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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.  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.

So…

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.

Be safe…

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.

The Duck… (click on it to make it bigger)

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My Opa (grampa in German) was in the Army in World War 1.

Yes, the First World War.

The war that happened before just about everything we take for granted in today’s world existed.

Before cell phones.

Heck, before most people had seen or heard wired phones.

Better yet, before most homes had electricity.

In fact, before most homes had indoor plumbing.

World War 1. 1914-1918. Back when most armies still depended on horses, and when the Red Baron’s plane not shooting its own propeller off was the epitome of technological advancement.

That war.

At the time, military inventions came at such a furious rate that they allowed soldiers to kill one another with enough ruthless efficiency that it became known as “The War to end all Wars”.  Of course, this “War to end all Wars” ended almost 100 years ago, and since that time, there have been countless other ones, and literally millions of people have died as a result.

But this story, while about war, isn’t about the death that always accompanies it.  It’s a story about life, day to day life, and it involves simple things.

It involves shovels, potatoes, and cannons.

…and very, very close calls.

Let me set the stage for you.

Russia.

World War 1.

Europe, if you don’t remember your history, was a powder keg. There were a whole bunch of countries in Europe at the time, from itty bitty, to absolutely massive, and they’d decided to make alliances between themselves.  This was the governmental equivalent of you telling your buddies, “Hey, if they mess with you, they mess with me…”

This would have been okay if it were just one or two people.

But it wasn’t.

It would have been okay if it had been one or two countries.

But it wasn’t.

In fact, it was two rather large groups of countries, with alliances so tangled up that they looked like a plate of spaghetti.  On the one side were what were known as the Allies, with a whopping 18 countries with over 42 million soldiers, from comparatively tiny (and distant) countries like Nepal and Montenegro, to behemoths like Russia, the United Kingdom, and France.

And then we have what were known as the Central Powers on the other side.  This included the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Bulgaria. They weighed in with just under 23 million soldiers.

Two of the countries in these groups, on opposite sides, were kind of like a David and Goliath, where the part of David was played by the German Empire – long before it became what we now know as Germany, and the part of Goliath was played by the country of Russia. (except this time, in the end, Goliath would win)

They squared off, and the Armies of the German Empire headed east and invaded Russia.

Now if you know your history, you know that a little guy named Napoleon had tried pretty much the same thing about 100 years earlier and failed miserably, and another German army would try it again in less than 30 years.  Eventually, armies would learn that trying to conduct a war while the famed Russian winter waited on the sidelines was a bad idea, but for now, they attacked.

Of course, an invading Army goes through fuel, food, and equipment faster than any civilian could imagine, which is why there was rationing of everything in all of Germany for civilians during the war. And in case the shipments of supplies were interrupted or they ran out, those in the invading force were given Plan B.

Plan B was simply this: “The supplies aren’t coming. Fend for yourselves.”

If they had no supplies, they were to “live off the land” – meaning they would take what they could from the civilians, the farmers, the peasants, the Russians who lived there, and being soldiers, could easily do it at gunpoint.

Of course, doing so meant that the Russian civilians would starve, so those who understood what was going on, headed east in a hurry.  Those who didn’t, were evacuated east away from the invading army as fast as they could be, with the Russian army following close behind, burning everything behind them to keep their enemy from being able to use it. This meant not just single homes were destroyed, but entire farms and villages went up in smoke, and anything that could possibly be of use to an invading army was reduced to ashes.

It was a very effective “Scorched Earth” kind of retreat when they succeeded.  There were no vehicles to “borrow”, no houses to sleep in, but at a more basic level, there were no crops to harvest and eat.

This worked very well for the crops that grew above ground, and it worked for crops that hadn’t been harvested, but if there was one thing the Russians were good at growing, it was potatoes, and when they needed to be stored, the place that worked best was actually below ground.  A large hole was dug, and as I recall, lined with straw, the potatoes were put in there, more straw if it was available, and then dirt was mounded on top.

It was the stereotype of lots of Russian ways of doing things, from farming potatoes to putting a man or woman (or dog) into space.

It was simple.

It was reliable.

And it worked.

The potatoes were preserved against drought, against frost, but most importantly, in this case, they were preserved against fleeing armies.

And right behind the fleeing army came the pursuing Armies.

The pursuing Armies were advancing fast and far enough at the time to outrun their own supply lines, which meant that they had to go to that Plan B for a lot of their supplies.

Plan B, mentioned earlier was simple, a bit more reliable than supplies that weren’t coming, and, as brutal as it often was, it worked.

When you have all sorts of weapons, it becomes pretty easy to fend for yourself.  So if there were weapons left behind by the fleeing army, they were taken, to be used by the invading Army.  If there was any useful mode of transportation available, it was taken, to be used by the invading Army.  If there was food left that hadn’t been destroyed, it was taken, to be eaten by the invading Army.

And in this Army, the pursuing one, was my 24 year old Opa, and because he was in the infantry, he was assigned to help the Army do Plan B: Fend for itself by getting food from wherever they could get it.  He’d been told about these lumps they might find in the fields that would be covering a hoard of potatoes, and one sunny day he and a buddy went out looking for them, and sure enough, in one field, on one fall afternoon, there was this little shed not much bigger than an outhouse.  It’s where all the tools were kept for the peasants to work the fields, so they broke into it, got some shovels and started digging.

They’d made it through the first layer of dirt and were working through the straw and had just seen their first potato when they heard a cannon fire.

It was a war zone, cannons became part of the background noise, and they were always far away, so they didn’t pay too much attention to it because of how far away it was, and kept digging.

They’d gotten a little deeper when the same cannon fired a second time.

Opa had just stood up and was wiping his forehead when he saw that shell hit.

It was a little closer.

They started paying attention, and while he was standing, the third shell was fired.

It landed closer still.

By this time the two of them realized what was happening.

Even 65 years later, the disbelief was still clear in his voice as he told me, “They were ranging on us!”, and he was amazed that the Russians weren’t so much aiming at them as just elevating the cannon a little higher with each shot, hoping for a hit.  They’d used up three shells already, trying to hit two guys out in a field, and were clearly not concerned with conserving ammunition.  Opa and his buddy saw the spacing on where the shells had landed and realized the next one would likely hit them.

Then they heard the cannon fire again, and heard the shell come in, with that unforgettable “oncoming freight train” sound a cannon shell makes when it’s coming toward you.

They tried to hide, but they were in a field with nothing in it but a lump that the potatoes were buried under and a shed the size of an outhouse.  There wasn’t much they could do, and there was even less time to do it in.   On top of it all, this shell was different.  It was an air-burst shell, and by the time they dove for cover behind the little shed, the shell was there – and it exploded several meters above them.

The explosion shattered the shed, missed Opa’s friend, but one piece of shrapnel shot into Opa’s leg in the back just a little north of where the thigh no longer has a decent name as he was diving for cover.

He never told me how he got back to his unit, but somehow, he did get there, where his injury was determined to be enough to send him back to a hospital to have the shrapnel removed. It had just barely missed, but was still very close to his femoral artery.  It needed to come out.

He was put on a train to the “Lazaret” (hospital) in Berlin, and as he told me the story years ago, he tried unsuccessfully to imitate the accent of the doctor who’d treated him.  At the time, almost 100 years ago, most people lived their whole lives within 10 miles of where they were born, so regional, even local accents were very, very distinct, to the point where if you were paying attention, you could tell what village someone came from, or what part of a bigger city they came from, just by listening to them speak a few words.  So, being from a town in southern Germany, he spoke the Swabian dialect (Schwäbisch) and couldn’t resist poking a little fun at the Berlin dialect of the doctor who’d treated him.  Imagine someone with a gentle Georgia drawl, and gentle Georgia personality, poking a little fun at and talking to someone from, say, New York, with the mentality and accent to match.

The medics on the front lines hadn’t treated the thing other than to stop the bleeding, and Opa likely laid on his stomach the whole train trip from wherever he was in Russia all the way to Berlin, so by the time he got to the Lazaret, things had gotten a little infected.  The doctor listened as Opa told him what happened.  Curious, both personally and medically, he took a look at it, saw the infection, and said, “Ach, das schiesst noch einmal!” (Oh, this is going to shoot again!) – and sure enough – a little work with a scalpel, a little pressure with a couple of fingers, and in the Lazaret in Berlin, the piece of Russian shrapnel shot again, this time coming out of Opa’s leg.  He was cleaned up, stitched up, and as Penicillin wouldn’t be discovered for another 10 years or so, he spent the rest of that winter in Berlin while the infection cleared up and he recovered from the injury.

In the spring, he was sent to be reunited with his unit, and when he got there, he found that of the 600 soldiers that had gone to the Russian Front the previous fall,  only 60 were left when he came back.

It was then that he realized that how much in war, and in life, depends either on luck, or on the fact that there’s Someone Up There watching out for you, and that simple order to get potatoes, the same one that had put him in the sights of a Russian artillery piece, the same order that had put him in the “wrong place at the wrong time” and had gotten him shot, had likely saved his life.

He thought about that a long time, trying to find out about his friends who he’d lost, and never really knowing, as there had been so many of them.

He didn’t spend much time talking about the War.  There are some things best left unsaid to those who were not there to experience it with you.  But while he didn’t talk much about it, he did spend a long time thinking about it.

Life, as it’s known to do, moved on.  He got married to a farm girl and they started their own family.  There would be the great Depression of 1929, there would be unemployment and poverty, there would be another War that would make the first one look like child’s play, but there would also be happiness, and children, and baptisms, and first days of kindergarten, and confirmations.  And there was more hardship, but as I said, time went on, and soon there were joyous weddings as they watched their children get married, followed by grandchildren who brought them great joy.

As for that piece of shrapnel, to my knowledge it was not kept, but I thought about it just like Opa had, and the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that were it not for that piece of Russian shrapnel, it’s very likely that none of that above would have happened, my mom wouldn’t have been born, I wouldn’t be here to write this story.

And you wouldn’t be reading it.

Note: About 60 years after this piece of shrapnel changed the history of Opa and every one of his descendants, one of his grandsons would experience something similar, being in the range of a cannon being fired, and he would understand the sound of a cannon shell coming in, would remember a story he had heard years earlier, and as he thought about it, would understand far better what his Opa had been trying to tell him.

Tom Roush

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