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Have you ever come up with a snappy answer to a question that you just couldn’t get out of your mouth in time?
Except for once, when I was in grad school in, as it was known by the director of the program, “Athens-by-God-Ohio.”
One of the things that we tried to do, as grad students in photojournalism, was to get internships at newspapers.
It built up our portfolios, got us to understand the daily pressures of working in a real paper, and so on. It was also a cheap way for the newspapers to get some help, and my first internship was in a small town in West Central Ohio. I’d applied for the internship by sending out the portfolio, the cover letter, the self-addressed, stamped manila envelope, and the whole nine yards, and was completely blown away when I actually got a call telling me that I’d gotten it. I was ecstatic, and I had to call someone to tell them the good news. The first person on the list was my sister (who, as an aside, was instrumental in getting me to start writing these stories down in the first place). I’d been telling her about the challenges in getting an internship (they involved moving to where the internship was, for example) so I called her.
She worked at Seattle Pacific University, and a college student who was her assistant at the time answered the phone. When I asked for my sister, the student innocently said, “…she’s not here right now, can I take a message?”
And at that moment, God saw the setup for a perfect punch line, chuckled a bit, and actually gave me the snappy answer without making me have to wait two weeks for it.
See, I realized that the name of the town I was in, the name of the town I was going to be in, and what I was doing could make for a wonderfully misleading combination. So I took a deep breath, and said in my most authoritative and confident voice,
“This is her brother Tom, I’m in Athens, and I got the internship in Sidney.”
There was an almost reverent silence on the other end of the line for a moment, and then, “Uh, wow. Congratulations – I’ll, uh, I’ll make sure to tell her.”
And so, on Easter Sunday, I got into the car and drove from Athens to Sidney, Ohio, (which was about 150 miles, vs. flying from Athens (the original) to Sydney (the one with the Opera House), which is just under 10,000 miles) and I spent some time as a photographer for the Sidney Daily News, in the little town of Sidney, in West Central Ohio.
Now one of the first things I learned in West Central Ohio is that people were just plain friendly.
I don’t know if it was just an Ohio thing or more, but folks in the parts of Ohio I’d visited would just wave at you to say hi, just because you were there – not like where I’d lived in Seattle just before then, where they’d just look at you, maybe. I learned later on a lot of this just had to do with the proximity of so many people. If there were only a few of you (in the country), you tend to notice each other. If there are massive herds of people (say, in the city), you kind of ignore each other just out of self-preservation – one of the many differences in Country vs. City living.
Now I mentioned that I’d driven to Sidney.
I’d purchased a 1979 Ford Fairmont from a guy I could barely understand (if you think America has no regional accents, go to Southeast Ohio sometime and try to talk to some of the folks who live back in the “Hollers” and haven’t come out for generations
The car was all straight and everything – in fact, it’s mentioned in another story — it’s the car I drove across the country in. Come to think about it, it’s also the one I was driving in Michigan when I met the strong arm of the law…
Anyway, back in Athens, as I recall, the very first thing I did after getting the car was to lock my keys in the trunk.
Seems the fellow hadn’t told me about the spring to hold the trunk open being broken, and I hadn’t felt the need to check for dead bodies or anything in it, so I bought the car, not having opened the trunk. After he drove off, I unlocked it, opened it, accidentally dropped the keys in the trunk, then dropped the trunk lid on my head as I discovered the broken spring while reaching for the keys I’d dropped.
Yeah… good times…
So one lump on the noggin and $50.00 to a mobile locksmith later I was good, had the keys back, and was literally on the road.
For as old as it was, it got great gas mileage, and I used it to explore Shelby County, where Sidney was, and it was there that I learned there was an etiquette to driving in that part of the country.
See, if you’re on a country road out there, you wave at people as you go by.
If you see oncoming traffic, the very least you do is raise a finger (no, not that finger) in simple acknowledgement of the other person’s presence. It’s a neighborly thing to do, so you do it.
If there’s a farmer (and there are a lot of hard working farmers out there) working in his field, you could be a quarter mile away, driving at 60 mph with your right hand on the steering wheel, the left elbow out the window, holding on to the roof of the car, and literally raise a finger, one finger (the index finger, on your left hand, the one on the roof, just in case you’re curious) and the guy would wave back.
I was just amazed at this, how easy it was to just chat with people you’d never met, how simply nice people were.
So one day I was driving out to get some of what we called “Feature” photos out at a place called Lake Loramie, I’d just driven past one of those farmers, had just waved at him with the index finger of my left hand, just like I mentioned earlier, when the car died.
Stone cold dead.
I checked the gas gauge as I coasted to a stop
. ¼ tank.
I put my four-way flashers on and carefully pulled over just a little with the last of my momentum (they have some pretty deep ditches in some of those places so I wanted to be careful) and then did the very male thing of propping the hood open and just stood there, with a perplexed look on my face as I tried to figure this out. I mean, I wasn’t out in the middle of nowhere, but I thought I could see it from where I was, and the car I’d had for about a month was dead. No symptoms, no rattles, no wheezing, no coughing, no last gasp of any kind.
It was just dead.
I’d been driving and maintaining cars for a while by that time, and was pretty sure I knew what an engine needed to run…
It needed gas (I had ¼ tank) and
It needed air (I was still breathing, so that part was taken care of)
It needed spark. (I’d had that).
I was still standing there trying to figure out what could possibly be wrong when I heard the chugging of a tractor coming out of the field.
From the dust trail behind him, I could tell it was the farmer I’d just waved to.
He asked what was wrong, and since I’d never had a car quit on me quite like this before, I said, “I think it’s out of gas.”
“Well, let’s take you up to Harry Frilling’s, Harry’s got some gas…”
He untangled a cable off the back of his tractor, wrapped it around the front bumper of the Ford and headed off.
I sat in the car, hypnotically watching the tread on those big tractor tires just a few feet in front of me as we chugged along at a whopping 8 mph, until we pulled into Harry’s farm yard, where the anonymous farmer unhooked the cable and headed off. Harry came out and asked what was wrong, and I told him what I thought the problem was, (that it might be out of gas) but that knew I still had ¼ tank, which made it all a little confusing. We both stood there for a bit, leaning on the fenders, and looked under the hood, in that thoughtful way men look at engines when they don’t have a clue as to what’s wrong…
“Wha’dja say your name was?”
“My name’s Tom Roush, I’m a photographer for the Sidney Daily News.”
“Ooooh…. and, uh, where’d ya say you were goin’?”
“I was just going up to Lake Loramie to get some pictures for the paper.”
He pondered that for a moment, as if trying to decide on something…
“How long d’you think you’ll be gone?”
I thought – figuring time to travel up and back, find an image,
when I had to get back to the paper, plus deadlines and the like… and that left me with…
“About an hour or so…”
More pondering by Harry.
“Why don’t you take my car? Key’s in it.”
Why don’t I take his car…
Why don’t I what???
I looked him in the eye to be sure – but he clearly wasn’t kidding.
So, I accepted his offer, and took his car, which was much nicer than mine, carefully putting my camera bag on the passenger’s seat beside me instead of just tossing it in like I did with the Ford.
I drove it to the lake, not much was happening, so I stalked some ducks and got a picture of a duck and ducklings, brought the car back, and got some gas from Harry’s tank that he had for his farm vehicles to put in the Ford. I paid Mrs. Frilling, who was inside, and went off, still kind of amazed at the difference in people from one part of the country to another.
I made the picture, it got into the paper, and life went on.
Weeks went by.
One day I had on my shooting schedule for that evening some kind of award at an event at a hotel in town. I went, and found it was, ironically, a “Ducks Unlimited” dinner – an organization which I knew nothing about, but figured it was about some kind of conservation of ducks. Okay, whatever. I figured I’d just show up and shoot the event and get back in time to process the film, mark the shot I thought was best, and then leave it for Mike (the chief photographer) to print the next morning.
So I was standing there at the back of the room, and realized that this award was happening sooner rather than later, and I’d missed the name of the recipient. I wouldn’t have time to get up to the front of the room and would have to quickly shoot from where I was, so I put a telephoto lens (my 180 f/2.8 for those of you who are curious) on the camera (my Nikon F3), along with my powerful SB-16 flash (the same one used in this story) and was just focusing on things when the award and a prize were handed to whoever the recipient was.
And the prize was…
Wait a minute…
This is Ducks Unlimited… They’re not trying to conserve ducks to keep them alive, they’re trying to conserve them so they can make them dead!
The things I learned when doing my own shooting…
I was just floored, but I’d gotten my shot, and I had to finish the job, so I noted the suit jacket the fellow with the new shotgun was wearing, and made my way to the front of the room where he was talking with someone.
I waited for a bit, standing behind him, and with my cameras and camera bag hanging off my right shoulder, and my reporter’s notebook in my left hand, I tapped him on the shoulder with my pen.
“Excuse me, sir, my name’s Tom Roush. I’m shooting for the Sidney Daily News and need to get your name for the paper.”
The fellow in the suit jacket turned around, and I saw nothing but a huge smile on his face as a big, meaty hand came down in a controlled crash on my left shoulder, “Why Tom, you know me! I’m Harry Frilling! I loaned you my car!”
And so he had.
I hadn’t recognized him in that suit, but sure enough, it was Harry.
The next morning, I told Mike the story and he, having lived in the town far longer than I had, made an astute observation. “You know, Tom, as big a deal as it was to you to get the picture, it was probably a bigger deal to Harry to have been able to loan you his car. I’ll bet he told his friends about that for some time.”
I wasn’t sure about that, but like I said, Mike had been in the town far longer than I, and had a good sense of what was important to folks.
Eventually I left Sidney, but I kept that Ford for many years after that. It turned out the problem had been a faulty electronic ignition module and replacing it fixed the problem (I’d never had a car with an electronic anything in it before, which is why it was so baffling to me), and after a trip west across the country, I kept it long enough to bring my son home from the hospital in it.
A number of years later, I looked Harry up, and on a whim, picked up the phone and called him, and introduced myself as the photographer he’d loaned his car to, and asked if he remembered me.
And he did.
We talked and laughed for a while, about how a young photographer and an old farmer met because of a broken down car and a shotgun, about how life had changed for us both over the years, and how good, and important, it was to just get in touch again, and how much that small act of kindness on his part had meant to me.
A few weeks ago, I got back in touch with Mike – and we got to talking, and laughing, telling stories, and just catching up. We talked about how it’s been over 20 years since I was a photographer at the Sidney Daily News, singlehandedly blowing through their annual film budget in the short time I was there, and then I remembered something, and asked Mike, “Do you remember the story about Harry Frilling?” – and without any other clues, Mike remembered, too, and we both just laughed and laughed…
There’s a Footnote, or Post Script to this story:
Last week, because this was a story about a real, live person, I did what I always do and tried to find Harry again to ask his permission to write and publish the story. I didn’t find him, but found and ended up talking to his son. As it turns out, Harry had passed away a few years ago, and I found out that Mike was right. It seems that that little story, the one that meant so much to me, that told me about how some folks are inherently just plain good folks, was indeed one that meant something to Harry as well, in fact, it was one of his favorite stories, that he told often, and I was astonished to hear from his son that my – that our – little story was told as part of his Eulogy as people told stories about who Harry was and what he meant to them.
It’s people like Harry who teach us that lifting a finger – figuratively, or literally one finger of one hand – whether that’s lifting it from your steering wheel as you drive by to wave at a farmer and acknowledge each other as fellow humans on the planet, or lifting it to dial the phone to call an old friend to get back in touch with them and see how they’re doing, or dropping what you’re doing and helping a friend do some things he or she couldn’t do otherwise, that ‘lifting a finger’ can make all the difference in the world in someone’s life.
He also taught me that that one finger, when crashing down onto my left shoulder with the rest of his hand and that smile of his, made me feel like I was the most important person in the world right then.
It’s been, as I said, years, but this formerly young photographer still treasures that smile, that laugh, and is humbled to have known an old farmer like Harry Frilling.
As I thought about this story, and about what became this post script, I realized that after anyone passes away, the material things they’ve accumulated in their lives have to be taken care of or taken over by others. But when people like Harry pass away, the love and the memories left behind, those are treasures, and they live on.
Special thanks to his son and daughter, who graciously gave me permission to publish this story.
Hey all, another story with some help from my “guest author” – my dad, who left me a couple of stories that I’d convinced him to write before he passed away. They’re rare because he printed them, before the computer they were stored on was stolen, so these are the only stories I have that he actually wrote. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m doing my own writing – so my kids can see and read some of the stories that are part of their history and that they’ve heard over the years.
The other day I was watching the news, something I rarely do anymore, and it got me to thinking about relationships, and that got me to thinking of this next, actually, the third of the four stories that he wrote about his times in the Air Force.
We have to travel back in time to about 1953, when my dad was in his early 20’s, in the Air Force, and just past basic training at Keesler AFB, in Mississippi, and had been in the technical training as a radio operator (and some things he wasn’t allowed to talk about) that formed the beginning of his career. If we were to set the stage, we’d have to do so with the understanding that World War II was still very much in people’s minds, the Cold War between the former allies of the United States and the USSR was just ramping up, and the Korean War was in full swing.
Outside of the military, this was just before the whole civil rights thing really got underway, and being in basic training in Mississippi, things became apparent to my dad there that hadn’t been apparent where he’d grown up, in northern California.
At the time, the Air Force was training thousands of new recruits every month, on an assembly line basis at a quantity that was as mind numbing for the recruits as it was for those trying to train them. While in the outside world (as in ‘Civilian life’) the color of your skin mattered a great deal, and there was prejudice at pretty high levels, especially in the south, inside the military, it didn’t seem to matter so much, as long as you could follow orders, and one day, dad, unaware of what life outside the airbase was like, found out just a touch of what prejudice was really like by seeing it firsthand.
So with that, let’s go to a hot August afternoon down at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi, where my dad and his friend had some rare time off and wanted to leave the base for an afternoon at the movies. They both left the base with thoughts of the movie, popcorn, and cokes on their minds.
They learned that they had to change their minds. I’ll let dad tell the rest of the story, unedited, in his own words:
I had a friend down there. His name was George, and I could see it was a really different experience for him than for me, for he was black and I was white. I’ve never had that sort of a problem before. We wanted to see a movie in our free time and I even said I’d pay for it. We went downtown and went up to the ticket seller, and I offered to pay for the tickets. She’d let me pay alright, but we couldn’t sit together because of the color problem, so we separated, and he sat in one row and I sat in the next one up. When we got out of the movie I wanted to take him and buy him a coke, but we couldn’t even do that. We never went downtown again, though we did keep in touch for several years.
And it got me thinking – I learned something from dad about what was important in friendships. Years later my wife and I were invited to my friend Al’s wedding. She’d grown up in a very segregated part of the country, and I hadn’t. (Dad, as mentioned above, had been in the Air Force and we’d been stationed all over the world.) I had told her about Al, and I’d told her about his friend Oscar, who, with his looks (well north of six feet tall, black, sculpted shoulders, and the last time I saw him, shaved completely bald) was able to use his looks and physique to his advantage in his profession.
As we were heading for the wedding, she asked, trying to remember my description, “Now Oscar’s the black one, right?” –
And I realized that I hadn’t said anything about Al, and had to tell her, “Um, they’re both black, why?”
Where she grew up, things were different.
When she grew up there, things were different.
For me, I’d known Al and Oscar since junior high school, and – well, Al was Al, and Oscar was Oscar.
And the color of their skin didn’t matter a bit.
Well, it’s that time of year when the kids visit the grandparents back east, and it got me thinking of the year they did that and I had to do some rat sitting.
See, at the time, the only pets we could have that – well, that you could pet, that no one in the house had any weird allergic reaction to, were of all things, rats.
I know, I know… there’s big, ugly rats, and then there’s – well, small, icky rats… but somewhere in there there are pet rats – and they’re usually white with some spots on them, and we got one for our son, who absolutely adored her.
He called her Sonic, and after a while, she kind of grew on us. We’d let her out of her cage for some time every day, closely supervised, of course, and she’d run around and we’d train her or play with her, and have fun with her.
One of the things she liked to do was sit on the arm of the couch and either watch me as I read a book, or watch as I worked on the laptop. I’d have my right arm up on the arm of the couch, and she’d be there, just watching, and then invariably, she would decide that she needed to run across to the other side of the couch, where my wife or son was sitting.
But it’s what she did, EVERY time that eventually just got to me. She’d run down my right arm, across my hands, and then off to wherever she was going that time. But the constant was that she would piddle on me on the way across the back of my hands, and it became a tremendous source of amusement for the rest of the family, while I was just kind of stewing… After even a little longer, I realized that I was upset, in large part because – well, she only “blessed” me with her piddling, and no one else. You’d think it would be predictable, you’d think I’d be able to prevent it, but as regularly as it happened, she always figured out a way to make it *JUST* a little different, and I could never catch her without inadvertently propelling her straight up toward the ceiling.
She wasn’t too hot on getting frequent flier miles, so I had to be extra careful.
At one point, I realized that the reason I was – well – “pissed off”, is because I was constantly getting pissed on. The evening I came to that conclusion pretty much brought the house down.
Sonic was a dear – if you can think of a rat as a ‘dear’ – to my son. She gave him hours of amusement, companionship, and friendship, of the kind you can’t get anywhere else. We learned from her, what exactly a “pack rat” was, because she would literally find things she was interested in, and put them in places only she knew about.
If she could, she’d run off with car keys because they jingled, but most often it would be a receipt, or a scrap of paper, or in the case of my son, she gave him new ways to come up with excuses for his teacher…
“Um… my rat ate my homework…”
And by golly, I saw her do it once, too – he was working on something, laying on the living room floor, with her and some papers, and she found this piece of full sized notebook paper, snagged it in her mouth, and jumped across the living room like she was Pepe Le Pew, and before we could catch her, she’d scampered under the couch, where at some point, she’d managed to chew a little hole so she could get at the INSIDE of the couch, where it was far more comfortable for her.
So one year, the family went back east to visit grandparents, and I had to stay home and work. My job was to go to work, come home, let the rat out, play with her, feed her, clean the cage, etc…
And… just as they find out on the show, Top Gear, where the quote comes from, I found out, precisely, how hard it could be.
So the night they were to leave, I took the family to the airport, where they flew on a redeye east, into what became the great power outage that gripped the East Coast that year (that’s another story, for another time) – and then I went home…
After I got home, it was late, she was fine, and everything was cool for a couple of days or so, but after one long day, I let her out, played with her a little, and then she, like oh so many females, decided to be coy. She’d run out to see me, as if to say, “Come get me!” and then when I did, she’d run away… She wanted to be chased, she just didn’t want to be caught. (It’s funny, both Bill Cosby (in his Adam and Eve sketch, if you can find it) and Sir David Attenborough comment on this coyness, even though they’re referring to different species…)
Anyway, back to Sonic the rat, who decided, at that moment, to hide.
Not under the couch, IN the couch.
This was not good.
I tried getting her out.
I tried encouraging her to come out.
I got treats.
I got toys.
It didn’t matter.
She didn’t care.
What got me was that she just disappeared. She had this penchant for chewing on things, (the couch being evidence of that) and I was well into what would become an 80 hour week at work at the time, so I didn’t have a whole lot of bandwidth to be thinking rationally about a rat that had gotten loose in the house. I know, some people would have just trapped her, but she wasn’t taking any bait of any kind and since she was our pet, trapping was out of the question.
But making the inside of the couch uncomfortable wasn’t.
I took the cushions off and tossed them aside and started beating on what was left, yelling, making noise, and in general making the inside of the couch a pretty miserable place to be. I wanted her to think that coming out of the inside of the couch would be a most excellent idea.
She had no ideas of the kind.
In fact, she was quite happy where she was, deep inside the couch.
This had to change.
So I started rolling the couch across the living room.
Understand, the couch had no wheels, which made rolling it – well – a bit different, but I did, truly, roll the couch, (thump, thump thump, across the living room. It didn’t faze her at all. In fact, I had to take a breather myself with the couch upside down and her ‘treasures’ from inside scattered all over the floor to listen to where she was. While I was standing there looking at the it all, off to my right I saw her stagger out from under the couch…
… over to under the love seat, which apparently was her vacation home.
Well, given that rolling the couch had gotten her out of it, I figured that trying it again with the love seat would be just as effective, and so I took a couple of deep breaths and started rolling it across the living room, too. To be honest, I was mad, I was tired, I had so much I had to do, and just didn’t have time for this, so that kind of narrowed my whole ability to creatively deal with the problem of her getting loose. However, she wasn’t interested in coming out, no matter what I was doing, and I was getting awfully tired, and while I wanted to make her uncomfortable enough to get her out of the couch, dang it, I liked her, and had no desire to hurt her.
After a few rolls across the living room, I figured we’d both had enough, and since I had a long day ahead of me the next day, I had to give up, so I put all the furniture back to where it had been, and went to bed, not sure what evilment she’d get herself into overnight.
I got up the next morning, and was sitting on the couch, already starting my day, when she warily poked her head out from under the couch I was sitting on, wondering if Armageddon was over. I reached out, picked her up, petted her (just a bit) and put her in her cage, where she stayed until the family got back. She was fed and watered, the cage was cleaned, but for her safety and my sanity, it was better that way.
And it’s funny, looking back on it, – well, you’ve seen police shows or heard of reports where the police are called, and they determine that there was “evidence of a struggle.” Had they stood on the front porch and listened, they would have thought, with the sound of the couch bashing its way across the living room, followed by the love seat doing the same, that there were two big guys really going at it in there, and that it was a life and death struggle.
Um… No… it was just me… and Sonic the Rat.
When the family got home, we (Sonic and I) were both glad to see them, but I think Sonic was really glad to see Michael.
We had her for about two years, loved her to pieces, and then she, bless her, went to Rat Heaven (I’m sure there is one.)
And even though I don’t miss getting piddled on, I do miss the little fuzzball that did it.