May 12 1976
That’s when the world stopped.
Over the past couple of years, I had become very good friends with a red headed, freckled dynamo named Mike Underhill. He was a couple of years younger than I and as a result, we had not chummed much together growing up. He didn’t meander, but rather barged into my life – a never say never kind of guy, with an infectious grin, a gregarious personality and take the world by storm attitude.
Fastball was my passion at the time and I played in Straffordville with a pretty talented group of ball players. We had a lot of success together and more importantly had created a bond that lasted for years. Mike had come to play with us in the mid 70s and while not always a first stringer, he was by far the most supportive. Whether he was playing or watching, he was always cheering great plays and both individual and team success. He was a team player in every sense of the word.
That was the chemistry; the draw that pulled me to him. He just made everyone around him feel better about themselves.
At about 5’6” he was deceivingly strong, climbing ropes in the high school gym like they had a hundred dollar bill at the top. Hand over hand, he would be at the top before the rest of us had stopped whining about the burns we were likely to get by sliding down after having barely started the exercise.
Mike was the second child of Bill and Dorothy Underhill. Siblings Pat, Francis and sister Wendy were all like Mike, very social and supportive of each other and their friends. Father Bill was built like a fire hydrant and willing to do most anything to assist others. He was the Building Inspector and Welfare Officer for the local Township. His outgoing personality drew him to many local functions as a BBQ chef for many outdoor celebrations small and large. He would spend hours BBQing chicken, ribs etc and talking up a storm the entire time – making friends and telling tall tales all the while.
Dorothy was a lady in every sense of the word. Always welcoming, always encouraging. A supportive wife and doting mother. She was a valued member of the United Church Women’s (UCW) club, responsible for local volunteer functions supporting the church community. Like most of the women committed to the group, she would drop everything to bake a cake, make sandwiches, serve coffee – whatever it took – to lighten the burden of a local family in distress. The Underhill’s were salt of the earth kind of people.
The family lived a simple life in the sleepy village of Straffordville, just a few miles from the equally sleepy town of Vienna. Bill and Dorothy were active members of the community and friends of my parents – though I don’t remember our families mingling much as a child, aside from community functions.
Having worked and raised a family over the past several decades, it had been a lifelong goal of Bill and Dorothy to travel to Ireland. They had planned this dream vacation for years, but kept putting it off until the kids were older. Mike had just turned 19 on March 14th. Pat was 21. Francis (16) and Wendy (14) were old enough to be left alone with their older siblings. Comfortable the kids were mature enough to take care of things at home and knowing the community was there to help if necessary, the details were finalized. The excitement was palpable in the Underhill home.
The wait was excruciating as time dragged on for Bill and Dorothy, prior to departure. Likewise and for very different reasons, the kids were equally anxious for their parents to leave so they had some space to enjoy some unsupervised time and to prove they were mature enough handle the responsibility.
A Nightmare in Real Time
Mike had begun a summer job at Hawkins Feed in the Tillsonburg area. His job: feeding chickens in a large poultry barn, built for mass production. The barn was constructed with hundreds of chickens on both sides of a cement walkway that ran down the centre of the structure. He operated a gas powered machine that carried feed down the walkway, spreading nourishment to the poultry. He loved his job – mostly because it paid well for a summer job. But also because it provided the autonomy to work hard, with limited supervision. Mike was a responsible and diligent employee – always with a smile om his face.
A few days after Dorothy and Bill had landed safely in Ireland and were finally enjoying their first true vacation in years, they got the call that every parent dreads in their worst nightmares. They had to come home immediately. Something terrible had happened.
Mike was operating the feeder as he always did, when for unknown reasons the gas powered engine inexplicably backfired. Sparks landed in the dry straw of the chicken pens. A fire started – and spread rapidly. No one knows for sure, but Mike in his haste to get it under control, tried to get the feeder out of the barn. The engine caught on fire and blew up – knocking him backward and/or unconscious, somehow latching the barn door, blocking his exit.
He never got out.
When I got the phone call that Mike had perished, I was devastated. I jumped in my Camaro and drove like a crazy person to tell my father, tears streaming down my face. I could not believe my ears.
The community quickly came together to support Pat, Francis and Wendy in whatever way they could, until Bill and Dorothy arrived. It was an agonizing wait. Many of Mike’s friends rallied around his siblings, doing what we could to support them. Countless hours were spent on the Underhill’s porch lamenting our loss and talking about the future without our friend.
It was a long vigil waiting for Bill and Dorothy to arrive home. So far away and unable to be home when they were needed the most. The family would never get over their loss.
The funeral was one of the saddest I have ever attended. Sad for the parents. Sad for the siblings. Sad for the friends. Sad for the community.
There are people that come into your life and make a difference in how you approach the journey we are all undertaking. Mike Underhill was one of those people. He made me and everyone he touched a better human being.
I kept Mike’s picture in my home and my office for many years, looking to him for inspiration when life got difficult. A tragic end to a promising life. Though he was in my life for a short time, he left a lifetime of memories with me. We should all be so fortunate to have a friend like that – however brief.
Forty six years later, I still think about him and the way he embraced life.
He was a gem.