September and October are busy months for folks working in radio. It’s ratings season. The time of year when we all try harder to earn your ear so we get a good report card, which hopefully translates to more sales, which hopefully means we all keep our jobs. What it sounds like to listeners is more contests and giveaways and trips and ‘cues to call’ that hopefully breed loyalty in your love for one station.
One of the contests we used to run on Star 93.3 was “The Beach Party in Paradise”. Listeners called us in studio to qualify for the contest, we’d put your ballot in a ginormous box and once a month we drew a winner who then had the self-proclaimed privilege of travelling with Joel and I, and a whole ton of other listeners, to a beach destination for a week in the middle of frigid February. Each year we’d have anywhere from 40 to 100 people join our trip, most of us leaving Canada as strangers and returning as friends. These trips were a lot of work to put together, but were also a highlight of our career.
About ten years ago, we pulled the name Joanne McBride from the ballot box and we called to tell her she’d won the trip. She was elated! She and her husband didn’t have passports and had never been anywhere exotic together. Gratitude turned to tears and a proliferation of “oh thank you, thank you”. I loved it when good people won these things. It made the 4 a.m. daily wake-up call completely worthwhile.
Until the day of departure, we hadn’t met Joanne or her husband, Sam. And I could never have predicted that years later, we’d still be friends. Sam, who would’ve been in his mid-fifties, arrived to fly wearing camouflage cargo pants, a different pattern camo t-shirt and a third pattern camouflage winter jacket. On his head, a cowboy hat with a giant turkey feather tucked into the side, and a crow call around his neck. He wore thick glasses and his white moustache was tinged orange around his lips from years of smoking. He had kind eyes and a contagious laugh. He instantly reminded us of the television show where one man pursues people in the Canadian wilderness while they try to evade his capture. Mantracker. To this day, the nickname has stuck.
A Mantracker isn’t a Mantracker without a Thunderbunny. That was his own nickname for Joanne. She’s a couple of years younger than Sam, with long blonde hair and unmatchable sweetness. Her laugh is as generous as it is contagious. They met in high school and decades later, their puppy love was as strong as it had been while flirting at their lockers. I asked Sam why he called her Thunderbunny. “Because she’s cute as a bunny, but when she needs to, man, can she bring the thunder!”
The Beach Party in Paradise wasn’t all fun and games, we did do some actual work. I swear! Joel and I had to broadcast the show every day for the listeners back home that had to get up and scrape off their cars and go to work. I know, poor us right? Broadcasting from a pool bar with a pina colada in our hands! Tough gig! We used to put folks from the trip on air with us, (those who hadn’t been making good use of the swim up bar anyway)! That’s how “Mantracker Minutes” began.
Oh, and I got my own nickname and it’s way better than “Murphy the Molar” or “Murphy Brown” or “Maggot”, (as my sister may have called me in high school). Mantracker dubbed me “Doll Face”. I’m keeping it. Don’t try to argue otherwise!
Back to Mantracker Minutes.
“Hey Doll Face, you get up real early to get to work right? You know, you should take a bagel, put some cream cheese on it, wrap it in aluminum foil, put it on the manifold of your car under the hood, by the time you get to work, it’ll be nice and toasty.” He was serious and full of them. These earnest and hilarious gems made for great radio.
We got to know them over the course of our week together. They’d severed some land from his folks’ old farm and lived in a modified trailer on the Fifth Line of Port Hope. Mantracker worked shifts in a nearby factory, Thunderbunny wanted to go back to finish her high school diploma. They enjoyed hunting and riding motorcycles and every day they poured gratitude all over us for the opportunity to experience travel. We had nothing in common and yet, we became fast friends, who genuinely cared about each other. I was equally grateful for this job that allowed me to meet unexpectedly wonderful people like Mantracker and Thunderbunny.
Mantracker was such a great character that when we arrived back in Canada, we decided to keep up with the Mantracker Minutes. We sent him to the movies as our Oscar Correspondent, his only task was to watch some flicks and give his honest opinion. I remember his review of the 2011 silent film, The Artist. “First of all, don’t they know they’ve invented sound for these things? I spent the first 20 minutes thinking I’d gone deaf. It’s kind of like a present your aunt gives you, you don’t know what it is, but you’re pretty sure you’re not gonna like it eh.”
He’d call regularly to let us know his thoughts on various issues, both local and global. Our calls usually started with “Well, I’m just rolling out of the ol’ fart sack here.” To be honest, Mantracker was someone you could easily judge by his cover. He had all the trappings of a redneck hick. But in reality, he was open-minded and accepting, an environmental advocate who put his money where his mouth was, and was as generous as the day is long.
One year he called the station, “Hey Doll Face, have you got your Christmas tree yet?”
“Not yet Mantracker, why?” I inquired.
“You guys should come to the house and we’ll hunt one down for you” he said.
“Oh, come cut one down from your property? That’s awful kind of you sir!” I responded.
“No, not cut one, hunt one. We go to the acreage, you look at the top four to five feet of the trees, you find one you like, you take a shot gun, you shoot it down, you drag ‘er home, you decorate ‘er and you call it a Christmas!”
“What time should we be there?” I asked.
When Joel and I arrived on the Fifth Line we were given our own cowboy hats and a crow call to hang around my neck, (so we could attract the proper tree of course). We headed out, quietly, you’ve got to sneak up on Christmas trees, you don’t want them to see you coming. Joel took his turn and it was a clear miss. Rookie. Then it was my turn. Mantracker had to help me hold the gun and when we finally took the shot, I think I soiled myself. He swore I got a piece of it, but I think he was just trying to make me feel better. Mantracker finished the job, dragged home the tree behind an ATV, and we did indeed decorate it and call it a Christmas. Oh Tanenbaum. (Watch the tree hunt video below).
Mantracker and Thunderbunny used to listen to us in the morning through a rather interesting radio; a mounted fake deer head on their wall that plugged into a stereo. So every time we’d speak, the deer mouth would move. They gave me a gift for Christmas one year, which included some frozen deer meat and potatoes so I could make a stew, some festive Christmas crackers and a pair of jeans. Mantracker had noticed that I’d worn a pair of ripped jeans in the past that he said “looked like you got in some kind of fight with a leopard”, so he made me a new pair. They had taken a pair of Mantracker’s old pants and using a 12 gauge shot gun, had blown holes in the knees. My very own pair of “redneck denim”, (I’m trademarking that name for future product sales).
They came to a play I was in, arriving ten minutes late and walking across the front of the stage to get to their seats in the front row. He was like a small child at a school pageant, smiling and waving at me from his seat. After the show he said “Jesus Christ Doll Face! Y’er really good eh!? I’ve never seen nothin’ like that before eh!? It’s like television but in real life!” My best review yet.
After I returned from my cycling trip in Ireland, Mantracker came into the studio to give me a trophy he and the boys from his hunt club had made me. It was a fan of mounted wild turkey feathers, held together with a wooden base and the shotgun cartridge from my unsuccessful tree hunting expedition. I don’t know where to put it, it doesn’t go with the rest of my living room décor, but I kept it, because I love it.
When my mom was sick, Mantracker and Thunderbunny made her a care package. They handwrote stories on lined paper. They glued on photographs of their home and hunt camp and things they thought might cheer her up. Mantracker’s hunt camp is actually an old houseboat they dragged into the woods, added a generator, and called it a day. He included a ball cap for my mom with a note, “You’re a tough cookie Mrs. Doll Face, so we’re making you an honourary member of the Fifth Line Nasty Bastards Club.” And he gave her a hat to cover her adorable bald head.
While carrying my mom’s casket out of the church on September 22, 2012, I spotted Mantracker and Thunderbunny standing at the back doors. They were dressed up and their cheeks were wet with loving tears. He was wearing a t-shirt and a clip on tie. He said “I’m so sorry Doll Face, I don’t know what to say. We’ll adopt you.” I thanked them so much for being there and then kindly asked him to step to the side because he was blocking the hearse. “Jesus H Christ, ya can’t take me anywhere”, he said. Their kindness for bearing witness to my sorrow will never be forgotten.
A year and a half ago, Joel and I ended our decade long morning show tenure together. It was emotional for both of us. You see, I hoard people. It’s a bit of a problem. Once we’ve bonded, you can never get free of my clutches. I adopt everyone. God help you if you get stuck in an elevator or an Uber with me! Thus letting go can be a difficult feat. We called Mantracker and Thunderbunny and had the opportunity to thank them for being a part of our show and a meaningful part of our lives. I cried. So did they. I’m so glad we had that moment.
Fast forward to the end of August 2018, Joel and I had the opportunity to do the morning show together again for one week. It was like having a fling with an ex! We were live in-studio again, up before the rest of the world, still puffy faced with slumber, laughing too hard at our own jokes, and gleefully trying to say something entertaining for the morning commute. We decided we’d call Mantracker for old times’ sake. We dialled the home line, (he doesn’t like cell phones), Thunderbunny answered. We’d just missed Sam, he’d gone to do some recycling. She caught us up on their comings and goings. She’d finished her high school diploma, they were in love with their granddaughter and they’d both quit smoking. The next morning, after hearing we’d called the house the previous day, the door of the studio swung open and there stood the man himself. Mantracker, holding a box of 50 timbits, wearing a bright, safety orange coloured t-shirt and rocking a bushy white goatee.
We hugged, we put him on air, we waxed philosophical, he told us that kids need to put down their devices and go outside more, he told us that we live in a throw away culture, we need to learn to fix more things – both objects and people. He told us he’d put on weight since he quit smoking and now trying to put his underwear on was equivalent to watching “a whale going under a boat, you just lose sight at a certain point.” It was heart-filling. It was real. It reminded me why I stayed in radio so long. We vowed to be better at keeping in touch. He left the studio saying “I’m proud to call you friends”.
Two weeks later, he was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Joanne was airlifted to Toronto and, at the time of writing, is still in hospital, but thankfully, she is expected to survive. A Thunderbunny without her Mantracker.
My heart is broken. It’s hard to explain to people why this would make me so sad. He was “just a listener” afterall. But no, he wasn’t. He was far more than that. He was my friend. We adopted each other. An unlikely friendship, yes, but a real one, indeed. The world needs more people like Mantracker and Thunderbunny, and yet, they’re one of a kind. I’m so very privileged to have known him. We will take care of your girl my friend, and she’s going to be ok, because “she’s cute as a bunny, but when she needs to, she brings the thunder!”
Lessons I’ve learned from my time in this wild world with a Mantracker: never judge a book by its camouflage coat. The heart that beats beneath is enormous. Get outside more, eh. Be hopelessly devoted to your Thunderbunny. Enjoy a great turn of phrase, Shakespeare sometimes lives on the Fifth Line of Port Hope. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Seek gratitude, even in the worst situation. “Sometimes you’ve gotta pick the corn out of a shit sandwich”. Be humble and grateful in the presence of friendship. Relish it.
Mantracker, may you rest in peace. Thank you for your friendship. It is I who is proud to have called you my friend. I remain forever, your Doll Face.