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The other day the guy getting on the bus ahead of me was a quarter short because the fare had gone up.

A quarter for him made all the difference for that day.

A quarter for me was what I’d found on the sidewalk the day before.

So I put a quarter in.

And made his day.

Made mine, too.

===

And it got me thinking, later…

I didn’t have to do anything grand – I just had to do *something* – and often, we have the grandest intentions, the grandest hopes, the grandest dreams.  We’ll go for the best vacation, the best night out, the best…

… whatever.

Folks, today’s all you’ve got.

I can tell you from some pretty deep personal experience that we’re not guaranteed tomorrow.

Heck, we’re not guaranteed our next breath, so do what you can for and with your family, whether they be family by blood or by choice… Doesn’t matter.

And gosh, if it means you don’t do the grandest vacation but spend an evening playing board games with your kids, do that.

If it means having macaroni and cheese and hot dogs, but having it with your family around the dinner table, then do that.

And do it today.

Not “someday” –

Because “Someday” isn’t a day you’ll find on the calendar…

Because “Someday” isn’t a day of the week…

And because “Someday” never comes.

==

and… a side note.

I’m writing this for some rather personal reasons.  I’ve been to a few more funerals recently than I really want to go to.  I’m going to one in two days where the promise of “Getting together someday” was said back in January of this year, and that’s a Someday I’ll never get back.

When you go to things like this, you realize that there was a last hug that you didn’t notice.  There was a last glance you didn’t catch, and maybe, just maybe, there was a final goodbye that slipped past you.

And when you notice that that happened, it hurts, and you can’t go back to fix it.

So…

I’m not writing this stuff because I know how to do it better.  I’m often writing this stuff simply because I’ve made the mistake, whatever it is, and hope that in seeing my mistake, written the way that I’ve written it, encourages you to go out and not make that same mistake.

So go out there and don’t let the moment slip by.

Go do something for someone and make their day, even if it’s by doing something as simple slipping a quarter you found into the bus fare box for them.

Take care out there.


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

First the photo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well – it’s a duck.

And a boat.

And the guys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So…

Take the chance.

You might make a difference in someone’s life.

And it might be your own.

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

So take care out there, folks.

Be safe…

Love each other while you can.

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

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

The Duck… (click on it to make it bigger)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.       From the story: “Cat Piss and Asphalt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had to be harder than this…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yup… I did that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearing that from anyone is a little weird.

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

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

Actually, in that order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thump.  Thump… ThumpThumpThumpThump!

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

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

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

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

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

81. Taking risks…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care & God bless,

Tom


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.

He asked me if I had any favorite songs, and I had to admit that I really, really liked “Blue Moon” by the Marcels and Kodachrome, by Paul Simon.

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.


For some time, I used to exchange notes with my pastor about the little ‘aha’ moments I’d had during some of his sermons.  I would always title these emails, “The view from the Balcony” because that’s where I sit when I’m in church.  I confused him once when I sent him this story, with the subject line

“The view from the parking lot…”

But it worked, and he liked it.  By way of intro, this happened a few years ago (2009) and I thought I’d share.  After writing it I realized it’s a long setup to something that happened in the blink of an eye…

So that said, bear with me.

I had to run up to Safeway near our house the other evening to get some groceries, and realized two very important things.

1. It was February.

2. That meant Girl Scout cookies.

Now for anyone who hasn’t had one of their “Samoas” or a “Thin Mint” – I have to say, you’re missing something….

The Samoas…

<note: I originally had called the cookies “Samoans” – but was informed of the following by a friend:

“Samoans are a lovely, typically dark skinned, often hefty people indigenous to the island of Samoa. They love life, dance, family etc. Samoas, on the other hand, are a Girl Scout cookie, chocolate drizzled onto a caramel coconut yumminess. Very popular. “

I chuckled as I tried to imagine a box of Samoans (which might end up requiring a rather large box) … So I had to do a little editing…

We now return you to your story, already in progress…>

…smooth chocolate, delicate coconut, and all on a donut shaped cookie holding everything together.  The mixture of the flavors, textures, and smells is – as my sister says, “to die for”.  (Note: They’re my wife and son’s favorites, which is why they disappear so fast.  In fact, I had precisely one of these, the rest disappeared.  Likely into that 18 year old maw that is my beloved son, Michael)

The Thin Mints…

My daughter likes those best.  There’s a little cookie with some kind of minty frosting on it, which is covered in chocolate.

Again, the Chocolate on the outside gives way to the sharp minty crunch of the cookie on the inside.

So why am I telling you this?

Well, it’s been said that Girl Scout cookies are unhealthy.  My feeling is that for the one time that they come out a year, I’m really okay splurging and doing something slightly unhealthy that brings joy and happiness to someone – and I’m not necessarily referring to the Girl Scouts.

Wait – that’s where we came in… The Girl Scouts.

So as I walked into the store – there they were, standing guard.  I told them that I’d be right back to buy some – but by the time I got back, they were gone.

I headed out to the parking lot with my groceries, and there they were – loading up the car.  I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask, “Hey, can I still buy cookies?”

The little girl looked at her mom, and they agreed.  I knew I wanted the Samoas – and called my wife real quick and told her I had a box of the Samoas and did she want anything else? (she did – the thin mints, for our daughter).  So I pulled a ten dollar bill out of my pocket and asked for the two boxes, which came to 8.00.

The young Girl Scout had been taught well.

“Would you like change?”

And there was a part of me that, for the blink of an eye, kind of lost it.

Would I like change…

Would I like CHANGE?

What kind of question was that?

It’s my money.

I worked for it.

I earned it.

I’m exchanging the money I earned for a product…

I was not interested in a little Girl Scout wanting to take my money from me.

So, politely, I said, “Yes, I’d like my change.”

And she went to her mom, and got the two dollars in change, and in that next blink of an eye, I knew what needed to be done…

She gave me my change back, and once it was in my hand, and had left hers, once she had given it up completely, I gave it back.  “Here, this is a tip.  Keep it. Thank you very much.”

And the look in her eye told me more than I have words to write.

From her point of view: She wanted the money – and letting go of it, risking not only losing control of the money she had in her hand, but actually risking losing it, was hard, but it was what she needed to do – the fact was, she wasn’t “taking” my money, she’d asked if I wanted all of the change I had coming to me.

From my, (at that point, reactive, cold hearted) point of view: It was my money, and given that, it was my option to give the money away or not.

But there was another side of me – not so cold hearted – that was there almost instantly.  It’s like electricity finally got to the light bulb, and it went on… Brightly.

See, I would much, much, much rather give something away than have it taken from me.

So when she gave it back, she gave me the opportunity to give.

And it got me thinking…

How many times do we not give God what is rightfully His? how many times do we hold onto something because, like a two year old (could you just see the two year old tantrum I had going on in my head when she asked if I wanted change?), or like the seagulls in “Finding Nemo”, the only thing we can think is that “It’s MINE!”

And how many times would God just Love to give us something that was His – if only we’d let Him do it?

Think about it, how many times have we not gotten the “tip” He’d be so willing to give us?

All of these thoughts went through my head in the split second as our eyes met.

And so…

God speaks to me – in the balcony at church, and sometimes in Safeway parking lots in Ballard.

And occasionally I hear Him.


Before I started the blog, (under duress, I might add), I was writing stories just the same.  There’s been so much that happened in the last few weeks that has just knocked my socks off, and some stories will come out of all that, but they need to simmer for a bit.  As part of that, I’ve been trying to do some cleaning, and, as it turns out, in my cleaning out some digital lint, I found a story I’d written almost 9 years ago.  That said, I’ve taken another look at it and decided it might be fun to get it out here for you all to see.  With that, let’s go on a road trip, shall we?

Work had been getting busier and busier, and I was really wiped.
I’d had to get about a week’s worth of work done in the first 3 days of the week, and needed a break.

Turns out my friend Dave had an Improv Comedy thing in Portland Friday night.

Michael had Friday off.

Hmmm.

It didn’t take me a whole lot of time to figure out that getting our collective butts out of Dodge would be a good thing.

I got Friday off.

We had originally planned on Cindy coming along for this, but she had to work, so Michael and I went by ourselves.

We’d taken the Saab up to “Andy’s Cabin” last week, (it’s a wide spot in one of the forest service roads just off Highway 97 near Liberty, Washington.  Used to have a cabin on it, belonged to a guy from the Scout Troop named Andy.  Andy’s long passed on, and the cabin burned down decades ago, but it’s still called “Andy’s Cabin” – yeah, go figure.  But tradition is tradition.) …and honestly, I needed something a little different than the Saab for this trip. I needed something for me.  Not that I didn’t trust the Saab. It ran beautifully, got 32 mpg on the trip. I just didn’t have the time to risk if something went wrong, so I decided to rent a car and got a pretty decent rate on a little red ford sedan. We caught a bus up to Hertz and Michael was kind of amazed that we were simply walking out of the house to go out of state overnight with nothing but a duffel bag.

Oh, I’d given him my old leather jacket, and he found the hat he had in the play “Barnum” last year – that, some Jeans, and some sunglasses just made the outfit.

He was working on his “Cool” persona.

The “Cool” Persona

Once we got the car, as you can see, it was awfully hard to get Michael to actually ride in the thing.

Yeah, it was hard to get him to ride in the car.

Last time we did a road trip, we went to California, and Michael ended up listening to “Walk Like an Egyptian” about a zillion times on not only the way down, but back.  It became, we realized later, the ‘theme song’ if you will, of that trip.

We’d made some progress down toward Roy (the plan was to stop in Roy, Hook Mom’s new computer monitor up and visit with her and our friends Lee and Lyndy a little bit and then head down toward Portland.

As we drove down Michael, with the hat and glasses, felt he looked like a movie talent scout. We were listening to one of the CD’s – and came upon the theme song from the Davy Crockett show… Remember that one?

“Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree,
Kilt him a bar, when he was only three!
(all together now)

Daveyyyyy, Daaaaaaaavey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier!”

I’m singing this thing at the top of my lungs, and Michael’s not buying it. I’m
getting way too weird for him. He’s used to me in my “responsible father” mode
as opposed to getting a little weird mode…

So… I invited him to sing along.

He didn’t want to.
I invited him again…
He emphatically didn’t want to.
I told him I’d keep playing it until he sang along and had fun doing it.
He made it quite clear that singing that song was not anywhere near the top
of his list of priorities.

Yup, just like peas and lima beans

I felt like I was watching a kid being told to eat peas for dinner.
Eventually, he did sing along. It was fun.

So we did that, got down to mom’s, and she’d made chicken and dumplings, they were SO good. Michael, as usual, needed to put some pepper on his stuff. The lid of the pepper shaker was a little loose, and he ended up with a little more than he was planning on.

Really, he likes pepper. Just not this much.

I hooked mom’s new monitor up and put her old desktop on it – it was nice to see that again (it’s the picture of Paddington Station that Corbis has, from the Windows 98 plus pack, with the travel theme.) –

It was the first thing we kind of ‘got back’ since her car was stolen. (so was the computer in it, but that’s another story)…

After lunch, Mom and Michael and Lyndy went out to feed the horses, and tried to get Michael to feed them, too. He kept pulling his hand away as soon as he felt their lips trying to nibble at the apple. You can see Lyndy holding his hand here in the first picture,

Lyndy, Michael, Mom, and apples

…trying to keep it there for the horse. Problem was, he kept seeing those big teeth and thought he was going to get bitten.

The horses, after nibbling on apples

He actually had good reason to think that.

Some time back we were walking through a field on the way back from Grandma Danny’s and there was this horse that first looked like it was being friendly, then it tried to take a bite out of Michael’s hat (actually the one in the picture), and then it nudged him pretty good. It became obvious the horse wasn’t nibbling in a friendly way, so I told Michael to go get through the fence while I took care of the horse.

The horse tried to nibble on me, so I smacked the crap out of it every time it did, and got to the gate as fast as I could, just barely making it over before I got the butt of my jeans ripped out by the dang thing. At first I thought I was imagining things, but then later realized, while I was looking at one of the 4 x 4 fenceposts that was barely holding up the gate I’d climbed over and that the horse was on the other side of, that I wasn’t imagining anything.

The fencepost looked like an apple core – the horse had eaten it all off.

It was very, very strange.

Then I looked a little closer still and realized the fencepost the horse had been nibbling on was pressure treated lumber.  I don’t know what all chemicals they put in pressure treated lumber, but I do remember them being rather poisonous, so I can’t imagine it did good things for the horse, and I think the horse was a little crazy from it. So that’s why Michael wasn’t all that interested in horses nibbling anywhere near him.

He ended up feeding one of the horses one apple, and that was enough.  But by that time, it was time to go, so I had Michael get in the car.

Michael decided he wanted the left seat.

As you can see, it was again, awfully difficult getting him to get ready to leave.

We waved goodbye to Mom and Lyndy, who waved back, thanked them both for a delicious meal…

One last wave to Mom & Lyndy, then we were off

…and we hit the gas, cranked up the tunes, and off we went.

Oh, the tunes…

We thought about all the times we’d seen, rather, heard people with stereos thumping wondering what the heck they were listening to. We waited till we were well away from civilization before cranking it up too loud, and when we did, we realized that we might be hurting our ears a bit. So, um, we put earplugs in.

And turned it up more.

So imagine two guys in a red Mustang, blasting down the freeway, with earplugs in, windows down, and the music blasting so loud you could feel it.

Now imagine them doing it to this song.

Yup… Michael and me.

We could not only hear the music, but feel it! It was great.

I have no idea how many times we listened to it, and how many times we just played it again and again and again – with no breaks, but we never got tired of it.

And the music we were listening to?  “Under the Sea” (if you didn’t click on the link above, we had a Disney CD with us)

Here Michael’s shucking and jiving to…

Each Little Clam here…

“Each little clam here
Know how to jam here

Each little slug here
Cutting a rug here

Each little snail here
Know how to wail here

That’s why it’s hotter
Under the water

… and so on…

After several hours of driving, (and listening to the song, over and over and over) we got there, with just enough time to get a place to stay almost within spitting distance (across the parking lot) from the church it was at. The improv was part of a conference in Drama in the Ministry.  It was very eye opening, how sometimes telling a 5 minute story, a parable, if you will, can hit home a lot harder than a one hour sermon.

It was a wonderful experience.

After that was the improv, which the pictures I took simply don’t do justice to.

There was a party game, in which people had to be some sort of church member, and also have a strange personality trait.

Some of them:

  • The sound man, who’s deaf.
  • A youth pastor who loved to dance,
  • A kleptomaniac pastor’s wife, and so on.

Then there was the Alphabet game, where you were given two characters (mother/daughter, etc…) in a situation – and they had to start the first sentence with a letter picked out by members of the audience, then each subsequent sentence with the next letter. That ended up being a lot of fun. One of the most challenging ones was with one character being a mortician and the other being his prospective client.

Then there was the game that every sentence had to be a question – or maybe they combined the two. It was just a lot of laughter that made for a lot, a lot of fun.

The one that was literally the killer was when they played “chain murder” – kind
of like clue  where you try to solve a murder, but with a couple of twists:

    • There are 4 people.
    • Three of them leave, the last one is told, by the audience, the who/where/what of the murder.
    • The other players enter the room, one at a time, and the first person tries to get them to figure it out.
    • With pantomime, and gibberish.  No words.

As an example, the first one ended up being

A Fireman,
In a Broom closet,
With the little things you stick into the end of an ear of corn to hold it because it’s too hot.

One person brought the house down on that one as the person was pantomiming the fireman and the broom closet.  He’d guessed, “A fireman… at the Gates of Mordor?”

The second one was:

The Good Humor man,
In the belly of a whale,
With a waffle iron.

They got worse from there.

When it was over, Michael and I kidnapped Dave, but he had to be the navigator and tell us where we were kidnapping him to since we only had directions to the church and the hotel right next door. It ended up being a Shari’s Restaurant, where we tried really hard to order something.

However, we soon realized that at 11:00 at night, we were actually more in the mood for breakfast than anything else, so we tried to order, and somehow “scrambled toast” came out. We first confused the waiter so much that he ended up bringing Dave an extra hot cocoa –

Our goofing off got David an extra hot chocolate

which ended up being part of many jokes. Then the waiter got into the “scrambled toast” bit and we just went off, kind of like the “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch, complete with British accents and everything…

“Oh, I remember having scrambled toast when I was a boy…

“Too bad they don’t make the toast scramblers anymore”

“Yeah, that’s a shame… They stopped making them in the ’40’s, you know, had to take the factories and change them over to making machine guns for the war effort.”

— and it went on…

Ration cards,

Grampa remembering when they had to scramble toast by hand.

Which led to “When I was a boy…” stories, like…

Walking to school in the winter…

…in 10 feet of snow…

Up Hill…

Both ways…

I had to staple barbed wire to my feet to get traction…

to which David countered, “You were lucky, I had to use railroad spikes!”

Michael could hardly keep his food down he was laughing so hard.  Come to think of it, we were, too.

We finally realized we needed to call it a night, and as we’re heading out, I realized I wanted to take one picture of David and Michael, so I asked them to pose in front of the Shari’s sign.

They posed.

David and Michael posing for the picture

I suggested that maybe, just MAYBE, it might be better if we were to get their faces into the picture… Right about that time we were trying to figure out what we’d had, since it wasn’t Breakfast, nor was it Lunch, and it most certainly wasn’t dinner. We decided it was “Brupper” – and here we have Michael and David, Brupping in front of the Shari’s restaurant.

Michael and David, Brupping

We went back, and got David to his car and headed home. Michael and I totally crashed and slept the sleep of the dead — and the next morning managed to drag our butts out of bed, and got out of our room around 11:00 and had to tear out of there (Portland) in time to get to Michael’s soccer game (in Seattle) at 1:00. (I thought the game was at 1:30). Needless to say, the trip was a fast one for me, and a semi-conscious one for Michael.

Michael, holding down the passenger’s seat.

A little different than the trip down, but it worked.

We made it to the soccer game, lost, Michael messed around with some of the other kids after the game for a bit,

Michael showing Brian that He Who Has The Longest Arms wins.

…then we took the car up to the rental place, where we cleaned it out, dropped it off, and ran to the bus stop, just in time to have the bus meet us as it pulled out.

We rode the bus home, and since we’d been listening to “Under the Sea” so much, Michael wondered if we had the video. He found it, we did, and he wanted to watch it, and sing with it as the movie played. We both started, and got a few bars into it and then both of us just let it go. Neither one of us remembered anything from those few bars until Ariel has legs (about 40 minutes later, I think.)

All in all, it was a fast, short, weekend (actually, now that I think about it, it was less than 24 hours total), but well, well worth it.

October 3-4, 2003

I don’t know if there’s a moral to the story, other than “Spend time, enjoy the time you have with your kids while you have them, it goes by so quickly.”

Seriously – take the risk and do something weird with them.

Make memories with them.

Hug them.

Sing silly songs with them.

Laugh with them.

Above all else, love them.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I did something dangerous.

I started wondering…

I wondered what the view from up there was like…

And then I wondered how I could get up there…

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

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

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

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

Somehow bringing the bag up there onto the scaffolding was deemed, without any words needing to be spoken, a bad idea.  So I set it down, put the 24mm wide angle lens on the F-3, slung it over my shoulder, and carefully climbed up the scaffolding. I climbed on top of the topmost section so I could look down and see him, my goal being to see – and thus tell a story – that no one else could see.  I sat on the very top of the scaffolding, wrapped my right leg around the vertical part of the support, leaned back, (yes, the scaffolding leaned with me, but not by much) composed the frame so the horizon was at the top, then told the fellow to just keep working as he could (as I write this I still can’t believe I did that – there was nothing but air between me and the roof about 30 feet below, and had I slipped, I would have rolled down, then off the roof and fallen another 40 feet or so before becoming one with the pavement.

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

But I didn’t take that first shot.

I wondered, “What if?”

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

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

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

But I didn’t.

I asked.

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

And stand out – literally above the crowd.

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

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

You can try something else then.

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

So…

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

And don’t forget, it’s okay to ask.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

But back to that graduation thing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked about the requirements.

“You need to have a camera.”

“I don’t have one.”

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

“You need to have darkroom experience.”

“What’s a darkroom?”

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

And thus started my ‘career’ in photography.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm…. Unacceptable.

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

Nothing.

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

Also unacceptable.

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

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

“What would the faculty *not* expect?”

“What would the students *not* expect?”

“What would the audience *not* expect?”

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

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

I didn’t have to ponder long.

If carrying the camera bag across the stage was out…

And carrying nothing across the stage was out…

What about…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stunned Silence.

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

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

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

Heh…

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

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

==

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

“Was that your brother who shot graduation?”

“He didn’t shoot it, he graduated.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve barely learned to ask the questions.

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

I took risks.

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

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

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

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

And it was fun.

Would I put all that hard work into it again?

In a heartbeat.

Looking back on it all now…

Did life go the way I’d planned?

Nope.  Not even close.

Would I change anything, looking back on it now?

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

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

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

That’s called life…

Remember the good.

Learn from the bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So… learn what you can.

Learn from those mistakes.

Forgive yourself for making them.

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

Take care folks…


So based on Greg’s comment on last week’s story about me ‘embellishing’ things – I just had to put this story up.  It happened in August of 2010, and like a lot of my stories – it started out as an email to a friend, in this case, one who’d told me to go out and do something fun that weekend.

It involved Greg.

And he gave me permission (well, actually, told me I had to) write this story.

So without too terribly much editing, here’s the story/note I wrote to my friend who wanted me to go do something fun, and come back with pictures to prove it…

==

I had a fun morning – went to see the Blue Angels down at the Museum of Flight.

I chatted with my buddy Greg for a few hours in the parking lot of the Museum until the coffee we’d drunk earlier at Randy’s needed a place to go…

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Greg and I had been sitting in my ’68 Saab, sharing stories, and watching the planes at Boeing Field.  One of the stories involved something that had actually happened about 50 feet from where we were sitting right then, it was a story of me talking my way onto the only flying B-29 in the world, but before that, successfully badgering a newspaper photo editor I didn’t know,

…for a paper I’d never seen,

…into holding space on the front page

…for a picture I hadn’t taken yet,

…from a plane I had never been on,

…and was quite literally trying to talk my way onto.

We laughed, and Greg kept talking about my golden tongue and how I could talk my way into anything – using that B-29 as an example.  I needed the laughter.  I’d been feeling a little down about a lot of things, wondering about life and stuff, and recovering from some recent surgery, and Greg’s a very good friend, and did a lot of listening, and a lot of encouraging, for which I’m grateful.

Eventually, the coffee we’d had earlier needed to be dealt with, and since it was still raining, we just drove down toward a row of Porta Potties at the far end of the parking lot.  As we did, we looked around and noticed we were one of only two cars in the formerly crowded lot. We saw that the other car was parked beside the Porta Potties we were heading for, right next to this canopy kind of a thing with a sign on it that said something like “SR-71 Pilot and Author”.

That got us talking about SR-71’s, (there’s one in the Museum of Flight) – and I told Greg about this one mission – the only one I could remember reading about right then, in which one of the pilots had flown from England to Libya, and on the way back out, the plane just flew faster and faster – and they had to hang a left to meet their tanker out by Gibraltar. They did (when you’re flying Mach 3+, that takes a bit of geography) – and the pilot pulled the throttles back over Sicily – and still ended up overshooting the refueling tanker over Gibraltar… (note: if my math is right, that’s about 1,100 miles of coasting – you can read the story here.

We stopped, Greg got out to take care of his stuff, and I took a second look at that sign, “SR-71 Pilot and Author”.

It was still raining, and under that canopy was a fellow, sitting in the only dry chair in the parking lot, surrounded by a bunch of empty, wet tables, all of whatever he was selling was gone – he was just sitting there with his feet up, talking on a cell phone.

Alone…

In the parking lot.

In the rain.

Hmm…

SR-71 pilot?

Well heck, I figured that there couldn’t have been too many of those, I wondered if he knew the guy who’d done that Libya flight Greg and I’d just been talking about.  So while Greg headed off to take care of his business, I approached him – and he motioned he’d be off the phone in a minute, so I waited, and while I was waiting I saw the name on his banner – “Brian Shul.”

Hmm…  I had no idea who Brian Shul was, but it seemed like he must be that SR-71 pilot – or maybe know him.

He ended his call.

“Are you Brian?”

“I sure hope so, been signing his name all day.”

“Say, I was just telling my buddy here about an SR-71 pilot who did a mission out of Libya and ended up overshooting his tanker out by Gibraltar… “

“That’s me.”

“… and I was wondering if you happened to know who that pilot might be…”

“In fact – the whole story’s in my book, would you be interested in a copy?”

My mind was already several sentences past that last one before it came to a screeching halt and processed what I’d just heard.

“He… you… that pilot – waitaminute…”

I had no idea that I’d actually stumbled into one of my own stories – and turned around to see Greg, who’d heard that interaction as he was coming back, and saw his jaw do what mine must have done just seconds before, which was to simply obey the law of the acceleration of falling objects and hit the pavement of the parking lot in just under a second.

You see, one of the things we’d been talking about was how Greg thought I might have embellished some of my stories – and about how easy it can be to do.

But the funny thing is – if I tell a story – well, I tell a story… I don’t think I embellish it, I just tell it. (often they simply didn’t need embellishing, they just needed to be told well).

We talked with Brian for a bit.

I shook his hand.

I bought his book.

He autographed it for me.

Greg took a picture of him and me – beside my very definite “sub-sonic” Saab, because I needed proof to show a friend that I’d done something fun that weekend.

And the funny thing is, Greg and I both learned something that afternoon.

We learned that you never know when you’ll stumble onto – or into a story, and it had become very clear that I didn’t need to embellish a dang thing on this one, because no matter what anyone asked, it was absolutely true that at the very moment I was telling Greg the story of the SR-71,  the very pilot of that plane in that story, was sitting not 100 feet away, under a canopy, in the rain, on the south end of the parking lot at the Museum of Flight, right next to the Porta-Potties.

Supersonic Pilot meets Subsonic Saab

Coincidentally, in the picture above, Brian and I are standing next to my Saab 96, built in 1968. The plane Brian was flying (tail number 960) in the story I was telling Greg, is now down at the Castle Air Museum, right next to Castle Air Force Base, where my dad was stationed, back in 1968.

A number of years ago, when I was just starting out in college, I’d often find myself driving through McChord  Air Force Base (now Joint Base Lewis McChord) in large part because

a) I could, and

b) there were SO many cool airplanes there.

One weekend they had an actual air show, with the Thunderbirds, and aerial demonstrations of guys jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, explosions, the whole works.  It was great.  I got to walk around the flight line and look at planes up close I’d only been able to look at from a distance, and in some cases, I was able to go out and either touch them or actually, the most fun, sitting in the cockpit of a military airplane, and pretending to fly it, you know, just like you do when you’re a kid.

So later that week, after the airshow was over in reality, but I was still reliving it in my mind, I happened to go over to McChord, and look out at that very same flight line, and of all things, found an F-4 Phantom in the very last spot on the left.  This is a plane that sucks down more gas in a minute than your car does all year.  Speaking of cars, I parked mine in a legal zone (no, really) and was just drawn to the Phantom.

I walked over toward it, with my hands behind my back – I wanted to be sure that if anyone did see me and had this feeling like I shouldn’t be there, that my hands were in a very obvious spot of not being able to do anything…

The plane was facing away from me, and I walked around it clockwise, starting on the left side and working my way around.  I looked at, but didn’t touch those elevators that were angled down so sharply.

I walked further, hands still behind my back, and ducked under the wingtip, which is angled up ever so slightly.

I looked into the engine intakes, imagining how much air they must have sucked in as those big J-79 engines spooled up.

I couldn’t see into the cockpit, but walked around the front of the plane – still careful not to touch anything, and made it back around the other side, and finally came to the gaping maw that was the back end of those engines.  The F-4’s engines have what are called ‘afterburners’ – which means simply that if you have the jet engine running at full throttle, and the engine simply can’t put out more thrust, you start pumping buckets of fuel into the hot exhaust – where it – well, it doesn’t ‘explode’ – but all those pictures you see of military planes with 20-30 foot flames out the back? That’s what happens when you hit the afterburners.  It can easily double the thrust of an engine.

Now the J-79 engine was weird, in a way… It was the one engine the military had that, surgeon general’s warning or not, they simply couldn’t get to stop smoking.  If it was idling, it was fine.  If it was in full afterburner, it was fine.  If it was anywhere in between, it smoked.

It was like leaving a big arrow penciled into the sky saying, “Hi! Here I am!”  All you had to do was look up and follow the pencil mark in the sky.  At the end, sure as anything, there’d be an F-4.

It made camouflage and stealth kind of a moot point.

But those engines, oh gosh – I’d seen what they could do in real life.   I was in a KC-135 tanker, shooting pictures of one being refueled somewhere over Missouri.  The plane, call sign “Misty 42”, was in the pre-connect position 50 feet behind us.  Gus, the boom operator (the boom being the big pipe that did the refueling) called out on the radio “Misty 42, forward 50” – as in “come forward 50 feet” – and this 60,000 pound plane that was parked back there behind us, just shot forward those 50 feet and then stopped like he was anchored there – right where Gus could top it off.  And when Misty 42 was finished, I saw something I’d only seen in movies – the pilot banked hard right, pulled hard on the stick, peeled off, and was gone.

So when those engines were running, they would just leave this layer of soot in the sky, and, coming back down from the sky and to that flight line, where I was standing with both hands behind my back, I was mesmerized by the business end of these huge jet engines, some of that soot I was talking about had been left inside the engines, creating a blackness so total it would make charcoal look white.  It gave a totally new definition to the term “black hole” and I was wondering how much of a problem it would be to swipe a little soot off the engine of a Phantom.

It was this wondering that caused curiosity to prevail over common sense.

…but not by much…

I unclasped my hands, and slowly, with my right pinkie, swiped it against the inside of that engine, to see if any of that blackness would actually come off.  It didn’t seem to, I was looking at my pinkie, trying to figure it out, when

“Can I help you, sir?”

Uh oh…

One of the United States Air Force’s finest SP’s (Security Police) was standing there, in uniform, which was as complete as a military cop’s uniform could be…

“Uh, no, actually, I was just looking at the F-4 here”

“Did you know, sir, that you’re not allowed to be here?”

My gosh he was polite…

On the other hand, he could afford to be.  He had Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson snug in a leather holster at his side to help him out, should he need it.

“Sir, see, there’s this red line here on the pavement…”

He was right… there was indeed a red line on the pavement…

“Sir, you’re not supposed to cross that line.”

“Really?”

“Did you see the signs painted on the ground, sir?”

“No – I mean, I was just here the other day…”

“Sir, that was for the air show.  See here?”

…and he walked me over to where one of the signs was indeed painted in a big white rectangle on the ground.

“They’re painted on the ground every 100 feet.”

And I’d parked my car beside the hangar, and walked right out there, between two of them, totally oblivious to the signs, and totally focused on the F-4…

“Sir, can you read the line in red there, near the bottom?”

I started reading the stenciled letters on the pavement.

“Sir, do you understand what that means?”

And things suddenly became very clear.  That line there meant that Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson didn’t necessarily have to stay in their little leather holster, they could have come out to back up the Security Police officer and no one would have batted an eye.

“Yes sir, I do.”

He escorted me back to my car, realizing that I was just a young kid not much younger than he was, likely just as much of an airplane nut as he was, but I was driving a little red Saab (1967 model 96, 3 cylinder, two stroke, and a 4 speed transmission, on the column, for those of you who are curious) at the time, all by myself, and he was driving a blue Air Force police cruiser, with his pals Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson quietly squeezed into the front seat with him.

I was a little more careful from there on out, but I still considered McChord my home away from home.

Fast forward 21 years.  I’d gotten married, had the wonderful privilege of becoming a father, and lo and behold, there was another air show at McChord AFB.  I took my son to see the show, and this time I got to the McChord AFB air show in a little blue Saab (1968 model 96, Deluxe, with a V-4 engine, and a 4 speed transmission, on the column, for those of you who are curious), and this time, I wasn’t alone.

We watched, and heard the Thunderbirds tear the sky apart again – watched the aerial drops, the explosions, all the cool stuff, it was great  – and then as we were walking through the displays – I realized I’d been there before.  Not just on McChord AFB, but as I looked around, wondering why the hangars looked familiar, and why the tower looked so familiar, not just individually, but collectively, I felt this incredible feeling of déjà vu, suddenly I realized I was standing on the spot – THE VERY SPOT where that F-4, the SP, and Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson had been those many years earlier.

I’d told my son the story you just read more than once, to the point where he could do the little swipe with his pinkie just exactly like I did it, and I knew, I just knew, I had to show him that spot, and take a picture of the sign on the ground, with the red letters, and the red line on it.

And I did…

Sure enough… it was still there.

I got the shot of him with the sign in the story I’d told him so many times.

Fast forward again – to the year 2010, I’d done a presentation in Tucson, and found that after the presentation, we had a few hours to do some touristy things, and given the fact that I am an airplane nut, and that the last time we’d been in Tucson I’d only been able to drive past it, the Pima Air Museum was definitely on our list.  It has hundreds of airplanes, and in the few hours we had, we tried to see as many as we could.  We walked past some, paused for a moment at others.

And then I saw an F-4 and stopped cold.

A Phantom.

“Michael! This is it! This is the kind of plane I was talking about!” –

…and I did the little pinkie swipe with my right hand.

He knew exactly what I meant, and before I could do anything or even stop him, he’d gone to the back of the plane, and I suddenly knew what the SP had seen those many years ago.

Without me saying another word, Michael had not only gone to the back of that Phantom – but gone to the right engine, and with his left hand still held firmly in the small of his back, like I’d done when I was the very same age, he took his pinkie, and swiped a little soot off the engine of a Phantom.  ­

And no one stopped him.

© Tom Roush, 2010

Tom Roush

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