I was hired by the Great Northern Paper Company in the mid-1970s and started out as a spare worker in the wood room, grinder room, and paper room. In the mid-1980s the company had added a desk in the hallway between two other rooms in the personnel suite, and I had my first “office” as a personnel guy. In this period, I handled workers’ comp issues and minor complaints, among other assignments. I never knew from day to day who might walk up to me with a question or request.
Eddie appeared before me at 8 a.m. one Tuesday morning after the had finished the 12-8 midnight shift. I forget now what part of the mill he was working in. I was just dropping a load of homework onto my desk, (in management you have homework), and I told him I had to go to a meeting right away. Knowing that his schedule would be the same the next night and that he would be leaving again at 8 a.m., and also that he had a long drive home, I said, How about same time tomorrow?
Eddie smiled and said, Sure. He went home and I went to my meeting.
Eddie is his real name. I owe him that much. He was a few years younger than I. I was not well-acquainted with him, but he had certain distinctive features and I knew him to see him. I realized that he lived about an hour a way, in a town outside Bangor. He came from a large extended family, and his surname — family name — is well-known in that town.
Eddie was not a troublemaker and did not have a workers’ comp issue, so he was not a frequent visitor to the personnel offices. He was a handsome young man, dark-haired and slight of build, careful, polite, and well-liked. That much I already knew, and really nothing more.
The next morning, just before 8 a.m., I turned from Granite Street to drive into the parking lot at the mill. Eddie’s car was approaching the stop sign before leaving the parking lot with several more cars behind his. Our drivers’ doors came alongside each other right between the gateposts, but our windows were rolled up. I gave him a quizzical look and put one hand up to emphasize a shrug. He smiled, waved, and drove on out the gate.
I went to my desk and started my Wednesday duties. Just before lunchtime a personnel assistant came over to tell me that Eddie had gone home that morning and blown his brains out.
This struck me very hard, and it remains one of the defining moments of my lifetime. I was in my early thirties, gaining experience and confidence, enjoying life and good health. There was nothing then nor is there anything now in my constitution that would identify with the impulse to destroy myself. I would not have expected it of anyone else, although if I had listened to him when he first asked, I might have learned something of his anguish and I might have understood.
If I had listened… I don’t remember what the meeting was about that I went to instead, most likely a grievance in the first step, the method, according to the labor agreement (union contract), by which complaints were brought before management. First step grievances were the most common type of meeting I attended in that position.
I still don’t know how to tell whether a life is at stake when someone asks: Can I talk to you?
I do know that is why I now stop and try to hear the message most of the time when someone speaks to me. As a male, I am still a lousy listener, but I am attuned to the silent alarm in someone’s words the way I am sensitive to the hint of wood smoke on a summer breeze.
It was not long after Eddie died that Great Northern upgraded its Employee Assistance Program from one full day a week to three days, and soon afterward to five days a week — a full-time counselor stationed in downtown Millinocket at the company’s expense, not to hear grievances but to hear about personal trouble. I participated in setting that up, although it was scaled back only a few years later as ownership of the company changed hands again and again. One day in my role with the personnel department, and at the request of the EAP counselor, I participated in an intervention at the home of a GNP employee who actually handed me the revolver that he was intending to use on himself. That helped resolve my sense of ineffectiveness after failing Eddie, but it didn’t bring him back.
I never learned what might have driven Eddie to do it. I never spoke with a member of his family afterward or read about it anywhere. Gossip moved freely through the mill, but his name never came up after he was gone.
What happened between Eddie and me is not identical, but hauntingly similar, to something that happened in my first year of college at the University of Cincinnati. I had left the cafeteria one evening and was walking back to the dorm. It was about 6 p.m. and growing dusky. A girl I knew, Carol, was approaching alone. We paused when we met, and she asked me what was on the menu. I told her. She thought about it, said it didn’t sound very interesting, and then she turned down the lane leading to the busy street that ran past the campus. The next day we learned that, moments after I last saw her, she had been forced into a car at the nearby intersection, and her body had been dumped in a nearby park. (The killer was later caught.)
I’ve always praised cafeteria food since then.
As a personnel guy, I participated in cleaning out employees’ lockers after they abandoned them. A week or so after his death, I accompanied the mill guard who went to empty Eddie’s locker. Most lockers were left with shoe fossils in the bottom covered with piles of stinky clothes, a sweat-stiffened baseball cap on a hook with a beaten hard hat over it, pinups and years-old calendars on the inside of the door, spilled shaving goo on the shelf above, sometimes some purloined mill equipment standing awkwardly against the back of the space. Nothing surprising jumped out of Eddie’s locker at us. But the guard and I stood there for a long interval, just regarding it with respect. Eddie’s did not have the usual disgusting inventory. There were clean clothes neatly folded in the bottom, including bright white T-shirts. There was shower gear arranged on the top shelf in an orderly manner, a clean soap dish with a handful of small change in it, a belt hanging from a hook. There might have been more, but that gives the general impression; it was the cleanest locker we had ever seen. The things he had left behind we bagged and gave to someone higher up, who, we assume, passed them on to his family.
I know I am not responsible for Eddie’s death. I’ve been absolved of that. And if I had taken the time to hear him out that Tuesday morning, I might not have prevented his death. Maybe he just wanted change for a dollar or had lost the key to his locker. But it affected my character and it changed the way I do some things. If sharing it in this way gives anyone else the nudge to pause and listen, to a friend, a child, a co-worker, or, especially, to someone we are less well-acquainted with but who asks for an ear, then maybe Eddie can help save a life these many years after his own ended so inexplicably.