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Here in America, it means there are lots of events involving fireworks. Some of these things are legal, some are not. Some can be made with good old Yankee ingenuity, and some can be made with a little bit of knowledge of chemistry. There can be an astounding variation of things, but the bottom line is that they all explode, fly, or make lots of sparks.
And of course, if you do it right, they’ll do all three.
And the thing about my friend Jimi was that if there was any possible way that something could blow up, or fly, or make lots of sparks… he’d figure it out. It seemed like “The Fourth” for Jimi was a day to celebrate everything – and he went all out on it.
One time – he and I had decided that the big Styrofoam gliders you could get would fly better if they were powered by something stronger than an arm, like, say, a rocket engine. So we found that there was one kind of thing, called a ‘ground bloom flower’ – that, if aimed correctly and taped securely to each Styrofoam wing on this glider, two of them might produce enough thrust to get it airborne.
It turns out that timing the ignition of these things was a pretty major challenge – and that the concept of asymmetrical thrust – that is – one of these things lighting before the other – was not theoretical at all, and the plane, when we did manage to get it in the air, didn’t fly so much as spend its time trying to do a very colorful pirouette to one side, followed by a lurch forward for the split second both “engines” were firing at the same time, followed by a feeble attempt at another very colorful pirouette to the other side as the first engine died and second one lit off.
Was it entertaining?
Did it fly well?
It’s safe to say that it really didn’t fly very well.
It’s also well to say that it wasn’t very safe, at all…
I mean, a highly flammable object, that’s already got a totally unpredictable flight path, combined with devices that are already spewing sparks and flames…
What could possibly go wrong?
In our misguided attempt to actually get the thing to fly, we kept fiddling, and finally got things set so we could try again – and found that where the fuse came out of the ‘ground bloom flower’ wasn’t exactly where the fire and thrust came out.
We were able to deduce this by the large hole the flame had burned in the right wing. We taped over that and decided a single producer of thrust would work better if we could center it.
So we – after long and hard thinking of all the things that would be illegal to purchase and let fly in Shoreline (where Jimi lived), we realized that model rocket engines would be perfect (and legal) – and bought a few of those, made a self-ejecting holder out of some ductape, stuck a fuse into the engine, lit it, and threw the plane, figuring it’d fly, gracefully, as it should.
Turns out that adding that much thrust to one of those things doesn’t necessarily improve anything in a predictable way – and after even more fiddling, the first one that actually flew did a very tight loop, hit some wires, and came down hard, mostly in one piece.
The next one was a little better, but it was the last one, that I didn’t see, that was clearly the best.
I’d just run into the house to get something, when I heard the rocket engine fire, and I heard Jimi yell. I heard a thump, the rocket continued to burn, and Jimi laughing like an absolute lunatic.
By the time I got out there, tears were running down his face, he was holding his stomach, and having trouble deciding whether to laugh or breathe.
I looked around and followed the smoke to the hood of his car. It seems the engine had burned itself out by then – the smoke more of a haze at that point – but before it had done that, the little rocket engine had pushed the plane up high enough so that one wing had hit a telephone wire again. That spun the plane around 180 degrees, pointed right at the ground. It came down at full power, almost pulled up, but hit and bounced on the hood of Jimi’s little Chevy Nova, getting the nose stuck under one of the windshield wipers. The little engine that could wasn’t done yet, and continued to burn with the plane trapped by those windshield wipers – finally ending up burning the paint off part of the hood of the car.
Jimi was just beside himself.
I was mortified, and thought that he’d have to figure out how to explain that to the insurance company, but he just wanted to leave it the way it was. The scorched metal, the blistered paint, was worth far more as a story to him than getting a new hood put on the car ever was.
I’ll always remember that laugh of his – and how much it meant to just hear that childlike joy.
It’s funny – Jimi and I were so much like kids in all of that that neither he, an award winning photographer who never went anywhere without his Olympus cameras, nor I, a budding photojournalist who never went anywhere without my Nikons, took any pictures of the event.
We just laughed and laughed and laughed.
And some memories are best left there, in your mind, as a memory that remains strong, and bright.
I miss him.
For now, just imagine the intense hiss of a model rocket engine, the hollow metallic thunk of some hard Styrofoam on a metal hood, and the sound of two grown men laughing like the little boys that were still very much alive inside us.
Those little boys who had read all the small print on the fireworks and rocket engines… “Use under adult supervision…”
Yeah, we supervised alright.
It was a good day.
Years later, in Jimi’s memory, I decided it was time to share that joy of Styrofoam airplanes, rocket engines, and some adults who still remembered what it was like to be a kid with my son, but that’ll be a story (complete with pictures) for another time.
Have a safe Fourth of July, folks.
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 and thinner 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 (most of the way across campus and up a steep hill). I just left the bag in the darkroom, behind two locked doors, 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, one day, while on the roof of one of the dorms, taking pictures from an angle no one else 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 my mind.
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 on stage, 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. And 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 roof 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…