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I went for a walk with my friend Greg a few weeks ago, and we walked past Mr. Carr’s house. We stopped, standing in the middle of the street, and my mind went back a few years and I told Greg about a time when I’d worked for Mr. Carr, and experienced a moment that has stayed with me to this day.
Now I’m sure Mr. Carr had a first name, but I never knew what it was. He had grown up, as I recall, in the Ozarks, and was the kind of guy who could speak intelligently about absolutely anything. At the time I knew him, he was old. I wouldn’t say he was older than dirt, but I’m sure he watched some of the first dirt being made.
There are people on this planet who make stuff, and there are people on this planet who do stuff. And then there are the people on this planet who know how to make stuff to do stuff.
This was Mr. Carr.
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Shooter” – and heard the fellow say the line, “…still got the shovel…” that’s a lot what Mr. Carr looked and sounded like. You just knew that he knew far, far more than his simple life would tell you.
He had a sky blue 1962 Ford Falcon that he changed the oil on every 1200 miles, whether it needed it or not. I don’t know if he ever drove it faster than 35 mph, though I suppose he might have on some of the straighter roads out there. The car had been in mint condition until someone backed into the left front fender. He had it replaced with one from a black 1962 Ford Falcon, and that’s the way I remember the car. There was no reason, in his mind, to paint the car. The fender did what it was supposed to do, so that’s how it was left.
He rented half a duplex from my grandparents, and had lived in this duplex for as long as I could remember.
It had an oil stove in it, an old black and white TV, and a rocking chair and a couch. His kitchen could be seen from the living room, and the kitchen windows looked out over his little garden, where he had his tomatoes, his corn, and his beans.
The light coming into the kitchen lit up the old porcelain sink and an empty dish strainer on the counter. A simple cutting board was next to it, and the towel that he’d used to dry the dishes was hanging from a little hook. The dishes were put away, nowhere to be seen.
Standing in the kitchen, looking out to the right, you could see the Falcon in the carport. Beside the Falcon in the carport was an old hoe, with a handle that had been marinated smooth from years of well-earned sweat.
The handle on the hoe made me look back at the garden.
There were no weeds in it.
Mr. Carr wanted for nothing. That is to say, he had what he needed, and to be honest, he didn’t need much, but one day, it seems, the duplex needed to be painted, and my grampa was willing to hire me, an eager teenager to do it. As I recall, my job that day involved scraping the side of the duplex in preparation for the painting that was to come later, so it wasn’t hard work, just tedious. I got there and started working on the west side while it was still in the shade.
Around noon, the sun was just starting to peek over the eaves, Mr. Carr came out, and asked if I was hungry. I hadn’t thought about it until then, but it had been several hours since breakfast, and any time sitting with Mr. Carr was a treat – he was so full of stories of times gone by that it was like listening to a time traveler, telling of long lost adventures, so when he offered to make me a sandwich, I said I’d be delighted to have lunch with him. He had me sit on the front steps while he went back inside to that little kitchen of his. He’d said he had some good ham, and was going to make me a ham sandwich.
And he did.
The hinges on the screen door creaked, as he came out a couple of minutes later with exactly what he said he’d make: a ham sandwich.
With it he had a pickle, and a glass of water.
At first, I thought there was something missing. I mean, on the plate, there were two slices of bread, not found in any store, and between them, a slab of ham almost as thick as the slices of bread he’d sawed off the loaf.
But I have to tell you – there must have been a glow in that little kitchen when he made it, and Angels must have been singing next to the cutting board as his knife cut through the bread, because this was a ham sandwich like none I have had before or since.
Any other ham sandwich I’d had was on bread that you didn’t want to squeeze too tight or it’d turn to mush.
Any other ham sandwich needed mayonnaise on it because the bread wasn’t moist enough.
Any other ham sandwich needed mustard on it, and maybe some lettuce or something, because the ham was – well, just ham…
But as I sat there in the shade on his front step, a paper plate with a pickle on it balanced on my knee, the glass of water carefully placed on the cement one step down, I looked at the sandwich, and wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or not. He’d talked about having some ‘good’ ham – but I’d never had a sandwich that was – well, just a slab of ham stuck in between a couple of thicker slabs of bread.
But he was right.
I took a first, tentative bite, and it was clear this was no supermarket bread. This was bread with a crust that had enough attitude to put up a fight, but once I got past that, I found a sweet, earthy nuttiness. It was bread that had enough flavor on its own for you to be perfectly happy eating just the bread – without anything on it, bread that had enough moisture to not need the mayo that every other ham sandwich had always needed.
But there was something on it – it was the ham – and Mr. Carr was right – this was, indeed, “some good ham”. It had been cured just right, with spices like I’d never tasted before. It was cool, still from his old refrigerator, and had so much flavor it didn’t need the mustard like every other ham sandwich had always needed.
…and right about then, looking down at that sandwich, I had to reach for the paper plate, and decided to try the pickle. It was home canned. It wasn’t bought from a store, either, and it was soft where it needed to be, crunchy where it needed to be, refreshingly sweet, salty, and spicy.
It was so simple. Bread. Ham… Pickle.
That was it.
I sat there, savoring it, and realized I still had the glass of water. What could possibly top that sandwich and the pickle?
It was a glass of well water.
Not city water that had been purified to within an inch of its life, but simple, pure, clear, water.
…that had come out of a faucet, yes, but the well that fed that faucet was in the back yard, just past that weedless garden.
I took a sip.
And realized that Mr. Carr had given me a gift.
Instead of being a time traveler, telling me stories of times gone by, this time, he’d given me a gift, and without me realizing it, had taken me along on one of them.
I allowed my thoughts to come back to the present – which was my friend Greg and me standing there, looking at the porch I’d had the sandwich on, and the house Mr. Carr had lived in those many years ago, and Greg paused, and said, “You should write that one down…”
So I did, and even though I couldn’t share the sandwich, at least I can share the memory.
Fare well, Mr. Carr – and thank you…
My son and I were talking the other day, and the subject of the conversation was about asking for things. I’ve learned, over the years, that often you don’t get what you want because you don’t ask for it. This concept has been around for thousands of years. I learned it pretty clearly on a number of occasions, We talked about how, if you don’t ask for something, the answer, if you will, is a guaranteed ‘no’, whereas if you do ask, the answer is at least a ‘maybe’.
So I got to thinking about this whole thing – realized that a number of the stories I’ve written are because I simply didn’t understand that someone could possibly say ‘no’ to a well reasoned, logical request. The story about Fifi is a prime example. So’s the story about Misty 42. There’s a bunch of unwritten stories still in my head that are the same way – and this whole thing could apply to any life situation.
I mean seriously, what right did I have to badger a newspaper photo editor that I didn’t know into holding space for me on the front page of his paper so I could talk my way onto the only flying B-29 in the world… Then again – who was I to just casually talk my way onto a KC-135 tanker (twice, actually) and get a picture of an F-4 Phantom seconds before it refueled? Who was I to get strapped into a C-130 for the greenest ride of my life? What did I do to deserve something as cool as some of the things I was privileged to do?
Well – the answer’s pretty simple.
See – that whole thing about a guaranteed “no” is something I learned early on, whether it involved asking a young lady out on a date when I was younger, or asking for a seemingly nonexistent transmission for my car, or if I somehow could get go onto a plane, train, or automobile (yes, I have stories of all three) – it was still the same.
If I didn’t ask, the answer was no.
So with that as a little bit of a background, let me take you to a small town in west central Ohio for one of these stories – just because it was an example of what a difference asking a question like that can make.
I’d just started my internship as a photojournalist at the Sidney Daily News, and was between assignments, looking for some of what they called “Feature” shots. That means anything that makes you think thoughts like “oh, cool!” or “gosh, I wonder how they got that shot”, or just something that’s a fun picture to take, something to share with the folks who live in the area, and, hopefully, is of general interest.
Part of this was just having a fresh set of eyes that hadn’t seen anything like this town before, part of it was just curiosity.
So being between assignments, I found myself in the center of town, driving circles counter clockwise around the courthouse. There was construction going on, and I thought I could make an interesting image out of it. I saw a fellow up on the scaffolding, and figured I’d found something to work with – so I parked the car, grabbed my gear, and moved so there weren’t trees in the way. I realized I’d need my 300 mm Nikkor 4.5 because of how far I was – then realized that wasn’t enough, so I put the doubler on it, making it act like a 600 mm lens. I got down on one knee, steadied myself with one elbow on the trunk lid of the car, and then realized that I was taking a shot anyone on the street could take with what was then the camera that produced some of the crappiest pictures on the market, a Disc Camera. Oh, sure, my shot would look like it was shot through a telescope compared to the disk camera, but that wasn’t the point… The point was that I’d been hired to take photographs that other people couldn’t see, that other people couldn’t get to, or that other people would never in their wildest dreams think of taking.
I mean, it was possible to take a photograph of the courthouse from the ground and have it look great. I found a shot online and asked the fellow if I could use it (Thank you David Grant)– and here it is:
Problem though, was the light for what I wanted to shoot, while gorgeous like the shot above, wasn’t that gorgeous on the side of the court house where my picture was waiting for me. I knew that – I’d driven around the thing, and sure enough, all the action was on the shady side.
I put the camera down before I took a poorly lit shot anyone else could take from across the street, and stood up.
And then I did something dangerous.
I started wondering…
I wondered what the view from up there was like…
And then I wondered how I could get up there…
And then I did some thinking about how I could get up there.
See, if you want to get into a building, and if you want to go straight to the top, it’s best to start right at the bottom – and often, as in this case, the fellow at the bottom is the janitor.
Janitors are amazing people.
They have keys for EVERYTHING.
So I made sure the car was locked, threw everything over my shoulder and headed into the courthouse, to have a chat with whoever was playing receptionist and see if together we could find the janitor.
One receptionist’s phone call later, I was introduced to the older gentleman with the iconic huge ring of keys, and I heard myself give what would be my standard greeting for the next few months, “Hi, my name’s Tom Roush and I’m a photographer for the Sidney Daily News…” followed by the question of the day. In this case, it was: “I see you’ve got some work being done on the roof, and was wondering if I could get some shots of it for the paper. Is there any way I could get up there?”
I don’t think five minutes had gone by from the time I didn’t take that picture over the trunk of the car until I was walking out of the elevator, through a dusty attic filled with huge beams, and through a small open window onto the roof.
The janitor looked out, called up to the fellow I’d seen, then stepped aside and let me crawl out.
I introduced myself to the fellow many feet over my head up on the scaffolding and asked if I could come up.
He stopped his caulking for a moment and looked down, seeing I was carrying a camera bag, a couple of cameras, including that one with the 300 mm lens and the doubler on it. Somehow bringing the bag up there onto the scaffolding was deemed, without any words needing to be spoken, a bad idea. So I set it down, put the 24mm wide angle lens on the F-3, slung it over my shoulder, and carefully climbed up the scaffolding.
I climbed on top of the topmost section of scaffolding so I could look down and see him, my goal being to see – and thus tell a story – that no one else could see. I sat on the very top of the scaffolding, wrapped my right leg around the vertical part of the support, leaned back, (yes, the scaffolding leaned with me, but not by much) composed the frame so the horizon was at the top, then told the fellow to just keep working as he could (as I write this I still can’t believe I did that – there was nothing but air between me and the roof about 30 feet below, and had I slipped, I would have rolled down, then off the roof and fallen another 40 feet or so before becoming one with the pavement.
And the thing is – I could have taken that first shot from across the street, it would have been safe – but it would have been a totally forgettable image, lost in the back of the paper somewhere.
But I didn’t take that first shot.
I wondered, “What if?”
I wondered, “What can I do that will make this better?”
And then I realized the only thing keeping me from making it better was me. I had to go in, ask a question that they could have easily said,”No.” to, and that would have been that.
But I didn’t.
And when you’re faced with weird situations in life when you’re just thinking there’s no way you can succeed – trust me, there are ways you can succeed. And stand out – literally above the crowd.
There have been times in my life – and there will be times in yours, when you find you can barely think of the question to ask, much less step out of your comfort zone and ask it, but that little thought, that maybe, just maybe, asking will make a difference, that *is* the difference. In fact, often, the hardest/simplest/most important thing of all is for you to step out of your comfort zone and just ask.
Now, understand, whoever you’re asking might say no, and you’ll be right where you were before you asked the question, but so what? You can try something else then.
On the other hand, if you don’t ask, the “no” is guaranteed.
Take care – really – be careful out (and up) there.
And don’t forget, it’s okay to ask. Think about it: what’s the worst that can happen? (they say “No”, and life hasn’t changed. But if you do – the results can be magic.
I’m working on a few more stories that will show you what happens if you dare to ask – they’ll come out over the next year or so, and often, they will be the story behind a photograph (which is proof in and of itself)
All that said, here (below) is the shot I’ve been describing. (in another frame you’d see the camera bag teetering at the bottom of the frame, but that one didn’t make the final cut) – and below that is how they actually ran it in the paper.
…and how it appeared in the paper the next day.