A chortling water buffalo pulled up beside us as we waited for the stop light at 15th and Market.
I looked left.
Hmmm… No water buffalo.
Especially in Ballard. However, there was a Harley, making all the gorgeous sounds idling Harleys make.
“The driver’s too skinny,” said Michael from the passenger’s seat after giving him a once-over.
“And a bit young…” I said as my eyes moved up from the bike to the rider.
Sure enough… a too skinny kid in his 20’s… straddling a burbling Harley.
We watched, and listened, as we waited for the light to turn green, and as it did, the Harley roared off, blasting open the doors of the time machine and leaving me ricocheting off long forgotten memories for the rest of the trip home.
Those memories spanned well over a quarter of a century, and I bounced between lessons from Grad school, a famous photograph, my first internship, and lessons learned many, many years later.
And as the sound faded away, it got me thinking about Harley Davidson.
The real one.
But to tell you that story – I’ll need to tell you a couple of other stories to fill in some gaps.
I got my Master’s degree in photojournalism from Ohio University, and one of the things Terry Eiler drilled into us there was to go out and take risks. Go out and try new things. Do the thing no one else is doing. Do the assignment you were sent to do to be safe, but then go do a little bit more.
I learned from that. I’ve been inside the boiler of a steam locomotive (it was pretty dark). I’ve talked my way onto airplanes (it was loud), and I’ve gotten images of normal things from abnormal locations just because I asked if I could. (it was amazing).
What Terry didn’t tell us at the time is what kinds of stories we’d get on the way to taking these pictures… There’s the “running over the skunk” story, and the oh-so-memorable “the car broke down” story, things that seemed to “just happen” – and yet, took on a life of their own. Lessons to be learned, stories to be lived.
But all that was in the future still. While in class, he told us about a guy named Rob Goebel, who’d worked at this small town paper, and one hot day had gone out to see if he could find some images that could tell a story, and eventually, he found himself in a bar…
With a biker.
He knew the shot he wanted, and after as much chatting as you could do, set up the lights, got the shot he’d had in mind, and then left.
Fast forward 15 years. I’d gotten my first internship out of Grad School, for the same newspaper Rob had been working for at the time. Mike Grone was the chief photographer, and one day as we were going over assignments, he got this twinkle in his eye that I didn’t recognize until later, smiled, and said, “Hey, you ought to go see Bones.”
“Yeah, Bones and Harley – Rob Goebel took a picture of him a few years back… Won the POY (Pictures of the Year) award for it after he left.”
“Oh really?” I said as he dug through a file cabinet for a faded tearsheet of the original.
He found it, and gave me the address, and I tossed my camera bag into the back seat of my old Ford and headed on over to the little house on Wilkinson, hoping to maybe reproduce a photo of him and Harley 15 years later, kind of an “after” shot to Rob’s ”before” photo. I found the house, parked the car, and as I shut it off, looked up to see Bones himself sitting in an overstuffed recliner on what would soon be a dilapidated old front porch, idly sharpening a knife. He’d aged since the photo, but even so, there was still a presence about him that could be sensed, was almost palpable.
As I walked up and got my bearings, I realized that the thing about Bones was he wasn’t just skin and…
It was not hard imagining him riding a large motorcycle. He filled up the generously sized chair he was in, his overalls, and that presence extended out well past the porch. I took the initiative and introduced myself, not really sure of what kind of a reaction I’d get.
He sized me up, understanding pretty clearly that I wanted to take some pictures (a camera bag and two Nikons likely gave that away). He tucked his sharpening stone between his belly and his left leg, and we talked for a bit…
I don’t remember much of the conversation until he asked if I had a knife. Of course I had a knife. I’d had a Swiss Army Knife of one kind or another for years. It was as much a part of me as a watch might have been, or today, a cellphone.
“Let me see it.” he said. It wasn’t a request, more a statement of a fact that just hadn’t happened yet.
I handed it over. He grunted a combination of acknowledgement and disgust as he pulled the bits of packing tape off the blade that were still stuck there from the last time I’d opened a cardboard box with it. He shifted in his chair and pulled the well-rounded sharpening stone I’d seen earlier out from under his paunch and talked me through the finer points of knife sharpening.
Harley came out about then, and I tried to make something of a picture of the two of them on the porch, but things, weren’t clicking, so to speak. Bones wanted to finish the knife, and I couldn’t make any of it really work photographically, so we just chatted a little more.
That’s when I heard another screen door tentatively creak open, and I looked over to see a young lady, who I learned later was Harley’s sister, come out. I watched as she came out, and remember thinking that she looked a lot like – well, like she just didn’t seem to belong in that place… Kind of a rose among thorns, if you will. I was still trying to reconcile that when I looked back to Bones and noticed something had changed, as if a wall had suddenly fallen between us. Totally unspoken, there was a sense that I had unwittingly crossed a pretty significant line, and I could feel the temperature drop as he handed me back my knife, folded closed. I opened it, and realized that in the couple of minutes he’d had it, he’d taken it from a bits-of-tape encrusted piece of metal to a finely honed instrument that would do far more than cut through the tape of cardboard boxes. He’d left his mark on that knife, and was not so subtly letting me know what he was capable of, and even though he was showing his age at the time, still not a man to be trifled with.
So, I didn’t trifle, and realized that the picture I had gone there to recreate might not be possible, but I’d tried. I remember going back a time or two more, but that wall was still there, and over time, Bones and his family faded off the back burner of my mind.
Many years later, I got back in touch with Mike as I was writing this story about a fellow named Harry Frilling who’d lived there in Sidney. We started talking about how it had been almost a lifetime since we’d talked, and he told me about how things had changed there… We talked about Harry, and me climbing on top of the courthouse, and running over the skunk. We talked, and laughed, about me blowing through the annual film budget during my few months there.
And somehow, the subject of Bones came up.
I found that the knowledge I gained about not trifling with him was not limited to just me. In fact, Mike mentioned that had actually been a concern when President Reagan had visited Sidney on his Whistlestop Tour. He found in his files a quote from the Sidney Daily News that day:
“The neighborhood has never looked better. Citizens living near the North Street Chessie crossing have been out cleaning up in preparation for President Reagan’s visit. Much work remains to be done, but most of it is in the area of security. Just where will Bones Kah sit?“
Bones, whose political views weren’t quite in the same ballpark as President Reagan’s, was nowhere to be found. It turned out he had been taken into what they called “Protective Custody”.
Mike didn’t find it necessary to mention who was being protected from whom, or why.
The thing is, Bones, being the leader of a motorcycle gang (or club), (The Vikings) – had developed, and cultivated a reputation. There are some motorcycle clubs that cultivate a reputation of working for charity, and others that work hard at cultivating another image. I understand that there is a culture of respect, and there are rules, which, now that I think of it, are not to be trifled with.
But the reputation that goes along with being the leader of a Motorcycle Club is a bit different than the reputation one develops in being a dad who might work in an office somewhere. No matter what, it’s hard to keep work and home life separate. It’s like – well, you’ve heard of dads being late to their son’s ball game because of a meeting at work. Bones’ situation was a little different, in that the qualities that made him effective when leading a motorcycle club didn’t translate very well to having kids and being a dad.
A single example: There’s a story told by Rob (the photojournalist mentioned above) that when Bones visited the newborn Harley and mom shortly before he took the picture, Bones visited the hospital with a dead rat tied to his leg.
There was no mention of how old the rat was or how long it had been there, but the story attained almost urban legend status, and Bones wasn’t about to dissuade anyone from believing it.
The stories Rob told were told of a very few moments with Bones, and the thing is, as a photojournalist, you come into a situation, you do your best to capture or create a lasting image that tells the best story you can, and then, most often, you leave and never see the people or hear from them again.
Rob did a stunning job of capturing that image. He took a situation, a dark bar with the smell of years of spilled beer and cigarette smoke, the smell of countless Saturday night closings where many people had had too many drinks and ended the evening bowed down before or curled up around the porcelain throne in the restrooms, and invited us in with him, to share Bones’ “office.”
In doing that – that simple thing, he showed Bones in all his – well, ‘glory’ isn’t the word I’d use – but the persona of Bones that I saw on his front porch the day I was there was the same one I see in Rob’s picture.
That’s what Harley grew up with.
That’s who Harley grew up with.
Extrapolate on that.
Just a little.
Imagine what it’s like, growing up like that. I can’t. It turns out Harley left Sidney shortly after I did. I talked with him recently, and he said, and I quote, “After I left Ohio in 1987 we never looked back.”
While he has spared me the details, just that comment, and what I’d experienced myself and heard from Mike, gave me a hint of the life that had gone on long before, and well after that memorable image was taken.
Harley grew up.
Mike left the paper to pursue new things, and in one of his last assignments for the paper he was to get some photos of Bones and his two houses. In Mike’s words, “His spare house was condemned. Both houses, by all accounts, were of hoarder status. My assignment was photographing the exteriors of the side-by-side structures. Bones took great exception and offered to place the camera where there wasn’t enough ambient light to make an image. Since I finished the assignment before his offer, I bid him a fond adieu.”
And in 2008, Bones died.
I don’t have the few pictures I took of him when I was there, but given what I saw, I would understand why Harley had wanted to leave. He continued in that conversation we were having, “…but I was man enough to go see my father on his death bed and look him right in the eyes and forgive him for the abuse that he put us through. Things happen for a reason I believe and I am stronger for it.”
And, as you can imagine, it got me thinking.
Over time I realized that we learn how to be a parent from three separate but distinctly different things:
- Because of who you grew up with…
Seriously – how many times has someone said, “You’re just like your dad…”?
How many times have you heard your parents words coming out of your mouth, the very words you promised yourself you’d never say.
And yet you did.
And sometimes, those words came borne out of hard experience, and you realized, as hard as they were to hear when you were a kid, they were the right ones when you found yourself on the other side of the parental fence.
Then again, sometimes, as parents, we’ve find ourselves victims of our own past, and the world has changed faster than we’ve been able to adapt. Things that used to be acceptable aren’t anymore, and things that were totally unacceptable now have gone through a sea change of – well – change, and now they are. It brings challenges to parenting that take the most important job in the world, being a consistent role model for the next generation, and makes it even harder.
- In spite of who you grew up with…
You realized that your father was, for all intents and purposes, simply broken in ways you couldn’t fix. Over time, you realized it went back generations, and there was nothing you could do to fix that. Everyone grew up and did what they did because, well, that’s how it was done, right or wrong.
Eventually you also realized – consciously or unconsciously, that no matter what your dad did, you wouldn’t repeat it. You would find the courage he didn’t have, or the strength he didn’t have, the wisdom he didn’t have, and you would do the honorable and right thing for your family and children.
Eventually, you would come to that same decision point Harley hit while standing next to his father’s deathbed, and you forgive him for – in the case of Harley and many others, abuse. “For they knew not what they were doing.” Because that’s the way they were brought up and didn’t know any better – or in some cases, they did know what they were doing was wrong, but they did it anyway. And you realize, that while that kind of behavior is inexcusable, it does – no, it did – happen. And eventually, sometimes on a deathbed, you forgive them. Not because what they did was forgivable, but because you can’t change it… It happened. You can let it eat you alive, or you can forgive them, let it go, and allow yourself to leave the prison of those thoughts and learn from them, which takes us to the third item on the list:
- Growing up – and being totally different…
Think about this for a second: How many times do you remember seeing a situation happening in front of your eyes, and realizing you’d lived that before – only this time you had the chance to actually do something different, and break the cycle – so instead of doing things the same broken ways you’d seen them happen in your family over the years, you decided enough was enough.
And so you did something different.
And you did indeed break the cycle.
Ideally, you pick and choose the best in what your dad taught you – either by example of something they did right, or by the anti-example of what they did wrong. I remember when I was a kid, my dad was away at college, and one very rare time, he was at home when I had a band concert. I expected him to come, but he didn’t. The reason doesn’t matter… He wasn’t there. I vowed to never let that happen with my kids, and did my best to be there for them every time I could. I did something different.
…and I kept thinking…
I thought about how inadequate I felt when I held my kids for the first time… I’d forgotten entirely that humans came in such small, fragile, helpless packages. Remember – that’s not just fragile physically, they’re also fragile emotionally and spiritually. They need to be tended, carefully. Disciplined in time, yes… Broken, no. Broken children become broken adults, and the cycle of brokenness continues, doing its damage for generations to come.
I remember praying for and with them when they were little, folding their little hands in my bigger ones as I did, imagining that my hands were folded inside the even bigger Hands of my Father at the same time. It made the prayers feel more complete.
…the thoughts continued…
I remember growing as a father just as much as my kids grew at being kids. I got really, really good at making breakfast in about 90 seconds, a “Papa McMuffin” I called it.
And I made mistakes while my kids were growing up. All fathers I know have. There were times I was too drawn into work, too focused on outside things, too lenient with them in some areas, too strict in others. Times I wish I could go back and fix, but I can’t, so I do my best now, in the only moment I can change.
I went back in my mind to the concert dad missed, and how all the times he’d been away affected me, and while the child in me still wept for those lost times, the adult in me realized that Harley was right, and I came to the same conclusion: Forgiving my father – our fathers, for the mistakes they made was the only option that made sense. That doesn’t mean it has to happen immediately, and it doesn’t mean it was or is easy.
But given the options, learning from him, his successes, his failures, and picking and choosing the right ones, and working with those as my base gave me something greater than zero to start from, but there was one thing more.
I’d repeated a lot of those mistakes that have been made through the years, through the generations. It took some time to realize they were there, and I’m still working on correcting them. Some will take a long time, and in my observations with other dads, it seems that one of the first people we need to be able to forgive is ourselves.
And that’s hard.
But it’s the first step.
So… call your dad – if you can. Wish him Happy Father’s day, if you can, if you’re reading this on Father’s day (as I’m writing it), and then, if you can, take a deep breath and forgive him.
Learn from the mistakes of the past, but don’t repeat them.
The story above, as all stories on this blog are, is true.
I have several people to thank for their help in it. Chronologically, they’d be:
Terry Eiler, former director of VisCom, Ohio University – who encouraged me to go out and shoot – and take risks.
Mike Grone – former Chief photographer of the Sidney Daily News, who actually had me take those risks.
Rob Goebel, now of the Indy Star newspaper, who graciously allowed me the use of the photo, and
Harley himself, who in his simple words, taught me so much, and who allowed and encouraged me to write the story about his famous, award winning baby picture that had been taken in a bar, with a biker (Bones), by a guy (Rob) whose photos I’d admired and skills I was trying to emulate, all because my instructor (Terry) in grad school told a story and sent me out there so that my boss (Mike) could grin and send me off on a lesson I’d suddenly find myself remembering when sitting at a traffic light in Seattle, with my son, next to the Harley that sent me ricocheting back through my time machine to tell you this story…
Take care out there, folks.
Know that out there – every image you see -whether it’s an award winning photo, or a glimpse into someone’s life, has a story behind it.
This was one of them.