit had shipped out and his duffel bag was missing, along with the Luger.

“What could I say? I was late,” he smiled.

Every day since, I’ve been thankful that we weren’t late, and managed to get Uncle Tony’s story recorded. When the interview ended we met our wives and kids at a nearby restaurant. Tony took us out to dinner. We talked, told stories and laughed the entire time. Tony sat next to Auntie Rose and joined the lively conversation. He didn’t say a word about the war.

I watched him watching the family swirl around him, a complex man at peace with his past, and wondered if the new generation would understand and appreciate what he endured all of those years ago. I wondered if they would care. Then I saw him holding the littlest of his brood, and she sat on his lap for a while, and it was as if a war had never happened.

I think I understood then. It doesn’t matter if people knew what he did, or the sacrifices that he made. What matters is that he was alive, and able to enjoy the freedoms that he had fought for.

March 3, 2014

Michael Morse: Narcan can save lives but it’s no answer

The guy who gave me my most recent haircut is dead. He died in his sleep, a peaceful death no doubt, floating away on a narcotic high, no regrets, no fear, just oblivion. Kind of like how he lived; on an opiate high, no regrets, no fear, and simply oblivious that at 32 there’s a lot more to life than Ecstasy on the weekends, Mollies every now and then, Oxycontin pills when they were available, and heroin when they were not.

He used to tell me that he was in recovery because he quit drinking. The drugs were just a pastime, he would say, laughing when I told him he was still an addict. He was larger than life, full of street wisdom and wit, took pride in the fact that he could get anything you, or he, wanted.

If only he had wanted to live.

I used to think as he did, and believed that drugs and alcohol would set me free, and help me to enjoy life to the fullest, and take my mind and body places that I could never go, or even imagine. It was only when I left all of that behind that I began to truly live, and feel, and experience life in its natural state, with all of the joy, triumph, pain, misery and satisfaction that comes with it.

Drugs and alcohol kept me prisoner, trapped in a cycle of highs and lows; a giant roadblock keeping me from experiencing life to the fullest. If only the 45 people who have died so far in 2014 from accidental overdoses (as I write this) had figured that out, I wouldn’t be looking for a new barber, a little girl wouldn’t be without her dad, and a lot of people wouldn’t be without their friends, sons, daughters and parents.

The drug naloxone, or Narcan, has the potential to save the lives of persons who have overdone whatever opiate they have chosen to overdo. It is an opioid antagonist designed to counter life-threatening depression of the central nervous system and respiratory system. It works. I have administered it and seen it work hundreds of times. I have also seen hundreds of people take things so far that no opioid antagonist will ever reverse their condition.

Making Narcan readily available to the public has the potential to save the lives of people who have overdosed and happen to have a responsible person nearby to administer the drug. It also has the potential to give drug users the temptation to push their high to the limit and then return from the brink of death through the judicious use of the miracle drug that they now can get as easily as they can their drug of choice.

I wish Narcan were the answer. It is not, just as the drugs and alcohol of my youth were not. Just as the fentanyl-laced heroin that is killing so many people this year who were looking for peace, serenity and escape is not.

The answer for those inclined to seek escape through intoxicants is abstinence, and an honest and diligent pursuit of contented sobriety.


July 31, 2014

Michael Morse: Reporters must grapple with horrors

I heard about the Malaysia Airlines disaster while driving. A reporter was first on scene, before any trained help arrived. He gave his report while standing in a pool of blood, body parts scattered around him, destruction everywhere. He soldiered on and told the story.


I thought of that reporter the next day but I couldn’t find his story. I hope he is OK. Talking helps, but my guess is there will be other stories to cover when this horrific event fades into the shadow of the latest tragedy. But the memories never really go away. They linger, and wait for an opportunity to join the rest of the nightmarish sounds and images that have accumulated, taking space in our minds where other, better things belong.

The news was on when I got home after a long shift; a 3-year-old boy had drowned in a swimming pool. The efforts of the police, firefighters and EMTs were not enough to save him. A neighbor was interviewed, and she said all of the usual things. At the end of the short segment the reporter, a young guy whom I had seen a number of times over the last year, stood in front of the day care, alone, and summed it up.

I already knew a boy was dead. I did not want to know about his parents, his friends, what school he went to, if he had a brother or a sister at home. I did not want to see his parents when they learned what had happened. I had the luxury of focus: pinpoint on the problem, know as little about the life that was lost, and get up the next day and do it again with a clear head.

News people are trained to have a stone face while telling the world what happened, and to keep their emotions in check. He interviewed the neighbors, tried to talk with the parents, was talking with our chief, piecing together the story. And when all was said and done, it was just him and the camera on a lonely street where a little kid had just died.

What he learned showed on his face. His sadness may not have been visible to most, but I saw it, and once I did, I couldn’t see much else. He was at the hospital when the family of the boy learned the news, and he heard the scream of the boy’s mother. Those screams must be echoing in that reporter’s head still.

He did not have the luxury of knowing that he made a valiant attempt to save a life. He did not have the understanding and respect of the community, or a mandatory PTSD (post traumatic stress debriefing) waiting. He had another story to cover in a district that spanned three states. He is in the business of uncovering the truth, and the truths that reporters uncover are heartbreaking. Like responders, they are simply people doing their jobs, and while the police, fire and EMTs are seen as heroic, reporters are often forgotten, or worse.

Being on the outside looking in will never endear you to the group you are peering at, no matter how well you do your job. We are a voyeuristic society that oddly enough loves its privacy. When it is your job to pick away at that privacy, there is bound to be some irritation.

In telling the story, the reporters give a lot of themselves, and the pieces that they lose are difficult to get back. First responders know how disillusionment and cynicism can sneak up on us, and disappointment in society can permeate our consciousness if we allow it. We know that “the job” can take more than it gives, and that a little bit of our kindness, empathy and innocence is lost on every call. But we have something that the people who tell our story do not; each other.

An informal support group exists between people in the news industry. There is commiseration, camaraderie and an occasional after-work venting session, but nothing formal. By admitting vulnerability, the reporters and support staff expose themselves to the scrutiny of their peers. There isn’t a more competitive market than the news. Any chink in their armor can be perceived as weakness, and a weak reporter is a reporter who is going nowhere.

The people covering the news need to know that they are appreciated, and it is OK to get some help when the weight of the news they cover becomes too heavy. There is no shame in that: Sometimes the soul just needs a break.


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