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Have you ever come up with a snappy answer to a question that you just couldn’t get out of your mouth in time? I generally get my “snappy answers” about a week or two later, having spent the entire time wondering what I should have said, could have said, didn’t say, whatever. I rarely, if ever come up with the *right* answer at the right time.

Except for once, when I was in grad school in, as it was known by the director of the program, “Athens-by-God-Ohio.”

One of the things that we tried to do, as grad students in photojournalism, was to get internships at newspapers. It built up our portfolios, got us to understand the daily pressures of working in a real paper, and so on. It was also a cheap way for the newspapers to get some help, and my first internship was in a small town in West Central Ohio. I’d applied for the internship by sending out the portfolio, the cover letter, the self-addressed, stamped manila envelope, and the whole nine yards, and was completely blown away when I actually got a call telling me that I’d gotten it. I was ecstatic, and I had to call someone to tell them the good news. The first person on the list was my sister (who, as an aside, was instrumental in getting me to start writing these stories down in the first place). I’d been telling her about the challenges in getting an internship (they involved moving to where the internship was, for example) so I called her.

She worked at Seattle Pacific University, and a college student who was her assistant at the time answered the phone.  When I asked for my sister, the student innocently said, “…she’s not here right now, can I take a message?”

And at that moment, God saw the setup for a perfect punch line, chuckled a bit, and actually gave me the snappy answer without making me have to wait two weeks for it.

See, I realized that the name of the town I was in, the name of the town I was going to be in, and what I was doing could make for a wonderfully misleading combination.  So I took a deep breath, and said in my most authoritative and confident voice,

     “This is her brother Tom, I’m in Athens, and I got the internship in Sidney.”

There was an almost reverent silence on the other end of the line for a moment, and then, “Uh, wow. Congratulations – I’ll, uh, I’ll make sure to tell her.”

And so, on Easter Sunday, I got into the car and drove from Athens to Sidney, Ohio, (which was about 150 miles, vs. flying from Athens (the original) to Sydney (the one with the Opera House), which is just under 10,000 miles) and I spent some time as a photographer for the Sidney Daily News, in the little town of Sidney, in West Central Ohio.

Now one of the first things I learned in West Central Ohio is that people were just plain friendly. I don’t know if it was just an Ohio thing or more, but folks in the parts of Ohio I’d visited would just wave at you to say hi, just because you were there – not like where I’d lived in Seattle just before then, where they’d just look at you, maybe.  I learned later on a lot of this just had to do with the proximity of so many people. If there were only a few of you (in the country), you tend to notice each other. If there are massive herds of people (say, in the city), you kind of ignore each other just out of self-preservation – one of the many differences in Country vs. City living.

Now I mentioned that I’d driven to Sidney. 

I’d purchased a 1979 Ford Fairmont from a guy I could barely understand (if you think America has no regional accents, go to Southeast Ohio sometime and try to talk to some of the folks who live back in the “Hollers” and haven’t come out for generations   (Oh, “Holler” – that’s spelled “Hollow” by the way – it’s a valley that kind of stops at one end). Oh my gosh, it was – um ‘different’ – but I digress… 

The car was all straight and everything – in fact, it’s mentioned in another story — it’s the car I drove across the country in.  Come to think about it, it’s also the one I was driving in Michigan when I met the strong arm of the law

Anyway, back in Athens, as I recall, the very first thing I did after getting the car was to lock my keys in the trunk. Seems the fellow hadn’t told me about the spring to hold the trunk open being broken, and I hadn’t felt the need to check for dead bodies or anything in it, so I bought the car, not having opened the trunk. After he drove off, I unlocked it, opened it, accidentally dropped the keys in the trunk, then dropped the trunk lid on my head as I discovered the broken spring while reaching for the keys I’d dropped.

Yeah… good times…

So one lump on the noggin and $50.00 to a mobile locksmith later I was good, had the keys back, and was literally on the road.

For as old as it was, it got great gas mileage, and I used it to explore Shelby County, where Sidney was, and it was there that I learned there was an etiquette to driving in that part of the country.

See, if you’re on a country road out there, you wave at people as you go by. If you see oncoming traffic, the very least you do is raise a finger (no, not that finger) in simple acknowledgement of the other person’s presence.  It’s a neighborly thing to do, so you do it.

If there’s a farmer (and there are a lot of hard working farmers out there) working in his field, you could be a quarter mile away, driving at 60 mph with your right hand on the steering wheel, the left elbow out the window, holding on to the roof of the car, and literally raise a finger, one finger (the index finger, on your left hand, the one on the roof, just in case you’re curious) and the guy would wave back.

I was just amazed at this, how easy it was to just chat with people you’d never met, how simply nice people were.

So one day I was driving out to get some of what we called “Feature” photos out at a place called Lake Loramie, I’d just driven past one of those farmers, had just waved at him with the index finger of my left hand, just like I mentioned earlier, when the car died.

Stone cold dead.

I checked the gas gauge as I coasted to a stop.  ¼ tank.


I put my four-way flashers on and carefully pulled over just a little with the last of my momentum (they have some pretty deep ditches in some of those places so I wanted to be careful) and then did the very male thing of propping the hood open and just stood there, with a perplexed look on my face as I tried to figure this out.  I mean, I wasn’t out in the middle of nowhere, but I thought I could see it from where I was, and the car I’d had for about a month was dead.  No symptoms, no rattles, no wheezing, no coughing, no last gasp of any kind.

It was just dead.


I’d been driving and maintaining cars for a while by that time, and was pretty sure I knew what an engine needed to run…

It needed gas (I had ¼ tank) and

It needed air (I was still breathing, so that part was taken care of)

It needed spark.  (I’d had that). 

I was still standing there trying to figure out what could possibly be wrong when I heard the chugging of a tractor coming out of the field. 

From the dust trail behind him, I could tell it was the farmer I’d just waved to.

He asked what was wrong, and since I’d never had a car quit on me quite like this before, I said, “I think it’s out of gas.”

“Well, let’s take you up to Harry Frilling’s, Harry’s got some gas…”

He untangled a cable off the back of his tractor, wrapped it around the front bumper of the Ford and headed off.

I sat in the car, hypnotically watching the tread on those big tractor tires just a few feet in front of me as we chugged along at a whopping 8 mph, until we pulled into Harry’s farm yard, where the anonymous farmer unhooked the cable and headed off. Harry came out and asked what was wrong, and I told him what I thought the problem was, (that it might be out of gas) but that knew I still had ¼ tank, which made it all a little confusing. We both stood there for a bit, leaning on the fenders, and looked under the hood, in that thoughtful way men look at engines when they don’t have a clue as to what’s wrong…

“Wha’dja say your name was?”

     “My name’s Tom Roush, I’m a photographer for the Sidney Daily News.”

     “Ooooh…. and, uh, where’d ya say you were goin’?”

      “I was just going up to Lake Loramie to get some pictures for the paper.”

He pondered that for a moment, as if trying to decide on something…

     “How long d’you think you’ll be gone?”

I thought – figuring time to travel up and back, find an image, when I had to get back to the paper, plus deadlines and the like… and that left me with…

     “About an hour or so…”

More pondering by Harry.

     “Why don’t you take my car?  Key’s in it.”

Why don’t I take his car…

Why don’t I what???

I looked him in the eye  to be sure – but he clearly wasn’t kidding.

So, I accepted his offer, and took his car, which was much nicer than mine, carefully putting my camera bag on the passenger’s seat beside me instead of just tossing it in like I did with the Ford.

I drove it to the lake, not much was happening, so I stalked some ducks and got a picture of a duck and ducklings, brought the car back, and got some gas from Harry’s tank that he had for his farm vehicles to put in the Ford.  I paid Mrs. Frilling, who was inside, and went off, still kind of amazed at the difference in people from one part of the country to another.

I made the picture, it got into the paper, and life went on.

Weeks went by.

One day I had on my shooting schedule for that evening some kind of award at an event at a hotel in town.  I went, and found it was, ironically, a “Ducks Unlimited” dinner – an organization which I knew nothing about, but figured it was about some kind of conservation of ducks.  Okay, whatever. I figured I’d just show up and shoot the event and get back in time to process the film, mark the shot I thought was best, and then leave it for Mike (the chief photographer) to print the next morning.

So I was standing there at the back of the room, and realized that this award was happening sooner rather than later, and I’d missed the name of the recipient. I wouldn’t have time to get up to the front of the room and would have to quickly shoot from where I was, so I put a telephoto lens (my 180 f/2.8 for those of you who are curious) on the camera (my Nikon F3), along with my powerful SB-16 flash (the same one used in this story) and was just focusing on things when the award and a prize were handed to whoever the recipient was.

And the prize was…

A shotgun…

Wait a minute…

This is Ducks Unlimited… They’re not trying to conserve ducks to keep them alive, they’re trying to conserve them so they can make them dead!

Oh geez…

The things I learned when doing my own shooting…

I was just floored, but I’d gotten my shot, and I had to finish the job, so I noted the suit jacket the fellow with the new shotgun was wearing, and made my way to the front of the room where he was talking with someone.

I waited for a bit, standing behind him, and with my cameras and camera bag hanging off my right shoulder, and my reporter’s notebook in my left hand, I tapped him on the shoulder with my pen.

“Excuse me, sir, my name’s Tom Roush. I’m shooting for the Sidney Daily News and need to get your name for the paper.”

The fellow in the suit jacket turned around, and I saw nothing but a huge smile on his face as a big, meaty hand came down in a controlled crash on my left shoulder, “Why Tom, you know me! I’m Harry Frilling! I loaned you my car!

And so he had.

I hadn’t recognized him in that suit, but sure enough, it was Harry.

The next morning, I told Mike the story and he, having lived in the town far longer than I had, made an astute observation. “You know, Tom, as big a deal as it was to you to get the picture, it was probably a bigger deal to Harry to have been able to loan you his car.  I’ll bet he told his friends about that for some time.”

I wasn’t sure about that, but like I said, Mike had been in the town far longer than I, and had a good sense of what was important to folks.

Eventually I left Sidney, but I kept that Ford for many years after that. It turned out the problem had been a faulty electronic ignition module and replacing it fixed the problem (I’d never had a car with an electronic anything in it before, which is why it was so baffling to me), and after a trip west across the country, I kept it long enough to bring my son home from the hospital in it.

A number of years later, I looked Harry up, and on a whim, picked up the phone and called him, and introduced myself as the photographer he’d loaned his car to, and asked if he remembered me.

And he did.

We talked and laughed for a while, about how a young photographer and an old farmer met because of a broken down car and a shotgun, about how life had changed for us both over the years, and how good, and important, it was to just get in touch again, and how much that small act of kindness on his part had meant to me.

A few weeks ago, I got back in touch with Mike – and we got to talking, and laughing, telling stories, and just catching up.  We talked about how it’s been over 20 years since I was a photographer at the Sidney Daily News, singlehandedly blowing through their annual film budget in the short time I was there, and then I remembered something, and asked Mike, “Do you remember the story about Harry Frilling?” – and without any other clues, Mike remembered, too, and we both just laughed and laughed… 

There’s a Footnote, or Post Script to this story:

Last week, because this was a story about a real, live person, I did what I always do and tried to find Harry again to ask his permission to write and publish the story.  I didn’t find him, but found and ended up talking to his son.  As it turns out, Harry had passed away a few years ago, and I found out that Mike was right.  It seems that that little story, the one that meant so much to me, that told me about how some folks are inherently just plain good folks, was indeed one that meant something to Harry as well, in fact, it was one of his favorite stories, that he told often, and I was astonished to hear from his son that my – that our – little story was told as part of his Eulogy as people told stories about who Harry was and what he meant to them.

It’s people like Harry who teach us that lifting a finger – figuratively, or literally one finger of one hand – whether that’s lifting it from your steering wheel as you drive by to wave at a farmer and acknowledge each other as fellow humans on the planet, or lifting it to dial the phone to call an old friend to get back in touch with them and see how they’re doing, or dropping what you’re doing and helping a friend do some things he or she couldn’t do otherwise, that ‘lifting a finger’ can make all the difference in the world in someone’s life. 

He also taught me that that one finger, when crashing down onto my left shoulder with the rest of his hand and that smile of his, made me feel like I was the most important person in the world right then.

It’s been, as I said, years, but this formerly young photographer still treasures that smile, that laugh, and is humbled to have known an old farmer like Harry Frilling.

As I thought about this story, and about what became this post script, I realized that after anyone passes away, the material things they’ve accumulated in their lives have to be taken care of or taken over by others.  But when people like Harry pass away, the love and the memories left behind, those are treasures, and they live on.

Special thanks to his son and daughter, who graciously gave me permission to publish this story.

© 2011 Tom Roush

July 4th

Here in America, it means there are lots of events involving fireworks.  Some of these things are legal, some are not.  Some can be made with good old Yankee ingenuity, and some can be made with a little bit of knowledge of chemistry.  There can be an astounding variation of things, but the bottom line is that they all explode, fly, or make lots of sparks.

And of course, if you do it right, they’ll do all three.

And the thing about my friend Jimi was that if there was any possible way that something could blow up, or fly, or make lots of sparks… he’d figure it out.  It seemed like “The Fourth” for Jimi was a day to celebrate everything – and he went all out on it.

One time – he and I had decided that the big Styrofoam gliders you could get would fly better if they were powered by something stronger than an arm, like, say, a rocket engine. So we found that there was one kind of thing, called a ‘ground bloom flower’ – that, if aimed correctly and taped securely to each Styrofoam wing on this glider, two of them might produce enough thrust to get it airborne.

It turns out that timing the ignition of these things was a pretty major challenge – and that the concept of asymmetrical thrust – that is – one of these things lighting before the other – was not theoretical at all, and the plane, when we did manage to get it in the air, didn’t fly so much as spend its time trying to do a very colorful pirouette to one side, followed by a lurch forward for the split second both “engines” were firing at the same time, followed by a feeble attempt at another very colorful pirouette to the other side as the first engine died and second one lit off.

Was it entertaining?

Heck yes.

Did it fly well?

Uh…. No.

It’s safe to say that it really didn’t fly very well.

It’s also well to say that it wasn’t very safe, at all…

I mean, a highly flammable object, that’s already got a totally unpredictable flight path, combined with devices that are already spewing sparks and flames…

What could possibly go wrong?


In our misguided attempt to actually get the thing to fly, we kept fiddling, and finally got things set so we could try again – and found that where the fuse came out of the ‘ground bloom flower’ wasn’t exactly where the fire and thrust came out.

We were able to deduce this by the large hole the flame had burned in the right wing.  We taped over that and decided a single producer of thrust would work better if we could center it.

So we – after long and hard thinking of all the things that would be illegal to purchase and let fly in Shoreline (where Jimi lived), we realized that model rocket engines would be perfect (and legal) – and bought a few of those, made a self-ejecting holder out of some ductape, stuck a fuse into the engine, lit it, and threw the plane, figuring it’d fly, gracefully, as it should.

Turns out that adding that much thrust to one of those things doesn’t necessarily improve anything in a predictable way – and after even more fiddling, the first one that actually flew did a very tight loop, hit some wires, and came down hard, mostly in one piece.

The next one was a little better, but it was the last one, that I didn’t see, that was clearly the best.

I’d just run into the house to get something, when I heard the rocket engine fire, and I heard Jimi yell.  I heard a thump, the rocket continued to burn, and Jimi laughing like an absolute lunatic.

By the time I got out there, tears were running down his face, he was holding his stomach, and having trouble deciding whether to laugh or breathe.

I looked around and followed the smoke to the hood of his car.  It seems the engine had burned itself out by then – the smoke more of a haze at that point – but before it had done that, the little rocket engine had pushed the plane up high enough so that one wing had hit a telephone wire again.  That spun the plane around 180 degrees, pointed right at the ground. It came down at full power, almost pulled up, but hit and bounced on the hood of Jimi’s little Chevy Nova, getting the nose stuck under one of the windshield wipers.  The little engine that could wasn’t done yet, and continued to burn with the plane trapped by those windshield wipers – finally ending up burning the paint off part of the hood of the car.

Jimi was just beside himself.

I was mortified, and thought that he’d have to figure out how to explain that to the insurance company, but he just wanted to leave it the way it was.  The scorched metal, the blistered paint, was worth far more as a story to him than getting a new hood put on the car ever was.

I’ll always remember that laugh of his – and how much it meant to just hear that childlike joy.

It’s funny – Jimi and I were so much like kids in all of that that neither he, an award winning photographer who never went anywhere without his Olympus cameras, nor I, a budding photojournalist who never went anywhere without my Nikons, took any pictures of the event.

We just laughed and laughed and laughed.

And some memories are best left there, in your mind, as a memory that remains strong, and bright.

I miss him.

For now, just imagine the intense hiss of a model rocket engine, the hollow metallic thunk of some hard Styrofoam on a metal hood, and the sound of two grown men laughing like the little boys that were still very much alive inside us.

Those little boys who had read all the small print on the fireworks and rocket engines… “Use under adult supervision…”

Yeah, we supervised alright.

It was a good day.

Years later, in Jimi’s memory, I decided it was time to share that joy of Styrofoam airplanes, rocket engines, and some adults who still remembered what it was like to be a kid with my son, but that’ll be a story (complete with pictures) for another time.

Have a safe Fourth of July, folks.

“You ought to shoot the EAA airshow, you like planes so much!”

“Heh – did the Yakima airshow once.  Flew over there in Fifi.”



And so of course, I had to explain.

I’m an airplane nut, and years ago was a photojournalist, and any time I could put the two together, I would.

There was a time when a B-17 and an LB-30 (non – combat version of the plane most people would recognize as a B-24) would show up at Seattle’s Boeing field, not much of an announcement, they’d just show up.  I went down there with a friend and used up a good bit of the week’s grocery money buying a walk-through tour of the planes.  It was a lot of fun… I got some nice pictures – and it was fun to watch and hear the Pratt & Whitneys on the one, and the Wright Cyclones on the other rumble to life.

My wife has said I could start a conversation with anyone, and in this case, I did just that, and ended up chatting with the pilot of the LB-30, who happened to be a United Airlines Pilot living just 30 miles south of Seattle.  He gave me his business card.

The LB-30 came back two years later – but with a much bigger friend from Boeing, this being what was then the Confederate Air Force’s  (now known as the Commemorative Air Force) mighty B-29, with the decidedly un-mighty name of “Fifi”

Since I’d already seen the LB-30, I figured I’d see what the inside of a B-29 looked like, and used up a bigger chunk of my weekly grocery budget than last time to pay for a walk-through tour of it.

The plane, while huge on the outside, wasn’t made for comfort inside, but utility.  As I moved through it, I’d find hand-holds exactly where I reached for and needed them.  Definite utility – but there wasn’t a lot cushioning of anything, after all, it was a military plane.

…and as I went forward I saw a leather bomber’s jacket on the map table on the left.

Not just any leather bomber’s jacket – but the one that had the name of the pilot I’d chatted with two years earlier.

And thus began one of my “Only you, Tom… Only you…” stories..

See, this plane had come up to Seattle from Salem, Oregon.

The local CBS affiliate, KIRO, had driven from Seattle to Salem.

They’d gotten on the plane in Salem and flown back to Seattle, videotaping the whole flight.


From inside the airplane.

It was considered a major coup at the time.  They landed, they drove to the station, edited their stuff, and were on the air.

Needless to say, I was down there at the airport shortly after that.

And with that, a most evil and sneaky plan started festering – no – germinating (that sounds healthier) in my mind.

I found myself wondering what their plans were after Seattle -and it turned out they were going to be part of the airshow over in Yakima.


So the day they were heading over there I went down again, and found the pilot I’d talked to two years earlier…

“Hey, Dick, you got anyone from the Yakima paper covering this?”

(Note: Evil, festering germinating plan being: “I’m planning on doing what KIRO did.” – not because I was brilliant, not because I had permission, but because nobody had told me I couldn’t, and I didn’t know any better than to think I couldn’t just wander down to Boeing field and talk my way onto the only flying B-29 just because I had a camera…)

So I went to the pay phone inside the Museum of Flight, plunked in a few quarters, and called the Yakima Herald Republic, where my friend Jimi Lott had been the photo editor, and asked them if they were covering this.  They said yes, they were.  So I figured my chances were slim, to none.  But about 15 minutes before scheduled takeoff, the photographer still hadn’t shown up, so I called them back and was a little more specific in my question.

“Do you have anyone in Seattle covering this? Someone who’s going to get on the plane and fly with it, shooting all the way?




Then I got all young and stupid and just about yelled at the photo editor there for not having a photographer ready to fly back there on the plane…

They didn’t have anyone in Seattle covering this?

They didn’t have anyone in Seattle covering this…

Gad… Didn’t they know what a piece of history this was?

Didn’t they realize they were missing a once in a lifetime event?

Didn’t they –

–the photo editor finally had enough of my attitude and said, “Now what did you say your name was again?”

“Tom Roush…. Jimi Lott’s a friend of mine.”

Jimi used to be his boss.

“Right, so what do you want me to do?”

The light went on…


“Well, you don’t have anyone here, right?  So here’s what I’m planning on doing… I’m gonna walk out there and see if I can talk my way onto the plane. If I can, I’ll be over there in about 45 minutes or so…. You want color or black and white?”

<stunned silence>

“Uh… Color, I guess…”

“Right.  I’ll call you when I’m at the airport.”

“Um… sure…”

I got off the phone with the photo editor, left the Museum of Flight, and walked out toward the plane, which was surrounded by this teeming throng of people, just in time to hear someone yell, “Okay, where’s the photographer?”

And I, Tom Roush…

…who’d driven down there on a whim, and had just convinced the photo editor of a newspaper I’d never seen to buy a picture I’d only be able to take if I could get onto a plane I’d promised the pilot I’d get onto the front page of a newspaper that…




(yeah, I still have to read that sentence a couple of times myself – still working out the catch:22ness of it all)

…called out, “HERE!”

Moses himself couldn’t have parted the crowd any better.

I waved my hand, and “Fwwwwooomp” – Instant walkway.  I walked through, feeling simultaneously embarrassed at the attention, and elated beyond words that it was happening.

I tossed my itty bitty duffel bag onto the plane, swung the camera bag up, climbed up, and in 5 minutes we were gone.

They’d started up this noisy little air cooled V-4 Wisconsin motor like my Grampa had on his hay baler – but this was attached to a honking generator.  (If you ever saw the NOVA: B-29 Frozen in Time special, it is this generator that broke free and started the fire.) They used the V-4’s generator to run the starter for the number 3 engine.  Once that was running, they used the generator on that engine to start up the rest.  I could see the tops of the cylinders vibrating a bit through the open cowl flaps as the propellers blew the smoke from starting those big radial engines away.

We taxied out to the runway, and I was treated to one of the smoothest flights I’ve ever been on.

But we didn’t just fly up to altitude, fly over, land… No, we played tag with the LB-30, buzzed a few airfields, and flew past – not over – Mt. Rainier.   I hung out the side bubbles and shot up, down, left, right, directions you simply can’t see in a normal airplane.

There was a little stool that you could sit on that got your head up into another little bubble so you could see out the top of the plane.  I sat on that and looked out there for a bit – until one of the crew members asked me to let another fellow up – who’d paid $300.00 for the privilege of this flight.

I’d completely forgotten that this might be something people would pay to do, much less be ABLE to pay to do.  I got down and was just amazed at where I was and what all was happening.  (remember, I’d gone on that $10.00 tour – which had used up a good chunk of my weekly grocery budget.)

As we came close to Mt. Rainier,   I asked the crew back where I was if they could get the LB-30 between us and the mountain.  They called up to the pilot, he called over to the other plane, and as he flew underneath us, I got some shots of the LB-30 beneath us with apple orchards beneath it

But then, then I got the shot of the only flying LB-30 in the world, taken from the only flying B-29 in the world in front of Washington’s tallest hunk of rock.

And… and it was kind of special…

The next thing I knew we were on approach to Yakima, and we buzzed the Yakima field once and then came in to land.  I hurriedly said my goodbyes and explained I had to make a deadline.  I found a huge bank of temporary pay phones (this was BC, before cellphones) and called the paper, got the photo department, and got the photo editor I’d gotten all stupid over less than an hour before.

“Hey, this is Tom, I’m here.”

“Here… Here? Where’s here?”

Billy Crystal couldn’t have said it better.

“The airport.”

Exasperated pause…

WHICH airport?”

Which airport – what kind of a question was that?  I mean, I’d just talked to him, I’d told him where I was going to be – where did he expect me to be?

“Well Yakima, of course.”

<more stunned silence… >

…and in a voice tinged with resignation, I heard, “I’ll have someone there to pick you up.”

Ten minutes later, a white Toyota, driven by the same photo editor I’d been talking to on the phone, arrived to take me to the paper, where while we chatted, the film was processed, edited, and then, with a press pass to the airshow, returned to me.

I didn’t really know what to do after the paper went to the printers – so I found a hotel, a Super 8, I think, for $35.00, had some dinner at a nearby restaurant, and went to bed.

The next morning I walked to a nearby Denny’s where I found a whole bunch of Air National Guard photojournalists who were covering the airshow sitting at a table looking at the front page of the local paper.

A picture of an LB-30 in front of Mt. Rainier.

The picture had made page 1.

We talked and laughed and told war stories to each other over coffee, and they, realizing that my car was about 150 miles away, kindly invited me to ride out to the airshow with them.  They gave me a press pass, too.  I was like the proverbial kid in a candy store.  I could go anywhere I wanted.  I could get photos of planes I’d never seen before, or since. I could watch the aerial demonstrations of the A-10 Warthog, I could watch things blow up, and I could do it all from in front of the front row.

There was NOTHING between me and the airplanes – in fact, anyone taking pictures of the planes got the back of my head in the bottom of their pictures.

How unutterably cool.

I shot and wandered, and wandered and shot, got sunburned, had a cheap hot dog and chatted with pilots and crew and just had the time of my life, and when they started firing up some of those big engines to leave, I knew it was time for me to head out, too, so I walked into the terminal, found the Horizon Airlines desk, called Jimi to see if he could pick me up at SeaTac, and then bought a ticket back to Seattle for $45.00.

As we flew back, I saw the same scenery as I’d seen coming over, but it was different, and I was different.

Jimi came to pick me up when I got to SeaTac, and we talked and laughed as he took me back to Boeing field and the Museum of Flight where I’d left the Saab the day before.  In a few days the paper sent me a check for $35.00 (the same that the Super 8 motel charged me.)

For the price of a flight back and a couple of phone calls, I’d had a weekend to remember, and the experience of a lifetime.

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.

= = =


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.


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.


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.


Three firing pins hit three cartridges.


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.

I worked for the Muskegon Chronicle, in Muskegon, Michigan for a time, and the weather there is very different from here in Washington State where I live now.  You’ve likely heard of the reputation western Washington has for rain, and it is in large part true.  The weather in Michigan, however, is that “middle of the continent” kind of stuff where you have thunderstorms, tornadoes, poofy clouds that you just don’t have here closer to the coast.  One of the things that happened a lot was those thunderstorms, and they would always come in off Lake Michigan (all the weather came in from the west, thunderstorms were no exception).  Every now and then we’d see one coming, and as I was always on the lookout for new and exciting pictures, I headed down to the lake to see if I could set up and get a shot for the paper.

I drove around for awhile, looking for a good vantage point so I could have something visible in the foreground to get a sense of how big the lightning bolt was, and settled on an unmanned lighthouse, and put it in the bottom right of my frame.

I could see the lightning hitting, and had a lens on the camera that could see a good field of view (not good to have a telephoto lens focused on the wrong patch of sky) – and so, considering that this was a) night, and b) lightning – I figured that the chance of me actually getting something was dramatically improved by having the camera on a tripod and taking long exposures, so I did, and I started shooting…

I’d open the shutter – leave  it open for about 20 seconds – just long enough, I figured, for the light in the lighthouse to burn a hole in the film (not really, but it would make it hard to print) – and if there wasn’t any lightning – then I’d close the shutter and go to the next frame.  I did this for about 28 frames or so, and just as I was closing the shutter on that 28th frame, a big, hurking bolt of lightning came down, and I wondered if I’d gotten it.

More importantly, my brain started functioning about then.

See, I was standing on a beach.

Which meant I was the highest object around.

And I was holding a metal cable release attached directly to my camera, on a metal tripod.

And that tripod was, as you might imagine, was well grounded.

Which meant…

– I’m not sure if the hair standing up on the back of my neck was from the realization of what could be happening, or from what was clearly about to happen – regardless, I’ve never packed up my gear so fast.

I got back to the paper and developed the film – and all but the last frame were blank (except for the lighthouse) – that last frame had a big bolt of lightning just on the left side.

And it also had a story behind it…

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.

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

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

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

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

In Columbus.

68 miles away.

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

Remember “feisty”?

Well, she promptly hopped a Greyhound back to Athens.

They didn’t mess with her anymore after that.

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

And she did..

She swept.

She dusted.

…and she mopped.

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

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

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

Number 3 was the best.

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

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

Cleo and mop

Cleo throwing the mop water out. © 1987 Tom Roush

The picture at the end of this story was shot in Grad School – Ohio University, sometime around 1988 or so.

I had a friend and classmate, Johnny Crawford, a wonderful shooter from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who was truly a lot of fun to be with – but he had this one habit that just got to me after awhile… it was his penchant for saying, “Tom, you ain’t lived till you’ve…” – and then fill in the blank with something that he’d done and he knew I hadn’t.

Understand, he wasn’t gloating, he wasn’t being mean, he was just telling me how cool it was to have been able to do something he had done, and, in his eyes, I hadn’t lived till I’d done one of those things.

Well one day he says, “Tom, you ain’t lived till you’ve shot F-15’s bein’ refueled.” – now of course I knew that he wasn’t talking about F-15’s being refueled on the ground, he was talking about that complicated aerial ballet that means you’ve got two airplanes flying around 250 – 300 mph within about 40 feet of each other, pumping highly refined kerosene from one to another at a rate of about 6,500 pounds a minute. This is enough fuel in one minute to run your average family car for a year.

Uh… Yeah…

Eventually I got a little tired of never having lived – so I needed to figure out where I could find a refueling base, because that’s where I’d need to go to get onto a KC-135 refueling plane to take that shot that was going to ensure that I lived.  I went to the library, and checked out a book about the military, and it gave me the location of all the bases in the United States.  And funny thing, but there was a base with a KC-135 wing 68 miles away, the 121st Air Refueling Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard.


Now anyone who knows me knows I am just plain dangerous with a telephone.  My wife says I can talk to anyone, and sometime I just end up sweet talking my way into things that even I end up baffled at once everything’s all said and done.  She once complained that I could get into a 20 minute conversation with a telephone operator. (She was wrong… it was 45 minutes, and I did, actually, the telephone operator used to be an air traffic controller when Reagan was presi – well, that’s not important right now).  So about 3 telephone calls later, I’m on the phone with the PAO (public affairs officer) of Rickenbacker Air National Guard base, in Columbus, Ohio.   I explain to him that I’m a grad student in photojournalism at Ohio University and that I’m working on a story on the Air National Guard (partially true, well, I was starting it – and a picture was worth a thousand words, right?) and was wondering if there was any chance of getting up on a refueling mission to take some pictures.  So – after talking about that and security and stuff for a bit, he suddenly said, “How’s next Tuesday?”


What!? –

It had to be harder than this…

It just had to be.

Nope.  Tuesday it was…

Plane took off at 10:00.  We’d be refueling some Missouri Air National Guard F-4 fighters who were on a training mission.  I had to be there 2 hours earlier, which meant I had to leave an hour before that, and so on. I borrowed a car from a friend and found the airbase, talked my way into see the right people, made the right introductions, signed the right paperwork, and out the door I went, still completely baffled… It just had to be harder than this…

One of the things to understand about military planes is that they are generally not built for comfort, so the plane was loud.  This being an Air National Guard plane – the same folks had flown this same plane for years, so to them it wasn’t much different than you or I driving down to the store to get a quart of milk.  However, they’re going a little faster, they have 4 engines pushing them along, and the store’s a lot further away.  At one point, I was up in the cockpit and the navigator did some calculating, and noticed that if we continued at the rate we were going, we would be late to meet the planes we were to refuel, and since we were the only gas station around, us being late could easily mean those flying jet fighters would fly about as well as crowbars, and that’s not good. So he saw we were going 300 mph, and told the pilot to bump it up to 330.  The pilot reached up and wrapped his hands around the 4 throttles and – well, ‘bumped’ them up a bit.  I had no idea a plane that big, could accelerate that fast at that speed.  I was watching the airspeed indicator, and we went from 300 to 330 in a blink.  I was very glad I’d been holding onto something when he did it or I would have ended up in the back of the plane.

We got to the refueling zone – and I was told that the way the refueling is done, is that the pilots of the tanker, and the pilots of the planes needing the fuel fly directly at each other, the tanker flying 1000 feet higher.  When they get close, they both head in the same direction – so, say the tanker I’m in is flying east.  The planes needing the fuel are flying west, toward each other, and at a given point, everyone heads north, so that the F-4’s are below and behind the tanker.  Our call sign was Pearl 07. Theirs were Misty 41 and 42.

The weird thing, for lack of a better word, about all this is that it was happening in three dimensions.  I mean, if you’re here on the ground, and you point to something, your arm is generally parallel to the ground or close to it, because whatever you’re pointing at is usually on that same ground, or close to it.  When I saw these planes – I was in the back of thfe tanker, looking out the back – and they were swooping in from the right, and they were off to the right, and down.  Not just ‘over’ but ‘down’.   One of the planes was leaving what looked like a white smoke trail, and I heard over the radio, “Pearl 07, Misty 41, I’ve got a fuel leak, returning to base…”

I don’t know about you, but a fuel leak you can see at 300 miles an hour must be a pretty significant fuel leak…  He left.

Misty 42 came closer – into what they call the pre-connect area in the back of the plane, and just stayed there for a bit – I was amazed at how big the thing was, and had the widest lens I had on my camera (a Nikkor 24mm ) – I was framing the shot when Gus (the boom operator) said, “Misty 42, forward 50” – meaning he needed to come forward 50 feet to get into the area where the boom could connect.  Now I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting much acceleration out of that plane – I mean the plane can go twice the speed of sound, for crying out loud – but when he came forward that 50 feet, it was like he’d been shot out of a cannon, and then he stopped, parked right where he needed to be.  Somewhere in there, just before he hooked up I reflexively squeezed off a shot, and that was the only shot I got that was worth anything – after that he was just too close.

He took 3,000 pounds of fuel, I don’t know why I remember that.  He wasn’t there very long, and then, since Misty 41 had already left, Misty 42 peeled off in ways I’ve only seen in movies – and there just isn’t a comparison to seeing it in real life, as opposed to seeing it on a screen, where, no matter how much they try to show the three dimensions of what’s happening up there, it’s still a two dimensional screen.   It just doesn’t cut it.  It was so, incredibly, cool.

We turned back east and headed back over Illinois, Indiana, bits and pieces of Kentucky, and finally made it down out of the wonderful sunlight, down through the clouds, and into a rainy Ohio afternoon.

We debriefed, I headed back toward Athens in my borrowed car with an exhaust leak, and stopped at a Burger King on the way to get a late lunch while I had the color film developed next door.  What I didn’t know is that this particular film developing process didn’t use fresh chemicals for each batch of film.  They used them until the film didn’t come out good anymore, and then changed the chemicals.

Guess whose film was the last one through that batch of chemistry?  The prints just didn’t look quite right.  It turned out that the film, though developed, was simply not printable in color, the three colors (cyan, magenta and yellow) didn’t develop at the same rate – and there just wasn’t a way to color balance all of the colors at the same time.  After a lot of thought and frustration (considering what I’d gone through to get this picture) I ended up out of pure frustration printing it in black and white.

This, surprisingly, was a dang good idea…

Of course, by now it had been a long day, lots of driving, lots of flying, and because of the car, lots of carbon monoxide, and now I had to go to the darkroom on campus to print the pictures. Of course, it was always a social event because there were 50 enlargers in the darkroom, and everyone was working on their own images, and every now and then, you’d go out into a finishing area and look at them in white light instead of the orange safelights, to see what the thing really looked like, wash it off, spot correct dust, etc…

…and, if you had a particularly good one, you might find yourself examining it a little longer out there where other people could see it, if you know what I mean…

One of the things in that original image was that there was this huge black area in the bottom right of the picture, part of the inside of the plane that that wide lens caught.  I was trying to figure out how to make the picture work without cropping too much, and yet that black area just sucked your eye right down there when one of my classmates walked up and saw the picture.

“Wow! Cool picture! Who take that?” (he was from China, and this is how he talked)

“I did.”

“No, Tom, you not take that picture, don’t joke… Who take that picture?”

“Seriously, I did.”

He could see I wasn’t joking – honestly, by that time, I was too tired to joke.

“Okay, fine… Where you take that picture?”

… but I wasn’t too tired to string him along a little and mess with him…

“Missouri.” (understand, Missouri is three states west of Ohio, easily a day’s drive)

“Missouri?  No, Tom… You joking again.  Where you take the picture?”

“Okay, I’ll be more specific… 26,000 feet above Fredericktown, Missouri.”

There was a look of consternation on his face, and finally resignation as he realized I wasn’t kidding.

“Okay Tom, you not joking this time… When you take the picture?”

– This one was like feeding a straight line to a comedian, and the only thing I could do was the last thing he’d expect.

I looked at my watch.

His eyes got real big, then he just threw up his hands and gave up.  The thing is, at the time he asked the question, I’d taken the picture about 6 hours ago – so the most logical thing to do was to look at my watch and find out how to answer his question.

I was so hoping Johnny would come by so I could tell him I’d lived.  He did, later – but the reaction from my classmate was the best.

That said, below is the shot of Misty 42.

Misty 42 – an F-4 flown my the Missouri Air National Guard. Photo by Tom Roush – from an Ohio Air National Guard KC-135.

…and just recently I found a video that someone else had taken that’s pretty accurate for what it was like.

The above shot would have been taken just before the video starts.

PS – years later – I got back in touch with him and sent him this story.

His response: “Tom, you have Lived!



MSN had this question on their website awhile back – and I had to answer, “Uh, yeah.”

Years ago, I was working in Tacoma Washington as a photojournalist when I saw smoke coming from the south… Not just a little smoke, but a huge amount of it – forest fire size.  I checked with my editor, and they cleared me to go shoot it.  I filled up the tank of the company’s Corolla I’d been assigned, and headed south.

Thing is, to get there (Morton) from Tacoma was about an hour and a half or so, so I wasn’t able to go instantly, but I followed my nose and eventually came across a sign spray painted on a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood:

←  Forest Fire

– it had an arrow pointing left. I took that road, and drove for miles on a logging road laid through the forest like a broken suspender.  Finally came to a clearing with a pond where a helicopter was dipping water – I got a few shots of that with a 50 mm lens because it was quite literally right in front of me, then just as he pulled out – an aerial tanker shot out from behind a hillside in the distance – dumping his load of red fire retardant onto the fire.  It was amazing, hillside… smoke… tanker… red stuff… I swung the camera up and got the picture – but because I still had the 50mm lens on, it was a teensy bit of an image – I’d needed a telephoto for that, and that was still in the case in the back seat of the car.

So I did what’s normal for firefighters, ambulance drivers, cops, and journalists, and drove toward the flames.

I kept seeing signs for the tanker trucks, and the trucks themselves, often feeling them before I saw them, rolling earthquakes coming down the mountain to refill themselves with more water from wherever they could get it.

The newspaper I worked for had radios in all the cars, and they worked on a repeater system, a lot like cell towers.  You’d grab the mike, push the talk button, and wait for the chirp to tell you the repeater was in range, and then you’d start talking.  If you were out of range, you’d get the obnoxious “braaap” instead of the chirp.  By this time all I heard was “braaap.”  I was on my own.  I made it around the edge of this box canyon and was heading up a ridge.  The next turn would have put me on the hillside that tanker had hit.  It was around this time that the car started handling a little differently… Mushy in the rear end, drifting to the right. (toward the box canyon).

Uh oh…

This was followed by the sound and sparks of the rim of the wheel hitting the sharp rocks on the road that had flattened the tire.

I couldn’t control the car very well, the rim wasn’t giving me anything in the way of traction, so I had to stop – in the middle of a hill, flaming box canyon down to my right, smoldering hillside up to my left.  I tried to change the tire – but given where I was, any tanker truck careening around the curve down the hill would see me at the last second, before there was too much time to avoid a collision….

And… That would make the forest fire a bit worse.

This would be bad.

I squeezed the car off to the side as far as I could, and hit the ground with the dedication and intent of an Indy pit crew.

Except, they jack up on level concrete.

I didn’t have that.

They have these pneumatic insta-jacks.

I didn’t.

They have air wrenches.

I had a big bent wire with a socket welded to the end of it.

I was jacking up a company car, on a hill, with a flat, so it was hard to even get the jack under there, and once I got it up, it desperately wanted to fall off.  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.  Understand, at this point I was feverishly working on getting the car into the air, had my back to the canyon now, so all I saw reflected in the car fender was embers.

Oh good…

The smoke was getting a little thicker, and to say that there was a touch of urgency in my actions might be considered an understatement.  My main concern at that time was being hit by an out of control tanker truck – well, the forest fire was a bit of a concern, too.  I wasn’t in it, mind you, but any place I could run to avoid a collision with the aforementioned truck was also on fire.


Oh, the other thing Indy pit crews have is tires with air in them.  I’d gotten the spare out of the trunk – and it was then that I discovered that it was low.  Not flat, but low enough to keep me from driving the car very fast on this or any road, much less a dirt one with sharp tire eating rocks on it.

At this point, it was quite clear that getting photos of the forest fire was rather secondary to me getting myself out of there.

So if it isn’t clear yet, I’m in the middle of a hill, on a dirt road, smoldering canyon to my right, hill to my left, road up ahead turns left out of sight, and since the road wasn’t wide enough to do a three point turn, the only way I could get out was to back out down the hill on an almost flat tire until I could find a spot to turn around.  So I did that, backed up for about ¾ of a mile – then drove far, far slower than I wanted to as I was getting out – leaving the smoldering hillsides in my rear view mirror.

What I didn’t know then – at least until the next day – is that among all the burning stuff was some poison oak.  I was wearing contact lenses at the time, and whatever was in the poison oak got into them.  The next day – I only had to put the contacts in and I felt like my eyes were on fire.  Ended up going to a clinic then to get things taken care of, but enough of the oils in the poison oak had gotten into the soft contacts that they were completely shot.

So: did I get the picture and did it make the paper?

Well, I got pictures.  Not the dramatic ones I wanted, but I got something , but the most important bit was that I got out.

Part 2…

I had to drive quite awhile on that tire – remember, it’s not completely full of air – so the car’s lurching about as I have to drive slow so as not to overheat it and blow that one, too.

Eventually I found a gas station in Elbe, and filled up the (by now) very hot tire there.  As I left, I saw an absolute herd of emergency vehicles heading the other way.

Knowing I had to get the film back to the paper, I tried to reach them on the radio: “Braaaap” – no go.  I found a payphone.  No go. Every number I called at the paper was simply unavailable and I couldn’t reach them by radio.

Then I heard on the scanner that this was a fatal accident, and the paper generally wanted images of fatal accidents, so I kept trying to call, and eventually gave up and chased the State Patrol and the aid cars and the various official vehicles.  They left the main road and headed down a gravel forest service road at high speed.  I stayed glued to them, because otherwise I’d be completely lost.  I heard the EMT’s talking to each other on the scanner, “Who’s that in the little brown car? Is he with us?” “Nah, he’s not with us, must be some sort of vulture from the media.”

Oh good… I was a vulture.

We all got to the scene of the accident – and it was striking how innocuous the road looked.  It didn’t look like you could kill yourself on this road, but someone drove their last mile here.  It swept gently left, then gently right, and as it was gravel, you could see exactly what had happened.  The fellow was going too fast, and started sliding on the left turn, then finally caught it, and overcorrected too late when the road swung right.  The truck was on its side in the middle of the road and by now it was getting quite dark.  I should have been back at the paper hours ago.

I was living at home with my folks at the time, and knew that they’d be worried if I didn’t show up and didn’t call to tell them why.  I was trying to figure out how to do that when one of the staters walked up to me and asked if I could take some photos of the accident scene for them.  I saw my chance: “Sure – as long as I can talk you into calling my folks and letting them know I’m okay… – just – when you call, don’t immediately identify yourselves as “hi, I’m Sgt. Smith from the Washington State Patrol and I’m calling about your son, who’s at the scene of an accident…” – that would freak them right out…

Call ‘em – let ‘em know I’m okay – and I’ll shoot what you want.  Deal?


So I shot, then headed back to the car, and drove as fast as I could to get back to the paper to process the film of the forest fire and accident.  Of course, I didn’t want to drive so fast that I’d see the same Staters again.

I kept hitting the microphone switch, waiting for the little ‘chirp chirp’ that told me I’d hit the repeater, because once I’d hit that, I knew I’d be able to talk to the paper.

It took about 30 minutes of fast driving before I got a chirp, and 10 more before I got it reliably.  Once there, I got through to the chief photographer, who told me to call him when I was closer – I’d missed the color deadline, we’d see if I could get there in time to do the black and white deadline.

By the time I got to – let’s call it ‘civilization’ – I’d missed the black and white deadline, too, so what this meant is that the photos I’d taken would never see print.

When he knew where I was, he told me to just head home – which saved me about 40 miles of driving.

I went home, and got there somewhere between 9 and 10 – and took the contacts out and crashed.

Part 3

Next day – when I put the contacts in – all the oils from the burning poison oak were like red hot pokers in my eyes – and it was almost impossible to see – and for a photographer, that’s kind of a bad thing.  I went to a clinic where we decided the contacts were a  lost cause, and that if I was ever near a forest fire again, I should do what I could to stay upwind of it.

It seemed like a good idea.

Is there a moral to this? I didn’t think of any while writing this – but I feel I need to tie it all together somehow.

Well, I suppose there’s several morals:

  1. Be prepared.  This might sound like a little Boy Scout thing – but there’s a lot of truth to it.  Make sure you’ve got air in your spare, make sure you’ve got a jack handle. I know of one person who decided that to get better mileage, he’d dump the spare and the jack, “because he had roadside assistance on his cell phone”.  That just wouldn’t have worked out there.
  2. Make sure the folks who care about you know where you are.  It’s just not cool to make people worry unnecessarily.
  3. When shooting forest fires… Shoot from the upwind side.

…and stay away from the poison oak.  It’s nasty…

(c) Tom Roush 2009

Tom Roush

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December 2021
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