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.