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Every now and then I get this urge – no, not just an urge, almost a command, to write a story – a post, if you will, about something specific… What’s strange sometimes is that this one you’re reading now kind of popped up last night – and while I’m not sure why it’s important to post it now – it feels like I should. It’s not as polished as some of the other stories in the pipeline, but I’ve seen things happen lately that tell me that this is the right time to publish this one. So come with me as I take another trip into my time machine – the one that looks like an old yellow Kodak photo paper box, and learn a lesson or two in a photo I took once, a long time ago.
First the photo:
I was in college, and was trying to photograph one of the parts of the Homecoming celebration for Seattle Pacific University, which included the men’s heavyweight eight man alumni crew racing each other down the Lake Washington Ship Canal right near the campus. I’d developed a friendship with the coach for the crew team, and because of that, I was the only photographer allowed to get on the boat he was coaching from. This gave me the chance to get into a position to get a much better shot than any other photographer out there as they were finishing the race. We talked (well, shouted to each other over the motor on the coach’s boat), and I was able to get him to position his boat to show how close the race was by crossing the finish line at the same time the lead boat was crossing it, the goal being to show the difference between first place, the winner, and second, the, well, the loser. However, it wasn’t the closest race in the world – the other boat is cropped just out of the frame at the bottom right, but something magical happened as I was setting up for that shot, something I wasn’t expecting at all.
As I was looking right to gauge where the second place boat was to try to figure out what to do next, I saw this duck, barreling down the canal as fast as it could. I checked the settings on the the camera – (a Nikon FM2 with a 100 mm Nikkor lens on it that I’d borrowed from a friend) I saw I was on frame 36 (yes, film, and yes, the last frame) that I was shooting at f/8 and 1/250th of a second – the film was Tri-X black and white film, pushed two stops to be shot at ASA 1600 because everything I was shooting that day was going to be either moving fast or in low light, or both. I realized I had precisely one chance to make this right, and focused on the far boat, wanting to get the expressions of the guys in the crew shell in focus more than the duck, I’d just let the depth of field cover that. As I was looking, I realized that with as much planning as had gone into getting the shot I wanted (the two boats finishing the race) – that wasn’t the shot I needed. In fact, the shot I needed was far better than the one I wanted, and I had to make a decision, instantly: Either take the shot of the boats and tell the story of the race, or take the shot of the duck, and tell the story of another race, that no one had planned for, that had been a surprise, a chance that would be there and gone in the blink of an eye. I chose the duck, and decided that as soon as I saw it appear in the right side of the viewfinder, I’d push the button, with the knowledge from experience that it would take about 1/10th of a second for all the mechanical things in the camera to actually do their thing to expose the film. In the meantime, the duck would be moving across the frame at about 30 mph. If I waited until the duck was where I wanted it to be before I took the picture, it would be gone by the time the camera had actually exposed the film, so I had to think on my feet, on a moving boat, and make decisions fast.
All the other sports I’d shot, there would often be a second chance, another basket, another goal, another… whatever.
This time, I had one duck, one boat, one shot.
I’d brought the camera to my eye, focused on the sharp point of the boat, and as I saw the duck enter the frame from the right, hit the shutter release, felt and heard the camera take the shot, then heard the motor drive whine and jam, telling me it was at the end of the roll. I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten the shot or not, but I’d done everything I could to get it. I automatically rewound the film, popping it out and putting it in a separate pocket from all the other exposed film, and loaded another roll, but the duck was gone.
I could hardly wait to get back to the darkroom to see what had happened and sure enough, when I got the film developed, I found the image, and it was indeed, the 36th and last shot of the roll.
And so what’s the big deal about the image?
Well – it’s a duck.
And a boat.
And the guys?
They look like they’re racing the duck which makes it fun, but they’re really looking for the finish line, which painted on both sides of the canal, is just out of the frame on the left on their side, and just to my left behind me.
But I only had the one chance, and I’m glad I took it.
And it got me thinking, this photo, and I learned that as much as we want to believe in second chances, there are times in life where you get one chance to do something, and that’s it. Life will go on, but it will be different, and you will never know “what if” something else had happened.
Think about it: Often, life is a lot like the GPS system you might have in your car or your phone, where if you make a wrong turn, you get this message that says ‘recalculating’ as it tries to get you to go back on course, and because it’s doing that, you’re being given a second chance to do something that somehow you muffed up. The muff up could have been simple human error, it could have been not being prepared for what you were facing, it could have been something completely out of your control, but the fact is, what you planned to happen, didn’t, and now you have to sit there while something literally tries to get you back on the track you’re supposed to be on.
Then there are the other times. Some of you know I spent a number of years as a photojournalist, and saw many, many things through my viewfinder as I was shooting. The thing about shooting with an SLR is that you never actually see the picture you take. You can see what happens immediately before the image, and what happened after, but it’s only your training, your eye, or your instinct that tell you when to take the shot. You have to trust that everything worked in that blink of an eye when everything, the event in front of your camera, the experience behind it, came together.
I kept thinking, and like many of you, found myself wondering what it all means. And I guess it’s this:
There will be times in your life when you have one chance, and one chance only, to make a difference in some way. It may be a life changing experience for you, or for someone else. It may be something that comes completely out of the blue, and goes against everything you ever planned for that moment, but (and I’m speaking to myself just as much as I’m speaking to you) I encourage you to take the chance. It’s possible, just slightly, that something magical will happen. It might be in your job, it might be in your family, it might be taking a chance on repairing a strained relationship, or giving someone a second (or third) chance because you know what it’s like to not have that option. It might be simply holding someone you know at the funeral of someone you barely know. It might be taking a chance at applying for a job you don’t think you’re completely qualified for, but that will fit you like a glove, or that you can grow into. It may be finishing that last, painful cancer treatment that takes so much courage to go to when you know what it will take out of you.
I don’t know. All of the things mentioned above have happened to friends of mine or me in the last few weeks.
Take the chance.
You might make a difference in someone’s life.
And it might be your own.
Or – you might get a cool picture of a duck that reminds you of every one of these things many years later.
So take care out there, folks.
Love each other while you can.
Be prepared for what you can be prepared for – and at the same time, be ready for when plans change, because they can, and will, with barely a moment’s notice.
Oh. One last thing. Here’s the photo I’ve been talking about.
So this is my 100th story, and it’s not so much a story, as a look back on the first 99…
I had no idea I had so many inside me, but they’re here. For those of you who’ve commented on them and helped me get better at writing through your critiques, thank you. For those of you who were unwitting characters in some of them, I thank you. For my sister who created this blog in the first place and felt I needed to get my writing out there, thank you. For my family who often saw nothing but the back of my laptop as I was writing – I’m working on that – and thank you – really. And to some very special people who decided I was worth keeping around – thanks for your help in all of that. You know who you are.
As for the stories – I think the most fun stories for me to write were the ones where you, the reader, figure out whatever punchline was coming, just about the time your eyes hit it.
All of the stories are true. Some took an astonishing amount of research, ballooned into huge, huge stories, then were often allowed to simmer for some time until I could edit them down to whatever the essence of the story actually was. I have one unpublished one that has so much research it that it’s ballooned to 12 pages when there’s really only about 3 pages of story in there, but that’s how the writing process is… Find what you need. Distill it down to its very core, then take that and make it better.
I did a little looking through the stories and found some little snippets that made me think – and made me smile as I read through them all. They’re below – in the order they were published, so the subject matter and themes are pretty random, but there was a reason for each one of them. So, cue the music, and here’s a selection of quotes and thoughts from the stories (with links to the originals) that made me smile, or laugh, or think, or sometimes just cry.
1. From the story: “Cat Piss and Asphalt”
“Pop, is it possible for the memory of something to be better than the event itself?”
This was when my son went to Paris. In Springtime. And he had memories he needed to share. I listened, and smiled, and I wrote.
2. I wrote a story about a friend named Georgiana – who taught me so more about writing software code than any book I ever read, any class I ever took, and more than she could possibly have imagined.
3. Then there was the story “Have you ever been in a dangerous situation and had to drive out of it?” when I was trying to jack up a car with a flat tire, on a one lane road the water tanker trucks were using, on a hill, in a forest fire, next to a burning ravine, “Most of the things that I would have used to brace the car to keep it from rolling were on fire, so that limited my options a bit. “
4. There’s the story I called “Point and Click” – which really isn’t about pointing, or clicking – but is very much about – well, it’s short – you’ll get it – and even if you don’t, that’s okay. I hope you don’t have to.
“This time, there’s a loud “click” of the hammer slamming down on an empty chamber. “
5. On managing to borrow a car, and within a couple of telephone calls finding myself taking pictures of an F-4 Phantom out of the back of a KC-135 tanker over Missouri.
The look on the face of a classmate as I was printing the pictures that evening was absolutely priceless.
6. Then there was the story called Salty Sea Dogs – just one of the weird little things that seems to happen to me when I go out for walks…
“Into this nautical environment walk two characters straight out of central casting for Moby Dick”
7. There was just a little snapshot of a conversation between two people, one of whom really understood what was going on, and the other who didn’t. And the funny thing is, I’m not sure which one was which. It’s just something that happened On the Bus…
8. Sometimes stories happen in the blink of an eye – or in the ever so slight smile of a spandex covered cyclist riding past.
9. I wrote about a lesson I learned about plumbing once, (water doesn’t ONLY flow downhill – and it’s not just water)- which my kids still laugh about.
10. There was the story where I wasn’t sure whether my daughter was complimenting me or insulting me – or a little of both, but it made it in here in the story Compliment? Insult? You decide…
11. And somehow, I managed to get phrases from the movies “The Lion King”, Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”, and both the old and new Testaments of the Bible into the same story, combining them with a sermon I heard and an attitude from my boss that all ended up in the lesson you can find in the story The view from the Balcony… Forgiveness, Writing in the dirt, and “No Worries”
12. I learned, and wrote about, buried treasure – and it’s often not buried, and it’s not what you think it might be.
13. I had a story bouncing around in my head for years before I finally wrote it down, and was astonished when the right brained creative side of me finally let go of it and the logical left brain started analyzing it. if I’m wrong on the numbers, I’d be happy to have someone prove me wrong, but when you hit a certain set of railroad tracks at a certain speed in a 1967 Saab, you will catch air, and a lot of it. It was the first of many Saab Stories…
14. I remember a story that came out of a single sentence. This one is called, simply, “Stalingrad” – and is about – well, here’s the quote – it’s: “a story that boils down to six words, but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes” – it was also one of the first stories that caused me to cry as I wrote it. I wasn’t expecting that, and I think it was interesting that people asked me to put “hankie warnings” on the stories I’d written.
15. For the next one – I wanted to have a little fun – and this story, too, came from only a few sentences my dad told me, but it, too, required a surprising amount of research and I figured out the rest, and realized there were three stories inside this one, and I decided I’d try to braid them together in such a way that they came together – ideally, not in just one word, but the same syllable of that one word. You’ll find that story called “B-52’s, Karma, and Compromises…”.
16. I learned that one person can do something stupid, but if you get a few guys together, even without alcohol, not only does the quantity of the stupidity go up, but the quality is almost distilled to a concentration that you couldn’t make up… in the story Synergistic Stupidity, The Marshmallow Mobile, and the Little Tractor that Could… I learned that I could help people, I could do something stupid with a friend, then, while trying to figure out how to un-stupidify this thing, watch as several others got involved, ending up in exactly the same spot we’d gotten ourselves into, break the law, ‘borrow’ a tractor, and in the end, put everything back where I found it, and my grampa, whose tractor it was that I’d ‘borrowed’ – didn’t find out about it till years later. You’ll find that in the story, along with a map of where it happened. Really.
17. I often learned as I wrote – the story about The Prodigal Father took me back a few thousand years, to standing beside another dad, waiting for his son, and I suddenly understood a whole lot more about what he must have been feeling.
18. Some stories were just silly. I mean, Water Skiing in Jeans?
19. Or Jump Starting Bottle Rockets… ? With Jumper cables attached to a 40 year old car?
Yup… I did that.
20. But it’s not just my generation. I wrote a story about my mom, who – well, let’s say she has a healthy dislike for snakes. Not fear, mind you. Dislike. And when they started getting into the goldfish pond and eating her goldfish – well, she armed herself. First with a camera to prove it – and then with a pitchfork to dispatch it. And sure enough, 432 slipped disks later (Thank you Johnny Hart for that quote), that snake was no longer a threat, and mom, bless her, was quite satisfied…
21. I never think of my mom as a feisty little old lady, she’s my mom – but she’s awfully close in age (well, in the same decade) as another feisty little old lady named Cleo. I never thought I would get airborne trying to take a picture of an 88 year old woman emptying a mop bucket, but I did, and it made for a wonderful story, and a wonderful image.
22. I took a little break from writing actual stories and spent a little time explaining why in the “story” Scalpels, sutures, and staples, oh my… It was a hard “non-story” to write – but it was what was happening that week, and I was a little too busy living life in the moment to be able to write much about something that had happened in the past.
23. As some of you know, I spent a few years as a photojournalist, and as I was going through some of my old images in a box in the garage one day, I found they were a time machine – taking me back to when I was younger, and when there was so much of life still ahead of me. I remember sitting across a parking lot from a dad trying to teach his daughter how to rollerskate at Saltwater State Park between Seattle and Tacoma, just knowing she was going to fall, and as I sat there and waited to capture the image as she fell, her dad, unseen behind her, was there waiting to capture her. I had a little ‘aha’ moment about God right then. How many times things have looked like they were going the wrong way, and yet, He was in the background, orchestrating stuff to make it right in the end? (I don’t know the answer to that question, just know it’s worth asking)
24. Another “Proving Darwin Wrong” moment – as my son says – I was working for the Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan, and these thunderstorms would come in off the lake, and I wanted a lightning picture with a lighthouse in it. Now I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not the best lightning shot in the world out there, but there was, shall we say, a flash of inspiration that came rather suddenly as the film was exposed – the only frame, the 28th one (yes, shot on film), in Lightning bolts, metal tripods, and the (just in time) “Aha!” moment…
25. Sometimes the most profound bits of wisdom come from the simplest things. I was astonished to find out how many people read the story “Mowing dandelions at night…” – and what they thought about it. Some of those comments are on the blog – some were sent directly to me, but they were all fun to read, and to ponder.
26. I am constantly astonished at the amount of wisdom that can come from simple things. I remember – again – being in the garage, and finding an old, cracked cookie jar – and as I looked at it, and held it gently, I could almost feel the stories it held, and as I started writing – it gave me more and more detail for the stories that I was able to write and share.
27. The next story published was one I actually wrote in 1998, but happened in 1977, and it was then that the phrase, “Really, they don’t shoot on Sundays…” entered into my vocabulary. It was also the story that inspired my son to ask me the question, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
Hearing that from anyone is a little weird.
Hearing that from your own offspring is a little mind bending…
So should you be interested, the story involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.
Actually, in that order.
28. I then found myself writing about a cup of coffee, and the friends involved in making it. I’ve lost touch with Annie – but LaRae is now an amazing photographer, Stevie can still make an incredible cup of coffee, but is making a much better living in the transportation business.
29. I was trying to write a story a week around this time, and had no idea how much time it would take, and found myself staring at Father’s day on the calendar, and realizing how, as hard as our relationship often was (I think an awful lot of father-son relationships have their rocky moments, and I remembered back to the time I taught both of my kids to ride a bike. There was this moment, I realized, where you have to let go of the saddle – and as I talked to more and more dads about this, I realized that they all, instinctively held their right hand out as though they were, indeed, Letting go of the saddle…. I have to warn you – this story took a turn toward the end that I wasn’t expecting, and it was very, very hard to finish. You’ll understand when you get there. I found this story crossed cultural barriers, age barriers, gender barriers, and I ended up putting a hankie warning on this one as well.
30. I needed a little levity, and a smile after that story (remember, they were coming out once a week, but they were taking more than a week to write – so I had spent quite a bit of time on this one, so I, writing, needed a break, and remembered a song we used to sing when I was growing up – and the dawning horror in my wife’s eyes as she realized what it actually meant. (Think German sense of humor (heard of Grimm’s Fairy Tales?) and leave it at that).
The thing about these stories is they just come. In fact, they’re all there – all I have to do is listen, and they’ll come…
31. The next story required listening for something that’s very hard to hear, and listening for about 20 years before it all came together. It ended up being two stories that morphed into one, and started out as a story about old Saabs, and ended up being a story about listening to God in the weirdest places. At the time, I had no idea that God talked to people in Junkyards, but, it turns out, He does. He talks to us everywhere – if we’re willing to listen. I have to say this one’s one of my favorites – it was fun to write, fun to search for the right words, fun to put the little vignettes together (there’s a bit about Harley Davidsons in there that I really like) and it was fun to see it all come together. I hope you enjoy it – even if you aren’t a fan of old Saabs, or maybe haven’t heard God in a junkyard. Believe me, I was just as blown away by that as you might expect. If you end up reading the story – let me know what you think, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
32. And we go back into the time machine (in the garage, looking suspiciously like an old box of black and white photos) where I found the picture behind the story “Fishing, Gorillas, and Cops with – well, just read on…” I like the story – love the picture – I think, because it’s just a normal day – nothing special about it except that – well, that it was so normal, and if you’re looking, you can find beauty everywhere, even if it’s an old guy fishing. (actually not far from where I took that lightning shot a few stories up)
33. My next story brought me a little closer to home, and my mom had just made some jelly. I always joked with her that the jars of Jelly were Time Capsules of Love…– and they were. It was neat to be able to finally write a story about them and what they meant to me. I even took a picture of one of those jars for the story.
34. I’d broken my leg that spring, and found myself in an amusing, cross cultural situation afterwards – which ended up in the story, “Knocking down walls with an old brown purse…” I still wonder how the fellow in the story’s doing. I did print out a copy there and leave it with people who could get it to him.
35. I’d written a few stories about my son, and decided that it was time to write a couple about my daughter – and the wisdom you can learn about yourself and your kids showed up in two stories, one ostensibly about greasy fingerprints (and Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®)
36. …and one about Pizza – and finances, and if you’re not careful in college (or in life), how prioritizing one over the other can affect things in a significant way…
37. I wrote about letting go – something hard to do – but with a smile in the story, and letting go in a location you might not expect.
38. I wrote about Veteran’s day – and memories of my dad, crossed with a scene I’d seen when I was a newspaper photographer years earlier, and I suddenly understood what the family whose privacy and grief I chose not to invade were feeling. There is a lot of pain in that story. Writing it down finally helped me to let some of it go.
39. And I needed a smile, so I wrote about Fifi…. This is one of my favorite stories, in which I simply chatted with folks and talked my way onto the only B-29 in the world, but at the same time, talked the photo editor of a paper I’d never seen into holding space on the front page for me because I was going to get a picture from the plane as I flew to the town where that paper was. it was an all or nothing thing from both sides, and was truly an incredible experience. I recently took a training class in “Win Win Negotiations” – and that one was held up as an example of how to do it.
40. There’s a story I wrote about rear view mirrors, and it actually has very little to do with mirrors.
41. and another I wrote about pouring a cup of coffee… which, surprisingly, has a lot to do with pouring a cup of coffee.
42. ….and my favorite prank of all, a story about (and yet not about) spinach.
43. My daughter got mad at me for the next one, called “Playing Digital Marco Polo in Seattle…” – which happened over lunch one day. “Why do these things keep happening to you? – I want things like this to happen to me, and they don’t – and yet here you go out for lunch and get… “ and she trailed off, not sure how to finish it. As it was happening – it had all the drama of a spy thriller – and I wasn’t sure what I’d walked into – but it was fun.
44. By this time it was near Christmas, and we as a family had worked our Boy Scout Troop’s Christmas tree lot for years, and something special happened this time that made both my wife and an old veteran cry. Tears of joy and gratitude – for having the privilege of being part of something special – but nonetheless tears. And I wrote…
45. We’d gone to Arizona that spring to tape me doing some presentations, and I realized there was a story that needed to be written about not that, but about a very special thing that happened down at the Pima Air Museum, as well as McChord Air Force Base many years earlier, so I shifted gears to write a story for the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series, it’s the story called “Can I help you, sir?”
46. There was a sad story about a fellow with hope, on the bus – made me realize that as bad as things were sometimes, they could always get worse, but this fellow wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, he was just taking things one day at a time. From the story: “He said he’d take anything for work, but right now there just wasn’t anything.”
47. I pondered electrons, and the monthly “Patch Tuesday” we have at work, and my thoughts wandered from very small things like electrons to the really, really big picture of Who made them., and what it all means.
48. Those of you who’ve been around me for some time have heard me use the term Butthead… and one day I decided to just write the story down about how and why that term came about, and what it means. (it’s usually a term of endearment, delivered with all the warmth of a cuff upside the head.)
49. At one point, my guardian angels were sharing pager duty, and all their pagers went off when I was miles from anything, no radio station in range, just, for a rare moment, bored out of my mind, crossing North Dakota one year in that old Ford I had. And I did something to pass the time that apparently set the pagers off. I still wonder, sometimes, how I survived some of these things – or whether they were as crazy as they seem when I write them, or if they were just me paying attention to things other folks just let slide.
50. Often the stories are just from oddities that happen in life. I never thought a broken TV would make a story – but sure enough, it did.
From the story: “Now Michael, because I have educated him in the ways of complex electronics repair, performed the first task one always does when troubleshooting and/or repairing electronics, which is to smack the living crap out of it.”
51. And then there was the story about my friend Betty… and I have to tell you, that was one hard, hard thing to write. It was her eulogy, and it took me a week to recover emotionally from writing it, much less giving it. I still miss her.
From the story: “I’d come into that room, with that pile of trampled masks outside the door…”
52. I wrote about my son’s and my time in Boy Scouts – with trips to Norwegian Memorial one year and Shi Shi beach the next year. The places aren’t much more than 15 miles apart, but the experiences were literally night and day. And after months of pondering I learned that while there was absolute joy in the trip to Norwegian, there was so much more in the way of life lessons from the trip to Shi Shi. They were completely different, but I wouldn’t trade either of them for anything.
The thing about these stories is they’re just out there in the order they come into my mind… Some get finished quickly, some slowly. Some are written in a couple of minutes – some take decades to live and weeks to write. Some I don’t even remember myself until I read them again, and at that point, they’re just as fun (or painful) for me to read as they were the very first time…
53. There was the story of Humpty Dumpty in Winter… – (because we all know he had a great fall) – and I think it’s safe to say that that particular story was the epitome of understatement. It’s just the absolute tip of the iceberg from when I broke my leg.
54. I didn’t write for awhile after that, and when I did, needed something to cheer me up a little, and wrote a story called What Heaven must be like… about an afternoon that was both planned and spontaneous, and I did something that I had never done before. I met new friends, I saw a smile from my son I wish I’d actually caught (there’s a picture in the story *after* he stopped smiling – I was trying to hold the camera steady while we were still coasting toward him at a good clip and missed how big that wonderful smile actually was. That story is very much in my top ten favorites – assuming I have a list like that…
55. And then… for a little fun, I wrote a story that was a combination “Saab Story” and a date with a young lass who shall remain nameless, but who – well, here’s the title: Old Saabs, Big puddles, and Bad dates. You’ll figure it out.
56. Not long after that, my friend Beth wanted me to go out and do something fun, and take pictures to prove it. It was also a time when my friend Greg wondered out loud whether I embellished my stories. I’d heard that question before, and given how weird some of the stories are, I understood the reason behind it. I told him no, I didn’t embellish them, and then, to Greg’s incredible shock, he walked right into one of the stories with me, literally as it happened. The look on his face when he realized what was happening is something that will live on with me for a long time. He insisted I write it down, and that I could most definitely put his name in it, so here it is… There were three main parts to the story – and they all made it into the title: Blackbirds, Blue Saabs, and Green Porta Potties
57. Some of my stories are what I guess you’d call a ‘profile’ of a person – and in this next case, it was of a fellow who was a stranger, was assigned to be my officemate, became a friend, I followed him to another company where he became my boss, and as we grew older and professionally went our separate ways, we still remained friends, and I still have a lot of fondness for the memory of that first meeting of my friend Jae…
58. Then there was the time when my mom used a phrase I’d never, ever heard her use – and I’d only heard used one other time in my life. But that time had a story wrapped around it so tight that you couldn’t hear the words without going into the story. And, as is often the case, the story spans a couple of generations, some youthful stupidity, global warming, and how difficult it can be to keep a straight face when being asked a simple question… You’ll find all that in An “Inconvenient Truth” – and how important asking the right questions is.
59. I went back several years on the next story, which was called, simply, Bathtime… I didn’t realize how – much that little activity with your kid could change your life, but it does, and the story still brings a smile. (yes, there are pictures, but no, they weren’t included in the story, for reasons that will become obvious as you read it)
60. I did quite a bit of thinking as I wrote Dirty Fingernails, Paint Covered Overalls, and True Friends – and liked the way it came out. Life lessons that took a number of years to happen actually came together in an ‘aha’ moment as I was writing this story – and it just made me smile. I opened up a bit more in this one than I had in others, I thought, but it was all true. I found myself happy with the result.
61. Amazing Grace simmered in my brain for several years before I felt it was ready. It was one that happened as it’s described in the story – but I spent quite a bit of time trying to be absolutely sure the images described in the story were written correctly so that whoever read it could not only see them, but feel them. It was an experience, on so many levels, physical, emotional, spiritual. I hope that feeling comes through. Let me know how it affects you.
62. I changed pace completely with the next story. Shock and Awwwwww… took place in the lobby of Building 25 on Microsoft’s main campus. It’s the classic story of “Boy Meets Girl” but there’s a twist… it’s not just a Boy… It’s a Nerd. And it’s not just a Girl, but a drop dead gorgeous girl in the eyes of said Nerd. Everything is going fine until the paperclip enters the picture, and then sparks literally fly.
63. Over the years I’ve found that chocolate has totally different effects on men than it does on women. I mean, if it’s chocolate from Germany, or Switzerland (both are kinds I had when I grew up) then it’s okay. Other than that, I generally don’t go out of my way to find it. I don’t have a reverence for it like you see in some ads, and simply didn’t understand the whole “oh, it’s so WONDERFUL” idea one mother’s day weekend when we went to Cannon Beach in Oregon – and there, I learned that strange things happen when you put Men, Women, Cannon Beach, and Chocolate in the same story.
64. And then I had a week in which – well, I couldn’t quite write a story.
65. There was so much going on, a little fun – but then so much teetering at the edge of life and death thing that it was hard to think of something fun or funny to write about. Life was happening, and I needed to deal with it. I didn’t realize how personal this would become in the next little bit. I was hoping to write a story about graduation for the young people I knew who were graduating, but a lot of the echoes of what had recently happened to me followed in the next few posts,
66. And I wrote a story about Graduation, dodging bullets, and other life lessons… that seemed to encompass all I needed to say, plus telling the young graduates something that might help them along their way.
67. And then, of course, there was the 4th of July – a holiday that carries with it many memories that would have my son convinced that Darwin was completely wrong. In this case, the story was about Rockets, Styrofoam airplanes, the Fourth of July, and Jimi
68. And an example of how some stories come from the weirdest places – all I can do is point you to this one: TEOTWAWKI* (if you’re an arachnid) – so if you’re a spider, you might not want to read this one.
69. And then, in a story about an event my mom found out about literally as she read my story about it, and, as she told me, had her heart beating a little because she didn’t remember it and wasn’t quite sure of the outcome. Again, proving Darwin wrong, we have what happens when you Take one teenager, add horsepower, and get… It’s entirely possible that that’s when my Guardian Angels were issued their first pagers.
70. After that, I found a couple of stories I’d asked my dad to write. He’d written four of them on the computer and printed them out – just before the computer was stolen. I wrote a ‘wrapper’ around the stories to put them in context, but otherwise, they are exactly as written. I did that with three of his stories, and they are One act of kindness that’s lasted more than a lifetime,
71. Puff balls and Pastries - in which – well, a little mishap caused a problem that had some surprising consequences.
72. …and Some things matter, and some things don’t. I was truly stunned at the world he was describing in this one, in large part because there was something in it that was considered by the people of that time and place to be “normal”. I often wonder about his friend there, what happened to him.
73. By this time it was summer – and it was time for the kids to visit the grandparents back east, and it got me thinking about that time many years ago when I had to do some Rat sitting while they were gone, so I wrote about that one, and smiled at the memory.
74. And then, a story that had been in my head for years, and I think by far the most read story on the blog, and it was a simple story about Tractors, Old Cars, and a Farmer named Harry
I checked with his family first, having a long conversation with his son before I published this, and got their approval. I heard from his friends, I heard from people who didn’t know him, and because of the story, felt they did or wished they had. I had no idea what an impact a story like that could make – but it clearly did, and I felt it was – and had been – a privilege to know Harry and his family.
75. The next story took place in church – where often children are supposed to be quiet – but one child made her presence known in a totally different way in
76. Writing the story about Harry made me think of Grad School, and I found myself humming the song “Try to remember the kind of September…” and wrote a story around that – my first couple of days in Athens Ohio – what a cultural shift it was, and simultaneously, what a neat and terrifying experience it was to do this (go 2500 miles from home, to a place where you knew no one, and see how much of a success you can make of yourself…)
77. That got me reminiscing a bit, and the next story was from when I was about 12, when I spent part of a summer Haying, growing up, and learning to drive a clutch… It was a fun summer – and both trucks, the ’66 Dodge and the ’54 Ford, the truck that could pull the curves in the Nisqually River straight in the story still exist. They were sold to a neighbor who still uses both of them. And my uncle’s back has completely healed.
78. “The only thing missing was an old Jeep and mugs of bad Army coffee.” I found myself thinking about how God reaches for us in some of the strangest places – and remembered thinking this as we were walking back from a Civil Air Patrol Search. It was our first real search instead of a practice one – and we were quite excited about actually being able to put our training to use… The combination of all of those things brought me to the story God, Searches, and ramming Aaron through the bushes
79. Lest anyone think I’m so incredible (you should know better) that God talks to me like He talked to Moses – there was a little story about – well, it fell squarely into the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series. I learned a lot about keeping the fire (and, come to think of it… starting the fire) in the stove.
80. If you’ve been reading the stories, you might remember that I took a trip down memory lane – on the Autobahn, to Munich, at 110 mph, in the story Octoberfests, Museums, and Bavarian Waitressess – it combined almost getting kicked out of one museum, getting locked out of a second, and trying to drown our sorrows in a very famous place, Munich’s Hofbräuhaus. …and – I wonder if the waitress (in the story) is still there… Whether she is or not, she made a memory that’s lasted over 30 years…
81. Taking risks…
“…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” Yeah, there’s a story that wouldn’t have happened if the scaffolding hadn’t held, if the receptionist hadn’t called the janitor, or if, simply, I hadn’t thought to ask if I could climb out on the roof of the courthouse to get a closer shot of the construction going on. Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to be bold, step out of your comfort zone, and ask for EXACTLY what you want. You’ll be astonished at how often you’ll actually get it. And sometimes, you might even have proof that you asked…
82. We go from the top of the courthouse to sitting in the shade on Mr. Carr’s front stoop. And I never thought that I would (or could) write a story about a sandwich, but this one was worth writing about. I still remember how cool that water was, how moist the – oh, I’d better stop, pretty soon you’ll want your own Mr. Carr’s Sandwich
83. A story about my friend Jill – including the only picture I was ever able to take of her, as well as the line, “WHAT have you DONE to my CAR?” – said in a way you might not expect.
84. The story behind my son’s famous quote, “Sometimes, things go wrong…” There’s a lesson there that we could all learn a lot from.
85. In the story A tale of Three Christmas Trees, and a little bit more… you’ll find the line,
“In fact, it’s safe to say, that in that year, God did not have Christmas trees falling out of the sky for us. Well, actually… I take that back. He did.”
And it’s true. But there’s much more to that story, involving things like how much character you get from being poor – and learning to not take things for granted, and making things on your own. All amazing stuff in and of itself, but together, wow.
86. Every now and then, a dream will show a startling reality in a way that simply can’t be explained in words. It was new year’s day – and I wrote of a dream I’d had – and the lesson in it in A New Year’s thought, of flashlights, warm hands, and a wish…
87. …and then – a story that had happened a decade earlier finally made it into print, and I wrote about Meeting Howard Carter in the back of the Garage… If you don’t know who Howard Carter is – read the story – you’ll find out. There are links to him there – but what’s interesting is the story has very little to do with Howard Carter, and much more to do with a dishwasher, and a ‘70’s era Plymouth that was big enough to put a small village in the trunk of.
88. Michael and I, in dire need of a break from everything, hit the road in the story Road Trip! (and Mermaids… and the Gates of Mordor) – and crammed just about as much as we could cram into one 24 hour period as we could, in two states. We combined Horses (a couple of brown ones and a mustang), and music, and too many spices, and old, fun music, and theatre, and sports, and an excellent impression of the Four Yorkshiremen, and it all melted into one afternoon/evening/morning/next afternoon that was a tremendous amount of fun.
89. Even as this next one was happening, and I was smelling a truckload of gasoline in a place I’d never thought I’d smell it, and blocking traffic in the last place I wanted to block traffic, I found myself wondering if this was going to make it into a story. It did. It’s here: Caffeine, Clean Engines, and Things that go Whoomp in the Night…
90. If you remember the story about “Transmissions from God”, you know that occasionally I hear God’s still, small voice telling me to do something. Sometimes I hear Him in a junk yard, sometimes I hear him in the balcony at church, and sometimes in Safeway parking lots in Ballard.
91. If you’re keeping track, this next story, in the order they were written, was Norwegian… – though it happened a year before the Shi Shi Beach story. It ranks as one of the top camping trips I’ve ever been on.
92. And this next story was literally a dream. If you’ve gotten this far, you know that occasionally I’ll remember one, and for whatever reason it will have something significant in it. I called this one Jungles, White Helicopters, and Long Journeys – because when I had that dream, I thought I was near the end of a long journey – but in reality, – well, if you’ve ever gone through a challenging time – and you can pick your challenge. The story fits. Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
93. And after I wrote that one, I got to wandering down memory lane a bit – sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a hankie – sometimes both. It’s funny how a certain smell rocketed me back to Sidney, Ohio and this story: Black and White, and Read all over… – and it’s written pretty much how I told it to my son on the way home one evening. It still brings a smile.
94. While I was in the neighborhood, so to speak – I remembered the time I wandered into a radio station just outside of Sidney, because no one told me I couldn’t – and making a new friend with the DJ there. I smile every time I think about that time, and the story Radio Stations, Paul Simon, and Blue Moons came out of it.
95. I’ve had stories take on a life of their own – and this next one was one of them. I started off just writing a story about me doing something that had unexpected results, and it suddenly turned into something more. Something much, much more. You’d never think that Carburetor Cleaner, Hot Water, and a Cold Sprite could be mentioned in the same sentence and have a common theme – but they were – they do, and I feel, honestly, honored to have been a part of the story.
I will miss Dan. He’s one of the best.
It took me awhile to figure out what to do next… the story about Dan was published, along with some of the other “Saab Stories” in the Saab Club Magazine – and I just had to let it simmer a little bit, as it was, if you read it – a hard story to finish.
96. The next story was one I’d written a year earlier, and was one of those things that my daughter would say just happens to me. I don’t know why, maybe because I pay attention? I’m not sure… In this case, I was out for a walk, and a little dog interrupted that walk and melted my heart for a good while. When I found out the dog’s name, I was stunned, and did lots of research into the name, just to understand it. I think it’s because of all the research I did that my mind was completely overwhelmed with the name and what it represented, and I didn’t like the story at all. But – a year went by, and I read it again, and sure enough it made me smile. It turns out that Fuzz Therapy with Rasputin is cheaper than any other kind of therapy.
97. Sometimes therapy comes in different packages. I remember one time, years ago, my son was sick, it had been an exhausting day, and I’d just gotten him to bed, but he wasn’t sleepy. I was sitting there, in the tired exhaustion felt by all parents of youngsters at the end of a long day, trying to figure out what I could do to make him comfortable enough so that he would go to sleep. Of course, if he went to sleep, that meant I could sleep, too. While I was pondering this, I heard his voice cut through the thoughts, “Papa? Tell me a story…”
A story. It was like I’d been in a dream, and he’d pulled me out of it. A story. I tried to think, and knowing he liked dragons, I figured I’d start somewhere and see where it took me. I’d had a class years ago where we wrote a story, one sentence at a time, but the professor wrote a word on the board, and we had to write a sentence around it. Then he’d write another word, we’d write another sentence. Eventually, we’d have a story, but we wouldn’t know, from one sentence to the next, where the story was taking us.
And that’s how I started… Blindly going where no story teller had gone before, I started off with my first sentence: “Fred was a Dragon.” – and I went on from there, the story slowly taking shape until it became the story you can read as: Of Dragons, Knights, and Little Boys… Let me know what you think when you can.
98. I put this next one out on Father’s day. It’s a Saab story, but it’s more than that… it was a trip my son and I took to visit my mom on the fourth of July – and an adventure that had a fun quote come out of him. It made me smile, and – wow – 6 years later, I finally wrote it down. It became the story called …if Will Smith drove a Saab 96
And – it’s still July as I write this… I’ve been going through a lot of these stories, trying to find my favorites – find the ones that made me smile – that still make me smile, and also find the ones that made me think, or helped me learn something…
Sometimes I learn things that people show me, or teach me, or from some mistake I made.
Sometimes I learn from things God puts in front of me and gives me the privilege of seeing, and learning from.
And sometimes I learn from stories that have made me cry, in living them, in writing them, and again in reading them.
There’s a little of every one of them in there. There’s tales of youthful stupidity, there’s the story in which my son says I’ve simply proved Darwin wrong – that it’s not survival of the fittest – it’s survival of the luckiest – and often there’s an element of truth to that. The phrase that sticks with me is the one he said after I told him one of my “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories. I heard words I’d never, ever have thought to hear from my own offspring, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
99. So to finish that off – a tale that involves a uniquely American holiday, youthful stupidity, a good bit of luck, and the sound of Guardian Angel’s pagers going off yet again… It’s the memories of July 4th… When I was a kid…
Thanks for being with me through these first 99 – well, 100 stories. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have.
Take care & God bless,
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.
Hey all – I’m back. I’ve been off, away from my writing – and away from a lot of other stuff – for a bit – learning some pretty important lessons about dodging bullets (or maybe, as my son says, angry meteors) – and have been learning about family, how important it is, and how important it is to take care of each other.
I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of that recently – and got to thinking about how much I’m looking forward to “graduating” from needing that. I’ll write more about some of those lessons – but it’ll take some time for them to simmer a bit, or bake a bit, or do whatever lessons do when they start roaming around in my noggin.
But back to that graduation thing…
Several friends, or children of friends, have just recently graduated from various parts of their lives – some from high school, some from college, a couple from Boy Scouts (they made Eagle) – and it got me thinking about when I graduated from college…
<play along with me here – fade to black – and then come back to a much younger me…>
When I went to college, I found, to my surprise, the little bit of photography I’d been dabbling in was something other people thought I was good at.
Also to my surprise, I did not know at the time that you could schedule classes in college to NOT start at the hour when God Himself hadn’t yet thought of making coffee, but sure enough, my very first class started at 7:30 in the morning. It was called “Media Production” – where we were to learn about making slide presentations…
(using real film – none of this fancy digital crap you have now– that we had to expose, and to develop the film, by hand, we had to walk two miles, uphill, in snow 10 feet deep, and – no, wait… wrong story… sorry – my “old codger” dial was set a little too high there… that’s been fixed, and we now return you to the regularly scheduled story, already in progress…)
…and the final project would be a presentation of both slides (images) and music that we’d made on our own. About half way through the course, the instructor interrupted our work on our presentations with a message from the editor of the yearbook. I was standing up front between two young ladies who also didn’t get that memo that you didn’t have to take classes before God finished grinding His coffee beans.
The message from the editor of the yearbook was simple: They were backed up with assignments, and desperately needed help in photography, and our instructor wanted to know if any of us wanted to volunteer to help them out.
At that moment, I felt one firm hand on each shoulder push me a step forward.
The two young ladies, bless their fuzzy little hearts, had “volunteered” me.
I asked about the requirements.
“You need to have a camera.”
“I don’t have one.”
I didn’t. I was borrowing the school’s old Nikon FE for this class.
“You need to have darkroom experience.”
“What’s a darkroom?”
My experience in dark rooms was limited to turning the lights off.
And thus started my ‘career’ in photography.
I spent an astonishing amount of time in the darkroom the first few weeks, learning how to mix chemicals, how to develop film properly (in large part because I developed it improperly first), how to print pictures well, (in large part because I printed some absolutely awful images). Lordy… talk about making mistakes – but I was learning, and learning things like to how to tell when the water was exactly 68 degrees (which is the temperature most developer had to be for film to be developed) – all the stuff you don’t even see anymore because it’s all digital, but it was magic, and I loved it.
So much of the learning how to do it right was learned by screwing it up first, and doing it wrong, first, and eventually developing (pardon the pun) the experience to build on over time so I wouldn’t make those mistakes again…
I shot for, and later became the photo editor for the yearbook “Cascade”, and did the same for the student newspaper, “The Falcon.”
By the time I graduated, I’d been shooting at SPU for two years, to the point where I’d gotten to know everyone from the president of the school to the head custodian. I learned what time the light was good on which buildings – and which season was best to shoot them in. I’d shot from the roofs of building you weren’t supposed to be able to get to (Knowing the president of the school does not get you onto roofs of buildings… Knowing the head custodian does – funny how that works) – and I went everywhere – and I mean *everywhere* with my camera bag and my two Nikons and assorted lenses.
I took my camera bag with me everywhere, except for one night, when I went up from the darkroom (in one building) to get something I’d forgotten in my dorm room. I just left the bag in the darkroom, and walked up to the dorm quickly – but feeling very strange and off balance since my camera and bag had become such a part of me. In fact, it became clear to me that I wasn’t the only one used to seeing me with it. One person I passed that evening seemed totally startled by the fact that I was there and blurted out, “Tom? – is it really you? I didn’t recognize you without your camera bag!”
And that little comment followed me all the way to the day I graduated from Seattle Pacific University.
In fact, while on the roof of one of the dorms, taking pictures from an angle no one had thought to take pictures from, I saw a friend walk by below who’d complained about me being “everywhere” – popping out from behind bushes and the like, and the situation was just too ripe… I mean, if there was ever an example of low hanging fruit – this was fruit just ripe for the picking – even if I was doing it from the top of Marston Hall at SPU. I leaned over the edge, focused on him, took the picture, and then ducked back onto the roof, “leaving” the camera hanging over the edge just long enough for him to look up on hearing the sound of my motor drive and to see it being pulled back. I waited about 10 seconds, then peeked over the edge and waved. He was standing there, mouth open, staring at me, his suspicions confirmed, that I was indeed, “everywhere.”
The funny thing about that was that, like I said, everyone was used to seeing me with my camera bag, and conversely, people quite literally didn’t recognize me without it. But this meant that I became, for lack of a better way to say it, a fixture, with my cameras, all over the place. Most, if not all of the faculty had gotten to know me in one form or another, and so when it was clear that my time at SPU was coming to a close (in large part because I was graduating) a thought, nay, an idea started germinating in the dark, developer soaked recesses of that mind of mine.
See, if everyone knew me with the camera bag, and I walked across the stage to get my diploma with it, there’d be a couple of laughs, or worse, no one would notice at all, it was just “oh, that’s Tom, with the camera bag” – and I’d be done.
If I just walked across the stage with nothing, that would have the same effect…
I’d just be an anonymous graduate who had 4 people in the audience cheering him on, and that would be that.
After all I’d done, after all the pictures I’d taken, the memories I’d captured, the treasures I’d seen and shared through my cameras, I wanted something *just* a touch bigger.
So I started thinking, and that idea started festering into thoughts like:
“What would the faculty *not* expect?”
“What would the students *not* expect?”
“What would the audience *not* expect?”
…and what could I do that would make them remember that it was me who walked across the stage, and not some other student?
And then, as if by magic, the day before graduation, I got a surprisingly big paycheck, and I bought a motor drive for my Nikon F-3, the best camera out there at the time. This motor drive would let me burn through a roll of film (36 frames) in about 8 seconds But I also bought myself what was then known as an SB-16 – or a “Speedlight” – think of it as a flash for the camera, on Tour de France levels of steroids. It would keep up with the motor drive for about 6 frames if you set it right, and I found myself pondering what I could do with that combination.
I didn’t have to ponder long.
If carrying the camera bag across the stage was out…
And carrying nothing across the stage was out…
…and so, I managed to conceal, under my gown, my Nikon F3, the MD-4 Motor Drive, and the SB-16 Speedlight. I put a set of fresh batteries in both the flash and the motor drive, threw my standard 50 mm lens on the camera, slung it over my shoulder, put the gown on over it, and set the whole thing “just so” so that it would hang without putting too many bulges in the wrong places.
One of the things I’d learned over the years was to hang the camera over my right shoulder, and hang it there with the lens facing my body. That way, the lens was protected, and if there was a shot I needed to take quickly, I could reach down with my right hand, grab the side of the camera that held the shutter release, whip it up, and have my left hand ready to hold the lens while the right held the camera body.
Having the SB-16 on there kind of nixed that idea, since the flash would have been rather uncomfortably in my armpit, even with the long camera strap I had. So I had to hang it with the lens facing out, then when I was ready to go, twist it around so I had my right hand on the camera where it needed to be. Given what I was doing, this had an unintended effect, namely that all the little blinky lights on the back of this new strobe were now facing outward.
None of the students could see this, but as I was standing there, waiting to cross the stage, having handed the little card with my name on it to the Vice President of Academic Affairs (the guy who read my name for everyone to hear), the camera, the motor drive, and the strobe unit together made for a large, blackish object just under a foot and a half tall, bulging at my shoulder, with little blinking lights.
And several of the faculty, sitting on the stage, saw me reach for it and turn it around.
I saw their movement, and looked right to see tittering wave of comments and concern rippling as more and more of the faculty’s eyes focused on the blinky lights and the bulge under this one student’s gown.
Before I could react, and before anyone else could say anything, I heard my name called, and things simultaneously went into slow motion, tunnel vision, and I felt like I was hearing everything underwater.
When I looked back, I saw the school president, Dr. Dave LeShana smiling, saw the look of expectation in his eyes, the diploma in his hand. I saw the orchestra, and my friends in it, playing quietly, or watching, as their parts dictated. Past them a bit, I saw the photographer, waiting to take a picture as I shook the president’s hand, and I did what I’d just rehearsed in my mind a few seconds before: six steps out, pivot on the right foot, the seventh step, face the audience, bring the camera and flash out, (it did have film in it, for later) flip the top of the flash down (it was aimed straight up) – and then I fired the camera out at the audience until the flash stopped flashing.
A pin, dropped on a carpeted floor would have echoed in there.
I waved at the crowd, then looked over at president LeShana, who started laughing, and I shook his hand. I held on for a bit, waiting to see the flash of the photographer who was supposed to be shooting *my* picture, and saw nothing. I let go of the handshake, and looked down at the photographer, who was just staring, rather dumbfounded. I realized that I had significantly more – um – firepower – photographically speaking, than he did, and he was just shocked into silence and inaction.
Not wanting to hold up the ceremony any longer, I walked past him, got to the stairs that got me off the stage, and as I took my first step down, my ears seemed to start working again and I heard the crowd, the students, on their feet, cheering and screaming.
I high-fived a bunch of them as I walked past.
Yeah, that was better than just taking the camera bag across the stage.
Years later I heard from my sister, who’d been there. She’d talked to the fellow who was the student body president, who’d been sitting in the 4th balcony.
“Was that your brother who shot graduation?”
“He didn’t shoot it, he graduated.”
“No, I mean, he graduated – but he took pictures, from the stage, didn’t he?”
(Given that everyone else was taking pictures aiming toward the stage, this was notably different)
“Oh, yeah, that was him, why, did you see him?”
“Oh I saw him alright… I was watching him through binoculars, every time that flash went off was like being hit in the eyes with a sledgehammer.”
Heh… yeah… it was different than the standard, run-of-the-mill trip across the stage.
…though I sure would have liked it had the photographer gotten a shot of Dr. LeShana and me.
So… gosh, do I have a message for those of you out there graduating?
I hadn’t planned on one – but hey, since we’re here, there’s actually quite a few of them…
You won’t have all the answers when you graduate.
You’ve barely learned to ask the questions.
I learned a lot more after that day, but the thing that had me thinking was this:
I took risks.
I made the best decisions I could make while working with incomplete information, and as much as you tend to look back and think thoughts like “if only I’d…” – those thoughts are useless without a time machine to go back and prove that your “if only…” would have been the right decision.
I climbed tall buildings (not in a single bound, mind you, and always with permission – though there’s a certain church I’ll never climb up again with or without permission, that was just scary high, and steep) –
I did things “just because” – and I had a blast doing it.
On the other hand, I was so poor afterwards as I was starting out that there were a lot of things I didn’t do. I learned to make a big can of oatmeal (that cost me $2.86) last a month. I remember inviting friends over for lunch – and it was boxed Mac and cheese that I’d gotten for a quarter.
And it was fun.
Would I put all that hard work into it again?
In a heartbeat.
Looking back on it all now…
Did life go the way I’d planned?
Nope. Not even close.
Would I change anything, looking back on it now?
That would involve that time machine again, proving that whatever decisions got me to this point were the absolute right or wrong ones to be made – and remember the bit about making the best decisions you can with the info you’ve got at the time?
Some parts that have happened were better than I could have possibly imagined in my wildest dreams.
Some parts that have happened were worse than I could have possibly imagined in my worst nightmares.
That’s called life…
Remember the good. Learn from the bad.
Do the best you can, with what you’ve got, at that time, and you build on that.
When you look back, you’ll see you made mistakes.
Some of those mistakes will have been small, but as you look back, you’ll see you made some huge ones.
But look harder, and you’ll realize you’ve learned a lot of lessons from those mistakes…
And after you learned those lessons, I’ll bet you didn’t make those mistakes again – or as much (because you now had *new* and *exciting* and *bigger* mistakes to learn from!)
And sometimes, even when you think you finally have it all together, and you’ll have some sort of picture, symbolizing all the lessons you learned, something will invariably go wrong (like, say, photographers at graduation not taking pictures of the graduating students…) and the only thing you’ll have are the memories.
So… learn what you can.
Learn from those mistakes.
Forgive yourself for making them.
And move on, teaching those who come behind you as you can.
Take care folks…
In this blog, I’ve been trying to write stories that have been “baked” – where I’ve spent the time over the years getting to that “aha” moment, where the laughter, the lessons, the tears have been learned, and I can share them with you.
This post is a little different.
I’ve been asked by a number of people to give “hankie warnings” on some of these stories, and in honor of that request, please consider yourself warned.
This post is a little more personal than the others, and it’s a number of stories, kind of intertwined.
As I write this – November 8th, it will have been 10 years since I spoke the words below, in front of a well-dressed, somber group of people who listened, who laughed and who cried.
I had been in that last category for ten months, and on November 8th, 2000, these people joined me there.
It was the day we buried my dad.
He’d been in the Air Force. He’d done his time in many countries. It was his time in the Air Force that had him meet my mom, that gave him stories of far-away places to tell, and that shaped my childhood. Some of those stories I’ve recalled in past posts, some are still, as it were, baking, and will be written when they’re ready.
I was at work on January 10th, 2000, when I got “the call”. Those of you who’ve been through this will understand what that means. It’s actually hard to describe the feeling to someone who hasn’t been there, but when I got “the call” – my heart froze, and given where I was, I did the only thing I could do…
…and then I wrote.
I didn’t know whether I’d ever get a chance to tell dad all the things I’d wanted to say over the years – and it seemed that if I was ever going to take the chance, that right then would be that chance, instead of saying all the things I wanted to say to him in a eulogy where he couldn’t hear me, and the words would be empty.
So I wrote a note to him that January afternoon. It’s included in what’s below – which, ironically, is the eulogy I gave for my dad, 10 years ago today.
= = =
That’s what it says there in your program that this is going to be.
But how do you put into a few words the life of a man who was a brother, a husband, a father, an uncle, a father in law, a grandfather, a teacher — and all those countless other things that a man is in his life?
I’m not going to go into the history of dad too much, you all can read that on the backs of your bulletins. We tried to get as much in there as we could. We’ll also have some pictures going in the fellowship hall so you can see a little more about who dad was.
But right now, I’d like to tell you a little bit about who dad is.
By now most of you know a bit about how this all came about, and for a number of you, the last time you saw him was in this very church on January 8th of this year at Tom McLennan’s Memorial Service.
Dad went into the hospital that night, stayed in ICU at Madigan until May, during which time he had a stroke and some other complications, and later was taken to Bel Air Nursing home in Tacoma, where he died last Friday.
I wrote him a note on January 10th, when things looked pretty bad, his heart had stopped the night before, and we didn’t know what was going on, since he’d walked into the hospital the night before that, and I tried to tell him what he meant to me. I’d like to read part of that note to you, because in a lot of ways, it tells a bit about the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions, and the legacy that he left behind.
1:45 PM 1/10/00
It’s Monday, you’re in the hospital right now, and I’m praying for you.
I have to tell you a few things, just so you know them.
I love you.
– this is so hard to write…
I don’t want this to be the time to say goodbye, but I need to say a few things so that when the time comes, I can say goodbye knowing I’ve told you what I need to tell you.
You know as well as I do that there were a lot of things in our lives that haven’t panned out the way we’d planned.
Because of the time you spent away from the family in the Air Force and at school, I didn’t get a chance to have you around when I really needed a dad.
This doesn’t mean it was easy for you, in fact it was hard. I know now it was very hard for you as well.
But I want you to know that good has come out of that.
I try to spend time with my little boy now as a result, and I’m glad I was able to get my schooling out of the way before I became a papa.
Because you went away to school to improve yourself, I learned that sacrifice is sometimes necessary for future growth.
And good has come out of that.
I learned how much a son needs his father, and I try to be here for my son. So even though you felt very much like you were a failure, you weren’t. You taught me a valuable lesson, one that I will treasure always.
Because of the time you spent fixing things (and the time I spent holding the flashlight for you*)
*He’d ask me to hold the flashlight for him while he was working on something, and being a kid, my attention span was about as long as a gnat’s eyebrow, and so I’d be looking all over, shining the flashlight to what I wanted to see.
I learned how to fix things I never thought I could.
I also expanded my vocabulary during these times.
Because of the way you showed us responsibility, I was able to get a paper route and learn responsibility early, on my own.
Because you helped us deliver those papers on weekends sometimes, I learned that sometimes helping your kids to do the things they’re responsible for doing is a good thing.
Because of the way you told me to take things one step at a time, I was able to build pretty big things at Microsoft when I was there,, one step at a time.
And because you made things for me (like a train table)
and read to me (from Tom Sawyer)
and told me stories (like Paul Bunyan)
and sang to me (The Lord’s Prayer)
and took me to work (where I spun the F-4 Simulator)*
* — in the Air Force Dad was a flight simulator technician — he fixed flight simulators, and one time he took me to work, I think I must have been 5 or 6, and there was this whole line of these simulators — all just cockpits of airplanes, and he, as fathers are known to do, picked me up and popped me in the driver’s seat. I sat there, my eyes huge, as I saw all these dials and gauges in front of me, and it was just so cool and so complicated. — And there was this big stick thing in the way, so I pushed it off to one side so I could get a better look at the dials. I didn’t know that the simulator thought it was flying, and by pushing that stick over I made it think it was corkscrewing into the ground, and all the dials and gauges started spinning and I got so scared, I thought I’d broken it, and I looked out at him — he was standing right there, talking to someone else, and with fear and trepidation said, “Daddy?” — he turned around, took one look at what was happening, reached in and fixed it. Just like that. He fixed it. I hadn’t broken it. But he just reached in, and with one touch, he fixed it.
and showed me things, (like Wolf Spiders)*
When we lived in Illinois, we discovered that the spiders there are significantly bigger than spiders here in Washington.
So one time Dad was in the basement, doing something, and he called me down. He wanted me to see what he’d found under this can. So, being a kid and being curious, I squatted right beside it, and then picked up the can — to find the biggest, hairiest god-awful ugliest wolf spider I’d seen in my entire life. I jumped up and screamed, and dad was over there laughing so hard. I didn’t think it was funny then, but for years all we’d have to say was “wolf spider” it would bring the whole thing back, and we’d have a good laugh over it.
and surprised me with presents (like at Christmas in 1971 when you told me to clean up a pile of newspapers, and you’d put a bunch of toy trains underneath them)*
*He kept asking me to clean up the papers, but there was always another present to unwrap, another toy to play with, another cookie to eat — and finally, when the Christmas eve was finally winding down and we were cleaning up, I remembered the newspapers and started to clean them up — and underneath was a train set he’d gotten from somewhere, on a set of tracks, just waiting for a little boy to play with them.
and provided for me (helping me get my first Saab)*
*Many of you in this church may remember praying for that very car…
and went out of your way to help me (when that first Saab broke down)
– and the second Saab, — the third one (the fourth one’s out there, it runs fine)
and drove all the way up to Seattle to SPU when I was a student one Christmas to bring me a present — a radio controlled Porsche 928) when you knew it was the only thing I would get.
and visited me at work when I was able to show you where I worked and what I’d become professionally
And supported me in your thoughts and prayers as I became a father in my own right.
You showed me love.
And because you told me, I know you love me.
I love you too.
I read this note to him several times, never being quite sure whether it got across to him. In August, at the nursing home, I read it to him again, and he looked at me very intently while I read it, and as I finished, there was this look on his face, of peace, of contentment, of, “My job is done.” and for a split second, the stroke seemed to be gone.
He then took the note from my hand and read it himself.
And I know that he knew when he left that he was loved, he was cared for, he was appreciated, and that he would be missed.
We rejoice for him, we’re happy, for him, that this ordeal is over, but we’re sad for us, for the big, dad/Gary/grampa shaped hole he leaves in each of our lives.
– I was thinking the other day about the things I’d miss about him, and I’m sure there will be many to come, but the things that come to mind right now are the little things — and it’s always the little things, isn’t it?
The fact that he’d say “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” so often that we didn’t realize how important it was for him to be able to say that, and now, how important it was for us — the whole family to have him as a cheerleader in the background. There were times he couldn’t do as much as he wanted to do for us, and in his mind, he always wanted to do more — and the fact that he’s no longer in the background, just being there cheering us on — I’ll miss that. We’ll miss that.
I miss his meow — for those of you who don’t know, he had this way of meowing like a cat so you couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It drove us nuts — and we miss it.
I miss him greeting Michael and me with, “Hello Sonshine”
I miss seeing him snuggle my little girl Alyssa, in his lap, reading any of a number of books to her, and the look on her face that told me of the security she felt in those arms.
I miss him standing with mom, waving good bye to us as we left after a visit. — and no matter where we were, when we got together, he’d always thank us for taking the time to do that, to get together as a family, and to include him and he would always remind us, “You are loved.”
We miss him telling us “Remember, a fat old man loves you.”
I miss him yelling at us to shut the living room door. That’s the sound we grew up with. We’d run out, be halfway up the stairs, and hear, “SHUT THE DOOR” — of course, he hadn’t done that for years since he put a spring on it so it’d shut itself. But I miss knowing I won’t hear it again.
I miss him calling me up at night to tell me there was something interesting on Channel 9 that he wanted to share with me, even though we couldn’t be together, we could see it at the same time.
When I was growing up, and I’d be upstairs brushing my teeth late at night, I’d hear dad snoring downstairs, — a gentle snore (at least from upstairs) and I knew that that meant all was right with the world.
I’ll miss that, too.
And even though there are many things we’ll miss about him, I know he’s better off now than he was for the last 10 months.
Some time ago I had a dream — a dream of him essentially dying, and it didn’t look as bad as we all generally think of dying.
In my dream, he was laying there, his body all there, but kind of gray, and damaged. It looked like dad, but suddenly he broke free of that body, and he just kind of came up, there was this whole, healthy copy of him, in living color that kind of came out of him like a butterfly comes out of a cocoon, and he was free, he was whole, and he flew away, leaving the gray, damaged body behind him.
After Dad died, Petra was doing some thinking about what his death was like for him, and the image she came away with was this, that dad was in bed, in the nursing home, having just been sung to and prayed for by the love of his life. She laid down on the bed next to him to rest, and dad, who had had his eyes closed, suddenly could see her.
The machine wasn’t breathing for him anymore.
His mind was clear, not muddled by a stroke.
His heart didn’t struggle.
His feet weren’t cold.
We imagine he looked around, saw the things we’d brought in to make him feel at home, saw his beloved wife laying there, who’d been with him for 41 years, for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and with his new, whole body, then left the presence of his wife to be with his Lord.
During dad’s life, we all knew that no matter where we went or what we did, dad loved us, and I am convinced that up there in heaven, he loves us still.
When the service was done, we headed to what would be dad’s final resting place, and on that cold, clear day, the wind blowing the oak leaves around the cemetery, our family gathered around dad one last time as he was given a military funeral, with an Air Force Honor Guard from McChord Air Force Base, a flag, and a rifle salute.
We shivered as we took our places in the chairs under the portable gazebo they’d set up for us, with mom sitting in the front row. I walked away for a bit to clear my head as the ceremony started.
I’d seen the airman with his trumpet, trying to keep his mouthpiece warm on that cold day, and I knew he was going to play Taps – which I’d learned to play when I played the trumpet in junior high school, but I’d never had to play when it counted.
Taps, originally used to signal “lights out” in the military, eventually became the bugle call played at funerals, where it signaled – or symbolized – a final “lights out” for an individual.
I’d heard it played when my friend Bruce Geller died in 1978.
I’d heard it played when I, as a photojournalist, was covering the funeral of Lee Stephens, a sailor from the USS Stark that was hit by a missile on May 17th, 1987, and each time I’ve heard it, it has been like a knife in the heart for me.
It is a symbol of the end of a life, and of a loved one, where they make that transition from living in your life to living in your memories.
I remember, as I shot the funeral of Lee Stephens, how I wanted to honor the grief and sorrow his family was experiencing, but at the same time, I wanted to tell the story that this young sailor, from a small town in Ohio, who’d graduated just a few years before, had people left behind who still loved him.
I remember seeing, through the viewfinder of my Nikon, through a long, long telephoto lens, the look on this sailor’s mom’s face as the sergeant of the honor guard handed her the flag. It was a photo that, while it was “the” photo from a photojournalism point of view, I did not take. The moment was too intimate, the grief was too raw.
I remember her eyes, simultaneously exhausted, numb, disbelieving, and utterly spent as she accepted a flag from an honor guard member, “…on behalf of a grateful nation…”
In walking away a bit, I had unconsciously recreated the view I’d seen through that camera, the photo I didn’t take in 1987 at that cold cemetery 13 years later, and I was not prepared to see that look on my mom’s face and in her eyes
But I’d seen that look before, and knew what it meant.
We’d had 10 months to prepare for this moment, but the fact is, we all know we’re going to die. Being faced with it as “sometime” in the vague future is one thing. Seeing it in front of you in unblinking reality is something else entirely.
I saw the honor guard fold the flag as precisely as they could fold it
But this time, I wasn’t hiding behind my camera, trying to insulate myself from the pain of a mother who had lost her son.
This time, while I wasn’t a mother who’d lost her son, I was the son of a mother who’d lost her husband.
This time, I was a son who’d lost his father.
I understood things a little more clearly now.
I understood a little more about how much it means to sit in that chair, and have someone hand you a flag, in exchange for someone you love.
As if that wasn’t enough, it was then that they did the rifle salute. For those of you who have not experienced it, it is very much like a 21 gun salute. Retired military members who have served honorably receive a 9 gun salute, a volley where 3 soldiers fire off three rounds apiece. It is done as a sign of respect, of honor. For those not prepared for it, it can be shocking.
The call was made,
“Ready! Aim! Fire!”
Three fingers squeezed three triggers.
Three firing pins hit three cartridges.
Three cartridges fired and were ejected.
The honor guard was called to attention, and the command “Present Arms” was given so precisely – they all moved as one. Those without rifles saluted – those with rifles held them in the “present arms” position.
As the three shots echoed away, the only sound left was of those leaves, the movement of cloth, and the click of rifles being presented.
There was a moment where this was all we heard. Leaves rustling, coats flapping, and the stunned silence of those still not ready to let go.
It was then that the bugler, who’d clearly kept his mouthpiece warm, played Taps. He played it solemnly, clearly, and with the respect and honor due.
– and through the wind, I heard the sergeant’s words I’d heard years before, “on behalf…of a grateful nation…” drift across on the wind as he solemnly handed the folded flag to my mom.
And at the end of the day, as I watched them drive off, I found myself, in spite of the fact that I had my own family, a job, a mortgage, all the trappings of being an adult, I found myself crying, because underneath it all, I was a little boy who’d just lost his daddy.
I cried for the fact that much as I’d wanted to, there were things left unfinished.
I cried for the relationship that had at times been rough, but had started to mend.
I cried for the relationship that, like it or not, mended or not, was ended.
It is Veteran’s Day as this is published…
For those of you out there who are wearing the uniform, or for those of you who have worn it, with honor, you have my greatest respect.
For those of you who’ve lost your sons – like Mr. and Mrs. Stephens, who lost their son Lee, and so many others, and for those of you out there who’ve lost your daddies, my heart goes out to you.
For those of you who are still daddies, remember your kids only have one of you, and they only have one childhood.
It’s not a dress rehearsal, it’s the real thing.
Take the time to be there for them while you can.
Love them. Hug them.
Veteran’s Day, 2010
A number of years ago I was shooting in Muskegon, Michigan, for the Muskegon Chronicle, and over time discovered that one of the favorite things for local folks to do was to just go down to the lake (Lake Michigan) and watch the sun set. It was a tradition, it was peaceful, it was pretty.
The clouds in Michigan, or at least that part of Michigan always amazed me, and I realize now that subconsciously, when I had the chance, I shot images that emphasized them…
This one day I went down there, and – oh, you need to know that I was driving a 1979 Ford Fairmont I’d bought in Ohio – with a paint job courtesy of Earl Scheib and Acid Rain, Incorporated. This thing was as smooth as sandpaper. My mom tried to wax and polish a little corner of the trunk once after I’d brought it back to Washington and it was like trying to wax a gravel driveway…
She said, “Oh, look, I can see my shadow!” (as opposed to reflection).
I gently cuffed her one…
The reason the car comes into the picture is that it had Ohio plates on it.
I was in Michigan.
The plates had expired.
Put that on the back burner for just a little bit.
I got down to the lake – and – oh, another important thing. I’d found that shooting with ‘normal’ lenses just didn’t work for me – and found myself shooting with an 18 mm super wide angle lens on one camera body, and a 300 mm telephoto on the other. You don’t get much more of a spread than that. I figured that if I was close enough to shoot something up close, I wanted to be right in its face, hence the 18… if I couldn’t be in its face, I needed to reach out and touch it – with the 300.
In this case, I saw a bunch of guys fishing at the edge of the lake – and figured I sure didn’t need the 300 – so the 18 it was. I was thinking the shot through as I walked closer, and to get him in the shot, along with the sky and the sunset and everything, I’d end up kneeling on the ground and shooting up at him – so I went over and chatted for a bit, then got into position to shoot.
And a police car pulled up.
And Tom, with expired, out of state plates, suddenly got really, REALLY nervous.
I didn’t know what he could/would do – but if there were some problems, they’d have been bigger ones than I was capable of dealing with right then. So I did the only thing I could think of, and ignored him, figuring he might not think that the car was mine – or something like that. (note: this would be an example of the application of the Infinite Wisdom of Youth®).
I shot away, and chatted with the fellow, making some nice images with the sky, the clouds, the sunset, the water, his fishing pole, and the silhouette of him…
…and the cop kind of faded from my consciousness.
Until I felt a huge, hairy, gorilla’s hand land on my shoulder from about ten feet up, and a firm voice saying, “Hah! I’ve got you now…”
If I hadn’t already been kneeling, I would have been very quickly.
I was petrified, was it worse than I thought? Had he run the plate to find out that it was registered to me? What were the ramifications of driving out of state with expired tags? The fine? The penalty? A confused, scared cloud of thoughts tore through my mind as I tried to figure out how to get out of this one that I wasn’t even sure I was in…
I slowly turned around, to see, much to my horror, that the image my terrified mind had conjured up was right. The hand on my shoulder wasn’t attached to a gorilla, it was worse.
It was attached to an arm in a policeman’s uniform.
I don’t know what my face looked like but as my eyes worked their way up that sleeve, I saw that the face on the policeman attached to it was smiling.
Was this an evil smile? An “I have you now” smile? I wasn’t anywhere near calmed down by that smile – and I saw he was raising his other hand. That didn’t make sense, the gun would be in his right hand, and he was raising his left one…
…which had a little disposable camera in it.
The cop’s smile got even bigger.
“I got you! I got a picture of you getting a picture of him!”
If I hadn’t been kneeling already (you know…)
The relief that was pouring through my body was like cold water on a dry lakebed. Cooling, sizzling as it hit the hot surface, it soaked in to cool it to the core.
(Luckily, that’s the only fluid we’ll need to talk about in this story.)
I laughed with the policeman, joked with him a bit about how his lens very likely outclassed mine, and so on. He promised to have a copy of the print at the paper as soon as it was developed, and true to his word, he did.
As soon as I find that shot – it’s in a box ‘somewhere’, I’ll put it in here. However, failing that, here’s the “Fishing by the lake” shot…
Oh – one more thing… he never mentioned the license plate….
Saltwater State Park, Federal Way, Washington, 1989 or so…
Learning to skate.
We had a family tradition to come to this park on Father’s day, and it was always a nice spot to look for people just having fun.
In this case, I was working for a newspaper in Tacoma, and was shooting what we called “feature” shots, and found myself drawn to that park.
I saw a father teaching his daughter how to roller skate – with these huge hurking skates that just really didn’t do much more than make noise, but by golly, they were skates, and she wanted to try them, so try them they did.
I talked with the dad for a little bit, asking if it was okay if I shoot, and when he said yes, I walked across the parking lot and started shooting with my 300 – that way I wouldn’t interfere with what was happening, and the pictures were more spontaneous.
I knew, just knew she was going to fall – and was just waiting when she did, just like her dad was – and we both caught her at the same time.
The thing that got me about this shot was that there isn’t any evidence of fear in her eyes at all, there is just trust. “Daddy’s going to be there for me, and I’m going to be okay.”
Look again – does she see her father? No – there’s nothing she can see – it’s all trust – believing that he’ll do what he said he would do.
I’ve learned a couple of really important things from that image,
- That trust is a very valuable thing. Knowing that “Daddy’s going to be there…” is an amazing thing – both from our earthly fathers – daddies – to our Heavenly Father. If you know – really know that your Father is going to be there, you will have trust – and therefore, no fear.
- I also learned that daddies taking the time to take their little girls to the park is just way, way past cool.
It was in “Athens-by-God-Ohio” that I met her, the feistiest, orneriest, funniest little old lady (short of my mom) I could ever hope to meet.
Cleo was 88, and I was there in Grad school a number of years ago, getting my master’s degree in photojournalism – and I was there without a car. This limited the stories I could do to pretty much walking or busing distance, and I found that Cleo lived just down the street.
Cleo was as independent as they come, and lived alone, in her own house. She did her own grocery shopping, did her own chores, and spent occasional afternoons at the senior center in town playing cards or just reminiscing with the dwindling group of friends her own age she could relate to.
Her kids thought she was too old to live by herself, so they decided that she needed to be moved into a nursing home.
68 miles away.
She disagreed, but it seemed that they were pretty insistent, and they moved her there.
Well, she promptly hopped a Greyhound back to Athens.
They didn’t mess with her anymore after that.
In talking to her, I found that she did her chores on Saturday, and since I was trying to find a story – I thought that it would be interesting to see what kinds of stories could be told in the pictures I could get of her doing that – so I made an appointment with her for Saturday morning around 10:00. After we talked and joked a little, I told her that her job was to ignore me, and to just do what she would normally do.
And she did..
…and she mopped.
Now when she mopped, she put on these old floppy galoshes, grabbed a bucket of water and whatever cleaner she used, and sloshed water on the floor and mopped it up. There was no grace to the movements, no pretense. She wasn’t putting on a show for me, in fact, she was in her own little world, and completely ignoring me, which was just perfect.
I took some pictures of the mop and the galoshes, thinking that would make a good detail shot, and then, as I was focusing, she picked up the bucket and started for the back door. I followed, getting a shot of her opening the old, dilapidated screen door, and at that moment, the light came on in my head – she was going to throw the water off the back porch!
I literally jumped past her as she hung the mop onto a string, spinning 180 degrees in mid air so I landed facing her somewhere in the middle of the little back yard. I must have instinctively focused the lens (a 24mm Nikkor) somewhere in mid air because I don’t remember doing it. I hammered down on the shutter release for the motor drive of my Nikon FM-2 just as she did her back swing to lob the water off the porch, and got a series of 5 shots of the water sloshing out of the bucket into the yard.
Number 3 was the best.
1/250th of a second at f/8. It wasn’t an easy print. I printed it as high contrast as I could get – but that meant that the highlights (specifically her right arm, where the sleeve ends and the arm begins) were blasted out pure white and needed to be burned down so you could see detail. I dodged out the galoshes, making sure you could see them, and used a touch of potassium ferricyanide on the wet mop hanging on the string to make it less of a blob. I burned the wall of her house down a little darker (photographically, not in real life) so it would fade into the background a little, bringing the water up a bit in the process.
She was 88 years old back in 1987, so I’m sure she’s gone now, but she was a neat lady. I’m glad to have known her.
The picture at the end of this story was shot in Grad School – Ohio University, sometime around 1988 or so.
I had a friend and classmate, Johnny Crawford, a wonderful shooter from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who was truly a lot of fun to be with – but he had this one habit that just got to me after awhile… it was his pension for saying, “Tom, you ain’t lived till you’ve…” – and then fill in the blank with something that he’d done and he knew I hadn’t.
Understand, he wasn’t gloating, he wasn’t being mean, he was just telling me how cool it was to have been able to do something he had done, and, in his eyes, I hadn’t lived till I’d done one of those things.
Well one day he says, “Tom, you ain’t lived till you’ve shot F-15’s bein’ refueled.” – now of course I knew that he wasn’t talking about F-15’s being refueled on the ground, he was talking about that complicated aerial ballet that means you’ve got two airplanes flying around 250 – 300 mph within about 40 feet of each other, pumping highly refined kerosene from one to another at a rate of about 6,500 pounds a minute. This is enough fuel in one minute to run your average family car for a year.
Eventually I got a little tired of never having lived – so I needed to figure out where I could find a refueling base, because that’s where I’d need to go to get onto a KC-135 refueling plane to take that shot that was going to ensure that I lived. I went to the library, and checked out a book about the military, and it gave me the location of all the bases in the United States. And funny thing, but there was a base with a KC-135 wing 68 miles away.
Now anyone who knows me knows I am just plain dangerous with a telephone. My wife says I can talk to anyone, and sometime I just end up sweet talking my way into things that even I end up baffled at once everything’s all said and done. She once complained that I could get into a 20 minute conversation with a telephone operator. (I did, actually, he used to be an air traffic controller when Reagan was presi – well, that’s not important right now). So about 3 telephone calls later, I’m on the phone with the PAO (public affairs officer) of Rickenbacker Air National Guard base, in Columbus, Ohio. I explain to him that I’m a grad student in photojournalism at Ohio University and that I’m working on a story on the Air National Guard (partially true) and was wondering if there was any chance of getting up on a refueling mission to take some pictures. So – after talking about that and security and stuff for a bit, he suddenly said, “How’s next Tuesday?”
It had to be harder than this…
It just had to be.
Nope. Tuesday it was…
Plane took off at 10:00. We’d be refueling some Missouri Air National Guard F-4 fighters who were on a training mission. I had to be there 2 hours earlier, which meant I had to leave an hour before that, and so on. I borrowed a car from a friend and found the airbase, talked my way into see the right people, made the right introductions, signed the right paperwork, and out the door I went, still completely baffled… It just had to be harder than this…
One of the things to understand about military planes is that they are generally not built for comfort, so the plane was loud. This being an Air National Guard plane – the same folks had flown this same plane for years, so to them it wasn’t much different than you or I driving down to the store to get a quart of milk. However, they’re going a little faster, they have 4 engines pushing them along, and the store’s a lot further away. At one point the navigator did some calculating, and noticed that if we continued at the rate we were going, we would be late to meet the planes we were to refuel, and since we were the only gas station around, us being late could easily mean those flying jet fighters would fly about as well as crowbars, and that’s not good. So he saw we were going 300 mph, and told the pilot to bump it up to 330. The pilot reached up and wrapped his hands around the 4 throttles and – well, ‘bumped’ them up a bit. I had no idea a plane that big, could accelerate that fast at that speed. I was watching the airspeed indicator, and we went from 300 to 330 in a blink. I was very glad I’d been holding onto something when he did it or I would have ended up in the back of the plane.
We got to the refueling zone – and I was told that the way the refueling is done, is that the pilots of the tanker, and the pilots of the planes needing the fuel fly directly at each other, the tanker flying 1000 feet higher. When they get close, they both head in the same direction – so, say the tanker I’m in is flying east. The planes needing the fuel are flying west, toward each other, and at a given point, everyone heads north, so that the F-4’s are below and behind the tanker. Our call sign was Pearl 07. Theirs were Misty 41 and 42.
The weird thing, for lack of a better word, about all this is that it was happening in three dimensions. I mean, if you’re here on the ground, and you point to something, your arm is generally parallel to the ground or close to it, because whatever you’re pointing at is usually on that same ground, or close to it. When I saw these planes – I was in the back of the tanker, looking out the back – and they were swooping in from the right, and they were off to the right, and down. Not just ‘over’ but ‘down’. One of the planes was leaving what looked like a white smoke trail, and I heard over the radio, “Pearl 07, Misty 41, I’ve got a fuel leak, returning to base…”
I don’t know about you, but a fuel leak you can see at 300 miles an hour must be a pretty significant fuel leak… He left.
Misty 42 came closer – into what they call the pre connect area in the back of the plane, and just stayed there for a bit – I was amazed at how big the thing was, and had the widest lens I had on my camera (a Nikkor 24mm ) – I was framing the shot when Gus (the boom operator) said, “Misty 42, forward 50” – meaning he needed to come forward 50 feet to get into the area where the boom could connect. Now I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting much acceleration out of that plane – I mean the plane can go twice the speed of sound, for crying out loud – but when he came forward that 50 feet, it was like he’d been shot out of a cannon, and then he stopped, parked right where he needed to be. Somewhere in there, just before he hooked up I reflexively squeezed off a shot, and that was the only shot I got that was worth anything – after that he was just too close.
He took 3,000 pounds of fuel, I don’t know why I remember that. He wasn’t there very long, and then, since Misty 41 had already left, Misty 42 peeled off in ways I’ve only seen in movies – and there just isn’t a comparison to seeing it in real life, as opposed to seeing it on a screen, where, no matter how much they try to show the three dimensions of what’s happening up there, it’s still a two dimensional screen. It just doesn’t cut it. It was so, incredibly, cool.
We turned back east and headed back over Illinois, Indiana, bits and pieces of Kentucky, and finally made it down out of the wonderful sunlight, down through the clouds, and into a rainy Ohio afternoon.
We debriefed, I headed back toward Athens in my borrowed car with an exhaust leak, and stopped at a Burger King on the way to get a late lunch while I had the color film developed next door. What I didn’t know is that this particular film developing process didn’t use fresh chemicals for each batch of film. They used them until the film didn’t come out good anymore, and then changed the chemicals.
Guess whose film was the last one through that batch of chemistry? The prints just didn’t look quite right. It turned out that the film, though developed, was simply not printable in color, the three colors (cyan, magenta and yellow) didn’t develop at the same rate – and there just wasn’t a way to color balance all of the colors at the same time. After a lot of thought and frustration (considering what I’d gone through to get this picture) I ended up out of pure frustration printing it in black and white.
This, surprisingly, was a dang good idea…
Of course, by now it had been a long day, lots of driving, lots of flying, and because of the car, lots of carbon monoxide, and now I had to go to the darkroom on campus to print the pictures. Of course, it was always a social event because there were 50 enlargers in the darkroom, and everyone was working on their own images, and every now and then, you’d go out into a finishing area and look at them in white light instead of the orange safelights, to see what the thing really looked like, wash it off, spot correct dust, etc…
…and, if you had a particularly good one, you might find yourself examining it a little longer out there where other people could see it, if you know what I mean…
One of the things in that original image was that there was this huge black area in the bottom right of the picture, part of the inside of the plane that that wide lens caught. I was trying to figure out how to make the picture work without cropping too much, and yet that black area just sucked your eye right down there when one of my classmates walked up and saw the picture.
“Wow! Cool picture! Who take that?” (he was from China, and this is how he talked)
“No, Tom, you not take that picture, don’t joke… Who take that picture?”
“Seriously, I did.”
He could see I wasn’t joking – honestly, by that time, I was too tired to joke.
“Okay, fine… Where you take that picture?”
… but I wasn’t too tired to string him along a little and mess with him…
“Missouri.” (understand, Missouri is three states west of Ohio, easily a day’s drive)
“Missouri? No, Tom… You joking again. Where you take the picture?”
“Okay, I’ll be more specific… 26,000 feet above Fredericktown, Missouri.”
There was a look of consternation on his face, and finally resignation as he realized I wasn’t kidding.
“Okay Tom, you not joking this time… When you take the picture?”
- This one was like feeding a straight line to a comedian, and the only thing I could do was the last thing he’d expect.
I looked at my watch.
His eyes got real big, then he just threw up his hands and gave up. The thing is, at the time he asked the question, I’d taken the picture about 6 hours ago – so the most logical thing to do was to look at my watch and find out how to answer his question.
I was so hoping Johnny would come by so I could tell him I’d lived. He did, later – but the reaction from my classmate was the best.
That said, below is the shot of Misty 42.
PS – years later – I got back in touch with him and sent him this story.
His response: “Tom, you have Lived!“
MSN had this question on their website awhile back – and I had to answer, “Uh, yeah.”
Years ago, I was working for the newspaper in Tacoma Washington as a photojournalist when I saw smoke coming from the south… Not just a little smoke, but a huge amount of it – forest fire size. I checked with my editor, and they cleared me to go shoot it. I filled up the tank of the company’s Corolla I’d been assigned, and headed south.
Thing is, to get there (Morton) from Tacoma was about an hour and a half or so, so I wasn’t able to go instantly, but I followed my nose and eventually came across a sign spray painted on a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood:
← Forest Fire
- it had an arrow pointing left. I took that road, and drove for miles on a logging road laid through the forest like a broken suspender. Finally came to a clearing with a pond where a helicopter was dipping water – I got a few shots of that with a 50 mm lens because it was quite literally right in front of me, then just as he pulled out – an aerial tanker shot out from behind a hillside in the distance – dumping his load of red fire retardant onto the fire. It was amazing, hillside… smoke… tanker… red stuff… I swung the camera up and got the picture – but because I still had the 50mm lens on the camera, it was a teensy bit of an image – I’d needed a telephoto for that, and that was still in the case in the back seat of the car.
So I did what’s normal for firefighters, ambulance drivers, cops, and journalists, and drove toward the flames.
I kept seeing signs for the tanker trucks, and the trucks themselves, often feeling them before I saw them, rolling earthquakes coming down the mountain to refill themselves with more water.
The newspaper I worked for had radios in all the cars, and they worked on a repeater system, a lot like cell towers. You’d grab the mike, push the talk button, and wait for the chirp to tell you the repeater was in range, and then you’d start talking. If you were out of range, you’d get the obnoxious “braaap” instead of the chirp. By this time all I heard was “braaap.” I was on my own. I made it around the edge of this box canyon and was heading up a ridge. The next turn would have put me on the hillside that tanker had hit. It was around this time that the car started handling a little differently… Mushy in the rear end, drifting to the right. (toward the box canyon).
This was followed by the sound and sparks of the rim of the wheel hitting the sharp rocks on the road that had flattened the tire.
I couldn’t control the car very well, the rim wasn’t giving me anything in the way of traction, so I had to stop – in the middle of a hill, flaming box canyon to my right, smoldering hillside to my left. I tried to change the tire – but given where I was, any tanker truck careening down the hill to get refilled would see me at the last second, before there was too much time to avoid a collision…. And…. That would make the forest fire a bit worse.
This would be bad.
I squeezed the car off to the side as far as I could, and hit the ground with the dedication and intent of an Indy pit crew.
Except, they jack up on level concrete.
I didn’t have that.
They have these pneumatic insta-jacks.
They have air wrenches.
I had a big bent wire with a socket on the end of it.
I was jacking up a company car, on a hill, with a flat, so it was hard to even get the jack under there, and once I got it up, it desperately wanted to fall off. Most of the things that I would have used to brace the car to keep it from rolling were on fire, so that limited my options a bit. Understand, at this point I’m feverishly working on getting the car into the air, got my back to the canyon now, so all I see reflected in the car fender is embers.
The smoke was getting a little thicker, and to say that there was a touch of urgency in my actions might be considered an understatement. My main concern at that time was being hit by an out of control tanker truck – well, the forest fire was a bit of a concern, too, but the only place to run to avoid the collision was on fire.
Oh, the other thing Indy pit crews have is tires with air in them. I’d gotten the spare out of the trunk – and it was then that I discovered that it was low. Not flat, but low enough to keep me from driving the car very fast on this or any road, much less a dirt one with sharp tire eating rocks on it.
At this point, it was quite clear that getting photos of the forest fire was rather secondary to me getting myself out of there.
iSo if it isn’t clear yet, I’m in the middle of a hill, on a dirt road, smoldering canyon to my right, hill to my left, road up ahead turns left out of sight, and since the road wasn’t wide enough to do a three point turn, the only way I can get out is to back out down the hill on an almost flat tire until I can find a spot to turn around. So I did that, backed up for about ¾ of a mile – then drove far, far slower than I wanted to as I was getting out – leaving the smoldering hillsides in my rear view mirror.
What I didn’t know then – at least until the next day – is that among all the burning stuff was some poison oak. I was wearing contact lenses at the time, and whatever was in the poison oak got into them. The next day – I only had to put the contacts in and I felt like my eyes were on fire. Ended up going to a clinic then to get things taken care of, but enough of the oils in the poison oak had gotten into the soft contacts that they were completely shot.
So: did I get the picture and did it make the paper?
Well, I got pictures. Not the dramatic ones I wanted, but I got something , but the most important bit was that I got out.
I had to drive quite awhile on that tire – remember, it’s not completely full of air – so the car’s lurching about as I have to drive slow so as not to overheat it and blow that one, too.
Eventually I found a gas station in Elbe, and filled up the (by now) very hot tire there. As I left, I saw an absolute herd of emergency vehicles heading the other way.
Knowing I had to get the film back to the paper, I tried to reach them on the radio: “Braaaap” – no go. I found a payphone. No go. Every number I called was simply unavailable and I couldn’t reach them by radio.
Then I heard on the scanner that this was a fatal accident, and the paper generally wanted images of fatal accidents, so I kept trying to call, and eventually gave up and chased the State Patrol and the aid cars and the various official vehicles. They left the main road and headed down a gravel forest service road at high speed. I stayed glued to them, because otherwise I’d be completely lost. I heard the EMT’s talking to each other on the scanner, “Who’s that in the little brown car? Is he with us?” “Nah, he’s not with us, must be some sort of vulture from the media.”
Oh good… I was a vulture.
We all got to the scene of the accident – and it was striking how innocuous the road looked. It didn’t look like you could kill yourself on this road, but someone drove their last mile here. It swept gently left, then gently right, and as it was gravel, you could see exactly what had happened. The fellow was going too fast, and started sliding on the left turn, then finally caught it, and overcorrected too late when the road swung right. The truck was on its side in the middle of the road and by now it was getting quite dark. I should have been back at the paper hours ago.
I was living at home with my folks at the time, and knew that they’d be worried if I didn’t show up and didn’t call to tell them why. I was trying to figure out how to do that when one of the staters walked up to me and asked if I could take some photos of the accident scene for them. I saw my chance: “Sure – as long as I can talk you into calling my folks and letting them know I’m okay… – just – when you call, don’t immediately identify yourselves as “hi, I’m Sgt. Smith from the Washington State Patrol and I’m calling about your son, who’s at the scene of an accident…” – that would freak them right out…
Call ‘em – let ‘em know I’m okay – and I’ll shoot what you want. Deal?
So I shot, then headed back to the car, and drove as fast as I could to get back to the paper to process the film of the forest fire and accident. Of course, I didn’t want to drive so fast that I’d see the same Staters again.
I kept hitting the microphone switch, waiting for the little ‘chirp chirp’ that told me I’d hit the repeater, because once I’d hit that, I knew I’d be able to talk to the paper.
It took about 30 minutes of fast driving before I got a chirp, and 10 more before I got it reliably. Once there, I got through to the chief photographer, who told me to call him when I was closer – I’d missed the color deadline, we’d see if I could get there in time to do the black and white deadline.
By the time I got to – let’s call it ‘civilization’ – I’d missed the black and white deadline, too, so what this meant is that the photos I’d taken would never see print.
When he knew where I was, he told me to just head home – which saved me about 40 miles of driving.
I went home, and got there somewhere between 9 and 10 – and took the contacts out and crashed.
Next day – when I put the contacts in – all the oils from the burning poison oak were like red hot pokers in my eyes – and it was almost impossible to see – and for a photographer, that’s kind of a bad thing. I went to a clinic where we decided the contacts were a lost cause, and that if I was ever near a forest fire again, I should do what I could to stay upwind of it.
It seemed like a good idea.
Is there a moral to this? I didn’t think of any while writing this – but I feel I need to tie it all together somehow.
Well, I suppose there’s several morals:
- Be prepared. This might sound like a little Boy Scout thing – but there’s a lot of truth to it. Make sure you’ve got air in your spare, make sure you’ve got a jack handle. I know of one person who decided that to get better mileage, he’d dump the spare and the jack, “because he had roadside assistance on his cell phone”. That just wouldn’t have worked out there.
- Make sure the folks who care about you know where you are. It’s just not cool to make people worry unnecessarily.
- When shooting forest fires… Shoot from the upwind side.
…and stay away from the poison oak. It’s nasty…
(c) Tom Roush 2009