Columns come and columns go. Three times a week for the past seven years (give or take a few days off here and there), I’ve written an outdoors column that appears in these pages.
Some column topics are quickly forgotten. Others, fortunately, are much different. I remember them — and the people who inspired them — just like I’d written them yesterday.
Seven years ago — Oct. 12, 2002, to be exact — I wrote one such piece. It was my fourth as an outdoor columnist, and contained an amazing tale that I still recount several times a year.
In a chance meeting at a Bangor bookstore, an acquaintance told me that his dad had been struck by lightning … while bird-hunting … while in the outhouse.
You don’t have to be much of a journalist to recognize that scenario as serious column fodder, especially if you’re a columnist new to the outdoor-writing game. I quickly arranged a meeting with the victim, who was recuperating in a Bangor hospital.
The interview was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever had. The 85-year-old subject was kind and engaging and eager to talk. We spent quite a bit of time together, me listening, him telling several tales (including, eventually, the one I’d come to hear).
The lightning had burned a hole in his hunting hat. One hunting boot was blown apart. And in his hospital bed, nursing serious injuries, Charles Kimball was able to chuckle at his own expense.
I never forgot that.
The particulars of the incident were remarkable. Kimball survived the lightning bolt, suffered a shattered eardrum, and considered himself lucky. Eight years earlier, he’d suffered two heart attacks over a three-day span, and nearly died on an operating table.
“They had to put the paddles to me three different times to get me back,” Kimball told me that day. “It was so bad, they couldn’t operate. Nobody thought I was ever gonna be back.”
Two years after that, an aneurysm threatened his life, and he ended up in the hospital again.
Again, he bounced back.
On that October afternoon in 2002, Kimball told me he didn’t want his story to come across inappropriately, and he hoped that I’d leave out the worst of the outhouse parts.
I lobbied for their inclusion, telling him that they would make the column a great read. Before I left his bedside that day, he relented … slightly.
“Do what you want,” he told me, grasping my hand in farewell. “I trust you. I’m sure you’ll do the right thing.”
I’m not sure how why he made that assumption after spending part of afternoon with a total stranger, but as I left, I suspected his faith had been misplaced.
I debated for hours, wrote the column three different ways, and ultimately proved him right.
I left out the juicy parts.
On Friday, seven years after the lightning strike that nearly took his life, Charles Kimball died in a Bangor health care facility. He was 92.
I saw the obituary in Monday’s paper and fondly recalled our short time together.
Kimball was a dentist by trade and a World War II veteran by choice. He completed a four-year program at the University of Maine in two years. He was also an outdoorsman his entire life.
Kimball was married to his wife, Ruth, for 53 years before her death in 1995. He had four children, 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
His obituary points out that he “loved nothing more than to sit in the screened in porch of his hunting and fishing camp at Caucomgomoc Lake in the evenings after his days activities in the north Maine woods.”
During our visit seven years ago, Kimball told me that one of his proudest sporting moments came when he was 7 or 8 years old.
His own father had tied three flies to a leader and told him to drift the rig through a particular spot on a stream. Kimball did, and hooked three fish at once.
His father refused to take the rod, figuring Charles would figure things out on his own.
“He coached me and coached me and coached me,” Charles Kimball told me that day.
And after a lengthy fight, the coaching paid off: Charles caught all three fish. They weighed a total of 14 pounds, 2 ounces.
I never spoke to Charles Kimball again after our interview in his hospital room. That’s the way this business often works. Columnists move on to other columns. Column subjects continue living their lives.
But his tale — and his gracious manner on that memorable day — still resonate.
His family, I’m sure, is hurting right now. Nothing I write will change that.
But in infrequent conversations with Curt and Denise Kimball, and their daughters, Denise Jr. and Michelle, I learned how special their father, father-in-law and grandfather was to them, and how lucky they felt to have been able to spend so much time with him.
Charles Kimball lived 92 years. He made an impact on the people he knew and those he loved. His family members probably won’t be surprised to learn he even taught important lessons to those that he’d just met.
I trust you. I’m sure you’ll do the right thing.