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The other day my wife got several packages in the mail, and as we opened them, at first, we couldn’t see what was inside other than Styrofoam packing peanuts…

Styrofoam packing pellets

…so we kept digging, trying really hard to keep them from getting everywhere, and eventually found some very pretty glassware she’d gotten sent to her from an auction. But I almost missed it because as we were opening the box, I found myself being sucked ricocheting into the time machine like never before.

So some of you know I went to grad school and have a Master’s degree in photojournalism.

Some of the stories from those days have made it into the blog (the conversation about the photo at the end of this story, about talking my way onto a pretty cool airplane, happened where the bulk of the following story happens), but every now and then, an old memory comes back that surprises me.

See, the thing about grad school was that it was like boot camp. You are given assignments, and you are expected to perform. There are no excuses, there are no do-overs. You end up growing up very fast, and learning how to succeed, or you fail.

Those are your options.

So part of the deal was that we worked very, very hard to get all the things done we needed to get done, and that meant very late nights. At the time, I was on the student meal plan, eating three meals a day, plus a Burrito Buggy run at midnight) – and I’d eat as much as I could get into me, and I still lost 30 pounds in the first quarter I was there. I slept, usually, from 4:00 AM to 8:00 AM.

I have no idea how I did that, looking back on it, but there were some things that happened late at night, in or near the darkrooms, when things just got… a little weird…

See, this was “back in the day” when photos were printed on light sensitive photographic paper… Having been shot on real live film, both of which had to be developed in chemicals so you could see the image.

The chemicals stunk, frankly. And it’s good they did – there was sulfuric acid and all sorts of good stuff in there. There was one company that recognized this and put an odor neutralizer in one chemical and made another smell like vanilla. But the reason I mention the smell is because the chemicals had to be kept at a certain temperature, which often meant they were giving off fumes, which were bad for you.

That meant that for safety, there was a huge fan installed on the roof of the building. Huge as in it had myriads of ducts that ventilated two darkrooms with about 50 enlargers each, on two floors, sucking out chemical fumes through these large, triangular shaped vents. Each vent was about 3 feet wide at the bottom with an air slot wide enough suck fumes out, keep the smell down, and keep the fresh air coming in through the entrance fast enough to create a good strong headwind as you tried to leave.

One of the things we learned was that if the fan was running and we had very large images to print, it meant that the enlarger head was raised very, very high, and it made for very long exposures. It also meant that the photos we were printing at the time were often blurry. We found out that some years earlier, that huge fan on the roof had had a blade break, and it was welded back on, but it wasn’t completely balanced well, so unbeknownst to us, when the fan was running, the entire building shook, ever so slightly, and we only found this out when we were printing very large photos, where the enlarger was raised several feet up above the image we were trying to print. At that point, the combination of the height, exposure length, and off-balance fan meant that the image we were projecting onto the paper was shaking ever so slightly, and no matter how hard we tried, it meant the picture would be blurred.

We found we could fix this by turning the fan off.

No fan = sharp pictures.

But, there were side effects…

See, you take a bunch of grad students working in a very high pressure environment, pulling all-nighters, some forgetting to eat, and occasionally there are judgement lapses…

Like when we turned the fan off too long one time because we were all under deadline and Stephanie started hallucinating. She came tearing out of the darkroom, terrified of the black dog hiding under the counter.

We checked for her.

There was no dog.

But we did turn the fan back on, and the smell of developer, fixer, and very, very tired grad students was soon replaced with cool, dark, night air.

Then there was the time when I was trying to use this massive paper cutter to cut matte board for a presentation due the next day. It had a lever on it that helped evenly clamp down what you were cutting so your cut would be straight. There was a hole drilled into that lever, and a wooden handle attached, with a metal plate between the two to keep your fingers out of the way, because the lever was right next to the paper cutter’s blade.

On one of the two paper cutters.

That one was being used, so around 4:00 in the morning on one of the rare all-nighters, I was using the other one. The one with just the lever, and not the handle or protective plate attached to it.

And I brought the paper cutter down onto the matte board, and – did you know that paper cutters cut fingernails, too? I didn’t know that till right then. In fact, I didn’t know you could cut fingernails that short. (It’s not something I recommend, by the way). Johnny’s wife, bless her, was there – and went home to get their first aid kit.  Sid kept me sane while I waited, and when she got back, we bandaged my finger up as best we could, and kept me from bleeding on the matte board (that would have been expensive). I was able to carefully cut it and then went back to the darkroom, where I learned that there’s this wicking effect if you happen to have a bandage covering up an open wound on your finger, and you pick up a photograph that’s been soaking in fixer…

And – well, did you know that getting sulfuric acid into a wound stings just a touch?

Um… Yeah…

The assignments had to be turned in at 8:00 the next morning – which meant no sleep that night.

We groggily marched over to Scripps Hall to turn in our assignments for evaluation. I didn’t mention the reason for the bandage to the professor. The assignment was turned in, that’s what mattered.

The time machine took a breather, kicked me out for a bit, then sucked me back in – this time back to the Styrofoam packing peanuts that had sucked me in there in the first place.

I’m sure this next bit happened the same night Stephanie was hallucinating, because we all had to get out of the darkroom for a while to let the fan air it out.

Understand, if you haven’t figured it out by now, things got loopy late at night, and one time, someone had ordered something rather large that had been delivered there to the darkroom area, and it had been packed in Styrofoam packing peanuts.

Lots and lots and lots of them.

And the custodians hadn’t gotten there yet.

So we tried to throw them at each other (that didn’t work). Definitely didn’t want them in the little film developing rooms – the static electricity could create sparks that could fog (expose) the film, and the garbage cans were already full.

Paul was playing with them near the ventilation intakes just above one of the counters, and the peanut just disappeared. One second it was in his hand, the next it was just… gone.

COOL!

We grabbed some more out of the box they’d come in, and like little kids, Paul, Stephanie, and Elaine were giggling the giggles of the sleep deprived as we gleefully put them in front of the air intake, where they magically reported for duty and disappeared.

It… was… amazing…

(Remember, this is very early in the morning, and very late in the quarter, it didn’t take much to amaze us)

So we kept getting more and more of them… Someone went out hunting and found an entire garbage bag of packing peanuts that were waiting for the custodians and brought them over.

It was like shoveling snow into the open maw of a snow blower – they just simply disappeared.

It was great, but eventually we ran out, and had to finish our projects for the night and, that night, get some sleep.

We put our tools, chemicals, and supplies in our lockers, and Paul and I went down the stairs to head out, and locked the door behind us – and…

…and saw snow in the parking lot.

Lots… and LOTS of snow in the parking lot…

We hadn’t heard of any snow in the forecast.

And then we saw that some of it was kind of a lime green…

Not unlike the… Oh Lordy…

The Styrofoam packing peanuts…

As our eyes got used to the dark a bit more, we realized that they were EVERY where… on cars… drifting up against the curbs, eddying in the breeze.

There was nothing we could do about it really – we hadn’t thought that far ahead, and they were, as I said, *everywhere*.

The next morning as we walked across the parking lot to class, we saw the wind had distributed them a bit further… and it makes me wonder if somewhere, hiding in a bit of forgotten shrubbery at the edge of the parking lot behind Seigfred Hall, in Athens, Ohio, whether there are still anonymous little pieces of Styrofoam with a story to tell.

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So this is my 100th story, and it’s not so much a story, as it is a look back on the first 99…

I had no idea I had so many inside me, but they’re here.

For those of you who’ve commented on them and helped me get better at writing through your critiques, thank you.

For those of you who were unwitting characters in some of them, I thank you.

For my sister who created this blog in the first place and felt I needed to get my writing out there, thank you.

For my family who often saw nothing but the back of my laptop as I was writing – I’m working on that – and thank you – really.

And to some very special people who decided I was worth keeping around – thanks for your help in all of that.  You know who you are.

As for the stories – I think the most fun stories for me to write were the ones where you, the reader, figure out whatever punchline was coming, just about the time your eyes hit it.

All of the stories are true.  Some took an astonishing amount of research, ballooned into huge, huge stories, then were often allowed to simmer for some time until I could edit them down to whatever the essence of the story actually was.  I have one unpublished one that has so much research it that it’s ballooned to 12 pages when there’s really only about 3 pages of story in there, but that’s how the writing process is… Find what you need. Distill it down to its very core, then take that and make it better.

I did a little looking through the stories and found some little snippets that made me think – and made me smile as I read through them all.  They’re below – in the order they were published (not the order they were written in), so the subject matter and themes are pretty random, but there was a reason for each one of them.  So, cue the music, and here’s a selection of quotes and thoughts from the stories (with links to the originals) that made me smile, or laugh, or think, or sometimes just cry.

1.       From the story: “Cat Piss and Asphalt

“Pop, is it possible for the memory of something to be better than the event itself?”

This was when my son went to Paris.  In Springtime. And he had memories he needed to share. I listened, and smiled, and I wrote.

2.     I wrote a story about a friend named Georgiana – who taught me so more about writing software code than any book I ever read, any class I ever took, and more than she could possibly have imagined.

3. Then there was the storyHave you ever been in a dangerous situation and had to drive out of it? when I was trying to jack up a car with a flat tire, in a forest fire, next to a burning ravine, on a hill on a one lane road the water tanker trucks were using, “Most of the things that I would have used to brace the car to keep it from rolling were on fire, so that limited my options a bit. “

4. There’s the story I calledPoint and Click – which really isn’t about pointing, or clicking – but is very much about – well, it’s short – you’ll get it – and even if you don’t, that’s okay.  I hope you don’t have to.

“This time, there’s a loud “click” of the hammer slamming down on an empty chamber.”

5. On managing to borrow a car, and within a couple of telephone calls finding myself taking pictures of an F-4 Phantom out of the back of a KC-135 tanker over Missouri.

It had to be harder than this…”

The look on the face of a classmate as I was printing the pictures that evening was absolutely priceless.

6. Then there was the story called Salty Sea Dogs – just one of the weird little things that seems to happen to me when I go out for walks…

“Into this nautical environment walk two characters straight out of central casting for Moby Dick”

7. There was just a little snapshot of a conversation between two people, one of whom really understood what was going on, and the other who didn’t.  And the funny thing is, I’m not sure which one was which.  It’s just something that happened On the Bus…

8. Sometimes stories happen in the blink of an eye – or in the ever so slight smile of a spandex covered cyclist riding past.

9. I wrote about a lesson I learned about plumbing once, (water doesn’t ONLY flow downhill – and it’s not just water)- which my kids still laugh about.

10. There was the story where I wasn’t sure whether my daughter was complimenting me or insulting me – or a little of both, but it made it in here in the story Compliment? Insult? You decide…

11.   And somehow, I managed to get phrases from the movies “The Lion King”, Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”, and both the old and new Testaments of the Bible into the same story, combining them with a sermon I heard and an attitude from my boss that all ended up in the lesson you can find in the story The view from the Balcony… Forgiveness, Writing in the dirt, and “No Worries”

 12. I learned, and wrote about, buried treasure – and it’s often not buried, and it’s not what you think it might be.

 13. I had a story bouncing around in my head for years before I finally wrote it down, and was astonished when the right brained creative side of me finally let go of it and the logical left brain started analyzing it.  if I’m wrong on the numbers, I’d be happy to have someone prove me wrong, but when you hit a certain set of railroad tracks at a certain speed in a 1967 Saab, you will catch air, and a lot of it.  It was the first of many Saab Stories…

 14. I remember a story that came out of a single sentence.  This one is called, simply, Stalingrad – and is about – well, here’s the quote – it’s: “a story that boils down to six words, but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes” – it was also one of the first stories that caused me to cry as I wrote it.  I wasn’t expecting that, and I think it was interesting that people asked me to put “hankie warnings” on the stories I’d written from that one.

 15. That one was hard to write – emotionally, so for the next one – I wanted to have a little fun – and this story, too, came from only a few sentences my dad told me, but it, too, required a surprising amount of research and I figured out the rest, and realized there were three stories inside this one, and I decided I’d try to braid them together in such a way that they came together – ideally, not in just one word, but the same syllable of that one word.  You’ll find that story called “B-52’s, Karma, and Compromises…”.

16. I learned that one person can do something stupid, but if you get a few guys together, even without alcohol, not only does the quantity of the stupidity go up, but the quality is almost distilled to a concentration that you couldn’t make up… in the story Synergistic Stupidity, The Marshmallow Mobile, and the Little Tractor that Could…   I learned that I could help people, I could do something stupid with a friend, then, while trying to figure out how to un-stupidify this thing, watch as several others got involved, ending up in exactly the same spot we’d gotten ourselves into, break the law, ‘borrow’ a tractor, and in the end, put everything back where I found it, and my grampa, whose tractor it was that I’d ‘borrowed’ – didn’t find out about it till years later.  You’ll find that in the story, along with a map of where it happened.  Really.

17. I often learned as I wrote – the story about The Prodigal Father took me back a few thousand years, to standing beside another dad, waiting for his son, and I suddenly understood a whole lot more about what he must have been feeling.

 18. Some stories were just silly.  I mean, Water Skiing in Jeans?

 19. Or Jump Starting Bottle Rockets… ? With Jumper cables attached to a 40 year old car?

Yup… I did that.

20. But it’s not just my generation.  I wrote a story about my mom, who – well, let’s say she has a healthy dislike for snakes.  Not fear, mind you. Dislike.  And when they started getting into the goldfish pond and eating her goldfish – well, she armed herself.  First with a camera to prove it – and then with a pitchfork to dispatch it.  And sure enough, 432 slipped disks later (Thank you Johnny Hart for that quote), that snake was no longer a threat, and mom, bless her, was quite satisfied…

21. I never think of my mom as a feisty little old lady, she’s my mom – but she’s awfully close in age (well, in the same decade) as another feisty little old lady named CleoI never thought I would get airborne trying to take a picture of an 88 year old woman emptying a mop bucket, but I did, and it made for a wonderful story, and a wonderful image.

22. I took a little break from writing actual stories and spent a little time explaining why in the “story” Scalpels, sutures, and staples, oh my… It was a hard “non-story” to write – but it was what was happening that week, and I was a little too busy living life in the moment to be able to write much about something that had happened in the past.

 23. As some of you know, I spent a few years as a photojournalist, and as I was going through some of my old images in a box in the garage one day, I found they were a time machine – taking me back to when I was younger, and when there was so much of life still ahead of me.  I remember sitting across a parking lot from a dad trying to teach his daughter how to rollerskate at Saltwater State Park between Seattle and Tacoma, just knowing she was going to fall, and as I sat there and waited to capture the image as she fell, her dad, unseen behind her, was there waiting to capture her.  I had a little ‘aha’ moment about God right then.  How many times things have looked like they were going the wrong way, and yet, He was in the background, orchestrating stuff to make it right in the end?  (I don’t know the answer to that question, just know it’s worth asking)

 24. Another “Proving Darwin Wrong” moment – as my son says – I was working for the Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan, and these thunderstorms would come in off the lake, and I wanted a lightning picture with a lighthouse in it.  Now I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not the best lightning shot in the world out there, but there was, shall we say, a flash of inspiration that came rather suddenly as the film was exposed – the only frame, the 28th one (yes, shot on film), in Lightning bolts, metal tripods, and the (just in time) “Aha!” moment…

25. Sometimes the most profound bits of wisdom come from the simplest things.  I was astonished to find out how many people read the story Mowing dandelions at night…” – and what they thought about it.  Some of those comments are on the blog – some were sent directly to me, but they were all fun to read, and to ponder.

26. I am constantly astonished at the amount of wisdom that can come from simple things.  I remember – again – being in the garage, and finding an old, cracked cookie jar – and as I looked at it, and held it gently, I could almost feel the stories it held, and as I started writing – it gave me more and more detail for the stories that I was able to write and share.

27. The next story published was one I actually wrote in 1998, but happened in 1977, and it was then that the phrase, “Really, they don’t shoot on Sundays…” entered into my vocabulary. It was also the story that inspired my son to ask me the question, “How did you get old enough to breed?”

Hearing that from anyone is a little weird.

Hearing that from your own offspring is a little mind bending…

So should you be interested, the story involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.

Actually, in that order.

28. I then found myself writing about a cup of coffee, and the friends involved in making it.  I’ve lost touch with Annie – but LaRae is now an amazing photographer, Stevie can still make an incredible cup of coffee, but is making a much better living in the transportation business.

 29. I was trying to write a story a week around this time, and had no idea how much time it would take, and found myself staring at Father’s day on the calendar, and realizing how, as hard as our relationship often was (I think an awful lot of father-son relationships have their rocky moments, and I remembered back to the time I taught both of my kids to ride a bike.  There was this moment, I realized, where you have to let go of the saddle – and as I talked to more and more dads about this, I realized that they all, instinctively held their right hand down by their hip, palm out, fingers curled, as though they were, indeed, Letting go of the saddle….  I have to warn you – this story took a turn toward the end that I wasn’t expecting, and it was very, very hard to finish.  You’ll understand when you get there.  I found this story crossed cultural barriers, age barriers, gender barriers, and I ended up putting a hankie warning on this one as well.

30. I needed a little levity, and a smile after that story (remember, they were coming out once a week, but they were taking more than a week to write – so I had spent quite a bit of time on this one, so I, writing, needed a break, and remembered a song we used to sing when I was growing up – and the dawning horror in my wife’s eyes as she realized what it actually meant. (Think German sense of humor (heard of Grimm’s Fairy Tales?) and leave it at that).

The thing about these stories is they just come.  In fact, they’re all there – all I have to do is listen, and they’ll come…

31. The next story required listening for something that’s very hard to hear, and listening for about 20 years before it all came together.  It ended up being two stories that morphed into one, and started out as a story about old Saabs, and ended up being a story about listening to God in the weirdest places.  At the time, I had no idea that God talked to people in Junkyards, but, it turns out, He does.  He talks to us everywhere – if we’re willing to listen.  I have to say this one’s one of my favorites – it was fun to write, fun to search for the right words, fun to put the little vignettes together (there’s a bit about Harley Davidsons in there that I really like) and it was fun to see it all come together.  I hope you enjoy it – even if you aren’t a fan of old Saabs, or maybe haven’t heard God in a junkyard.  Believe me, I was just as blown away by that as you might expect.  If you end up reading the story – let me know what you think, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 32. And we go back into the time machine (in the garage, looking suspiciously like an old box of black and white photos) where I found the picture behind the story “Fishing, Gorillas, and Cops with – well, just read on…”  I like the story – love the picture – I think, because it’s just a normal day – nothing special about it except that – well, that it was so normal, and if you’re looking, you can find beauty everywhere, even if it’s an old guy fishing.  (actually not far from where I took that lightning shot a few stories up)

 33. My next story brought me a little closer to home, and my mom had just made some jelly.  I always joked with her that the jars of Jelly were Time Capsules of Love…– and they were.  It was neat to be able to finally write a story about them and what they meant to me.  I even took a picture of one of those jars for the story.

34. I’d broken my leg that spring, and found myself in an amusing, cross cultural situation afterwards – which ended up in the story, “Knocking down walls with an old brown purse…”  I still wonder how the fellow in the story’s doing.  I did print out a copy there and leave it with people who could get it to him.

35. I’d written a few stories about my son, and decided that it was time to write a couple about my daughter – and the wisdom you can learn about yourself and your kids showed up in two stories, one ostensibly about greasy fingerprints (and Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®)

36. …and one about Pizza – and finances, and if you’re not careful in college (or in life), how prioritizing one over the other can affect things in a significant way…

37. I wrote about letting go – something hard to do – but with a smile in the story, and letting go in a location you might not expect.

38. I wrote about Veteran’s day – and memories of my dad, crossed with a scene I’d seen when I was a newspaper photographer years earlier, and I suddenly understood what the family whose privacy and grief I chose not to invade were feeling. There is a lot of pain in that story.  Writing it down finally helped me to let some of it go.

39. And I needed a smile, so I wrote about Fifi…This is one of my favorite stories, in which I simply chatted with folks and talked my way onto the only B-29 in the world, but at the same time, talked the photo editor of a paper I’d never seen into holding space on the front page for me because I was going to get a picture from the plane as I flew to the town where that paper was.  it was an all or nothing thing from both sides, and was truly an incredible experience.  I recently took a training class in “Win Win Negotiations” – and that one was held up as an example of how to do it.

40. There’s a story I wrote about rear view mirrors, and it actually has very little to do with mirrors.

41.   and another I wrote about pouring a cup of coffeewhich, surprisingly, has a lot to do with pouring a cup of coffee.

42. ….and my favorite prank of all, a story about (and yet not about) spinach.

43. My daughter got mad at me for the next one, called “Playing Digital Marco Polo in Seattle…” – which happened over lunch one day. “Why do these things keep happening to you? – I want things like this to happen to me, and they don’t – and yet here you go out for lunch and get… “ and she trailed off, not sure how to finish it.  As it was happening – it had all the drama of a spy thriller – and I wasn’t sure what I’d walked into – but it was fun.

44. By this time it was near Christmas, and we as a family had worked our Boy Scout Troop’s Christmas tree lot for years, and something special happened this time that made both my wife and an old veteran cry.  Tears of joy and gratitude – for having the privilege of being part of something special – but nonetheless tears.  And I wrote…

45. We’d gone to Arizona that spring to tape me doing some presentations, and I realized there was a story that needed to be written about not that, but about a very special thing that happened down at the Pima Air Museum, as well as McChord Air Force Base many years earlier, so I shifted gears to write a story for the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series, it’s the story called “Can I help you, sir?”

46. There was a sad story about a fellow with hope, on the bus – made me realize that as bad as things were sometimes, they could always get worse, but this fellow wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, he was just taking things one day at a time.  From the story:  “He said he’d take anything for work, but right now there just wasn’t anything.”

47. I pondered electrons, and the monthly “Patch Tuesday” we have at work, and my thoughts wandered from very small things like electrons to the really, really big picture of Who made them., and what it all means.

48. Those of you who’ve been around me for some time have heard me use the term Butthead… and one day I decided to just write the story down about how and why that term came about, and what it means.  (it’s usually a term of endearment, delivered with all the warmth of a cuff upside the head.)

49. At one point, my guardian angels were sharing pager duty, and all their pagers went off when I was miles from anything, no radio station in range, just, for a rare moment, bored out of my mind, crossing North Dakota one year in that old Ford I had.  And I did something to pass the time that apparently set the pagers off. I still wonder, sometimes, how I survived some of these things – or whether they were as crazy as they seem when I write them, or if they were just me paying attention to things other folks just let slide.

50. Often the stories are just from oddities that happen in life.  I never thought a broken TV would make a story – but sure enough, it did.

From the story: “Now Michael, because I have educated him in the ways of complex electronics repair, performed the first task one always does when troubleshooting and/or repairing electronics, which is to smack the living crap out of it.”

51. And then there was the story about my friend Betty…  and I have to tell you, that was one hard, hard thing to write.  It was her eulogy, and it took me a week to recover emotionally from writing it, much less giving it.  I still miss her.

From the story: “I’d come into that room, with that pile of trampled masks outside the door…”

52. I wrote about my son’s and my time in Boy Scouts – with trips to Norwegian Memorial one year and Shi Shi beach the next year.  The places aren’t much more than 15 miles apart, but the experiences were literally night and day.  And after months of pondering I learned that while there was absolute joy in the trip to Norwegian, there was so much more in the way of life lessons from the trip to Shi Shi. They were completely different, but I wouldn’t trade either of them for anything.

The thing about these stories is they’re just out there in the order they come into my mind… Some get finished quickly, some slowly.  Some are written in a couple of minutes – some take decades to live and weeks to write.  Some I don’t even remember myself until I read them again, and at that point, they’re just as fun (or painful) for me to read as they were the very first time…

53. There was the story of Humpty Dumpty in Winter… – (because we all know he had a great fall) – and I think it’s safe to say that that particular story was the epitome of understatement.  It’s just the absolute tip of the iceberg from when I broke my leg.

54. I didn’t write for awhile after that, and when I did, needed something to cheer me up a little, and wrote a story called What Heaven must be like… about an afternoon that was both planned and spontaneous, and I did something that I had never done before.  I met new friends, I saw a smile from my son I wish I’d actually caught (there’s a picture in the story *after* he stopped smiling – I was trying to hold the camera steady while we were still coasting toward him at a good clip and missed how big that wonderful smile actually was.  That story is very much in my top ten favorites – assuming I have a list like that…

55. And then… for a little fun, I wrote a story that was a combination “Saab Story” and a date with a young lass who shall remain nameless, but who – well, here’s the title: Old Saabs, Big puddles, and Bad dates. You’ll figure it out.

56. Not long after that, my friend Beth wanted me to go out and do something fun, and take pictures to prove it.  It was also a time when my friend Greg wondered out loud whether I embellished my stories.  I’d heard that question before, and given how weird some of the stories are, I understood the reason behind it.  I told him no, I didn’t embellish them, and then, to Greg’s incredible shock, he walked right into one of the stories with me, literally as it happened.  The look on his face when he realized what was happening is something that will live on with me for a long time.  He insisted I write it down, and that I could most definitely put his name in it, so here it is… There were three main parts to the story – and they all made it into the title: Blackbirds, Blue Saabs, and Green Porta Potties

57.   Some of my stories are what I guess you’d call a ‘profile’ of a person – and in this next case, it was of a fellow who was a stranger, was assigned to be my officemate, became a friend,  I followed him to another company where he became my boss, and as we grew older and professionally went our separate ways, we still remained friends, and I still have a lot of fondness for the memory of that first meeting of my friend Jae…

58. Then there was the time when my mom used a phrase I’d never, ever heard her use – and I’d only heard used one other time in my life.  But that time had a story wrapped around it so tight that you couldn’t hear the words without going into the story.  And, as is often the case, the story spans a couple of generations, some youthful stupidity, global warming, and how difficult it can be to keep a straight face when being asked a simple question… You’ll find all that in An “Inconvenient Truth” – and how important asking the right questions is.

59. I went back several years on the next story, which was called, simply, Bathtime…  I didn’t realize how – much that little activity with your kid could change your life, but it does, and the story still brings a smile.  (yes, there are pictures, but no, they weren’t included in the story, for reasons that will become obvious as you read it)

60. I did quite a bit of thinking as I wrote Dirty Fingernails, Paint Covered Overalls, and True Friends – and liked the way it came out.  Life lessons that took a number of years to happen actually came together in an ‘aha’ moment as I was writing this story – and it just made me smile.  I opened up a bit more in this one than I had in others, I thought, but it was all true.  I found myself happy with the result.

61. Amazing Grace simmered in my brain for several years before I felt it was ready.  It was one that happened as it’s described in the story – but I spent quite a bit of time trying to be absolutely sure the images described in the story were written correctly so that whoever read it could not only see them, but feel them.  It was an experience, on so many levels, physical, emotional, spiritual.  I hope that feeling comes through.  Let me know how it affects you.

62. I changed pace completely with the next story.  Shock and Awwwwww… took place in the lobby of Building 25 on Microsoft’s main campus.  It’s the classic story of “Boy Meets Girl” but there’s a twist… it’s not just a Boy… It’s a Nerd.  And it’s not just a Girl, but a drop dead gorgeous girl in the eyes of said Nerd.  Everything is going fine until the paperclip enters the picture, and then sparks literally fly.

63. Over the years I’ve found that chocolate has totally different effects on men than it does on women.  I mean, if it’s chocolate from Germany, or Switzerland (both are kinds I had when I grew up) then it’s okay.  Other than that, I generally don’t go out of my way to find it.  I don’t have a reverence for it like you see in some ads, and simply didn’t understand the whole “oh, it’s so WONDERFUL” idea one mother’s day weekend when we went to Cannon Beach in Oregon – and there, I learned that strange things happen when you put Men, Women, Cannon Beach, and Chocolate in the same story.

64. And then I had a week in which – well, I couldn’t quite write a story.

65. There was so much going on, a little fun  – but then so much teetering at the edge of life and death thing that it was hard to think of something fun or funny to write about. Life was happening, and I needed to deal with it.  I didn’t realize how personal this would become in the next little bit. I was hoping to write a story about graduation for the young people I knew who were graduating, but a lot of the echoes of what had recently happened to me followed in the next few posts,

 66. And I wrote a story about Graduation, dodging bullets, and other life lessons… that seemed to encompass all I needed to say, plus telling the young graduates something that might help them along their way.

 67. And then, of course, there was the 4th of July – a holiday that carries with it many memories that would have my son convinced that Darwin was completely wrong.  In this case, the story was about Rockets, Styrofoam airplanes, the Fourth of July, and Jimi

68. And an example of how some stories come from the weirdest places – all I can do is point you to this one: TEOTWAWKI* (if you’re an arachnid) – so if you’re a spider, you might not want to read this one.

69.   And then, in a story about an event my mom found out about literally as she read my story about it, and, as she told me, had her heart beating a little because she didn’t remember it and wasn’t quite sure of the outcome.  Again, proving Darwin wrong, we have what happens when you Take one teenager, add horsepower, and get…  It’s entirely possible that that’s when my Guardian Angels were issued their first pagers.

70. After that, I found a couple of stories I’d asked my dad to write.  He’d written four of them on the computer and printed them out – just before the computer was stolen.  I wrote a ‘wrapper’ around the stories to put them in context, but otherwise, they are exactly as written.  I did that with three of his stories, and they are One act of kindness that’s lasted more than a lifetime,

71.   Puff balls and Pastries  – in which – well, a little mishap caused a problem that had some surprising consequences.

72. …and Some things matter, and some things don’t.  I was truly stunned at the world he was describing in this one, in large part because there was something in it that was considered by the people of that time and place to be “normal”.  I often wonder about his friend there, what happened to him.

73. By this time it was summer – and it was time for the kids to visit the grandparents back east, and it got me thinking about that time many years ago when I had to do some Rat sitting while they were gone, so I wrote about that one, and smiled at the memory.

74.   And then, a story that had been in my head for years, and I think by far the most read story on the blog, and it was a simple story about Tractors, Old Cars, and a Farmer named Harry

I checked with his family first, having a long conversation with his son before I published this, and got their approval. I heard from his friends, I heard from people who didn’t know him, and because of the story, felt they did or wished they had. I had no idea what an impact a story like that could make – but it clearly did, and I felt it was – and had been – a privilege to know Harry and his family.

75. The next story took place in church – where often children are supposed to be quiet – but one child made her presence known in a totally different way in

Thump.  Thump… ThumpThumpThumpThump!

76. Writing the story about Harry made me think of Grad School, and I found myself humming the song “Try to remember the kind of September…” and wrote a story around that – my first couple of days in Athens Ohio – what a cultural shift it was, and simultaneously, what a neat and terrifying experience it was to do this (go 2500 miles from home, to a place where you knew no one, and see how much of a success you can make of yourself…)

77. That got me reminiscing a bit, and the next story was from when I was about 12, when I spent part of a summer Haying, growing up, and learning to drive a clutch…   It was a fun summer – and both trucks, the ’66 Dodge and the ’54 Ford, the truck that could pull the curves in the Nisqually River straight in the story still exist.  They were sold to a neighbor who still uses both of them.  And my uncle’s back has completely healed.

78. “The only thing missing was an old Jeep and mugs of bad Army coffee.”  I found myself thinking about how God reaches for us in some of the strangest places – and remembered thinking this as we were walking back from a Civil Air Patrol Search.   It was our first real search instead of a practice one – and we were quite excited about actually being able to put our training to use… The combination of all of those things brought me to the story God, Searches, and ramming Aaron through the bushes

79.   Lest anyone think I’m so incredible (you should know better) that God talks to me like He talked to Moses – there was a little story about – well, it fell squarely into the middle of the “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little” series.  I learned a lot about keeping the fire (and, come to think of it… starting the fire) in the stove.

80. If you’ve been reading the stories, you might remember that I took a trip down memory lane – on the Autobahn, to Munich, at 110 mph, in the story Octoberfests, Museums, and Bavarian Waitressess – it combined almost getting kicked out of one museum, getting locked out of a second, and trying to drown our sorrows in a very famous place, Munich’s Hofbräuhaus.  …and – I wonder if the waitress (in the story) is still there… Whether she is or not, she made a memory that’s lasted over 30 years…

81. Taking risks…

“…there was nothing but air between me and the roof about 30 feet below, and had I slipped, I would have rolled down, then off the roof and fallen another 40 feet or so before becoming one with the pavement” Yeah, there’s a story that wouldn’t have happened if the scaffolding hadn’t held, if the receptionist hadn’t called the janitor, or if, simply, I hadn’t thought to ask if I could climb out on the roof of the courthouse to get a closer shot of the construction going on.  Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to be bold, step out of your comfort zone, and ask for EXACTLY what you want.  You’ll be astonished at how often you’ll actually get it.  And sometimes, you might even have proof that you asked…

82. We go from the top of the courthouse to sitting in the shade on Mr. Carr’s front stoop.  And I never thought that I would (or could) write a story about a sandwich, but this one was worth writing about.  I still remember how cool that water was, how moist the – oh, I’d better stop, pretty soon you’ll want your own Mr. Carr’s Sandwich

83. A story about my friend Jill – including the only picture I was ever able to take of her, as well as the line, “WHAT have you DONE to my CAR?” – said in a way you might not expect.

84. The story behind my son’s famous quote, “Sometimes, things go wrong…” There’s a lesson there that we could all learn a lot from.

85. In the story A tale of Three Christmas Trees, and a little bit more… you’ll find the line,

“In fact, it’s safe to say, that in that year, God did not have Christmas trees falling out of the sky for us.  Well, actually… I take that back.  He did.”

And it’s true.  But there’s much more to that story, involving things like how much character you get from being poor – and learning to not take things for granted, and making things on your own.  All amazing stuff in and of itself, but together, wow.

86. Every now and then, a dream will show a startling reality in a way that simply can’t be explained in words.  It was new year’s day – and I wrote of a dream I’d had – and the lesson in it in A New Year’s thought, of flashlights, warm hands, and a wish…

87. …and then – a story that had happened a decade earlier finally made it into print, and I wrote about Meeting Howard Carter in the back of the Garage… If you don’t know who Howard Carter is – read the story – you’ll find out.  There are links to him there – but what’s interesting is the story has very little to do with Howard Carter, and much more to do with a dishwasher, and a ‘70’s era Plymouth that was big enough to put a small village in the trunk of.

88. Michael and I, in dire need of a break from everything, hit the road in the story Road Trip! (and Mermaids… and the Gates of Mordor) – and crammed just about as much as we could cram into one 24 hour period as we could, in two states.  We combined Horses (a couple of brown ones and a mustang), and music, and too many spices, and old, fun music, and theatre, and sports, and an excellent impression of the Four Yorkshiremen, and it all melted into one afternoon/evening/morning/next afternoon that was a tremendous amount of fun.

89. Even as this next one was happening, and I was smelling a truckload of gasoline in a place I’d never thought I’d smell it, and blocking traffic in the last place I wanted to block traffic,  I found myself wondering if this was going to make it into a story.  It did.  It’s here: Caffeine, Clean Engines, and Things that go Whoomp in the Night…

90. If you remember the story about “Transmissions from God”, you know that occasionally I hear God’s still, small voice telling me to do something.  Sometimes I hear Him in a junk yard, sometimes I hear him  in the balcony at church, and sometimes in Safeway parking lots in Ballard.

91. If you’re keeping track, this next story, in the order they were written, was Norwegian… – though it happened a year before the Shi Shi Beach story.  It ranks as one of the top camping trips I’ve ever been on.

92. And this next story was literally a dream.  If you’ve gotten this far, you know that occasionally I’ll remember one, and for whatever reason it will have something significant in it.  I called this one Jungles, White Helicopters, and Long Journeys – because when I had that dream, I thought I was near the end of a long journey – but in reality, – well, if you’ve ever gone through a challenging time – and you can pick your challenge.  The story fits.  Let me know what you think.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

93. And after I wrote that one, I got to wandering down memory lane a bit – sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a hankie – sometimes both.  It’s funny how a certain smell rocketed me back to Sidney, Ohio and this story: Black and White, and Read all over… – and it’s written pretty much how I told it to my son on the way home one evening.  It still brings a smile.

94. While I was in the neighborhood, so to speak – I remembered the time I wandered into a radio station just outside of Sidney, because no one told me I couldn’t – and making a new friend with the DJ there.  I smile every time I think about that time, and the story Radio Stations, Paul Simon, and Blue Moons came out of it.

95. I’ve had stories take on a life of their own – and this next one was one of them.  I started off just writing a story about me doing something that had unexpected results, and it suddenly turned into something more.  Something much, much more.  You’d never think that Carburetor Cleaner, Hot Water, and a Cold Sprite could be mentioned in the same sentence and have a common theme – but they were – they do, and I feel, honestly, honored to have been a part of the story.

I will miss Dan.  He’s one of the best.

It took me awhile to figure out what to do next… the story about Dan was published, along with some of the other “Saab Stories” in the Saab Club Magazine – and I just had to let it simmer a little bit, as it was, if you read it – a hard story to finish.

96.   The next story was one I’d written a year earlier, and was one of those things that my daughter would say just happens to me.  I don’t know why, maybe because I pay attention?  I’m not sure… In this case, I was out for a walk, and a little dog interrupted that walk and melted my heart for a good while.  When I found out the dog’s name, I was stunned, and did lots of research into the name, just to understand it.  I think it’s because of all the research I did that my mind was completely overwhelmed with the name and what it represented, and I didn’t like the story at all.  But – a year went by, and I read it again, and sure enough it made me smile.  It turns out that Fuzz Therapy with Rasputin is cheaper than any other kind of therapy.

97.   Sometimes therapy comes in different packages.  I remember one time, years ago, my son was sick, it had been an exhausting day, and I’d just gotten him to bed, but he wasn’t sleepy.  I was sitting there, in the tired exhaustion felt by all parents of youngsters at the end of a long day, trying to figure out what I could do to make him comfortable enough so that he would go to sleep.  Of course, if he went to sleep, that meant I could sleep, too.  While I was pondering this, I heard his voice cut through the thoughts, “Papa? Tell me a story…”

A story.  It was like I’d been in a dream, and he’d pulled me out of it.  A story.  I tried to think, and knowing he liked dragons, I figured I’d start somewhere and see where it took me.  I’d had a class years ago where we wrote a story, one sentence at a time, but the professor wrote a word on the board, and we had to write a sentence around it.  Then he’d write another word, we’d write another sentence.  Eventually, we’d have a story, but we wouldn’t know, from one sentence to the next, where the story was taking us.

And that’s how I started…  Blindly going where no story teller had gone before, I started off with my first sentence: “Fred was a Dragon.” – and I went on from there, the story slowly taking shape until it became the story you can read as: Of Dragons, Knights, and Little Boys…  Let me know what you think when you can.

98. I put this next one out on Father’s day.  It’s a Saab story, but it’s more than that… it was a trip my son and I took to visit my mom on the fourth of July – and an adventure that had a fun quote come out of him.  It made me smile, and – wow – 6 years later, I finally wrote it down.  It became the story called …if Will Smith drove a Saab 96

And – it’s still July as I write this…  I’ve been going through a lot of these stories, trying to find my favorites – find the ones that made me smile – that still make me smile, and also find the ones that made me think, or helped me learn something…

Sometimes I learn things that people show me, or teach me, or from some mistake I made.

Sometimes I learn from things God puts in front of me and gives me the privilege of seeing, and learning from.

And sometimes I learn from stories that have made me cry, in living them, in writing them, and again in reading them.

There’s a little of every one of them in there.  There’s tales of youthful stupidity, there’s the story in which my son says I’ve simply proved Darwin wrong – that it’s not survival of the fittest – it’s survival of the luckiest – and often there’s an element of truth to that.  The phrase that sticks with me is the one he said after I told him one of my “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories.  I heard words I’d never, ever have thought to hear from my own offspring, “How did you get old enough to breed?”

99. So to finish that off – a tale that involves a uniquely American holiday, youthful stupidity, a good bit of luck, and the sound of Guardian Angel’s pagers going off yet again… It’s the memories of July 4th… When I was a kid…

Thanks for being with me through these first 99 – well, 100 stories.  I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have.

Take care & God bless,

Tom


Well, school started for a lot of kids this week – and it got me thinking about my first day of school many years ago.

Mind you, it was grad school, but “The First Day of School” seems to have the same connotations no matter where you go or how old you are.  I got in touch again with a friend the other day, and she was telling me how nervous and antsy she was about the first day of school.

Then I found out she was a teacher.

I guess those “First Day of School” jitters never really go away, huh?

So the first day of school I was thinking about was when I went to Grad school in Athens, Ohio, and I got there in September, a number of years ago.

You know that song, “Try to remember, the kind of September… when life was sweet, and oh so mellow…”

Honestly, I don’t remember this particular September as being quite the gentle one mentioned in the song.  This one involved moving across the country, to a place I’d never been, and doing something that everyone but me thought I was really good at, and learning to be better at it.

I was graciously given a ride down from the Cleveland Airport from my friend Renee’s parents, who were a nice transition from leaving a place where I knew everything to arriving at a place where it seemed I knew absolutely nothing.  We got there in the evening, with enough light to take my suitcase and pack up to the third floor walk-up apartment (a semi-finished attic that was being rented out).  I turned the radio on I’d had shipped ahead on to hear something familiar, only to hear stations from Chicago to West Virginia.

Wow – They were a far cry from what I was used to.  Everything was so new, and I suddenly felt so very far from home.  In fact, not only was everything new, but there was just so much of it to absorb.  On top of that, aside from Renee’s parents, the closest person I knew was a minimum of 2,000 miles away.  The adventure of it all seemed to pale in comparison to the enormity of the distance from all things familiar.

The closest phone was a phone booth at the grocery store a couple of blocks away, so I walked over there and called home to let my folks know I’d arrived and was getting settled, (and, honestly, to hear a familiar voice).

The next day I decided to explore my surroundings, since I was expecting to be there for at least a year, possibly two, so I went for a walk.  I’d been writing a letter, so I took the clipboard I had the paper on, slung one of my cameras over my shoulder and headed out.  I was more than a little astonished at people’s reactions to that.  I’d be walking along, taking pictures of the campus, writing in the letter that I had on the clipboard about what I’d seen, and people would see me and give me a really wide berth, like they didn’t want anything to do with me.  Later I realized that I must have looked very official, and people just wigged out a little, not realizing that at the time, that all I was doing was taking pictures for a letter I was writing to my folks.

Oh well.

One thing I learned on that walk was that the humidity in southeast Ohio was a little different than it was in Seattle.  I won’t say it was humid, but I will say that if you had a potato chip that was too large, you could fold it in half before you gnawed it to death.  It was so humid you really didn’t get much wetter if you jumped into a pool, a shower, or a bathtub.   The apartment I was in had an air conditioner, but all that did was change the climate in that attic apartment from hot and sticky to cold and clammy.  In a nutshell, it went from plain uncomfortable to just plain gross.

I also began to understand the concept of big porches, which we don’t really have much of in the northwest.  You might spend time inside, and you might spend time outside, but that halfway point between the two, the front porch, really doesn’t exist where I come from, so it’s a whole different culture, just by that very little architectural thing, and one of the things you do on a porch is just sit there and watch the world go by.

Now, given that my place had no porch, and because there were very few places in it where you could actually stand up all the way, I found myself staying there mainly to sleep, and the first quarter there I did surprisingly little of that.  The girls on the second floor downstairs smoked, so there was this constant stale smoke smell that permeated everything.  Well, not everything.  If you got close enough to the air conditioner to be cold and clammy, the stale smoke smell lost out to the slimy, mildewy, air conditioner smell.

Ummmyeah… an olfactory experience not to be missed, I tell you…

Not.

On the walls was this old (actually kind of pretty) pine paneling.  But the one thing I really liked about the apartment was the location.  It was literally across the parking lot from the school of art, where I had most of my classes.  I could be in class in 2 minutes flat, assuming I was in the apartment.  Usually I was in one of the studios, the darkroom, or the computer lab.  Like I said, I used the place for sleeping and that was about it.

And so, like many other people in the area did in the evening, I went for a walk, just to get out of the house.  And that early evening, while walking up the street, no cars moving anywhere, I saw a guy, sitting on his porch, at his house, across the street.

Alone.

He was rocked back on a chair, gently fanning himself with a ratty old hat, watching the world go by, which at that moment, consisted of just me.

“Hah!”

(Hah?)

I looked around.

He clearly couldn’t be talking to me.

I mean, he was all the way across the street from me.

In Seattle, where I’d been, there was always traffic.  You wouldn’t dare talk to someone across the street without looking both ways to see if you’d be interrupted or hit by a car or truck or bus coming by.

I looked left and right.

Still no cars.

In fact, no trucks.

Or buses.

Not even a stray cat to make life interesting.

“Haaaayadoin?”

(Haaaayadoin?)

(oh… “How are you doing?”)

I looked back at him – he was looking right at me and obviously talking only to me.

“Uh, fine?”

“Naaas weather, ain’it?”

Nice?

Nice?

I started thinking of that potato chip I mentioned earlier.  It wasn’t – oh, he’s making conversation – I get it.  I’d lived alone for the last year.  I was completely out of practice of simply making conversation, but I gave it a try.

“Um… a little humid.”

He smiled and waved the ratty hat at me.

“Have a naaas dayie”

I waved back, pondered the whole exchange for a bit and kept going…  There was something about the way he waved that would repeat itself a couple of years later in a totally different setting, but that wave, and the willingness to just say hi to a stranger, was something worth more than I realized at the time.

I’d rented the apartment sight unseen from a lady I only knew through several other people.  In fact, I rented it from a payphone at the Safeway on top of Queen Anne hill in Seattle. I’d never done anything like that before, but it worked out well.  She’d mailed me a key to the place, so I was able to get into the apartment, and when I was all settled in there in Athens, I called her, and she came by to show me around.  I didn’t realize that “around” would include a guided tour of the whole town, but it did.

She took me for a ride in her old metal flake green convertible that, honestly, reminded me of a cross between split pea soup, and the worst cold I ever had.  For some reason known only to her and God himself, she had eye shadow to match the car.

She was an absolute sweetheart, but being driven around in a huge convertible snot green 1972 Cadillac with white leather seats by a little old lady, (and I mean little, my gosh, if she was 5 feet tall I’d have been surprised.  She had the seat all the way forward, an old pillow tucked behind her, and was driving this behemoth with her toes) just wasn’t what I was expecting as a young college student ready to take on the world.

I clearly had a lot to learn.

She took me for that tour of town, showing me where everything was.  Most places have a “downtown”. Athens has an “uptown”.

We stopped at a traffic light, in the left lane, the big V-8 engine in front of us almost silent, and were talking a bit about town when another convertible pulled up beside us.  Actually, “pulled up” is far too gentle a word.  This was a bright, fire engine red, convertible VW Rabbit, and I, who had been living alone for over a year, was suddenly faced with four – um “college women” who just, for lack of a better phrase, simply materialized beside us with a little ‘scritch’ of their tires.  The girls were, let’s just say they weren’t the “California Girls” in the Beach Boys song, but Lordy, they would sure have found a place in it… I think somewhere between the “Southern Girls” and the “Midwest farmer’s daughters” – they would have fit just fine… They were dressed for the weather, full of life and fun, laughing and giggling.  I was just getting my mind, and, admittedly, eyes around what I was seeing, the girls laughed, said, “Hi!”  The light turned green, and they were gone.

Um.

Wait?

I looked left, and a thought crossed my mind.  The little old lady peering under the steering wheel hadn’t always been old.  It made me wonder if, at some point, this little old lady with the green eye shadow, driving the green Cadillac with her toes had been a young college student once, and what stories she might have to tell about times when she was young.

I didn’t know, at the time, that my life would forever be changed by the things that happened there in Athens.

I didn’t know that I’d work so hard that even eating 4 meals a day I’d still lose 30 pounds in 10 weeks.

I didn’t know then that I’d do things, make friends, and have adventures in the next few years that I still smile about today.

I didn’t know then whether the dreams I had of being a globe-trotting photojournalist would pan out, but I was sure going to try.

There was so much, that fall, that I didn’t know, and as I think now about sitting there in that green Cadillac, I realize that the little old lady must have been able to look back at the kind of September that I – well, not that I was about to experience, but the kind of September I’d remember, too.  She, by driving me around, was sharing her own memories, her hangouts, her little secrets, and in a way, allowing me to be a part of her reliving her own youth.  It was, I realized years later, an honor, and a privilege, to be allowed to be part of that moment in her life.

All during the writing of this, I’ve been drawn back to the song … (listen – or read the music and lyrics)

(music © by Harvey Schmidt, words © by Tom Jones)

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow,
Follow, follow, follow, follow.

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
Although you know the snow will follow.
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
Without a hurt the heart is hollow.
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
The fire of September that made us mellow.
Deep in December, our hearts should remember.

And so, as I hum the words above, I think back with fondness on the memory of a very little old lady in a very big car, who allowed a young student’s September to be a part of the December in her life.


Have you ever come up with a snappy answer to a question that you just couldn’t get out of your mouth in time? I generally get my “snappy answers” about a week or two later, having spent the entire time wondering what I should have said, could have said, didn’t say, whatever. I rarely, if ever come up with the *right* answer at the right 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   (Oh, “Holler” – that’s spelled “Hollow” by the way – it’s a valley that kind of stops at one end). Oh my gosh, it was – um ‘different’ – but I digress… 

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.

Hmmm…

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.

Hmmm…

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…

A shotgun…

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!

Oh geez…

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.

© 2011 Tom Roush


It was in “Athens-by-God-Ohio” that I met her, the feistiest, orneriest, funniest little old lady (short of my mom) I could ever hope to meet.

Cleo was 88, and I was there in Grad school a number of years ago, getting my master’s degree in photojournalism – and I was there without a car.  This limited the stories I could do to pretty much walking or busing distance, and I found that Cleo lived just down the street.

Cleo was as independent as they come, and lived alone, in her own house.  She did her own grocery shopping, did her own chores, and spent occasional afternoons at the senior center in town playing cards or just reminiscing with the dwindling group of friends her own age she could relate to.

Her kids thought she was too old to live by herself, so they decided that she needed to be moved into a nursing home.

In Columbus.

68 miles away.

She disagreed, but it seemed that they were pretty insistent, and they moved her there.

Remember “feisty”?

Well, she promptly hopped a Greyhound back to Athens.

They didn’t mess with her anymore after that.

In talking to her, I found that she did her chores on Saturday, and since I was trying to find a story – I thought that it would be interesting to see what kinds of stories could be told in the pictures I could get of her doing that – so I made an appointment with her for Saturday morning around 10:00.  After we talked and joked a little, I told her that her job was to ignore me, and to just do what she would normally do.

And she did..

She swept.

She dusted.

…and she mopped.

Now when she mopped, she put on these old floppy galoshes, grabbed a bucket of water and whatever cleaner she used, and sloshed water on the floor and mopped it up.  There was no grace to the movements, no pretense.  She wasn’t putting on a show for me, in fact, she was in her own little world, and completely ignoring me, which was just perfect.

I took some pictures of the mop and the galoshes, thinking that would make a good detail shot, and then, as I was focusing, she picked up the bucket and started for the back door.  I followed, getting a shot of her opening the old, dilapidated screen door, and at that moment, the light came on in my head – she was going to throw the water off the back porch!

I literally jumped past her as she hung the mop onto a string, spinning 180 degrees in mid air so I landed facing her somewhere in the middle of the little back yard.  I must have instinctively focused the lens (a 24mm Nikkor) somewhere in mid air because I don’t remember doing it.  I hammered down on the shutter release for the motor drive of my Nikon FM-2 just as she did her back swing to lob the water off the porch, and got a series of 5 shots of the water sloshing out of the bucket into the yard.

Number 3 was the best.

1/250th of a second at f/8.  It wasn’t an easy print.  I printed it as high contrast as I could get – but that meant that the highlights (specifically her right arm, where the sleeve ends and the arm begins) were blasted out pure white and needed to be burned down so you could see detail.  I dodged out the galoshes, making sure you could see them, and used a touch of potassium ferricyanide on the wet mop hanging on the string to make it less of a blob.  I burned the wall of her house down a little darker (photographically, not in real life) so it would fade into the background a little, bringing the water up a bit in the process.

She was 88 years old back in 1987, so I’m sure she’s gone now, but she was a neat lady.  I’m glad to have known her.

Cleo and mop

Cleo throwing the mop water out. © 1987 Tom Roush

Tom Roush

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