The summer I graduated from college, I had been taking a lot of photos and was trying to make it professionally by getting on with the Associated Press (AP) and/or United Press International (UPI). One day, the photo editor for Sports Northwest Magazine called (I’d been shooting for them that summer as well), and said that UPI had called. He said I should give them a call back, because they had an assignment for me. I’d been so used to hunting for photo assignments that I couldn’t believe that someone was actually calling me out of the blue.  I wondered if we were heading into ‘lucky break’ territory.

Well, it turned out it wasn’t UPI, though. It was some little newspaper out of Boston called the Christian Science Monitor, which I soon learned wasn’t so little after all, and getting a call from them wasn’t a bad feather in the cap of a 24-year-old.

Turns out they were doing a story about Puget Sound, and all the wonderful things that the Sound (a rather large body of saltwater) was good for. They wanted to illustrate three aspects: industrial, military, and recreational.

Okay, I thought. That shouldn’t be too hard.

To start with, I went to Gasworks Park on Lake Union (freshwater, but connected to Puget Sound via canals and locks), and got photos of people with sea kayaks. Then, I called a sailboat place out at Shilshole Bay Marina and talked them into letting me borrow a couple of sailboats, (yes, a couple of sailboats) complete with crews.

We went out, sailed the two, and got some nice images under full sail and wispy clouds. It was nice. I was absolutely ecstatic until I found out later that there was a problem. A water drop had dried on the negative in the middle of that wonderful wispy sky, resulting in a dark outline that covered about a quarter of the sky in the image. Retouching the negative was out of the question, and though I tried to retouch the print, it was no good. The only way to use the shot would be so small that it would rival a postage stamp, and the folks I’d borrowed the boats from wouldn’t be available again until after the deadline was past. So, I had to move on to plan B.

My ultimate goal became to try to tell the story (industrial, military, and recreational) of Puget Sound in one photo, and I kept my eyes peeled for that kind of situation. I just needed two ships and a boat.

Thing is, as much fun as I had with that sailboat shot, and really wanted to roll with it, I couldn’t because of that water drop on the negative. That bad thing is what ended up making the entire shoot special. Plan B entailed getting industrial, military, and recreational vessels together, and involved finding out who would be in charge of those three types of ships. After some research, I ended up calling the Port of Seattle, talked to the harbormaster, and explained that I was doing a photo shoot for the Christian Science Monitor, and would it be okay if…

…actually, that’s just about how I started every introduction. It’s unbelievable how many doors that sentence or one like it opened up over the following years. I asked the harbormaster if I could get onto one of the ships, or the cranes, or something that would enable me to get some photos to tell that story.

He said, sure, not a problem, all I had to do was tell anyone on the ship that the harbormaster said it was okay, and I should be set.

It felt like I was talking to a man with the authority of God himself.  He had no questions about what I’d be doing, and no questions about whether anyone on any ship in his harbor would obey him.  “If anyone asks questions, tell them the harbormaster said it was okay, and they should let you go anywhere you need to go.”

“Anywhere?”

“Anywhere.”

Wow – this was the greenest of green lights I’d ever seen.

His word, clearly, was law.

He expected no questions.

From anyone.

I was cool with that.

So, I made it out to the first dock in the harbor, found a rather large container ship called the Manu Lani, and climbed on board, and like a kid in a candy store, started exploring. It was in the process of being unloaded, so I carefully wandered around the containers, trying to get into a position that would produce a decent shot. The image I had in my head was one that would have me at almost eye level to the top of the containers the cranes were unloading, looking over the top of them, with the Seattle skyline in the background, but that meant climbing up somewhere to get to that height. Eventually, just in front of the superstructure at the back of the ship, the one with the smokestack, I found a huge mast that I could climb, so I slung the camera bag as far over my shoulder as I could, flung the cameras over that, and started climbing.

This was a little easier said than done, because the mast was welded to multiple levels of deck, which were vibrating ever-so-slightly. You know how you can swing a baseball bat, and the tip of the bat moves way farther and way faster than the part in your hand? Same idea with this mast, only it started about 30 feet from the deck, and I was climbing about 20 feet higher than that.

As long as I kept moving, I was fine. I was facing the back of the ship, so all I saw in front of me was the smoke stack, and as I got to the top of it, I could suddenly hear the “foof, foof, foof” of the exhaust coming out of the stack and filling my ears. I took a quick look around to get my bearings, and realized things were going to get a little interesting. Though I’d stopped moving, it was obvious that the mast hadn’t. In fact, the mast, at that height, was actually moving more. The “foof, foof, foof” was being produced by an engine many feet below decks. Tons of spinning steel caused a surprising amount of ultra-low-frequency vibration, transmitting and amplifying all the way up the mast that I was hanging onto for dear life.

The camera bag and the cameras were swinging uncomfortably around at a frequency that was a bit off from that of the mast, which made them a little hard to hang on.

I’m glad I didn’t have to open and dig through the camera bag for a camera and lens – that would have made things a little more exciting than I’d planned on. I used the lens that I’d put on the Nikon F-3 (the 24/2.8) and the lens I had on the FM-2 (the 180/2.8) and got a couple of photos of the cranes and their operators from almost their level. It was an interesting view, but didn’t really tell much of the story I was trying to tell, so I did the best I could, trying to get shots of the cranes that very few people would have the opportunity to get and, if nothing else, at least proved I’d been there.

By this time, my movements and the shaking of the mast had swung the camera bag back and forth enough to tangle it up on the rungs a bit, so I decided to get down to deck level before things got a little more complicated. I untangled the camera from the rung and got down the mast to the superstructure as carefully and quickly as I could.

I stood there, leaning on the rail for a little bit, realizing and appreciating how much less it was moving, and realized that getting a little lower might actually help steady me bit more. So, I went down to the deck where the containers were. Now, being below the ones I’d been above before, it looked more like a canyon than anything else, and if you’ve ever been in a canyon, you’d imagine it to be fairly quiet. But it wasn’t. It seems a huge number of the containers were loaded with pineapples and needed refrigeration, so each had a small diesel-powered refrigeration unit mounted in one end.

Not only was it loud in those canyons, it was quite warm that morning, even in the shade.

I got a few photos, but again, none that helped me tell the story I was trying to tell. So, I headed forward through the maze, timing my dashes between the swinging containers above, which the crane operators deftly lifted off and settled onto waiting trucks below. With each dash, I worked my way a little closer to the front of the ship.

Eventually, I came to the back of another superstructure and turned right, getting into sunlight and air that smelled more like the tide and less like diesel exhaust. I was still looking for something that would tell the story I was being asked to illustrate, so I kept my eyes out for anything, and as I turned the various corners and walked around the superstructure, I found what was apparently the first mate’s cabin, tucked away behind some heavy sheet metal, out of the wind. There was a surprisingly big window into it, and as I walked by, my eyes were drawn away from the industrial white painted exterior of the ship and into the warm embrace of the first mate’s little cabin.

I made it one step further to discover, in the blink of an eye that, oh my.

He had company.

Who was wearing a necklace.

And a hairbrush.

She’d clearly just gotten out of the shower and saw me in the mirror. Her eyes got so wide that I figured right then might be a good time to head toward the back of the ship. I blinked and was gone, but not fast enough to avoid the first mate striding righteously out in his full white uniform.

“Can I help you, sir?”

(Now, where had I heard those words before?)

“Hi,” I said, sticking my hand out, figuring that acting more confident than I felt would be a good idea. “My name’s Tom Roush, I’m on assignment for the Christian Science Monitor, illustrating a story on shipping in Puget Sound. I was getting some photos of your ship, here, and was told that if anyone had any questions to have them talk to the harbormaster. He said I could be here.”

“Hmmm. Okay, well, okay then, as long as you’re not with the insurance company.  If you have any questions, let me know,” he said as he wiped a stray bit of shaving cream off his cheek.

I said I would, but I had no idea how I’d find him if I did have questions – and was completely willing to let that go.

I headed toward the back of the ship as casually as I could and wandered into a partially enclosed walkway in the back superstructure, looking out over the water toward the city and the Kingdome. I was down to my last roll of film, wondering if I had a story to tell yet, and then, the sound of an outboard motor drew my attention. I saw the picture I was looking for develop before my eyes. I already had the pleasure craft the Monitor was looking for, but there, with Seattle in the background, were the two ships I was missing: an industrial one, a Navy cruiser, and that little boat with the outboard, all coming together into one perfect image. I brought the F-3 with the 24/2.8 up and squeezed off five shots as it went through the scene, and of the five shots, the third is below.

I sent the Christian Science Monitor the copies they wanted. They made me smile. In fact, they made them smile.

The photos told them the story they wanted told.

They just didn’t tell them the whole story.

And – strangely – it got me thinking.  Since then, many times in life I’ve had situations where whatever Plan A was suddenly came crashing down – and a Plan B had to be pulled out of thin air and made to work.  Understand, that doesn’t make it easy, or simple or anything like that – in fact, I still get frustrated like anyone else does. But then I remember this photo shoot, and the other adventures that have happened over the years and get really curious to see what’s in store.

A Japan Lines freighter on the left, the USS Bunker Hill on the right if my research is correct, and a small pleasure craft, taken from the Matson container ship, the Manu Lani, at the Port of Seattle with the Kingdome in the background

I’d occasionally see the Manu Lani in port as she ran the Seattle-Honolulu-Pacific route for a number of years after that – eventually, as I was able to research, she ran into engine trouble and a fire a bit over 400 miles southeast of Tokyo.

She was later sent to China where she was scrapped, and another ship was built to take her place, but with her name.

You can click here for more details and a larger view of the ship. There, you’ll see on the left, the superstructure that contained the first mate and his guest, and on the right, the mast I was on, just left of the smoke stack.

Advertisements