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I was going through some old photos awhile back from when I was in Sidney, Ohio, and my mind started wandering through the memories.

Going through this one set of negatives (yes, really, and they were black and white, too), I’d been shooting high school baseball – a tournament all the way down in Dayton, and the kids were out there playing, I had been by the field and had watched with everyone, as a storm came in.  While the game was going on, I could see the officials huddled off to one side trying to decide when or if to call the game.  They were paying close attention to the storm.

It turns out that thunderstorms in the Midwest are common, far more than they are here in the Pacific Northwest, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I did have the sense to climb down from the aluminum bleachers I was on as even I knew that lightning struck the highest object first. And, given that I’d been standing on the top bleacher, leaning against the rail at the back – yeah… it was time to come down where it was a little safer.

I’d just gotten to the ground and was standing near the first base line when I heard a loud “Tick” and looked out past the first baseman in time to see a lightning bolt blow a tree apart just past the right field fence.

It was close enough to other things that I could actually gauge the size of the bolt, at least 8 inches across, and the thunder was absolutely instant.

Needless to say, the game was cancelled.  Enough kids get killed by lightning every year that they take it pretty seriously in Ohio, so the kids were running in full tilt before the bits and pieces of the tree even hit the ground.  The parents hustled them to the cars when they got close, and then the rain came pouring down so fast the only thing missing was the Ark…

I got all my camera gear into the car, tossing it onto the passenger’s seat of my ’79 Ford Fairmont, and started the trip up Interstate 75 to the newspaper in Sidney where I’d process the film and get photos ready for the next day’s edition.

The rain, by now, was pretty brutal, and the lighting was constant, to the point where I got to wondering how bright it actually was, so while the traffic was stopped on the freeway, I rummaged around in the camera bag for my light meter that I used to adjust camera settings for Studio Strobe lights, and put it up on the dash.

And then I set it to wait for the next flash.

Which happened about 4 seconds later.

Which, when the light meter was set for ISO 400 film in the camera, registered an f/8.0 aperture.

Consistently.

Meaning if you set the lens to that aperture, the lightning would expose the film perfectly.

Every time.

Which tied in to what they used to say in Grad School: the best way to get a shot was “f/8 and be there” – Because f/8 stopped down the lens enough (think of the lens as squinting) to sharpen things up if you didn’t have the lens completely in focus, but didn’t ‘squint’ so hard that it darkened things to the point you couldn’t see them at all.

And the lightning gave you enough light to take the picture.

Without either of them, neither of them worked.

Hmmm…

f/8 and be there

Even if it’s in the middle of a storm.

Hmmmm…

I pondered some more, but my curiosity satisfied, I put the light meter back in the camera bag and concentrated on traffic, driving, and just plain seeing the taillights in front of me.  It was a pretty bad storm, honestly… Eventually I got back to the paper and developed the film in the darkroom and did indeed get something for the next day’s paper.

I’d have other experiences with lightning later on, at other newspapers, but it was during one moment that’s lost to time that I got to thinking about storms, and specifically thunderstorms, and the lessons they could teach us.

See, when I was little, we lived in Illinois, where the storms were similar to the ones in Ohio.

I knew other kids who were scared of storms, and like them, we’d all head into mom and dad’s bedroom when the thunder woke us up.

But mom didn’t feed the fear at all.  We went there because that bedroom had the best view of the storms, and since dad worked nights, mom would always invite us up onto the bed or over to the window and say, “Ooh, let’s look at the lightning!”

And we did – and we were fascinated with how clear and sharp everything was in that brilliant flash, and how the darker the storm got, the clearer we could see when the lightning hit.

And it got me thinking.

Last December here in Seattle, we lived up to our reputation for rain and got enough of it here in the lowlands in three weeks to overcome a summer’s worth of drought.  The mountains got eight feet of snow in one week.  In fact, there was enough rain out on the Olympic Peninsula to put out a forest fire that had been burning all summer.

It was… a lot of rain.

And the storms in life sometimes come softly – like that snow – you don’t realize it’s an issue until you can’t get out of your driveway, or walk down the street.

Sometimes they come faster – like those rain storms in December where there were days where we had an inch or two of rain a day, for a long time… The land couldn’t soak it up fast enough, and there were consequences, the flooding that happened right away, and landslides that happened later.

But some of those consequences could come almost instantly – with very little or no warning.  Like there would be if you were standing on the top of an aluminum set of bleachers and idly noticed clouds coming in a little faster than you were expecting.

I learned that sometimes, you can be out in the worst weather – and find yourself absolutely terrified by it – but then realize that the lightning in that dark storm gives you a clarity of vision that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

The lightning may be scary, but it’s also amazing in how it clears things up…

And…

…the lightning has struck before, and I – we – we learned from it that time.

Well, those times.

And of course, it all got me thinking some more…

See, I’m going through a storm myself as I write this – and it’s close.  It’s close enough to where the lightning and thunder happen at the same time – and it’s disorienting.

I don’t have the clarity that I’d like to have right now.

There are times when I am flummoxed at where God is during some of these storms. I’ve seen so many variations of answers in all of this that with the other things that have happened in my life  I’m never sure whether to be upset when the answer to a prayer I have isn’t the one I’m expecting…

…or the one I want…

But the answer…

It will come.

I just need to remember the lessons I learned many years ago looking out mom’s bedroom window, and the lessons I learned standing on top of a bunch of aluminum bleachers, and lessons we’ve learned more recently, going through our own storms…

…I guess another way to look at it is you can either be terrified of the lightning or you can let the lightning bring you wisdom and clarity.

Deal with what you can.

When you can.

With the information you have.

And the resources you have.

Hmmmm…

I guess you could add to that:

Don’t worry about the stuff you can’t deal with.  Just work with what you can…

Those of you who read the Bible might be familiar with this verse from Matthew 6:34 (NIV)

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Hmmm…

So very true.

So instead of focusing so much on the worries of tomorrow…

Be there today.

…instead of focusing on the regrets of yesterday…

Be there today.

It’s far easier to say it than it is to do it, but if you were a photographer,  that’s another way of saying “f/8 and be there

So… I guess the biggest thought in all of this is that I’m not so much waiting for the lightning as much as I’m searching for it.

And the clarity that comes from  a bright flash of lightning in a dark storm.

Take care, folks…

 


Some time back we went over to our friends Tim and Mary’s for dinner, and the subject of weird injuries made its way into the conversation.

In fact, they started talking about someone they knew who knew of a guy who’d had his hand in a microwave when it turned on.

This got my attention just a little bit and so I started asking some questions…

“So, um, where did this happen?”

“The 7-11 down by SPU.”

“Really?”

“Any idea when?”

“Oh, years ago.”

I asked a few more questions – figured there couldn’t be TOO many of us who’d done that – and then I asked, “So, you wanna hear the rest of the story?”

They didn’t get it at first.

And then I got an idea and went all Paul Harvey on them, in large part because I knew “The Rest of the Story,” because the guy they were talking about who’d gotten his hand nuked in the microwave…

…was me.

See, I’d graduated from SPU, having developed some skills in photography, and one of the important things was the ability to have a darkroom. Understand, this was back when film was made of plastic with silver Jello on it that was developed with several poisonous chemicals that came in powdered form that you mixed with water and then soaked the film in…

Which I did in my kitchen.

In the sink.

With no gloves.

(yeah, think about that for a bit – but that’s what we did back then)

So it became obvious to me very quickly that doing food and photography in the same kitchen, while possible, was not advisable to do simultaneously. As a result, I kept the kitchen pretty clean for the most part, so that if I needed to print some photos, I could:

  • close the curtains (to change it from a kitchen to a dark room)
  • hang up the safelight (an orange light that wouldn’t expose black and white photo paper like white light)
  • hang up the fan (to suck out the chemical fumes)
  • clip the plywood shades into the two windows
  • attach the hose from the fan through the one plywood sheet to the outside
  • turn off the white light
  • turn on the safelight and the fan
  • take the cover off the enlarger
  • pour the chemicals

…and I was ready to go.

The building I called home was red when I lived there, not gray as it is in that photo link at left – but that’s the place I called home for a bit.

So the important thing to do here when printing photos for an assignment was simple: Do it quickly.

The reason for this was so I didn’t get hungry while I was printing – because then I had to make a decision between food and photos.

But – it turned out there was an alternative, namely God’s gift to college students, just a couple of blocks away.

And hey – it’s still there.

At the time, I’d done it often enough to where I could dig some money out from the couch cushions, walk down there, get a Big Gulp and a burrito for $1.38, nuke it, and eat it on the way back and then continue printing photos.

Hey – it worked on a bunch of levels. I got some fresh air. I moved around… I took a break, and I got some dinner.

What could possibly go wrong?

<crickets>

Ummmyeah.

So one night, I’m printing a big assignment. Understand, photos were not done electronically back then, they were real live 8 x 10 photos… printed on very nice, rich, contrasty black and white paper so they could reproduce in the magazines they were being published in, the works… They had to be dusted and spotted with some watercolor/ink and a little camels hair brush so that dust that had made it onto the film and thus onto the print was taken care of.  The photos then had to have my photo credit printed on the back with a rubber stamp, the file number of the negative, all of it had to be matched with the invoice, the whole bit.

It was a lot of work.

The burrito, and the Big Gulp, were essential.

But this time, I got to the 7-11, grabbed my beef and bean burrito, popped open the bottom of the two industrial microwaves that could take the burrito from frozen solid to beefy, beany deliciousness (remember, I was a college student) in 2 minutes flat.

And I discovered three things simultaneously.

1. There was a burrito on a paper plate in the microwave already.

2. The light inside the microwave had just turned on.

3. The fan was running.

Hmmm…

The only time I’d seen that before was when the microwave was on.

But microwave ovens are designed to be off when the door is open.

And I was hungry.

And my burrito was cold.

I slammed the door shut and reopened it.

The light came on again.

So I figured, “Well, I’ll just yank it out of there” and reached in to a feeling that can only be likened to pouring 7-Up through my hand. It felt like little bubbles were popping inside my right hand. I yanked it out, hoping I’d misread what had just happened.

Hesitating, one more time I reached in real quick – and sure enough, same thing. I slammed it shut and called the guy behind the counter, who’d been there as long as I’d been a student,”Hey, your microwave just nuked my hand!”

A cop who was standing there getting a cup of coffee saw it all and said, simply, “I’d sue ‘em.”

That thought hadn’t crossed my mind, I just wanted my burrito so I could go home and finish the dang photo assignment I was working on.

But I got the cop’s badge number…nuked the burrito in the top oven, ate it on the way home as usual, and noticed something strange…

My right hand felt weird, and later, when I got home, it felt like the tendons in it were made of cold spaghetti, like they’d pop apart if I tried to grab something too hard.

It started to swell a bit on top of it all, so I bought some Tylenol and some fingerless leather gloves just to hold my hand together because it really felt like the only thing holding it together was the skin, and when it didn’t get better over the next couple of days, I called the doctor.

I learned that trying to find a doctor who was familiar with radiation burns at that time was a bit of a challenge and got you talking to some very interesting people.  Eventually I ended up talking to a gal in the Burn Unit at Harborview, who, unlike everyone else I’d talked to, knew exactly what I was talking about. She’d been working a food booth at some kind of a fair that summer, where someone actually dropped the microwave they were using, and it cracked.  It still worked, but if you stood at just a certain spot – you could feel the radiation from the outside.

It also turned out there wasn’t really anything I could do other than just wait it out and let it heal.

Another weirdity was that my right hand stopped sweating after that – which meant that little film of moisture you’re barely aware of on your hands (the one that helps you grip things) wasn’t there anymore. I had to grip the enlarger focusing knob tighter to use it – or my hand would slip off. I also dropped the camera (a Nikon F-3 with an SB-16 speedlight on it) a few times (which cost a goodly chunk of money to fix), so in the end, I did go to a lawyer to see what the deal could be, because by this time, the Big Gulp and the burrito had cost a good bit more than $1.38.

The lawyer said if I had any kind of injury that was visible, even a scratch, that’d make a huge difference, but for now, I didn’t have that. Eventually I noticed that my right hand was colder than my left, and found a place in Ohio where I later went to Grad School that would do what they called “Thermographs.” They were basically photos that showed how hot each hand was, and the right one was definitely colder. This would have been good – had they not lost the thermographs before I could get them to the lawyer. Turns out he thought the case’d be worth about $65,000.00, which seemed like a lot of money, but would likely cost about that much to try because, he said both Litton (the maker of the microwave) and Southland corporation (parent of 7-11) were incorporated in Delaware at the time, and he figured they’d do what they could to make it hard for me, meaning after expenses, I’d walk away with having gained nothing and lost a bunch of time in the deal.

So, I ended up just letting it go. Really – at the time, there didn’t seem to be much of an option.

A year or so ago, I was telling the story to my friend Beth and her daughter who were in town, visiting, and figured, what the heck, why not go to that 7-11 and take a look, so we did, and (this may not come as a surprise) but the microwaves had been replaced (heck, it had been 30 years – even my Mom’s expensive microwave that dad had gotten her years ago had given up the ghost in that time). The new ones were much smaller. We thought of getting something to eat or drink – and then decided against it.

In fact, for the first time in decades, I walked out of that 7-11 without either a Big Gulp or a burrito.

And I was okay with that…

Oh – and as for Mary and Tim – they now knew The Rest of the Story.

Take care out there folks – and an unsolicited bit of advice?

Don’t stick your hands in rogue microwaves…

Trust me on this.  😉


A chortling water buffalo pulled up beside us as we waited for the stop light at 15th and Market.

I looked left.

Hmmm… No water buffalo.

Especially in Ballard. However, there was a Harley, making all the gorgeous sounds idling Harleys make.

“The driver’s too skinny,” said Michael from the passenger’s seat after giving him a once-over.

“And a bit young…” I said as my eyes moved up from the bike to the rider.

Sure enough… a too skinny kid in his 20’s… straddling a burbling Harley.

We watched, and listened, as we waited for the light to turn green, and as it did, the Harley roared off, blasting open the doors of the time machine and leaving me ricocheting off long forgotten memories for the rest of the trip home.

Those memories spanned well over a quarter of a century, and I bounced between lessons from Grad school, a famous photograph, my first internship, and lessons learned many, many years later.

And as the sound faded away, it got me thinking about Harley Davidson.

The real one.

But to tell you that story – I’ll need to tell you a couple of other stories to fill in some gaps.

I got my Master’s degree in photojournalism from Ohio University, and one of the things Terry Eiler drilled into us there was to go out and take risks. Go out and try new things. Do the thing no one else is doing. Do the assignment you were sent to do to be safe, but then go do a little bit more.

I learned from that. I’ve been inside the boiler of a steam locomotive (it was pretty dark). I’ve talked my way onto airplanes (it was loud), and I’ve gotten images of normal things from abnormal locations just because I asked if I could. (it was amazing).

What Terry didn’t tell us at the time is what kinds of stories we’d get on the way to taking these pictures… There’s the “running over the skunk” story, and the oh-so-memorable “the car broke down” story, things that seemed to “just happen” – and yet, took on a life of their own. Lessons to be learned, stories to be lived.

But all that was in the future still. While in class, he told us about a guy named Rob Goebel, who’d worked at this small town paper, and one hot day had gone out to see if he could find some images that could tell a story, and eventually, he found himself in a bar…

With a biker.

Named Bones.

He knew the shot he wanted, and after as much chatting as you could do, set up the lights, got the shot he’d had in mind, and then left.

Fast forward 15 years. I’d gotten my first internship out of Grad School, for the same newspaper Rob had been working for at the time. Mike Grone was the chief photographer, and one day as we were going over assignments, he got this twinkle in his eye that I didn’t recognize until later, smiled, and said, “Hey, you ought to go see Bones.”

“Bones?”

“Yeah, Bones and Harley – Rob Goebel took a picture of him a few years back… Won the POY (Pictures of the Year) award for it after he left.”

“Oh really?” I said as he dug through a file cabinet for a faded tearsheet of the original.

He found it, and gave me the address, and I tossed my camera bag into the back seat of my old Ford and headed on over to the little house on Wilkinson, hoping to maybe reproduce a photo of him and Harley 15 years later, kind of an “after” shot to Rob’s ”before” photo. I found the house, parked the car, and as I shut it off, looked up to see Bones himself sitting in an overstuffed recliner on what would soon be a dilapidated old front porch, idly sharpening a knife. He’d aged since the photo, but even so, there was still a presence about him that could be sensed, was almost palpable.

As I walked up and got my bearings, I realized that the thing about Bones was he wasn’t just skin and…

It was not hard imagining him riding a large motorcycle. He filled up the generously sized chair he was in, his overalls, and that presence extended out well past the porch. I took the initiative and introduced myself, not really sure of what kind of a reaction I’d get.

He sized me up, understanding pretty clearly that I wanted to take some pictures (a camera bag and two Nikons likely gave that away).  He tucked his sharpening stone between his belly and his left leg, and we talked for a bit…

I don’t remember much of the conversation until he asked if I had a knife.  Of course I had a knife. I’d had a Swiss Army Knife of one kind or another for years. It was as much a part of me as a watch might have been, or today, a cellphone.

“Let me see it.” he said. It wasn’t a request, more a statement of a fact that just hadn’t happened yet.

I handed it over. He grunted a combination of acknowledgement and disgust as he pulled the bits of packing tape off the blade that were still stuck there from the last time I’d opened a cardboard box with it. He shifted in his chair and pulled the well-rounded sharpening stone I’d seen earlier out from under his paunch and talked me through the finer points of knife sharpening.

Harley came out about then, and I tried to make something of a picture of the two of them on the porch, but things, weren’t clicking, so to speak. Bones wanted to finish the knife, and I couldn’t make any of it really work photographically, so we just chatted a little more.

That’s when I heard another screen door tentatively creak open, and I looked over to see a young lady, who I learned later was Harley’s sister, come out. I watched as she came out, and remember thinking that she looked a lot like – well, like she just didn’t seem to belong in that place… Kind of a rose among thorns, if you will. I was still trying to reconcile that when I looked back to Bones and noticed something had changed, as if a wall had suddenly fallen between us. Totally unspoken, there was a sense that I had unwittingly crossed a pretty significant line, and I could feel the temperature drop as he handed me back my knife, folded closed. I opened it, and realized that in the couple of minutes he’d had it, he’d taken it from a bits-of-tape encrusted piece of metal to a finely honed instrument that would do far more than cut through the tape of cardboard boxes. He’d left his mark on that knife, and was not so subtly letting me know what he was capable of, and even though he was showing his age at the time, still not a man to be trifled with.

So, I didn’t trifle, and realized that the picture I had gone there to recreate might not be possible, but I’d tried.  I remember going back a time or two more, but that wall was still there, and over time, Bones and his family faded off the back burner of my mind.

Many years later, I got back in touch with Mike as I was writing this story about a fellow named Harry Frilling who’d lived there in Sidney. We started talking about how it had been almost a lifetime since we’d talked, and he told me about how things had changed there… We talked about Harry, and me climbing on top of the courthouse, and running over the skunk. We talked, and laughed, about me blowing through the annual film budget during my few months there.

And somehow, the subject of Bones came up.

I found that the knowledge I gained about not trifling with him was not limited to just me. In fact, Mike mentioned that had actually been a concern when President Reagan had visited Sidney on his Whistlestop Tour. He found in his files a quote from the Sidney Daily News that day:

“The neighborhood has never looked better. Citizens living near the North Street Chessie crossing have been out cleaning up in preparation for President Reagan’s visit. Much work remains to be done, but most of it is in the area of security. Just where will Bones Kah sit?“

Bones, whose political views weren’t quite in the same ballpark as President Reagan’s, was nowhere to be found.   It turned out he had been taken into what they called “Protective Custody”.

Mike didn’t find it necessary to mention who was being protected from whom, or why.

The thing is, Bones, being the leader of a motorcycle gang (or club), (The Vikings) – had developed, and cultivated a reputation. There are some motorcycle clubs that cultivate a reputation of working for charity, and others that work hard at cultivating another image. I understand that there is a culture of respect, and there are rules, which, now that I think of it, are not to be trifled with.

But the reputation that goes along with being the leader of a Motorcycle Club is a bit different than the reputation one develops in being a dad who might work in an office somewhere. No matter what, it’s hard to keep work and home life separate. It’s like – well, you’ve heard of dads being late to their son’s ball game because of a meeting at work. Bones’ situation was a little different, in that the qualities that made him effective when leading a motorcycle club didn’t translate very well to having kids and being a dad.

A single example: There’s a story told by Rob (the photojournalist mentioned above) that when Bones visited the newborn Harley and mom shortly before he  took the picture, Bones visited the hospital with a dead rat tied to his leg.

There was no mention of how old the rat was or how long it had been there, but the story attained almost urban legend status, and Bones wasn’t about to dissuade anyone from believing it.

The stories Rob told were told of a very few moments with Bones, and the thing is, as a photojournalist, you come into a situation, you do your best to capture or create a lasting image that tells the best story you can, and then, most often, you leave and never see the people or hear from them again.

Rob did a stunning job of capturing that image. He took a situation, a dark bar with the smell of years of spilled beer and cigarette smoke, the smell of countless Saturday night closings where many people had had too many drinks and ended the evening bowed down before or curled up around the porcelain throne in the restrooms, and invited us in with him, to share Bones’ “office.”

In doing that – that simple thing, he showed Bones in all his – well, ‘glory’ isn’t the word I’d use – but the persona of Bones that I saw on his front porch the day I was there was the same one I see in Rob’s picture.

Bones and Harley - in a bar someplace in Sidney, Ohio.

Bones and Harley – in a bar someplace in Sidney, Ohio. Photo (c) Rob Goebel.  Used with Permission

That’s what Harley grew up with.

That’s who Harley grew up with.

Extrapolate on that.

Just a little.

Imagine what it’s like, growing up like that. I can’t. It turns out Harley left Sidney shortly after I did. I talked with him recently, and he said, and I quote, “After I left Ohio in 1987 we never looked back.”

While he has spared me the details, just that comment, and what I’d experienced myself and heard from Mike, gave me a hint of the life that had gone on long before, and well after that memorable image was taken.

Harley grew up.

Mike left the paper to pursue new things, and in one of his last assignments for the paper he was to get some photos of Bones and his two houses. In Mike’s words, “His spare house was condemned. Both houses, by all accounts, were of hoarder status.  My assignment was photographing the exteriors of the side-by-side structures. Bones took great exception and offered to place the camera where there wasn’t enough ambient light to make an image.  Since I finished the assignment before his offer, I bid him a fond adieu.”

And in 2008, Bones died.

I don’t have the few pictures I took of him when I was there, but given what I saw, I would understand why Harley had wanted to leave.  He continued in that conversation we were having, “…but I was man enough to go see my father on his death bed and look him right in the eyes and forgive him for the abuse that he put us through. Things happen for a reason I believe and I am stronger for it.”

And, as you can imagine, it got me thinking.

Over time I realized that we learn how to be a parent from three separate but distinctly different things:

  • Because of who you grew up with…

Seriously – how many times has someone said, “You’re just like your dad…”?

How many times have you heard your parents words coming out of your mouth, the very words you promised yourself you’d never say.

And yet you did.

And sometimes, those words came borne out of hard experience, and you realized, as hard as they were to hear when you were a kid, they were the right ones when you found yourself on the other side of the parental fence.

Then again, sometimes, as parents, we’ve find ourselves victims of our own past, and the world has changed faster than we’ve been able to adapt.  Things that used to be acceptable aren’t anymore, and things that were totally unacceptable now have gone through a sea change of – well – change, and now they are.  It brings challenges to parenting that take the most important job in the world, being a consistent role model for the next generation, and makes it even harder.

  • In spite of who you grew up with…

You realized that your father was, for all intents and purposes, simply broken in ways you couldn’t fix. Over time, you realized it went back generations, and there was nothing you could do to fix that.  Everyone grew up and did what they did because, well, that’s how it was done, right or wrong.

Eventually you also realized – consciously or unconsciously, that no matter what your dad did, you wouldn’t repeat it.  You would find the courage he didn’t have, or the strength he didn’t have, the wisdom he didn’t have, and you would do the honorable and right thing for your family and children.

Eventually, you would come to that same decision point Harley hit while standing next to his father’s deathbed, and you forgive him for – in the case of Harley and many others, abuse. “For they knew not what they were doing.”  Because that’s the way they were brought up and didn’t know any better – or in some cases, they did know what they were doing was wrong, but they did it anyway.  And you realize, that while that kind of behavior is inexcusable, it does – no, it did –  happen.  And eventually, sometimes on a deathbed, you forgive them. Not because what they did was forgivable, but because you can’t change it… It happened.  You can let it eat you alive, or you can forgive them, let it go, and allow yourself to leave the prison of those thoughts and learn from them, which takes us to the third item on the list:

  • Growing up – and being totally different…

Think about this for a second: How many times do you remember seeing a situation happening in front of your eyes, and realizing you’d lived that before – only this time you had the chance to actually do something different, and break the cycle – so instead of doing things the same broken ways you’d seen them happen in your family over the years, you decided enough was enough.

And so you did something different.

And you did indeed break the cycle.

Ideally, you pick and choose the best in what your dad taught you – either by example of something they did right, or by the anti-example of what they did wrong.  I remember when I was a kid, my dad was away at college, and one very rare time, he was at home when I had a band concert.  I expected him to come, but he didn’t.  The reason doesn’t matter… He wasn’t there.  I vowed to never let that happen with my kids, and did my best to  be there for them every time I could.  I did something different.

…and I kept thinking…

I thought about how inadequate I felt when I held my kids for the first time…  I’d forgotten entirely that humans came in such small, fragile, helpless packages.  Remember – that’s not just fragile physically, they’re also fragile emotionally and spiritually.  They need to be tended, carefully. Disciplined in time, yes… Broken, no.  Broken children become broken adults, and the cycle of brokenness continues, doing its damage for generations to come.

I remember praying for and with them when they were little, folding their little hands in my bigger ones as I did, imagining that my hands were folded inside the even bigger Hands of my Father at the same time. It made the prayers feel more complete.

…the thoughts continued…

I remember growing as a father just as much as my kids grew at being kids.  I got really, really good at making breakfast in about 90 seconds, a “Papa McMuffin” I called it.

And I made mistakes while my kids were growing up.  All fathers I know have.  There were times I was too drawn into work, too focused on outside things, too lenient with them in some areas, too strict in others.  Times I wish I could go back and fix, but I can’t, so I do my best now, in the only moment I can change.

I went back in my mind to the concert dad missed, and how all the times he’d been away affected me, and while the child in me still wept for those lost times, the adult in me realized that Harley was right, and I came to the same conclusion:  Forgiving my father – our fathers, for the mistakes they made was the only option that made sense.  That doesn’t mean it has to happen immediately, and it doesn’t mean it was or is easy.

But given the options, learning from him, his successes, his failures, and picking and choosing the right ones, and working with those as my base gave me something greater than zero to start from, but there was one thing more.

I’d repeated a lot of those mistakes that have been made through the years, through the generations.  It took some time to realize they were there, and I’m still working on correcting them.  Some will take a long time, and in my observations with other dads, it seems that  one of the first people we need to be able to forgive is ourselves.

And that’s hard.

But it’s the first step.

So… call your dad – if you can.  Wish him Happy Father’s day, if you can, if you’re reading this on Father’s day (as I’m writing it), and then, if you can, take a deep breath and forgive him.

Learn from the mistakes of the past, but don’t repeat them.

===

The story above, as all stories on this blog are, is true.

I have several people to thank for their help in it.  Chronologically, they’d be:

Terry Eiler, former director of VisCom, Ohio University – who encouraged me to go out and shoot – and take risks.

Mike Grone – former Chief photographer of the Sidney Daily News, who actually had me take those risks.

Rob Goebel, now of the Indy Star newspaper, who graciously allowed me the use of the photo, and

Harley himself, who in his simple words, taught me so much, and who allowed and encouraged me to write the story about his famous, award winning baby picture that had been taken in a bar,  with a biker (Bones), by a guy (Rob) whose photos I’d admired and skills I was trying to emulate, all because my instructor (Terry)  in grad school told a story and sent me out there so that my boss (Mike) could grin and send me off on a lesson I’d suddenly find myself remembering when sitting at a traffic light in Seattle, with my son, next to the Harley that sent me ricocheting back through my time machine to tell you this story…

Take care out there, folks.

Know that out there – every image you see -whether it’s an award winning photo, or a glimpse into someone’s life, has a story behind it.

This was one of them.

 


Every now and then I get this urge – no, not just an urge, almost a command, to write a story – a post, if you will, about something specific… What’s strange sometimes is that this one you’re reading now kind of popped up last night – and while I’m not sure why it’s important to post it now – it feels like I should.  So come with me as I take another trip into my time machine – the one that looks like an old yellow Kodak photo paper box, and learn a lesson or two in a photo I took once, a long time ago.

First the photo:

I was in college, and was trying to photograph one of the parts of the Homecoming celebration for Seattle Pacific University, which included the men’s heavyweight eight man alumni crew racing each other down the Lake Washington Ship Canal right near the campus.  I’d developed a friendship with the coach for the crew team, and because of that, I was the only photographer allowed to get on the boat he was coaching from.  This gave me the chance to get into a position to get a much better shot than any other photographer out there as they were finishing the race.  We talked (well, shouted to each other over the motor on the coach’s boat), and I was able to get him to position his boat to show how close the race was by crossing the finish line at the same time the lead boat was crossing it, the goal being to show the difference between first place, the winner, and second, the, well, the loser.  However, it wasn’t the closest race in the world – the other boat is cropped just out of the frame at the bottom right, but something magical happened as I was setting up for that shot, something I wasn’t expecting at all.

As I was looking right to gauge where the second place boat was to try to figure out what to do next, I saw this duck, barreling down the canal as fast as it could.  I checked the settings on the the camera – (a Nikon FM2 with a 100 mm Nikkor lens on it that I’d borrowed from a friend) I saw I was on frame 36 (yes, film, and yes, the last frame) that I was shooting at f/8 and 1/250th of a second – the film was Tri-X black and white film, pushed two stops to be shot at ASA 1600 because everything I was shooting that day was going to be either moving fast or in low light, or both.  I realized I had precisely one chance to make this right, and focused on the far boat, wanting to get the expressions of the guys in the crew shell in focus more than the duck, I’d just let the depth of field cover that.  As I was looking, I realized that with as much planning as had gone into getting the shot I wanted (the two boats finishing the race) – that wasn’t the shot I needed.  In fact, the shot I needed was far better than the one I wanted, and I had to make a decision, instantly:  Either take the shot of the boats and tell the story of the race, or take the shot of the duck, and tell the story of another race, that no one had planned for, that had been a surprise, a chance that would be there and gone in the blink of an eye.  I chose the duck, and decided that as soon as I saw it appear in the right side of the viewfinder, I’d push the button, with the knowledge from experience that it would take about 1/10th of a second for all the mechanical things in the camera to actually do their thing to expose the film. In the meantime, the duck would be moving across the frame at about 30 mph.  If I waited until the duck was where I wanted it to be before I took the picture, it would be gone by the time the camera had actually exposed the film, so I had to think on my feet, on a moving boat, and make decisions fast.

All the other sports I’d shot, there would often be a second chance, another basket, another goal, another… whatever.

This time, I had one duck, one boat, one shot.

I’d brought the camera to my eye, focused on the sharp point of the boat, and as I saw the duck enter the frame from the right, hit the shutter release, felt and heard the camera take the shot, then heard the motor drive whine and jam, telling me it was at the end of the roll.  I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten the shot or not, but I’d done everything I could to get it.  I automatically rewound the film, popping it out and putting it in a separate pocket from all the other exposed film, and loaded another roll, but the duck was gone.

I could hardly wait to get back to the darkroom to see what had happened and sure enough, when I got the film developed, I found the image, and it was indeed, the 36th and last shot of the roll.

And so what’s the big deal about the image?

Well – it’s a duck.

And a boat.

And the guys?

They look like they’re racing the duck which makes it fun, but they’re really looking for the finish line, which painted on both sides of the canal, is just out of the frame on the left on their side, and just to my left behind me.

But I only had the one chance, and I’m glad I took it.

And it got me thinking, this photo, and I learned that as much as we want to believe in second chances, there are times in life where you get one chance to do something, and that’s it.  Life will go on, but it will be different, and you will never know “what if” something else had happened.

Think about it: Often, life is a lot like the GPS system you might have in your car or your phone, where if you make a wrong turn, you get this message that says ‘recalculating’ as it tries to get you to go back on course, and because it’s doing that, you’re being given a second chance to do something that somehow you muffed up.  The muff up could have been simple human error, it could have been not being prepared for what you were facing, it could have been something completely out of your control, but the fact is, what you planned to happen, didn’t, and now you have to sit there while something literally tries to get you back on the track you’re supposed to be on.

Then there are the other times.  Some of you know I spent a number of years as a photojournalist, and saw many, many things through my viewfinder as I was shooting.  The thing about shooting with an SLR is that you never actually see the picture you take.  You can see what happens immediately before the image, and what happened after, but it’s only your training, your eye, or your instinct that tell you when to take the shot.  You have to trust that everything worked in that blink of an eye when everything, the event in front of your camera, the experience behind it, came together.

I kept thinking, and like many of you, found myself wondering what it all means.  And I guess it’s this:

There will be times in your life when you have one chance, and one chance only, to make a difference in some way.  It may be a life changing experience for you, or for someone else.  It may be something that comes completely out of the blue, and goes against everything you ever planned for that moment, but (and I’m speaking to myself just as much as I’m speaking to you) I encourage you to take the chance.  It’s possible, just slightly, that something magical will happen.  It might be in your job, it might be in your family, it might be taking a chance on repairing a strained relationship, or giving someone a second (or third) chance because you know what it’s like to not have that option.  It might be simply holding someone you know at the funeral of someone you barely know. It might be taking a chance at applying for a job you don’t think you’re completely qualified for, but that will fit you like a glove, or that you can grow into.  It may be finishing that last, painful cancer treatment that takes so much courage to go to when you know what it will take out of you.

I don’t know.  All of the things mentioned above have happened to friends of mine or me in the last few weeks.

So…

Take the chance.

You might make a difference in someone’s life.

And it might be your own.

Or – you might get a cool picture of a duck that reminds you of every one of these things many years later.

So take care out there, folks.

Be safe…

Love each other while you can.

Be prepared for what you can be prepared for – and at the same time, be ready for when plans change, because they can, and will, with barely a moment’s notice.

Oh.  One last thing.  Here’s the photo I’ve been talking about.

The Duck…


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


My son and I were talking the other day, and the subject of the conversation was about asking for things.

I’ve learned, over the years, that often you don’t get what you want because you don’t ask for it.  This concept has been around for thousands of years.  I learned it pretty clearly on a number of occasions, We talked about how, if you don’t ask for something, the answer, if you will, is a guaranteed ‘no’, whereas if you do ask, the answer is at least a ‘maybe’.

So I got to thinking about this whole thing – realized that a number of the stories I’ve written are because I simply didn’t understand that someone could possibly say ‘no’ to a well reasoned, logical request.  The story about Fifi is a prime example.  So’s the story about Misty 42.  There’s a bunch of unwritten stories still in my head that are the same way – and this whole thing could apply to any life situation. I mean seriously, what right did I have to badger a newspaper photo editor that I didn’t know into holding space for me on the front page of his paper so I could talk my way onto the only flying B-29 in the world…  Then again – who was I to just casually talk my way onto a KC-135 tanker (twice, actually) and get a picture of an F-4 Phantom seconds before it refueled?  (Those are the above stories) Who was I to get strapped into a C-130 for the greenest ride of my life?

What did I do to deserve something as cool as some of the things I was privileged to do?

Well – the answer’s pretty simple. I asked.

See – that whole thing about a guaranteed “no” is something I learned early on, whether it involved asking a young lady out on a date when I was younger, or asking for a seemingly nonexistent transmission for my car, or if I somehow could get go onto a plane, train, or automobile (yes, I have stories of all three) – it was still the same. If I didn’t ask, the answer was no. So… I asked. So with that as a little bit of a background, let me take you to a small town in west central Ohio for one of these stories – just because it was an example of what a difference asking a question like that can make.

I’d just started my internship as a photojournalist at the Sidney Daily News, and was between assignments, looking for some of what they called “Feature” shots.  That means anything that makes you think thoughts like “oh, cool!” or “gosh, I wonder how they got that shot”, or just something that’s a fun picture to take, something to share with the folks who live in the area, and, hopefully, is of general interest. Part of this was just having a fresh set of eyes that hadn’t seen anything like this town before, part of it was just curiosity. So being between assignments, I found myself in the center of town, driving circles counter clockwise around the courthouse.  There was construction going on, and I thought I could make an interesting image out of it. I saw a fellow up on the scaffolding, and figured I’d found something to work with – so I parked the car, grabbed my gear, and moved so there weren’t trees in the way.  I realized I’d need my 300 mm Nikkor 4.5 because of how far I was – then realized that wasn’t enough. Hmm.  I put the doubler on it, making it act like a 600 mm lens.  Then I got down on one knee, steadied myself with one elbow on the trunk lid of the car, and then realized that I was taking a shot anyone on the street could take with what was then the camera that produced some of the crappiest pictures on the market, a Disc Camera.  Oh, sure, my shot would look like it was shot through a telescope compared to the Disc Camera, but that wasn’t the point… The point was that I’d been hired to take photographs that other people couldn’t see, that other people couldn’t get to, or that other people would never in their wildest dreams think of taking. I mean, it was possible to take a photograph of the courthouse from the ground and have it look great.  I found a shot online and asked the fellow if I could use it (Thank you David Grant)– and here it is:

Shelby County Courthouse, Sidney, Ohio. Photo Copyright David Grant, used with permission

Problem though, was the light for what I wanted to shoot, while gorgeous like the shot above, wasn’t that gorgeous on the side of the court house where my picture was waiting for me. I knew that – I’d driven around the thing, and sure enough, all the action was on the shady side. Sigh. I put the camera down before I took a poorly lit shot anyone else could take from across the street, and stood up.

And then I did something dangerous.

I started wondering…

I wondered what the view from up there was like…

And then I wondered how I could get up there…

And then I did some thinking about how I could get up there.

See, if you want to get into a building, and if you want to go straight to the top, it’s best to start right at the bottom – and often, as in this case, the fellow at the bottom is the janitor.

Janitors are amazing people. They have keys for EVERYTHING. So I made sure the car was locked, threw everything over my shoulder and headed into the courthouse, to have a chat with whoever was playing receptionist and see if together we could find the janitor. One receptionist’s phone call later, I was introduced to the older gentleman with the iconic huge ring of keys, and I heard myself give what would be my standard greeting for the next few months, “Hi, my name’s Tom Roush and I’m a photographer for the Sidney Daily News…” followed by the question of the day. In this case, it was: “I see you’ve got some work being done on the roof, and was wondering if I could get some shots of it for the paper.  Is there any way I could get up there?”

I don’t think five minutes had gone by from the time I didn’t take that picture over the trunk of the car until I was walking out of the elevator, through a dusty attic filled with huge beams, and through a small open window onto the roof. The janitor looked out, called up to the fellow I’d seen, then stepped aside and let me crawl out. I introduced myself to the fellow many feet over my head up on the scaffolding and asked if I could come up. He stopped his caulking for a moment and looked down, seeing I was carrying a camera bag, a couple of cameras, including that one with the 300 mm lens and the doubler on it.

Somehow bringing the bag up there onto the scaffolding was deemed, without any words needing to be spoken, a bad idea.  So I set it down, put the 24mm wide angle lens on the F-3, slung it over my shoulder, and carefully climbed up the scaffolding. I climbed on top of the topmost section so I could look down and see him, my goal being to see – and thus tell a story – that no one else could see.  I sat on the very top of the scaffolding, wrapped my right leg around the vertical part of the support, leaned back, (yes, the scaffolding leaned with me, but not by much) composed the frame so the horizon was at the top, then told the fellow to just keep working as he could (as I write this I still can’t believe I did that – 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.

And the thing is – I could have taken that first shot from across the street, it would have been safe – but it would have been a totally forgettable image, lost in the back of the paper somewhere.

But I didn’t take that first shot.

I wondered, “What if?”

I wondered, “What can I do that will make this better?”

And then I realized the only thing keeping me from making it better was me.

I had to go in, ask a question that they could have easily said,”No.” to, and that would have been that.

But I didn’t.

I asked.

And when you’re faced with weird situations in life when you’re just thinking there’s no way you can succeed – trust me, there are ways you can succeed.

And stand out – literally above the crowd.

There have been times in my life – and there will be times in yours, when you find you can barely think of the question to ask, much less step out of your comfort zone and ask it, but that little thought, that maybe, just maybe, asking will make a difference, that *is* the difference.  In fact, often, the hardest/simplest/most important thing of all is for you to step out of your comfort zone and just ask.

Now, understand, whoever you’re asking might say no, and you’ll be right where you were before you asked the question, but so what?

You can try something else then.

On the other hand, if you don’t ask, the “no” is guaranteed.

So…

Take care – really – be careful out (and up) there.

And don’t forget, it’s okay to ask.

Think about  it: what’s the worst that can happen? (they say “No”, and life hasn’t changed.  But if you do – the results can be magic. I’m working on a few more stories that will show you what happens if you dare to ask – they’ll come out over the next  year or so, and often, they will be the story behind a photograph (which is proof in and of itself) All that said, here (below) is the shot I’ve been describing.  (in another frame you’d see the camera bag teetering at the bottom of the frame, but that one didn’t make the final cut)…

Shelby County Courthouse, Sidney, Ohio. (click for larger image)

…and how it appeared in the paper the next day.

Camera, Courthouse, and Front page. All in one shot.

The front page, with the camera & lens I shot it with. At top is the camera bag mentioned in the story. (click for larger image)


Hey all – I’m back.  I’ve been off, away from my writing – and away from a lot of other stuff – for a bit – learning some pretty important lessons about dodging bullets (or maybe, as my son says, angry meteors) – and have been learning about family, how important it is, and how important it is to take care of each other.

I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of that recently – and got to thinking about how much I’m looking forward to “graduating” from needing that. I’ll write more about some of those lessons – but it’ll take some time for them to simmer a bit, or bake a bit, or do whatever lessons do when they start roaming around in my noggin.

But back to that graduation thing…

Several friends, or children of friends, have just recently graduated from various parts of their lives – some from high school, some from college, a couple from Boy Scouts (they made Eagle) – and it got me thinking about when I graduated from college…

<play along with me here – fade to black – and then come back to a much younger and thinner me…>

When I went to college, I found, to my surprise, the little bit of photography I’d been dabbling in was something other people thought I was good at.

Also to my surprise, I did not know at the time that you could schedule classes in college to NOT start at the hour when God Himself hadn’t yet thought of making coffee, but sure enough, my very first class started at 7:30 in the morning.  It was called “Media Production” – where we were to learn about making slide presentations…

(using real film – none of this fancy digital crap you have now– that we had to expose, and to develop the film, by hand, we had to walk two miles, uphill, in snow 10 feet deep, and – no, wait… wrong story… sorry – my “old codger” dial was set a little too high there… that’s been fixed, and we now return you to the regularly scheduled story, already in progress…)

…and the final project would be a presentation of both slides (images) and music that we’d made on our own.  About half way through the course, the instructor interrupted our work on our presentations with a message from the editor of the yearbook.  I was standing up front between two young ladies who also didn’t get that memo that you didn’t have to take classes before God finished grinding His coffee beans.

The message from the editor of the yearbook was simple: They were backed up with assignments, and desperately needed help in photography, and our instructor wanted to know if any of us wanted to volunteer to help them out.

At that moment, I felt one firm hand on each shoulder push me a step forward.

The two young ladies, bless their fuzzy little hearts, had “volunteered” me.

I asked about the requirements.

“You need to have a camera.”

“I don’t have one.”

I didn’t. I was borrowing the school’s old Nikon FE for this class.

“You need to have darkroom experience.”

“What’s a darkroom?”

My experience in dark rooms was limited to turning the lights off.

And thus started my ‘career’ in photography.

I spent an astonishing amount of time in the darkroom the first few weeks, learning how to mix chemicals, how to develop film properly (in large part because I developed it improperly first), how to print pictures well, (in large part because I printed some absolutely awful images). Lordy… talk about making mistakes – but I was learning, and learning things like to how to tell when the water was exactly 68 degrees (which is the temperature most developer had to be for film to be developed) – all the stuff you don’t even see anymore because it’s all digital, but it was magic, and I loved it.

So much of the learning how to do it right was learned by screwing it up first, and doing it wrong, first, and eventually developing (pardon the pun) the experience to build on over time so I wouldn’t make those mistakes again…

I shot for, and later became the photo editor for the yearbook “Cascade”, and did the same for the student newspaper, “The Falcon.”

By the time I graduated, I’d been shooting at SPU for two years, to the point where I’d gotten to know everyone from the president of the school to the head custodian.  I learned what time the light was good on which buildings – and which season was best to shoot them in. I’d shot from the roofs of building you weren’t supposed to be able to get to (Knowing the president of the school does not get you onto roofs of buildings… Knowing the head custodian does – funny how that works) – and I went everywhere – and I mean *everywhere* with my camera bag and my two Nikons and assorted lenses.

I took my camera bag with me everywhere, except for one night, when I went up from the darkroom (in one building) to get something I’d forgotten in my dorm room (most of the way across campus and up a steep hill).  I just left the bag in the darkroom, behind two locked doors, and walked up to the dorm quickly – but feeling very strange and off balance since my camera and bag had become such a part of me.  In fact, it became clear to me that I wasn’t the only one used to seeing me with it.  One person I passed that evening seemed totally startled by the fact that I was there and blurted out, “Tom? – is it really you? I didn’t recognize you without your camera bag!”

And that little comment followed me all the way to the day I graduated from Seattle Pacific University.

In fact, one day, while on the roof of one of the dorms, taking pictures from an angle no one else had thought to take pictures from, I saw a friend walk by below who’d complained about me being “everywhere” – popping out from behind bushes and the like, and the situation was just too ripe… I mean, if there was ever an example of low hanging fruit  – this was fruit just ripe for the picking – even if I was doing it from the top of Marston Hall at SPU.  I leaned over the edge, focused on him, took the picture, and then ducked back onto the roof, “leaving” the camera hanging over the edge just long enough for him to look up on hearing the sound of my motor drive and to see it being pulled back.  I waited about 10 seconds, then peeked over the edge and waved.  He was standing there, mouth open, staring at me, his suspicions confirmed, that I was indeed, “everywhere.”

The funny thing about that was that, like I said, everyone was used to seeing me with my camera bag, and conversely, people quite literally didn’t recognize me without it.  But this meant that I became, for lack of a better way to say it, a fixture, with my cameras, all over the place.  Most, if not all of the faculty had gotten to know me in one form or another, and so when it was clear that my time at SPU was coming to a close (in large part because I was graduating) a thought, nay, an idea started germinating in the dark, developer soaked recesses of my mind.

See, if everyone knew me with the camera bag, and I walked across the stage to get my diploma with it, there’d be a couple of laughs, or worse, no one would notice at all, it was just “oh, that’s Tom, with the camera bag” – and I’d be done.

Hmm…. Unacceptable.

If I just walked across the stage with nothing, that would have the same effect…

Nothing.

I’d just be an anonymous graduate who had 4 people in the audience cheering him on, and that would be that.

Also unacceptable.

After all I’d done, after all the pictures I’d taken, the memories I’d captured, the treasures I’d seen and shared through my cameras, I wanted something *just* a touch bigger.

So I started thinking, and that idea started festering into thoughts like:

“What would the faculty *not* expect?”

“What would the students *not* expect?”

“What would the audience *not* expect?”

…and what could I do that would make them remember that it was me who walked across the stage, and not some other student?

And then, as if by magic, the day before graduation, I got a surprisingly big paycheck, and I bought a motor drive for my Nikon F-3, the best camera out there at the time.  This motor drive would let me burn through a roll of film (36 frames) in about 8 seconds But I also bought myself what was then known as an SB-16 – or a “Speedlight” – think of it as a flash for the camera, on Tour de France levels of steroids.  It would keep up with the motor drive for about 6 frames if you set it right, and I found myself pondering what I could do with that combination.

I didn’t have to ponder long.

If carrying the camera bag across the stage was out…

And carrying nothing across the stage was out…

What about…

…and so, I managed to conceal, under my gown, my Nikon F3, the MD-4 Motor Drive, and the SB-16 Speedlight.  I put a set of fresh batteries in both the flash and the motor drive, threw my standard 50 mm lens on the camera, slung it over my shoulder, put the gown on over it, and set the whole thing “just so” so that it would hang without putting too many bulges in the wrong places.

One of the things I’d learned over the years was to hang the camera over my right shoulder, and hang it there with the lens facing my body.  That way, the lens was protected, and if there was a shot I needed to take quickly, I could reach down with my right hand, grab the side of the camera that held the shutter release, whip it up, and have my left hand ready to hold the lens while the right held the camera body.

Having the SB-16 on there kind of nixed that idea, since the flash would have been rather uncomfortably in my armpit, even with the long camera strap I had. So I had to hang it with the lens facing out, then when I was ready to go, twist it around so I had my right hand on the camera where it needed to be.  Given what I was doing, this had an unintended effect, namely that all the little blinky lights on the back of this new strobe were now facing outward.

None of the students could see this, but as I was standing there on stage, waiting to cross the stage, having handed the little card with my name on it to the Vice President of Academic Affairs (the guy who read my name for everyone to hear), the camera, the motor drive, and the strobe unit together made for a large, blackish object just under a foot and a half tall, bulging at my shoulder, with little blinking lights.

And several of the faculty, sitting on the stage, saw me reach for it and turn it around.

I saw their movement, and looked right to see tittering wave of comments and concern rippling as more and more of the faculty’s eyes focused on the blinky lights and the bulge under this one student’s gown.

Before I could react, and before anyone else could say anything, I heard my name called, and things simultaneously went into slow motion, tunnel vision, and I felt like I was hearing everything underwater.

When I looked back, I saw the school president, Dr. Dave LeShana smiling, saw the look of expectation in his eyes, the diploma in his hand. I saw the orchestra, and my friends in it, playing quietly, or watching, as their parts dictated.  Past them a bit, I saw the photographer, waiting to take a picture as I shook the president’s hand, and I did what I’d just rehearsed in my mind a few seconds before: six steps out, pivot on the right foot, the seventh step, face the audience, bring the camera and flash out, (it did have film in it, for later) flip the top of the flash down (it was aimed straight up) – and then I fired the camera out at the audience until the flash stopped flashing.

Stunned Silence.

A pin, dropped on a carpeted floor would have echoed in there.

I waved at the crowd, then looked over at president LeShana, who started laughing, and I shook his hand.  I held on for a bit, waiting to see the flash of the photographer who was supposed to be shooting *my* picture, and saw nothing.  I let go of the handshake, and looked down at the photographer, who was just staring, rather dumbfounded.  I realized that I had significantly more – um – firepower – photographically speaking, than he did, and he was just shocked into silence and inaction.

Not wanting to hold up the ceremony any longer, I walked past him, got to the stairs that got me off the stage, and as I took my first step down, my ears seemed to start working again and I heard the crowd, the students, on their feet, cheering and screaming.

Heh…

I high-fived a bunch of them as I walked past.

Yeah, that was better than just taking the camera bag across the stage.

==

Years later I heard from my sister, who’d been there.  She’d talked to the fellow who was the student body president, who’d been sitting in the 4th balcony.

“Was that your brother who shot graduation?”

“He didn’t shoot it, he graduated.”

“No, I mean, he graduated – but he took pictures, from the stage, didn’t he?”

(Given that everyone else was taking pictures aiming toward the stage, this was notably different)

“Oh, yeah, that was him, why, did you see him?”

“Oh I saw him alright… I was watching him. Through binoculars.  And every time that flash went off was like being hit in the eyes with a sledgehammer.”

Heh… yeah… it was different than the standard, run-of-the-mill trip across the stage.

…though I sure would have liked it had the photographer gotten a shot of Dr. LeShana and me.

So… gosh, do I have a message for those of you out there graduating?

I hadn’t planned on one – but hey, since we’re here, there’s actually quite a few of them…

You won’t have all the answers when you graduate.

You’ve barely learned to ask the questions.

I learned a lot more after that day, but the thing that had me thinking was this:

I took risks.

I made the best decisions I could make while working with incomplete information, and as much as you tend to look back and think thoughts like “if only I’d…” – those thoughts are useless without a time machine to go back and prove that your “if only…” would have been the right decision.

I climbed tall buildings (not in a single bound, mind you, and always with permission – though there’s a certain church roof I’ll never climb up again with or without permission, that was just scary high, and steep) –

I did things “just because” – and I had a blast doing it.

On the other hand, I was so poor afterwards as I was starting out that there were a lot of things I didn’t do.  I learned to make a big can of oatmeal (that cost me $2.86) last a month.  I remember inviting friends over for lunch – and it was boxed Mac and cheese that I’d gotten for a quarter.

And it was fun.

Would I put all that hard work into it again?

In a heartbeat.

Looking back on it all now…

Did life go the way I’d planned?

Nope.  Not even close.

Would I change anything, looking back on it now?

That would involve that time machine again, proving that whatever decisions got me to this point were the absolute right or wrong ones to be made – and remember the bit about making the best decisions you can with the info you’ve got at the time?

Some parts that have happened were better than I could have possibly imagined in my wildest dreams.

Some parts that have happened were worse than I could have possibly imagined in my worst nightmares.

That’s called life…

Remember the good.

Learn from the bad.

Do the best you can, with what you’ve got, at that time, and you build on that.

When you look back, you’ll see you made mistakes.

Some of those mistakes will have been small, but as you look back, you’ll see you made some huge ones.

But look harder, and you’ll realize you’ve learned a lot of lessons from those mistakes…

And after you learned those lessons, I’ll bet you didn’t make those mistakes again – or as much (because you now had *new* and *exciting* and *bigger* mistakes to learn from!)

And sometimes, even when you think you finally have it all together, and you’ll have some sort of picture, symbolizing all the lessons you learned, something will invariably go wrong (like, say, photographers at graduation not taking pictures of the graduating students…) and the only thing you’ll have are the memories.

So… learn what you can.

Learn from those mistakes.

Forgive yourself for making them.

And move on, teaching those who come behind you as you can.

Take care folks…


In this blog, I’ve been trying to write stories that have been “baked” – where I’ve spent the time over the years getting to that “aha” moment, where the laughter has finally come, the lessons finally learned, the tears finally dried, and I can share them with you.

This post is a little different.

I’ve been asked by a number of people to give “hankie warnings” on some of these stories, and in honor of that request, please consider yourself warned.

This post is a little more personal than the others, and it’s a number of stories, kind of intertwined.

As I write this – November 8th, it will have been 10 years since I spoke the words below, in front of a well-dressed, somber group of people who listened, who laughed and who cried.

I had been in that last category for ten months, and on November 8th, 2000, these people joined me there.

It was the day we buried my dad.

He’d been in the Air Force. He’d done his time in many countries.  It was his time in the Air Force that had him meet my mom, that gave him stories of far-away places to tell, and that shaped my childhood.  Some of those stories I’ve recalled in past posts, some are still, as it were, baking, and will be written when they’re ready.

I was at work on January 10th, 2000, when I got “the call”.  Those of you who’ve been through this will understand what that means.  It’s actually hard to describe the feeling to someone who hasn’t been there, but when I got “the call” – my heart froze, and given where I was, I did the only thing I could do…

I prayed…

…and then I wrote.

I didn’t know whether I’d ever get a chance to tell dad all the things I’d wanted to say over the years – and it seemed that if I was ever going to take the chance, that right then would be that chance, instead of saying all the things I wanted to say to him in a eulogy where he couldn’t hear me, and the words would be empty.

So I wrote a note to him that January afternoon.  It’s included in what’s below – which, ironically, is the eulogy I gave for my dad, 10 years ago today.

= = =

Eulogy…

That’s what it says there in your program that this is going to be.

But how do you put into a few words the life of a man who was a brother, a husband, a father, an uncle, a father in law, a grandfather, a teacher — and all those countless other things that a man is in his life?

I’m not going to go into the history of dad too much, you all can read that on the backs of your bulletins. We tried to get as much in there as we could. We’ll also have some pictures going in the fellowship hall so you can see a little more about who dad was.

But right now, I’d like to tell you a little bit about who dad is.

By now most of you know a bit about how this all came about, and for a number of you, the last time you saw him was in this very church on January 8th of this year at Tom McLennan’s Memorial Service.

Dad went into the hospital that night, stayed in ICU at Madigan until May, during which time he had a stroke and some other complications, and later was taken to Bel Air Nursing home in Tacoma, where he died last Friday.

I wrote him a note on January 10th, when things looked pretty bad, his heart had stopped the night before, and we didn’t know what was going on, since he’d walked into the hospital the night before that, and I tried to tell him what he meant to me. I’d like to read part of that note to you, because in a lot of ways, it tells a bit about the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions, and the legacy that he left behind.

<note>

1:45 PM 1/10/00

Hi Pop,

It’s Monday, you’re in the hospital right now, and I’m praying for you.

I have to tell you a few things, just so you know them.

I love you.

— this is so hard to write…

I don’t want this to be the time to say goodbye, but I need to say a few things so that when the time comes, I can say goodbye knowing I’ve told you what I need to tell you.

You know as well as I do that there were a lot of things in our lives that haven’t panned out the way we’d planned.

Because of the time you spent away from the family in the Air Force and at school, I didn’t get a chance to have you around when I really needed a dad.

This doesn’t mean it was easy for you, in fact it was hard. I know now it was very hard for you as well.

But I want you to know that good has come out of that.

I try to spend time with my little boy now as a result, and I’m glad I was able to get my schooling out of the way before I became a papa.

Because you went away to school to improve yourself, I learned that sacrifice is sometimes necessary for future growth.

And good has come out of that.

I learned how much a son needs his father, and I try to be here for my son. So even though you felt very much like you were a failure, you weren’t. You taught me a valuable lesson, one that I will treasure always.

Because of the time you spent fixing things (and the time I spent holding the flashlight for you*)

*He’d ask me to hold the flashlight for him while he was working on something, and being a kid, my attention span was about as long as a gnat’s eyebrow, and so I’d be looking all over, shining the flashlight to what I wanted to see.

I learned how to fix things I never thought I could.

I also expanded my vocabulary during these times.

Because of the way you showed us responsibility, I was able to get a paper route and learn responsibility early, on my own.

Because you helped us deliver those papers on weekends sometimes, I learned that sometimes helping your kids to do the things they’re responsible for doing is a good thing.

Because of the way you told me to take things one step at a time, I was able to build pretty big things at Microsoft when I was there,, one step at a time.

And because you made things for me (like a train table)

and read to me (from Tom Sawyer)

and told me stories (like Paul Bunyan)

and sang to me (The Lord’s Prayer)

and took me to work (where I spun the F-4 Simulator)*

* — in the Air Force Dad was a flight simulator technician — he fixed flight simulators, and one time he took me to work, I think I must have been 5 or 6, and there was this whole line of these simulators — all just cockpits of airplanes, and he, as fathers are known to do, picked me up and popped me in the driver’s seat. I sat there, my eyes huge, as I saw all these dials and gauges in front of me, and it was just so cool and so complicated. — And there was this big stick thing in the way, so I pushed it off to one side so I could get a better look at the dials. I didn’t know that the simulator thought it was flying, and by pushing that stick over I made it think it was corkscrewing into the ground, and all the dials and gauges started spinning alarms went off.  I got so scared, I thought I’d broken it, and I looked out at him — he was standing right there, talking to someone else, and with fear and trepidation said,

“Daddy?” —

He turned around, took one look at what was happening, reached in and fixed it. Just like that. He fixed it. I hadn’t broken it. But he just reached in, and with one touch, he fixed it.

and showed me things, (like Wolf Spiders)*

When we lived in Illinois, we discovered that the spiders there are significantly bigger than spiders here in Washington.

So one time Dad was in the basement, doing something, and he called me down. He wanted me to see what he’d found under this can. So, being a kid and being curious, I squatted right beside it, and then picked up the can — to find the biggest, hairiest god-awful ugliest wolf spider I’d seen in my entire life. I jumped up and screamed, and dad was over there laughing so hard. I didn’t think it was funny then, but for years all we’d have to say was “wolf spider” it would bring the whole thing back, and we’d have a good laugh over it.

and surprised me with presents (like at Christmas in 1971 when you told me to clean up a pile of newspapers, and you’d put a bunch of toy trains underneath them)*

*He kept asking me to clean up the papers, but there was always another present to unwrap, another toy to play with, another cookie to eat — and finally, when the Christmas eve was finally winding down and we were cleaning up, I remembered the newspapers and started to clean them up — and underneath was a train set he’d gotten from somewhere, on a set of tracks, just waiting for a little boy to play with them.

and provided for me (helping me get my first Saab)*

*Many of you in this church may remember praying for that very car…

and went out of your way to help me (when that first Saab broke down)

— and the second Saab, — the third one (the fourth one’s out there, it runs fine)

and drove all the way up to Seattle to SPU when I was a student one Christmas to bring me a present — a radio controlled Porsche 928) when you knew it was the only thing I would get.

and visited me at work when I was able to show you where I worked and what I’d become professionally

And supported me in your thoughts and prayers as I became a father in my own right.

You showed me love.

And because you told me, I know you love me.

I love you too.

</note>

I read this note to him several times, never being quite sure whether it got across to him. In August, at the nursing home, I read it to him again, and he looked at me very intently while I read it, and as I finished, there was this look on his face, of peace, of contentment, of, “My job is done.” and for a split second, the stroke seemed to be gone.

He then took the note from my hand and read it himself.

And I know that he knew when he left that he was loved, he was cared for, he was appreciated, and that he would be missed.

We rejoice for him, we’re happy, for him, that this ordeal is over, but we’re sad for us, for the big, dad/Gary/grampa shaped hole he leaves in each of our lives.

— I was thinking the other day about the things I’d miss about him, and I’m sure there will be many to come, but the things that come to mind right now are the little things — and it’s always the little things, isn’t it?

The fact that he’d say “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” so often that we didn’t realize how important it was for him to be able to say that, and now, how important it was for us — the whole family to have him as a cheerleader in the background. There were times he couldn’t do as much as he wanted to do for us, and in his mind, he always wanted to do more — and the fact that he’s no longer in the background, just being there cheering us on — I’ll miss that. We’ll miss that.

I miss his meow — for those of you who don’t know, he had this way of meowing like a cat so you couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It drove us nuts — and we miss it.

I miss him greeting Michael and me with, “Hello Sonshine”

I miss seeing him snuggle my little girl Alyssa, in his lap, reading any of a number of books to her, and the look on her face that told me of the security she felt in those arms.

I miss him standing with mom, waving good bye to us as we left after a visit. — and no matter where we were, when we got together, he’d always thank us for taking the time to do that, to get together as a family, and to include him and he would always remind us, “You are loved.”

We miss him telling us “Remember, a fat old man loves you.”

I miss him yelling at us to shut the living room door. That’s the sound we grew up with. We’d run out, be halfway up the stairs, and hear, “SHUT THE DOOR” — of course, he hadn’t done that for years since he put a spring on it so it’d shut itself. But I miss knowing I won’t hear it again.

I miss him calling me up at night to tell me there was something interesting on Channel 9 (PBS) that he wanted to share with me, even though we couldn’t be together, we could see it at the same time.

When I was growing up, and I’d be upstairs brushing my teeth late at night, I’d hear dad snoring downstairs, — a gentle snore (at least from upstairs) and I knew that that meant all was right with the world.

I’ll miss that, too.

And even though there are many things we’ll miss about him, I know he’s better off now than he was for the last 10 months.

Some time ago I had a dream — a dream of him essentially dying, and it didn’t look as bad as we all generally think of dying.

In my dream, he was laying there, his body all there, but kind of gray, and damaged. It looked like dad, but suddenly he broke free of that body, and he just kind of came up, there was this whole, healthy copy of him, in living color that kind of came out of him like a butterfly comes out of a cocoon, and he was free, he was whole, and he flew away, leaving the gray, damaged body behind him.

After Dad died, Petra was doing some thinking about what his death was like for him, and the image she came away with was this, that dad was in bed, in the nursing home, having just been sung to and prayed for by the love of his life. She laid down on the bed next to him to rest, and dad, who had had his eyes closed, suddenly could see her.

The machine wasn’t breathing for him anymore.

His mind was clear, not muddled by a stroke.

His heart didn’t struggle.

His feet weren’t cold.

We imagine he looked around, saw the things we’d brought in to make him feel at home, saw his beloved wife laying there, who’d been with him for 41 years, for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and with his new, whole body, then left the presence of his wife to be with his Lord.

During dad’s life, we all knew that no matter where we went or what we did, dad loved us, and I am convinced that up there in heaven, he loves us still.

When the service was done, we headed to what would be dad’s final resting place, and on that cold, clear day, the wind blowing the oak leaves around the cemetery, our family gathered around dad one last time as he was given a military funeral, with an Air Force Honor Guard from McChord Air Force Base, a flag, and a rifle salute.

We shivered as we took our places in the chairs under the portable gazebo they’d set up for us, with mom sitting in the front row.  I walked away for a bit to clear my head as the ceremony started.

I’d seen the airman with his trumpet, trying to keep his mouthpiece warm on that cold day, and I knew he was going to play Taps – which I’d learned to play when I played the trumpet in junior high school, but I’d never had to play when it counted.

Taps, originally used to signal “lights out” in the military, eventually became the bugle call played at funerals, where it signaled – or symbolized – a final “lights out” for an individual.

I’d heard it played when my friend Bruce Geller died in 1978.

I’d heard it played when I, as a photojournalist, was covering the funeral of Lee Stephens, a sailor from the USS Stark that was hit by a missile on May 17th, 1987, and each time I’ve heard it, it has been like a knife in the heart for me.

It is a symbol of the end of a life, and of a loved one, where they make that transition from living in your life to living in your memories.

I remember, as I shot the funeral of Lee Stephens, how I wanted to honor the grief and sorrow his family was experiencing, but at the same time, I wanted to tell the story that this young sailor, from a small town in Ohio, who’d graduated just a few years before, had people left behind who still loved him.

I remember seeing, through the viewfinder of my Nikon, through a long, long telephoto lens, the look on this sailor’s mom’s face as the sergeant of the honor guard handed her the flag.  It was a photo that, while it was “the” photo from a photojournalism point of view, I did not take.  The moment was too intimate, the grief was too raw.

I remember her eyes, simultaneously exhausted, numb, disbelieving, and utterly spent as she accepted a flag from an honor guard member, “…on behalf of a grateful nation…”

In walking away a bit, I had unconsciously recreated the view I’d seen through that camera, the photo I didn’t take in 1987 at that cold cemetery 13 years later, and I was not prepared to see that look on my mom’s face and in her eyes.

But I’d seen that look before, and knew what it meant.

We’d had 10 months to prepare for this moment, but the fact is, we all know we’re going to die.  Being faced with it as “sometime” in the vague future is one thing.  Seeing it in front of you in unblinking reality is something else entirely.

I saw the honor guard fold the flag as precisely as they could fold it

But this time, I wasn’t hiding behind my camera, trying to insulate myself from the pain of a mother who had lost her son.

This time, while I wasn’t a mother who’d lost her son, I was the son of a mother who’d lost her husband.

This time, I was the son who’d lost his father.

I understood things a little more clearly now.

I understood a little more about how much it means to sit in that chair, and have someone hand you a flag, in exchange for someone you love.

As if that wasn’t enough, it was then that they did the rifle salute.  For those of you who have not experienced it, it is very much like a 21 gun salute.  Retired military members who have served honorably receive a 9 gun salute, a volley where 3 soldiers fire off three rounds apiece.  It is done as a sign of respect, of honor.  For those not prepared for it, it can be shocking.

The call was made,

“Ready! Aim! Fire!”

Three fingers squeezed three triggers.

“Fire!”

Three firing pins hit three cartridges.

“Fire!”

Three cartridges fired and were ejected.

The honor guard was called to attention, and the command “Present Arms” was given so precisely – they all moved as one.  Those without rifles saluted – those with rifles held them in the “present arms” position.

As the three shots echoed away, the only sound left was of those leaves, the movement of cloth, and the click of rifles being presented.

There was a moment where this was all we heard.  Leaves rustling, coats flapping, and the stunned silence of those still not ready to let go.

It was then that the bugler, who’d clearly kept his mouthpiece warm, played Taps.  He played clearly, with dignity, and with the respect and honor due.

– and through the wind, I heard the sergeant’s words I’d heard years before, “on behalf…of a grateful nation…” drift across on the wind as he solemnly handed the folded flag to my mom.

And at the end of the day, as I watched them drive off, I found myself, in spite of the fact that I had my own family, a job, a mortgage, all the trappings of being an adult, I found myself crying, because underneath it all, I was a little boy who’d just lost his daddy.

I cried for the fact that much as I’d wanted to, there were things left unfinished.

I cried for the relationship that had at times been rough, but had started to mend.

I cried for the relationship that, like it or not, mended or not, was ended.

It is Veteran’s Day as this is published…

For those of you out there who are wearing the uniform, or for those of you who have worn it, with honor, you have my greatest respect.

For those of you who’ve lost your sons – like Mr. and Mrs. Stephens, who lost their son Lee, and so many others, and for those of you out there who’ve lost your daddies, my heart goes out to you.

For those of you who are still daddies, remember your kids only have one of you, and they only have one childhood.

It’s not a dress rehearsal, it’s the real thing.

Take the time to be there for them while you can.

Love them.  Hug them.

Veteran’s Day, 2010

Dad and one of the merry go round horses he carved.


A number of years ago I was shooting in Muskegon, Michigan, for the Muskegon Chronicle, and over time discovered that one of the favorite things for local folks to do was to just go down to the lake (Lake Michigan) and watch the sun set.  It was a tradition, it was peaceful, it was pretty.

The clouds in Michigan, or at least that part of Michigan always amazed me, and I realize now that subconsciously, when I had the chance, I shot images that emphasized them…

This one day I went down there, and – oh, you need to know that I was driving a 1979 Ford Fairmont I’d bought in Ohio – with a paint job courtesy of Earl Scheib and Acid Rain, Incorporated.  This thing was as smooth as sandpaper.  My mom tried to wax and polish a little corner of the trunk once after I’d brought it back to Washington and it was like trying to wax a gravel driveway…

She said, “Oh, look, I can see my shadow!” (as opposed to reflection).

I gently cuffed her one…

The reason the car comes into the picture is that it had Ohio plates on it.

I was in Michigan.

The plates had expired.

Put that on the back burner for just a little bit.

I got down to the lake – and – oh, another important thing.  I’d found that shooting with ‘normal’ lenses just didn’t work for me – and found myself shooting with an 18 mm super wide angle lens on one camera body, and a 300 mm telephoto on the other.  You don’t get much more of a spread than that.  I figured that if I was close enough to shoot something up close, I wanted to be right in its face, hence the 18… if I couldn’t be in its face, I needed to reach out and touch it – with the 300.

In this case, I saw a bunch of guys fishing at the edge of the lake – and figured I sure didn’t need the 300 – so the 18 it was.  I was thinking the shot through as I walked closer, and to get him in the shot, along with the sky and the sunset and everything, I’d end up kneeling on the ground and shooting up at him – so I went over and chatted for a bit, then got into position to shoot.

And a police car pulled up.

And Tom, with expired, out of state plates, suddenly got really, REALLY nervous.

I didn’t know what he could/would do – but if there were some problems, they’d have been bigger ones than I was capable of dealing with right then.  So I did the only thing I could think of, and ignored him, figuring he might not think that the car was mine – or something like that.  (note: this would be an example of the application of the Infinite Wisdom of Youth®).

I shot away, and chatted with the fellow, making some nice images with the sky, the clouds, the sunset, the water, his fishing pole, and the silhouette of him…

…and the cop kind of faded from my consciousness.

Until I felt a huge, hairy, gorilla’s hand land on my shoulder from about ten feet up, and a firm voice saying, “Hah! I’ve got you now…”

If I hadn’t already been kneeling, I would have been very quickly.

I was petrified, was it worse than I thought? Had he run the plate to find out that it was registered to me?  What were the ramifications of driving out of state with expired tags?  The fine? The penalty?  A confused, scared storm of thoughts tore through my mind as I tried to figure out how to get out of this one that I wasn’t even sure I was in…

I slowly turned around, to see, much to my horror, that the image my terrified mind had conjured up was right.  The hand on my shoulder wasn’t attached to a gorilla, it was worse.

It was attached to an arm in a policeman’s uniform.

I don’t know what my face looked like but as my eyes worked their way up that sleeve, I saw that the face on the policeman attached to it was smiling.

Was this an evil smile? An “I have you now” smile? I wasn’t anywhere near calmed down by that smile – and I saw he was raising his other hand.  That didn’t make sense, the gun would be in his right hand, and he was raising his left one…

(I cringed)

…which had a little disposable camera in it.

The cop’s smile got even bigger.

“I got you!  I got a picture of you getting a picture of him!”

If I hadn’t been kneeling already (you know…)

The relief that was pouring through my body was like cold water on a dry lakebed.  Cooling, sizzling as it hit the hot surface, it soaked in to cool it to the core.

(Luckily, that’s the only fluid we’ll need to talk about in this story.)

I laughed with the policeman, joked with him a bit about how his lens very likely outclassed mine, and so on.  He promised to have a copy of the print at the paper as soon as it was developed, and true to his word, he did.

As soon as I find that shot – it’s in a box ‘somewhere’, I’ll put it in here.  However, failing that, here’s the “Fishing by the lake” shot…

Oh – one more thing… he never mentioned the license plate….

Fishing at Lake Michigan – and… you never know when you’re being watched.


Saltwater State Park, Federal Way, Washington, 1989 or so…

Learning to skate.

We had a family tradition to come to this park on Father’s day, and it was always a nice spot to look for people just having fun.

In this case, I was working for a newspaper in Tacoma, and was shooting what we called “feature” shots, and found myself drawn to that park.

I saw a father teaching his daughter how to roller skate – with these huge hurking skates that just really didn’t do much more than make noise, but by golly, they were skates, and she wanted to try them, so try them they did.

I talked with the dad for a little bit, asking if it was okay if I shoot, and when he said yes, I walked across the parking lot and started shooting with my 300 – that way I wouldn’t interfere with what was happening, and the pictures were more spontaneous.

I knew, just knew she was going to fall – and was just waiting when she did, just like her dad was – and we both caught her at the same time.

The thing that got me about this shot was that there isn’t any evidence of fear in her eyes at all, there is just trust.  “Daddy’s going to be there for me, and I’m going to be okay.”

Look again – does she see her father?  No – there’s nothing she can see – it’s all trust – believing that he’ll do what he said he would do.

I’ve learned a couple of really important things from that image,

  1. That trust is a very valuable thing.  Knowing that “Daddy’s going to be there…” is an amazing thing – both from our earthly fathers – daddies – to our Heavenly Father.  If you know – really know that your Father is going to be there, you will have trust – and therefore, no fear.
  2. I also learned that daddies taking the time to take their little girls to the park is just way, way past cool.

Knowing Daddy's arms are there makes all the difference.

Tom Roush

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