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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.
Meaning if you set the lens to that aperture, the lightning would expose the film perfectly.
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.
And the lightning gave you enough light to take the picture.
Without either of them, neither of them worked.
f/8 and be there…
Even if it’s in the middle of a storm.
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…
…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.
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.”
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…
A chortling water buffalo pulled up beside us as we waited for the stop light at 15th and Market.
I looked left.
Hmmm… No water buffalo.
Especially in Ballard. However, there was a Harley, making all the gorgeous sounds idling Harleys make.
“The driver’s too skinny,” said Michael from the passenger’s seat after giving him a once-over.
“And a bit young…” I said as my eyes moved up from the bike to the rider.
Sure enough… a too skinny kid in his 20’s… straddling a burbling Harley.
We watched, and listened, as we waited for the light to turn green, and as it did, the Harley roared off, blasting open the doors of the time machine and leaving me ricocheting off long forgotten memories for the rest of the trip home.
Those memories spanned well over a quarter of a century, and I bounced between lessons from Grad school, a famous photograph, my first internship, and lessons learned many, many years later.
And as the sound faded away, it got me thinking about Harley Davidson.
The real one.
But to tell you that story – I’ll need to tell you a couple of other stories to fill in some gaps.
I got my Master’s degree in photojournalism from Ohio University, and one of the things Terry Eiler drilled into us there was to go out and take risks. Go out and try new things. Do the thing no one else is doing. Do the assignment you were sent to do to be safe, but then go do a little bit more.
I learned from that. I’ve been inside the boiler of a steam locomotive (it was pretty dark). I’ve talked my way onto airplanes (it was loud), and I’ve gotten images of normal things from abnormal locations just because I asked if I could. (it was amazing).
What Terry didn’t tell us at the time is what kinds of stories we’d get on the way to taking these pictures… There’s the “running over the skunk” story, and the oh-so-memorable “the car broke down” story, things that seemed to “just happen” – and yet, took on a life of their own. Lessons to be learned, stories to be lived.
But all that was in the future still. While in class, he told us about a guy named Rob Goebel, who’d worked at this small town paper, and one hot day had gone out to see if he could find some images that could tell a story, and eventually, he found himself in a bar…
With a biker.
He knew the shot he wanted, and after as much chatting as you could do, set up the lights, got the shot he’d had in mind, and then left.
Fast forward 15 years. I’d gotten my first internship out of Grad School, for the same newspaper Rob had been working for at the time. Mike Grone was the chief photographer, and one day as we were going over assignments, he got this twinkle in his eye that I didn’t recognize until later, smiled, and said, “Hey, you ought to go see Bones.”
“Yeah, Bones and Harley – Rob Goebel took a picture of him a few years back… Won the POY (Pictures of the Year) award for it after he left.”
“Oh really?” I said as he dug through a file cabinet for a faded tearsheet of the original.
He found it, and gave me the address, and I tossed my camera bag into the back seat of my old Ford and headed on over to the little house on Wilkinson, hoping to maybe reproduce a photo of him and Harley 15 years later, kind of an “after” shot to Rob’s ”before” photo. I found the house, parked the car, and as I shut it off, looked up to see Bones himself sitting in an overstuffed recliner on what would soon be a dilapidated old front porch, idly sharpening a knife. He’d aged since the photo, but even so, there was still a presence about him that could be sensed, was almost palpable.
As I walked up and got my bearings, I realized that the thing about Bones was he wasn’t just skin and…
It was not hard imagining him riding a large motorcycle. He filled up the generously sized chair he was in, his overalls, and that presence extended out well past the porch. I took the initiative and introduced myself, not really sure of what kind of a reaction I’d get.
He sized me up, understanding pretty clearly that I wanted to take some pictures (a camera bag and two Nikons likely gave that away). He tucked his sharpening stone between his belly and his right 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 cut through the packing tape on a box. He shifted in his chair and pulled the well-rounded sharpening stone I’d seen earlier out from under his paunch and talked me through the finer points of knife sharpening.
Harley came out about then, and I tried to make something of a picture of the two of them on the porch, but things, weren’t clicking, so to speak. Bones wanted to finish the knife, and I couldn’t make any of it really work photographically, so we just chatted a little more.
That’s when I heard another screen door tentatively creak open, and I looked over to see a young lady, who I learned later was Harley’s sister, come out. I watched as she came out, and remember thinking that she looked a lot like – well, like she just didn’t seem to belong in that place… Kind of a rose among thorns, if you will. I was still trying to reconcile that when I looked back to Bones and noticed something had changed, as if a wall had suddenly fallen between us. Totally unspoken, there was a sense that I had unwittingly crossed a pretty significant line, and I could feel the temperature drop as he handed me back my knife, folded closed. I opened it, and realized that in the couple of minutes he’d had it, he’d taken it from a bits-of-tape encrusted piece of metal to a finely honed instrument that would do far more than cut through the tape of cardboard boxes. He’d left his mark on that knife, and was not so subtly letting me know what he was capable of, and even though he was showing his age at the time, still not a man to be trifled with.
So, I didn’t trifle, and realized that the picture I had gone there to recreate might not be possible, but I’d tried. I remember going back a time or two more, but that wall was still there, and over time, Bones and his family faded off the back burner of my mind.
Many years later, I got back in touch with Mike as I was writing this story about a fellow named Harry Frilling who’d lived there in Sidney. We started talking about how it had been almost a lifetime since we’d talked, and he told me about how things had changed there… We talked about Harry, and me climbing on top of the courthouse, and running over the skunk. We talked, and laughed, about me blowing through the annual film budget during my few months there.
And somehow, the subject of Bones came up.
I found that the knowledge I gained about not trifling with him was not limited to just me. In fact, Mike mentioned that had actually been a concern when President Reagan had visited Sidney on his Whistlestop Tour. He found in his files a quote from the Sidney Daily News that day:
“The neighborhood has never looked better. Citizens living near the North Street Chessie crossing have been out cleaning up in preparation for President Reagan’s visit. Much work remains to be done, but most of it is in the area of security. Just where will Bones Kah sit?“
Bones, whose political views weren’t quite in the same ballpark as President Reagan’s, was nowhere to be found. It turned out he had been taken into what they called “Protective Custody”.
Mike didn’t find it necessary to mention who was being protected from whom, or why.
The thing is, Bones, being the leader of a motorcycle gang (or club), (The Vikings) – had developed, and cultivated a reputation. There are some motorcycle clubs that cultivate a reputation of working for charity, and others that work hard at cultivating another image. I understand that there is a culture of respect, and there are rules, which, now that I think of it, are not to be trifled with.
But the reputation that goes along with being the leader of a Motorcycle Club is a bit different than the reputation one develops in being a dad who might work in an office somewhere. No matter what, it’s hard to keep work and home life separate. It’s like – well, you’ve heard of dads being late to their son’s ball game because of a meeting at work. Bones’ situation was a little different, in that the qualities that made him effective when leading a motorcycle club didn’t translate very well to having kids and being a dad.
A single example: There’s a story told by Rob (the photojournalist mentioned above) that when Bones visited the newborn Harley and mom shortly before he took the picture, Bones visited the hospital with a dead rat tied to his leg.
There was no mention of how old the rat was or how long it had been there, but the story attained almost urban legend status, and Bones wasn’t about to dissuade anyone from believing it.
The stories Rob told were told of a very few moments with Bones, and the thing is, as a photojournalist, you come into a situation, you do your best to capture or create a lasting image that tells the best story you can, and then, most often, you leave and never see the people or hear from them again.
Rob did a stunning job of capturing that image. He took a situation, a dark bar with the smell of years of spilled beer and cigarette smoke, the smell of countless Saturday night closings where many people had had too many drinks and ended the evening bowed down before or curled up around the porcelain throne in the restrooms, and invited us in with him, to share Bones’ “office.”
In doing that – that simple thing, he showed Bones in all his – well, ‘glory’ isn’t the word I’d use – but the persona of Bones that I saw on his front porch the day I was there was the same one I see in Rob’s picture.
That’s what Harley grew up with.
That’s who Harley grew up with.
Extrapolate on that.
Just a little.
Imagine what it’s like, growing up like that. I can’t. It turns out Harley left Sidney shortly after I did. I talked with him recently, and he said, and I quote, “After I left Ohio in 1987 we never looked back.”
While he has spared me the details, just that comment, and what I’d experienced myself and heard from Mike, gave me a hint of the life that had gone on long before, and well after that memorable image was taken.
Harley grew up.
Mike left the paper to pursue new things, and in one of his last assignments for the paper he was to get some photos of Bones and his two houses. In Mike’s words, “His spare house was condemned. Both houses, by all accounts, were of hoarder status. My assignment was photographing the exteriors of the side-by-side structures. Bones took great exception and offered to place the camera where there wasn’t enough ambient light to make an image. Since I finished the assignment before his offer, I bid him a fond adieu.”
And in 2008, Bones died.
I don’t have the few pictures I took of him when I was there, but given what I saw, I would understand why Harley had wanted to leave. He continued in that conversation we were having, “…but I was man enough to go see my father on his death bed and look him right in the eyes and forgive him for the abuse that he put us through. Things happen for a reason I believe and I am stronger for it.”
And, as you can imagine, it got me thinking.
Over time I realized that we learn how to be a parent from three separate but distinctly different things:
- Because of who you grew up with…
Seriously – how many times has someone said, “You’re just like your dad…”?
How many times have you heard your parents words coming out of your mouth, the very words you promised yourself you’d never say.
And yet you did.
And sometimes, those words came borne out of hard experience, and you realized, as hard as they were to hear when you were a kid, they were the right ones when you found yourself on the other side of the parental fence.
Then again, sometimes, as parents, we’ve find ourselves victims of our own past, and the world has changed faster than we’ve been able to adapt. Things that used to be acceptable aren’t anymore, and things that were totally unacceptable now have gone through a sea change of – well – change, and now they are. It brings challenges to parenting that take the most important job in the world, being a consistent role model for the next generation, and makes it even harder.
- In spite of who you grew up with…
You realized that your father was, for all intents and purposes, simply broken in ways you couldn’t fix. Over time, you realized it went back generations, and there was nothing you could do to fix that. Everyone grew up and did what they did because, well, that’s how it was done, right or wrong.
Eventually you also realized – consciously or unconsciously, that no matter what your dad did, you wouldn’t repeat it. You would find the courage he didn’t have, or the strength he didn’t have, the wisdom he didn’t have, and you would do the honorable and right thing for your family and children.
Eventually, you would come to that same decision point Harley hit while standing next to his father’s deathbed, and you forgive him for – in the case of Harley and many others, abuse. “For they knew not what they were doing.” Because that’s the way they were brought up and didn’t know any better – or in some cases, they did know what they were doing was wrong, but they did it anyway. And you realize, that while that kind of behavior is inexcusable, it does – no, it did – happen. And eventually, sometimes on a deathbed, you forgive them. Not because what they did was forgivable, but because you can’t change it… It happened. You can let it eat you alive, or you can forgive them, let it go, and allow yourself to leave the prison of those thoughts and learn from them, which takes us to the third item on the list:
- Growing up – and being totally different…
Think about this for a second: How many times do you remember seeing a situation happening in front of your eyes, and realizing you’d lived that before – only this time you had the chance to actually do something different, and break the cycle – so instead of doing things the same broken ways you’d seen them happen in your family over the years, you decided enough was enough.
And so you did something different.
And you did indeed break the cycle.
Ideally, you pick and choose the best in what your dad taught you – either by example of something they did right, or by the anti-example of what they did wrong. I remember when I was a kid, my dad was away at college, and one very rare time, he was at home when I had a band concert. I expected him to come, but he didn’t. The reason doesn’t matter… He wasn’t there. I vowed to never let that happen with my kids, and did my best to be there for them every time I could. I did something different.
…and I kept thinking…
I thought about how inadequate I felt when I held my kids for the first time… I’d forgotten entirely that humans came in such small, fragile, helpless packages. Remember – that’s not just fragile physically, they’re also fragile emotionally and spiritually. They need to be tended, carefully. Disciplined in time, yes… Broken, no. Broken children become broken adults, and the cycle of brokenness continues, doing its damage for generations to come.
I remember praying for and with them when they were little, folding their little hands in my bigger ones as I did, imagining that my hands were folded inside the even bigger Hands of my Father at the same time. It made the prayers feel more complete.
…the thoughts continued…
I remember growing as a father just as much as my kids grew at being kids. I got really, really good at making breakfast in about 90 seconds, a “Papa McMuffin” I called it.
And I made mistakes while my kids were growing up. All fathers I know have. There were times I was too drawn into work, too focused on outside things, too lenient with them in some areas, too strict in others. Times I wish I could go back and fix, but I can’t, so I do my best now, in the only moment I can change.
I went back in my mind to the concert dad missed, and how all the times he’d been away affected me, and while the child in me still wept for those lost times, the adult in me realized that Harley was right, and I came to the same conclusion: Forgiving my father – our fathers, for the mistakes they made was the only option that made sense. That doesn’t mean it has to happen immediately, and it doesn’t mean it was or is easy.
But given the options, learning from him, his successes, his failures, and picking and choosing the right ones, and working with those as my base gave me something greater than zero to start from, but there was one thing more.
I’d repeated a lot of those mistakes that have been made through the years, through the generations. It took some time to realize they were there, and I’m still working on correcting them. Some will take a long time, and in my observations with other dads, it seems that one of the first people we need to be able to forgive is ourselves.
And that’s hard.
But it’s the first step.
So… call your dad – if you can. Wish him Happy Father’s day, if you can, if you’re reading this on Father’s day (as I’m writing it), and then, if you can, take a deep breath and forgive him.
Learn from the mistakes of the past, but don’t repeat them.
The story above, as all stories on this blog are, is true.
I have several people to thank for their help in it. Chronologically, they’d be:
Terry Eiler, former director of VisCom, Ohio University – who encouraged me to go out and shoot – and take risks.
Mike Grone – former Chief photographer of the Sidney Daily News, who actually had me take those risks.
Rob Goebel, now of the Indy Star newspaper, who graciously allowed me the use of the photo, and
Harley himself, who in his simple words, taught me so much, and who allowed and encouraged me to write the story about his famous, award winning baby picture that had been taken in a bar, with a biker (Bones), by a guy (Rob) whose photos I’d admired and skills I was trying to emulate, all because my instructor (Terry) in grad school told a story and sent me out there so that my boss (Mike) could grin and send me off on a lesson I’d suddenly find myself remembering when sitting at a traffic light in Seattle, with my son, next to the Harley that sent me ricocheting back through my time machine to tell you this story…
Take care out there, folks.
Know that out there – every image you see -whether it’s an award winning photo, or a glimpse into someone’s life, has a story behind it.
This was one of them.
I saw an article awhile back in the Sidney Daily News about expanding the airport there, and it made me think of the last time I’d been out there.
It was – wow – I just did the math and it was half my lifetime ago… I was working as a photojournalist intern for the Sidney Daily News at the time, and got a call on the pager we had from the Sheriff’s department that there had been a plane crash at the airport. That was definitely news. At that time, I hadn’t yet been to the airport, so wasn’t sure what to expect.
The only other situation I’d seen like that was about 9 years earlier (May of 1978) of an F-106 crash where the pilot had lost an engine on takeoff, (note: the F-106 only has one engine, so this was immediately an issue), tried to steer the plane away from populated areas, which is hard to do when you’re taking off north from McChord AFB, in Tacoma, Washington. There are no unpopulated areas there, and the pilot stayed with the plane until he was sure it wouldn’t hurt anyone on the ground, then ejected. The plane, now pilotless, turned around and crashed into a pond in the center of an apartment complex just off the base. The pilot’s parachute opened literally just before he landed in the middle of an intersection, and astonishingly, no one was hurt. I got there soon after it happened, had a camera with me, but the pictures I got weren’t really much to see. The plane was close to vaporized, so it was hard to tell what you were even looking at. Some of the fuel in the plane burned, but the pilot, as I said, had been able to get out, and none of the three hundred people in the complex were even hurt.
I was hoping for something similar as I raced toward the airport in Sidney; that is, no one being hurt. But, being a photojournalist, I was simultaneously hoping for some dramatic images.
I got there, and there was hardly any evidence of anything. No lights, no sirens, no flaming wreckage, no plume of smoke, no Hollywood stunt doubles, nothing. I wandered into the lobby they had there for passengers and identified myself and asked about the airplane crash. Someone pointed me out to the runway, where I could now see a rudder and tail sticking up at an odd angle.
No one stopped me or even asked me what I was doing, they just let me go, so I walked out there and saw the result of not so much a crash, but a pretty hard landing.
I’ve been through a few hard landings. I’ve heard that a landing is simply a mid-air collision with a planet. I can see that, but the goal is to be a little more gentle. In fact, the desired way to land is to get the plane to stop flying just a little bit above the runway. I was once in a DC-8 that made a stop in Iceland where we were told the landing might be rough because of winds gusting up to 50 mph. And sure enough, the pilot flew the approach perfectly, then stalled the plane about 20 feet off the runway so hard we thought we’d see the landing gear come through the wings. The wings bent down so far we thought the engines would hit, then flapped up, catapulting the plane back into the air three times before it finally stayed on the ground for good. Hard as that was on our backs, we were willing to forgive him for that because of the winds, even though it was more of a controlled crash than a landing, but when he did the same thing when we landed at Frankfurt, where the wind was about 44 mph slower, everyone but the chiropractors among the passengers were a bit annoyed. So hard landings are just that… Hard on the plane, hard on the passengers.
Well, it turned out the pilot in Sidney was a student, and had been on her final cross country flight. From what I was able to gather, this landing started out with a fine approach, but then ended up like that DC-8 landing, with the plane stalling out several feet above the runway, and then, instead of doing the desired gentle landing onto said runway, she smacked down into it, which, in the case of this plane, collapsed the nose gear, and the plane skidded on its nose and main gear off into the grass.
At one level I was very glad she was okay. At another level, I was trying to figure out what I could do with the picture. I’d walked around the crash site, gotten close enough to touch the plane, and had snapped a couple of the safe “I was there and had film in my camera” shots, just in case I could get nothing else. I learned early on that it’s important to get “the picture” that they can publish, and then get creative. That gave my editors a choice, depending on the other news of the day, which one to use, and which one might fit on the page. I wasn’t excited about the safe shot, I mean, I had it, which was good, but I decided to go a little further, and thought maybe contrasting this broken airplane with one that was functioning as expected would help bring things into a little better focus, so to speak.
So I checked with the FBO (Fixed Base Operator – the people running the airport) who had just heard over the radio that there were some investigators coming to, well, investigate the crash within about 20 minutes. Ideally, they’d be coming in that functioning airplane I was hoping for, and when I heard them on the radio on final approach, I went out to the runway to see what I could see and get into position for a shot that might be better than the other options.
I knew that by the time the plane landed and was taxiing toward me, its engine would be idling around 1,000 RPM or less, so chose 1/250th of a second for the shutter speed. That was enough to keep any camera shake that would be magnified by the long telephoto lens down, and at the same time, be open long enough to blur the propeller blades a bit, showing some motion.
Then I just found what should be the right spot and waited.
I saw them land, and saw I was in the right spot, and just waited as they came by. I knew I had the shot, and proudly developed the film, marking the negative by using a paper hole punch and putting a notch in the edge of the film you could feel it and find it easily in the darkroom later for printing.
I left that night, knowing I’d gotten both the safe shot, and the good shot, and hoped they’d pick my favorite, but other news got in the way, and the shape of the good shot wasn’t what they could use, so it was good that I’d taken the safe shot, which they used. The next afternoon, I saw my picture had made page one, which was good, here’s what it looked like:
But it wasn’t the shot I’d hoped they’d use. I was frustrated at the time, because I’d done something so much better, and they didn’t publish it. I didn’t know the big picture, I just knew I wasn’t seeing mine.
And it got me thinking…
I learned about a lot more than photojournalism that day. I learned, that sometimes, doing your job, and doing your best, may not be the same thing. Over time, I started to understand the bigger lesson there. You may do something at work, or something in your personal life that you really feel passionate about, and you think you’ve done a good job, but someone else is making decisions that affect you and whether your work gets recognized, or even seen. Sometimes you can’t change that, and it’s best to learn from it, let the frustration go, and move on.
The thing is, I still remember the days at the Sidney Daily News with fondness, full of lessons far more valuable than any tuition could ever cover, full of people I might see once, or who I might still keep in touch with years later, and full of adventures that still make me smile.
I mean, think about it – I was driving around and taking pictures that told stories, and the pictures were seen by thousands of people every day. I got to do things most people never get to do until they’re retired, which was the ability to go where I wanted to go, hang out and chat with interesting folks, and tell the stories of their lives.
And I was getting paid to do it!
How cool is that?
Oh – the picture that didn’t get published?
I printed a copy for myself.
Just to prove to myself that I was there, and that I had film in the camera…
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 story “Have 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 called “Point 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.
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 Cleo. I 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 coffee… which, 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
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,
One of the things about small towns in West Central Ohio is that they often have their own radio stations. Sidney was no different, and had a little radio station that played an astonishing variety of what the people in that area needed. You got the farm report, you got yard sale advertisements, you got the sports all the kids in the area did, and you got music.
It was a simple radio station, meaning it had exactly what it needed and no more. In this case, at that time, that meant a mike, a transmitter, a couple of turntables, and a supply of records (yes, vinyl). I’d already had one experience in shooting someone with turntables, and by now the car had aired itself out, which was very good.
Now one of the things I did in my job as a photojournalist was to be the eyes of the county I worked and lived in, and it pretty much gave me free rein to go anywhere I wanted, within reason.
One day I was driving past the radio station, which I had playing in the car, and figured, simply, “How hard can it be?”…to talk my way into a radio station and take pictures, in the studio, that was on the air at the time.
Questions like that have never stopped me, much less slowed me down. I barely had time to put the blinker on before I pulled into the parking lot, where was only one other car. I wandered in with my cameras clattering against each other and the camera bag slung over my right shoulder.
The speakers in what could have been considered the lobby were playing what the DJ was saying, and he waved me to come on in as he put on a song and swung the mike out of the way.
He stood up, leaned over the console and shook my hand as I introduced myself, and we chatted for a bit before he stole a quick glance at the clock and asked me to hang on a second, he had to do the weather report.
He glanced out the window, which was, mind you, open, and told all of Shelby County that the weather was clear and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen. I’d never, ever heard such an accurate, and simple, weather report, but there wasn’t one thing wrong with it. I’d been in studios before, but they were usually isolated beyond comprehension. To have a window in this one, that opened, mind you, blew me away.
We talked for a bit, and I got another shot of someone with turntables (but better this time than in the other story) and he told me about how he’d almost gotten fired one time for playing In A Gadda Da Vida (the full length version) one evening just before going off the air, and how much fun the job could be when you just let it be fun.
After that, we’d run into each other every now and again, and I’d stop by the station between assignments just to say hi, often late at night when he wasn’t too busy, and he was always glad to see me, and was often the only one there. I could sense that there was a loneliness inside that was covered up by a gregarious persona on the air, and the times I stopped by were times he could “let his hair down” so to speak. We both had a lot of fun just chatting on those evenings.
And I noticed that Kodachrome and Blue Moon were played a little more often after that.
I’d be going off to shoot something in a nearby town, and while I was driving there, it was nice to hear a friendly voice from the radio, “and up next, for our photographer from the Sidney Daily News on his way to shoot another assignment you’ll see soon enough, is a song I’m sure he, and you, will appreciate.” – and out would waft “Kodachrome”.
And it got me thinking…
He and I both worked for and with the public, but we did it, for the most part, alone, and even though many other people heard it over the airwaves, when I heard that voice come out of the radio, it was one lonely person talking to another one, letting him know that somewhere, someone cared, and wanted to share a smile in a language both people understood.
And in that 1979 Ford Fairmont, driving alone on a dark country road to my next assignment, I did smile.
The other day my son and I had to make a quick stop on our way home from his class, and as we got out of the car, we smelled something a little foreign to the city we live in, and it reminded me of a time I’d smelled that smell before getting out of a car, but back then it was a little stronger. I hadn’t thought about it in years, and it made me smile, so I told my son a story.
The story took me back to a time when I was much younger, on my first internship as a photojournalist, and I was assigned to shoot some Dee Jay named “Señor Frog” at some club I’d never heard of for an article someone was writing for the paper.
I had no idea what to expect, and to be honest a “club” and Sidney, Ohio, weren’t really two things I’d think about in the same sentence, but that’s what the assignment was, and as newspaper photo assignments go, it was pretty simple.
Go find pictures.
Come back with pictures that tell a story.
So as I was going, driving west down an arrow straight west Central Ohio road in the early evening, I was wondering what on earth I was supposed to do with this assignment.
And while I was wondering, and while my mind was wandering, kind of squinting into the sun but also driving on autopilot a little, for a split second I noticed a little black and white blur dart out in front of me, followed instantly by a couple of thumps…
…and in the briefest of moments that I could see after that, I checked the rear view mirror to see the black and white blur tumble to a stop in the middle of my lane. I could swear it had a little green cloud wafting over it, because immediately after that, almost simultaneously, the most powerful, eye-watering, open-all-the-windows-RIGHT-NOW, smell of exploded skunk filled the car in ways it had never, ever been filled before.
I slowed down, wiped my eyes, and overshot my turn. Somehow I managed to get the car turned around and headed in the right direction, but had to drive through my own wake. It was like driving through teargas.
I found and made the turn, found the club, which thankfully had a large gravel parking lot, and parked as far away from the building as I could. Downwind, so the “green haze” emanating from the car wafted over the fields away from the club, not toward it.
This was a good thing.
I got out as fast as I could, grabbed my cameras and gear, and headed into this “club”. Turned out it was a bar with a dance floor, a big sound system, and a couple of turntables in an elevated booth kind of thing, where a middle aged balding fellow was flinging vinyl platters and playing music.
That, apparently, was Señor Frog.
So I did what I could, literally shooting in the dark, and got as interesting a shot as I could of a guy playing records in a very dark room, and then, in a moment of quiet between songs, I realized that something had followed me into the club.
The green haze…
I realized that the space around me was not filled with people. And while they were polite, they weren’t getting any closer to me than they had to. I only later concluded that the wide berth they were giving me wasn’t out of their respect for my photographic skills. It was out of respect for their own olfactory senses. It didn’t take long before I realized I wasn’t going to get any better pictures than what I had, and I wasn’t making Señor Frog’s life any easier by being that close to him, so I chose that time to make my exit.
About that time, a couple of attractive young ladies around my age did the same thing. They headed out just before me, and I, living and for the most part, working, alone, found myself thinking how nice it would be to have someone to just chat with that wasn’t in some way associated with the newspaper or photography. I mean, my name was everywhere, every day. My pictures were seen by thousands of people, every day, but while some thought of it as a glamorous profession, as a photographer, I was there pretty much by myself. It was often pretty lonely, so when I saw a little chance for some possible conversation, I walked a little faster to try to catch up to the young ladies to say something, anything, really.
They didn’t see me and kept walking, and to my dismay, headed in the general direction of my car…
…which was when the wind shifted, the ‘green haze’ wafting toward the fields from the car started wafting toward the two young ladies.
I stopped, and heard one of them almost gag. “WHAT is that awful smell?”
I walked in another direction…
Any other direction.
I tried to look as if I didn’t belong to the car with the cloud around it.
I tied my shoes.
I adjusted my cameras.
I killed time for what seemed like an eternity, and they left.
And then, I had to slice my way through the smell to get to the car, and actually get in the car.
I started it up, turned the fan on high – (realizing very quickly that that was a mistake) – shut it off, opened all the windows, and drove off, leaving the green cloud behind me, but still, it was awful. I wondered if I’d have to wash the car in tomato juice to get rid of the smell, but I knew I couldn’t afford the gallons of it that I’d need, and the acid rain the car had already been subjected to made the paint as smooth as sandpaper to start with. The acid in the tomato juice would just make that worse.
I drove back to the paper, with my head out the driver’s window like a dog, barely able to see because my eyes were watering from both the smell and the wind, but I was able to breathe at least.
Later, as I took care of things in the darkroom, I wondered what might have happened had I not had that encounter with the skunk, but as it was, the only thing that developed that evening was film.
We were almost home when I got done telling my son that story, and we both laughed. Me at the long buried memories a smell can bring back, and him at yet another of his dad’s adventures from before he was born…
© Tom Roush, 2012
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:
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.
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.
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)…
…and how it appeared in the paper the next day.
Have you ever come up with a snappy answer to a question that you just couldn’t get out of your mouth in 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
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…
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!
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.