All posts by Brad Whittington

Competitions

It was bound to happen. I was in pretty deep—skipping work, trolling through all manner of neighborhoods, wandering down alleys, trying to score the perfect shot.

Then Jodi told me about the HOT Fair photography competition. They had categories and stuff. Just what I needed—an incentive to escalate my monomania.

Not that I’m competitive. No more so than the next man. Assuming the next man is Homer Simpson. Let’s put it this way. You know how some dads let their kids win at games?

I remember the day I beat my dad at chess. You think I would remember that moment almost 50 years later if he was in the habit of letting me win? No, he made that moment special with the knowledge that if I beat him, it was because I had earned it.

That’s part of the job of being a dad—to prepare your kids for the real world. Nobody’s going to hand it to them on a platter.

[note to self, find the fisher waiting for the firetruck photo]

One day I showed The Wiz a photo of my penultimate grandkid sitting on the curb. “He heard a firetruck. He’s waiting for it pass by.”

“You’re the granddad. It’s your job to go find that truck and make it pass by his house.”

“Nope. It’s my job to make sure he knows that you don’t see firetrucks by sitting on the sidelines waiting for them to come to to you. You have to go out and find them.”

[note to self, look at notebooks and albums for competition details]

 

But we’re talking about the HOT Fair photography competition. The deadline was only a few days away. I pored over my existing prints and then roamed the town and surrounding environs to fill in the gaps, burning through 24- and 36-exposure rolls like a pyromaniac. I submitted an entry for every category except flowers, but everyone knew that category was only for pansies. (I know it’s not a PC joke, but really the pun was just hanging there and I couldn’t resist.)

When the fair opened, I rushed to the photography tent. Jodi was there, not especially pleased to see me or my photos. She would have won a few categories if she hadn’t told me about the competition.

I was walking along, seeking out my entries, when I came upon a clutch of girls clustered around a photo.

“That’s him, Brenda.”
“Not it’s not.”
“Really. Tell her, Stacy.”
“Tell her what?”
“That’s David Koresh.”

I looked where she pointed. It was the self-portrait I had entered into the competition, decorated with a second-place ribbon. I was particularly proud of this shot because of what I had set out to do.

I set up the camera on a tripod in front of the house in bright sunlight, had SpyMan sit on the steps and shade his eyes. I then metered the shadow and set the f-stop wide for a shallow field of depth and a fast shutter speed to correctly expose the eyes. Then we traded places and he snapped the picture. As I anticipated, most of the detail was washed out, and the background faded into white.

http://www.wrs.vcu.edu/Pics/BranchDavidians1.pnghttp://bradwhittington.com/wunderfool/images/w3.jpg

I released a silent cheer and backed away quietly before the girls noticed me. Koresh had come to a fiery end six months earlier, and I was afraid if they turned around and saw me standing there, they would freak.

A few years later I was doing computer work for a camera/photography store when I noticed they had a  competition with a deadline in two weeks. All entries had to be shot on Fuji color or Ilford black-and-white. I bought several rolls of each and spent the next ten days scouring the town for photos.

I told Nelson, a co-worker, about the contest. I’d been beating him at the HOT Fair competition for the last few years and he was out for revenge.

[nelson eyeball photo?]

Two weeks later, Nelson won in the flower category. I took first or second in the rest and won the $500 grand prize with what is likely the best photo I’ve taken.

[photos of the competition]

Which meant that after the cost of film, processing, enlarging, and matting, I basically broke even. I don’t think Nelson wanted it bad enough. Maybe he had the wrong grandpa.

The firetruck isn’t going to come to you unless you’re on fire.

 

 

Wandering Far

Winning is relevant only if battle was inevitable. Fighting unnecessary wars is stupid. -Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In the summer of 1989, when the women started talking about a working vacation in Colorado, H and I knew better than to put an oar in. There’s such a thing as winning the battle and losing the war, and we’d both been married long enough to know the difference.

I have a thing for unlikely matches.

Back in the day, nobody saw The Woman and me as an obvious match. In fact, one night her roommate staged an intervention, listing all the reasons why she should break up with me at her earliest convenience and set her sights on a suitable life partner.  The main theme focused on her perception that I was a dope-smoking, long-haired loser who couldn’t go the distance when the going got tough. Turns out, two out of three ain’t enough.

To my shame, I can’t resist a touch of schadenfreude when I observe that The Woman and I are 40+ years deep in marital bliss with no regrets. In fact, it is our life theme.

Live without regret.

It is an attitude, a way of approaching life that I highly recommend.

As everyone knows implicitly from the moment they meet her, and as the inevitable global empirical study has verified beyond contradiction, The Woman is the nicest person in the world. And I am a high-functioning goofball. This is known.

I have spent a lifetime playing Court Jester for my Queen without a nanosecond of regret. If you want a diverting, amusing conversation, I am your man. If you run into one of life’s many tragedies, you want The Woman at your side. This also is known.

To set the stage for the working vacation, in the early 80s my band broke up and my closest friends left town. (A story for another time.) I was left adrift, but I assumed that as I had made friends before, I could make other friends just as easily. I had not taken into consideration the degree to which I am an odd duck.

I have a theory. We are all looking for our tribe, and we live our best life when we find it. In the most unlikely environment imaginable, a radically conservative East Texas college, I lucked into my tribe. I ended up in the aforementioned band with select members of my tribe. It just happened. And because it fell into my lap, I had no idea how rare a thing it was.

I should have known better. I had spent my childhood as a stranger in a strange land. I had bounced around six schools across state boundaries without finding my people. I was a fool to think it would be a small thing to stumble upon another miracle. The band broke up and after a year of concerted effort, I awoke to the truth. You can’t fashion a golem into a soulmate.

I put my head down and soldiered on. I knew the drill. I had lived it most of my life. You take what you can get, even the crumbs, and keep going. Get up in the morning. Do the needful. Pay the bills. Lie down. Rinse and repeat.

Then a thing happened. In the mid 80s, due to various life circumstances, The Woman’s closest friends left town. At first, I chalked it up as the way of life, but as the months passed I realized that what was business-as-usual for the gander wouldn’t fly for the goose. Unlike me, she hadn’t built up an immunity through a lifetime as an outsider. Her nature couldn’t accommodate the life of a drudge. Something must be done.

Her search was no easier, but one thing became clear. It wasn’t enough to find a new friend for her. The relationship would never survive as a one-to-one proposition. It had to be couple-to-couple. And, although he never suspected it and is probably still unaware, that was how it came down to H and me.

Talk about an unlikely pairing. There was nothing obvious about it, but I was determined to make it work. I studied his interests as I have never done for another person before or since. I studied his ways, discovered his favorite music. His favorite reading. His favorite pastimes. We hung out independent of the women. Guy time.

Thus came my first Superbowl hangout. My first dove-hunting trip. I learned the sacred rituals of tobacco and pipes. Watched Agatha Christie movies and read the novels.  Was initiated into the mysteries of sitting quietly on the deck, watching the sunset with pipes and sparse conversation.

Months passed. Years passed. And one day I realized I had set out on a quest to fill the vacuum left by the departure of The Woman’s friends, but in the process I had unwittingly had found my tribe. A new tribe. A tribe of two.  And that worked for me.

For my part, I introduced H to jazz. That was my sole contribution, but it carried weight. Jazz is the essence of relationship. Improvisation. Trading ideas. Building on what is laid down by the other. In the moment. Evanescent. Solid.

Some might ask if a true friendship can be engineered with such deliberation. To them I say you know not of which you speak. I can’t speak for H, but for my part, we came to know each other as brothers. The warp and the woof, the good and the bad.

Here is the test. If you can sit in comfortable silence with a man, speaking only when thought or occasion demands, and feel no awkwardness or compulsion to fill the void with mindless chatter, understanding each other without need for words, then what would you call him if not friend? The best kind of friend in my view.

If you find one such person in your life, you are fortunate. If you find more than one, you are indeed rich and need not defer to anyone. And if you lose that bond, it is a loss to be mourned.

But I digress. This is a story about wandering far.

Thus came the women and their proposition of a two-week working vacation in Salida, Colorado. An older couple had a vacation property in a small town that needed repainting. We had one week to paint and another week to enjoy Colorado, all rent-free. Sweat equity as it were.

I was not a fan. Neither was H. But as intuitive students of Sun Tzu, we knew when to choose our battles. There are some things, objectionable things, that one must shut down immediately regardless of the cost. Then there are things that, while objectionable, if one objects, one will incur consequences far more objectionable than the thing itself. This was one of those things. The second kind. The objectionable objection kind.

And that is how on one hot Texas summer day we came to be driving a rented extended van packed with snacks and children on a trek from Texas to Colorado to paint a house and embark on adventures. Of course I packed the camera. And the chess set.

The chess set had one purpose—to keep me awake on the first leg of the journey.

Here is a life tip. If you have a long road trip ahead of you, start just before sunset and drive through to sunrise. Of course, you must employ strategies to stay between the two ditches. A good selection of podcasts is a good bet, but we had no podcasts in the 80s. I took the midnight shift, H riding shotgun, the wife and kids in the back. My plan was threefold: conversation, chess, music.

I talked with H as long as I could, but when conversation flagged, I engaged The Number One Sun in a chess match. He sat behind me, magnetic pieces on metal board. I gave him the first move, he told me his move, I told him mine, and he made the move on the board.

We proceeded in this fashion for a hundred miles or so, getting into the occasional fracas when he failed to move my piece as instructed and the game on the board failed to match the game in my head. He fell asleep before checkmate and I resorted to CDs  to distract me.

The sun came up somewhere around New Mexico and we switched drivers.

Eventually we arrived at our destination, not much worse for wear beyond a road-weary bone ache and an exploded bag of Ruffles in the back of the van. Altitude and air pressure, real things, with or without ridges.

-o-

The first week was devoted to painting a two-story, gingerbread-infested house too cute to live. But I wasn’t allergic to work.

In high school I worked summers on a truck farm, picking all manner of vegetables and fighting off bull nettle and various wasps and snakes and other varmints. In college I paid the bills as a janitor, a brickyard worker, a resident Gentile in a conservative synagogue, on the cleanup crew in a turkey processing plant, and stripping airplanes for painting. And as the editor for the college newspaper, but I don’t tell anyone about that.

During that week in Colorado I learned a few things about myself. The most salient detail for the job at hand was that when it came to heights, the best I could hope for was clinging white-knuckled to a ladder while painting the trim on a second-story window.

Some people will tell you that you need to push the edge of the envelope, take it to the next level, face your fears and conquer them.

Those people are idiots. I say that in a spirit of love. To the idiots. I love you, but you are an idiot.

When you’re climbing 20 feet in the air with a four-inch brush in your back pocket and a bucket in one hand, trying to figure out how to take the next step without taking your hand off the rung in front of your eyes, all the Tony Robbins burning-coal pep talks in the world can’t peel your fingers from the one bit of aluminum that stands between you and certain death. 

Tell it to the next guy, the gee-whiz aw-shucks guy who was born yesterday and just now fell off the turnip truck.  But don’t tell it to me. If that is what it takes to soar with the eagles, I’m happy to roost with the turkeys on a lower branch. Those turkeys are smart. Just ask Ben Franklin next time you’re chatting with him.

I did manage to paint the accent color on the trim of a circular window that looked in on the landing of the staircase, and I was proud to do it.

That left it to H to hang off the roof with one hand while painting the gable window with the other. We made a good team, the groundhog and the gable monkey. But I must point out that he was a lineman for the county, and I could beat him in chess. Just saying.

What you looking at?

I think I might have gone off course there. Where was I? Oh yeah.

The highlight of that week was listening to KDMN 1450 AM (now KSKE) out of Buena Vista, which the locals called Byuoona Vista, as we learned when we made the half-hour trip there to pick up a spray rig to paint the broad expanses of the house. It was the kind of tadio station that read the principal’s honor roll students, high school, junior high and elementary, and good on ’em. 

My favorite news stories of that week were of a power outage and the new truck stop in Fort Collins on I-25.

The first story started with reports of a garbage truck fire. The announcer said, “Sightings were reported at the 700 block of Main, the 800 block of Main, the 900 block of Main . . . ” The driver continued, oblivious, to the dump, where, when he checked his rear view mirror and realized his truck was on fire, he panicked and hit a utility pole, knocking out power to half of the town for a few hours.

He reminded me of a dump-truck driver I knew during my time working at Henderson Clay in Marshall, Texas, a wiry twist of a man with an attitude to match. He could cuss a streak so blue it should rightly be called indigo. Since I can’t recall his name, let’s just call him Twitch.

The job of taking tickets from the drivers dumping sand was the cush job , but Stormin’ Norman had it locked up, mainly by being worthless at doing anything else, so I spent most of my time stacking wet bricks on railroad cars headed to the kiln or dry bricks headed to construction sites. Not a cush job by any stretch, the curse of the competent.

One glorious day, Norman quit and the one-eyed foreman tapped me. It was a simple  job. Sit on a log in the shade and wait for dump trucks to arrive, guide them to the edge of a 40-foot cliff of sand where they would back up just enough to hang the tailgate over the edge without backing over it, and then dump their load. That done, I would hand them a ticket and they would head back for another load.

All the other drivers accomplished this task without drama, but Twitch was his own worst enemy. Sometimes, despite my coaxing, he wouldn’t back far enough before dumping his load, leaving a large pile that would block the next driver. Then I would have to track down the front-end loader to come and push it over the edge.

On this occasion, Twitch couldn’t seem to line up with the edge. After several attempts, he slammed the truck into first, popped the clutch, and the truck convulsed forward. He slammed on the brakes, ground it into reverse, and popped the clutch again, but the truck did nothing. Horrible noises emanated from the transmission as he shoved the shifter hither and yon and tried again.

Eventually I walked up to the truck, looked under the chassis, and noticed that the front end of the drive shaft was lying on the ground. I tapped on his window, cringing at the thought of his reaction when I told him that he had busted the U-joint.

It took me a while to get his attention, but eventually he climbed down out of the truck and looked underneath. When he grasped the essence of the situation, without a word he reached into the cab, grabbed his smokes, walked over to the log in the shade, sat down, and smoked a cigarette. I bummed one, sat down next to him, and we smoked in silence.

After five minutes or so, Twitch stood, tossed the butt into the dirt, twisted it under the sole of his boot, and walked away without a word, leaving the truck behind.

I never saw him again.

But I thought of him as I stood on a ladder two stories in the air cutting in on the trim of the landing window, seeing him in the driver’s seat of the garbage truck driving though downtown Buena Vista, Colorado, his load on fire behind him, taking out the power of half the town and  tossing a cigarette behind him as he walked away in silence.

Was he walking back to a woman who would welcome him home or fear the sound of his step on the threshold? Children who would rush to greet him or retreat to a safe corner? What were the ingredients required to put together this incarnation? What was handed down to him and what did he bring to it?

If he put his mind to it, could Twitch become the kind of man who backed to the edge with precision, dump a perfect load every time, calmly notice the the fire in his truck and grab an extinguisher to deal with it instead of plunging half the town into darkness?

Could he become the kind of man who could swing off the edge of the dormer thirty feet in the air to paint the trim one-handed with nary a thought of the thirty feet of empty air between him and death or remain the kind of man who clutched a rung of the ladder with one hand while holding out a trembling brush to paint the circular window trim in a carefully chosen accent color?

But then I realized I had quit preaching and gone to meddling. I finished off the window, slowly returned to earth and rinsed off my brush like a sensible person.

I did hear one more story of Twitch, delivered by Saunders, who had snagged the cush job while I had been ordered back to stacking bricks. One day Saunders guided Twitch to the edge, but Twitch was over eager and backed too far. His rear wheels sank into the soft sand left by previous drivers, and the truck transitioned into a slow-motion tumble down the soft 40-foot cliff as Twitched bounced around inside like a BB in a box car. Saunders said Twitch survived and walked away. I never knew if he was an owner-operator of the truck or just an employee, but I have my suspicions.

Meanwhile, back in Colorado, the other news story of the day was the opening of a new business on I-25 called Debbie Does Donuts, a topless truck stop. To make sure we’re all on the same page, the topless part applied to the waitresses, not the trucks.

All decent-minded residents of Fort Collins had risen up in arms to protest it. The news story led H and me to multitudinous speculations of possible marketing slogans. As they say in the math textbooks, the solution is left as an exercise to the reader.

-o-

All good things must come to an end. More to the point, all things eventually come to an end, both good and bad. And indifferent things. All the things. They end. It’s the nature of a temporal world.

Things happen and then they stop happening and something else happens. That’s the whole truth of it, but nobody will put that on a poster. Doesn’t scan, really, and who can blame them? I mean, who would buy that poster?

[inspirational poster that says: Things happen and then they stop happening and something else happens.]

The point is that eventually we painted the dang house and cleaned out the spray rig and took it back to Buena Vista and got our deposit back. Didn’t see Twitch driving a garbage truck, but I have no doubt he was lurking in the offing.

Thus began week two. The fun week. We did many things in that week, but once again two things stand out.

You know how it is. You decide to visit some exotic place, a locale nothing like your basic Central Texas black-dirt flatland, and you are reduced to depending on travel magazines and brochures in the visitor center to tell you what to do.

These days, no matter where I am, I know what to do. Hang on the deck with scotch and cigars and good company. Good things come of such moments.

It’s funny what happens when a body finds a thing to do that diverts the mind from the relentless demand for interaction and releases the fretful self to wander free.

 

I wish I had learned to fish
To embrace the hours and not the outcome
To marinate in the moment
To learn what would come

Some find it in fishing. Some find it in gardening. I’m told some find it in meditation, but like prayer, I found it led me to sleep, not enlightenment.  But this is a topic for another time.

Like any good American tourists, we sought out the quintessential experience for the locale, and we found it in a trail ride on a fourteener, one of the 96 mountains in the US that rise more than fourteen thousand feet into the sky, 53 of which are in Colorado. More specifically, the most proximate fourteener, Mt. Princeton, a half-hour drive away. 

 

“John Spencer, where is the sky?”
“It’s up there.”
“And where does it it start?”

Pause. “At the ground.”

We are all of us walking in the sky.

We gathered at the corral, were assigned horses and dutifully allowed our horses to follow the trail guide, a youth barely old enough to vote, as we wended our way through the aspens and across creek beds. The Good Daughter rode in front of me, the Number One Son behind. 

The day was pleasant, the temperature in the seventies, a stark contrast to the nineties we had left behind in Texas. The sky was a startling robin-egg blue, flecked with friendly clouds.

But we know about things, don’t we? Good or bad, they come to an end, and the next thing comes.

We eased up onto a plateau at about ten thousand feet. The vista opened up, dotted with cactus and scrubby mesquites, and we saw other fourteeners in the distance.

Then the wind kicked up, and the temperature dropped ten degrees or more. Dark, swollen clouds rolled in as if guided into place by malevolent stage hands. But we were prepared, clad in flannel for the cooler climes of the mountain. No worries.

Until the rain set in. A soft, gentle rain. A female rain as the Navajo name it. A rain that slowly and relentlessly soaked us, clinging our shirts to the skin. And then the temperature dropped another ten degrees and the sleet lurched onstage, intermittent at first, but then as merciless as a barrage from BB guns. 

We were on the mesa. There was no escape, but it was no use telling the horses. My particular mount sought refuge under the mesquite trees, whose branches started within an inch or two of horseback height.

The horse could duck its head down and edge underneath, but I was not given the option. I had the choice of being dragged off the horse by a branch or jerking the reins toward open mesa. I did the needful.

Ahead of me, the Good Daughter’s horse plodded along, enduring the inevitable.  Behind me, the Number One Son had a different issue. His horse decided the best course of action was to buck and canter, coming up alongside my horse.  He called out.

“Daddy, help!”

“What?”

“My horse.” He left unspoken what needed no explanation.

That damn horse! What could I do? I was no cowboy.  I lacked the experience to  control my own horse, much less ride up next to him and make his horse behave. 

I had only seconds to respond. As I pulled on the reins to avoid being swept off my horse by a proximate mesquite branch, I uttered these timeless words of wisdom to my ten-year-old son.

“Son, there comes a time in every man’s life when he has to deal with the situation at hand. This is that time.”

It was all I had to offer, however paltry, but it seemed do do the trick. He soldiered on.

Somehow we escaped the mesquites, and the sleet abated. The guide radioed to home base, and a few minutes later we approached a road where a truck with a horse trailer waited to take the kids and their horses back to the corral. The adults had to take the final thirty minutes of the trail ride on horseback, soaked to the skin, looking like drowned rats.

Whatever my failings as a father in that moment, I console myself with the knowledge that the Number One Son took that message to heart.  He has weathered much worse storms than he encountered on that mountain, has descended into deeper valleys than I could have ever imagined, but has done what a man must do.

When it all comes down to what it comes down to, I think the best we can hope for is to leave the world a better place than we found it.  Will those who come after us be better for us having been here? Only time will tell.

The next day we set out on the next must-do item, whitewater rafting down the Brown River Canyon. The women volunteered to mind the younger two kids and meet us downstream at the pickup point. Wimps.

The guy took our money and paired us up with a captain who was a dead ringer for the trail guide from the day before.  He regarded us a doubtful gaze and said, “Do you want paddles?”

“What for?” I had endured a week of hard labor and terror for the chance to enjoy my vacation. I had paid money for a ride, not a job.

He nodded, his judgments confirmed, and led us to the raft.

I’m not allergic to water. In fact, back in the day I was a bit of a water rat. Always up for a swim, even after that one time I almost drowned. But that’s a story for another day.

What? I keep putting off stories for another day? Well, okay, then. Put a pin in the Brown River Canyon. I’ll tell it now.

It was the spring of 1975, freshman year in college, and the April showers had been doing their best to guarantee May flowers. Figuring the creek would be up and running, Fred, Donece and I set out for our favorite swimming hole outside of Marshall, Texas. 

Not long after I arrived on campus, I met Fred and discovered we were as near as could be to soulmates. Birthdays two days apart,  read the same books, listened to the same radio stations, played guitar. Heck, we even had scars in the same places. We eventually became roommates. If you want to get a feel for Fred, check out the character of Bubba Culpepper in the Fred books, especially the later books in the series.

Donece was a different species. In fact, many thought he was actually an alien. Like from another planet, not just from across the border. Have you ever met someone who saw the world from an angle so oblique to your own that you figured they would naturally be cognizant of  how far outside the mainstream they were? Like out where the buses don’t run. But instead, they were constantly amazed when you didn’t see the world they did. If you want to get a feel for Donece, check out the character of Phyllis in Escape from Fred.

Donece operated on another wavelength, the frequency of his high-pitched, nasal giggle, the noise he made just before he gave rein to  his otherworldly impulses. Think Muttley, the cartoon dog, only with less of a smoker’s wheeze and more of a whining machine-gun burst at around E-flat in the fourth octave.

The noise he made when he dyed his sleeping roommate blue. The noise he made as he stole the freshly-baked pie from the dorm mother’s kitchen. The noise he made when he sawed an 10-inch gash in my door with a saw-toothed bayonet in retaliation for a failed water balloon attack. And when he did the same for Hensarling in payment for taking his girl on a date.

Different wavelength, man. Different wavelength. But Donece had one thing we didn’t have. Wheels.

Thus the three of us donned our cut-offs and set out to the swimming hole at the foot of the falls. In normal conditions, two or three inches  of water dropped five or six feet down to a pool about about six or seven feet deep, but which quickly leveled out downstream to a couple of feet. It was sufficient to jump in, do some cannonballs, thrash about and generally cool off on a hot day.

Given the recent rainfall, we figured we’d see some decent action, and we weren’t disappointed. There was a good foot of water rolling over the edge, dropping three feet into a boiling, churning cauldron of brown, silt-laden water that filled the bowl of the pool from bank to bank.

We shucked off our shoes and shirts, tossed our towels on the bank, and inched our way across the rock ledge, seeking firm footing for each step to keep from being swept over. We eventually reached the middle of the creek and stood for a minute, taking it all in. The awesome power of the current, the wide expanse deep enough to dive into for once.

I stepped forward and jumped in, cannonball style, sinking down as the water buffeted me. When my momentum slowed, I stretched out and stroked my way to the surface.

Only to be sucked back down just as I cleared water. At the point directly under the falls, the water falling from above forced the water in the pool into a combined current that went only one direction. Down.

Within seconds, I found myself back at the bottom. I fought the current, pushing back up to the surface, gasped for air, and was immediately taken back under.

As I descended into the depths, I waited until I felt my feet hit the rock at the bottom, coiled myself like a spring, and thrust with all my strength. I broke water up to my waist, leaned forward, and swam with all my strength downstream, only to be sucked down once again.

A thought crackled through my brain like electricity. This was it. this was the day I would die. But it was only a spark. I would deal with that thought later at my leisure. I more important business at hand. 

All that water that was pulling me down, it had to be going somewhere, and there was only one place it could go. Across the bottom and downstream.

I curled myself into a ball, relaxed, and let the current pull me down as far as it would take me. Then I opened up, searching for the rock bottom that I had used many times to shoot toward the surface when this deadly pool was sane. I found it, pushed against the wall of water until I was against the wall of the falls, put my feet on it, and pushed off with all my strength, clawing my way downstream.

In a few seconds I ran into the gravel of the rising bottom, pushed forward until the current abated, crawled to my knees, and stood, taking deep gulps of air as the  water swirled around my knees.

As the living world flooded my senses, confirming that I was still alive, the first thing I heard over the roar of the falls was a shrill, mad-scientist giggle.

“Oh, man. I thought you were dead.”

I turned to face him. If I could have swum upstream, up the falls, laced my shaking fingers around his scrawny neck, and tossed him into the depths, I would have. Instead, I slogged to the bank, climbed back up to the top of the falls, and walked out to them.

Fred said nothing, but his eyes spoke for him. For every second since I had made that foolish leap, he had been down there with me, fighting against death, grasping for life. I nodded and turned to Donece.

“There’s a bit of an undertow. I suggest you jump farther out.”

But that was a decade and two kids before this story. Back in a time when I had trained myself to hold my breath for two minutes. Now I was careening toward middle age like a rogue locomotive.

The captain installed H and me in the front, the Good Daughter and the Number One Son in the back, and took his elevated position in the middle, grasped two ridiculously long paddles, and pushed us out into the current.

It was a pleasant afternoon, much like the day before it. And like the day before, we had a pleasant drift through the calmer waters before the clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped. Before long we were churning through rapids, being soaked by water that was snow a few hours ago.

But by now we all were old hands at imitating drowned rats. Even the kids. We dug in like troopers.

Meanwhile, the captain earned his money, but I wept no tears for him. He was saving money on a gym membership, staying buff for the ladies while getting paid. Living the dream, really.

That was thirty years ago. I’d gladly pay the cost of a whitewater ride to see a photo of him now. The ten years or so that separate us now are nothing compared to the difference back then.

On second thought, I’ll rescind that offer. He might still be buff, while I’m the same, only ever so much so. Gloating is never attractive, whatever your age.

After an hour or so of water torture, the captain advised us that a few minutes downstream we would have the opportunity to go ashore, clamber up a granite precipice, and jump into the icy depths. 

I looked at H. He looked at me. I shrugged. Might as well get our money’s worth. Plus, this was no time to wimp out. It was ten years since I had jumped into unplumbed depths. You have to do that at least once a decade or you might end up in a rut.

Ten years later I jumped into a larger pool, a depth I had never attempted, and had to learn to sink or swim. After lassoing The Woman, it was the best blind risk I ever took, an adventure in wandering farther than I had ever dared. But once again, a story for another time.

The captain guided the raft to the shore. We climbed up the rock, a good twenty foot drop in front of us, and jumped. I won’t lie, it was cold enough to knock the breath out of you. But there was no deadly current, no malevolent Mother Nature trying to kill me. Just a jump into water, and a swim to the boat.

For our next adventure, we decided to visit a ghost town, something that all of us could do, or were willing to do. You do the math.

The rented van couldn’t make it up one particularly aggressive slope, so we had to abandon ship and hoof it the rest of the way. H, always a better man than I, carried the youngest on his shoulders. At the destination, we quickly got our eyes full of the handful of ramshackle buildings that had not yet been reclaimed by that mercurial Mother. As we rested, each contemplating in their hearts the long trek back, a four-wheeler arrived with a few tourists. After a serious bit of bargaining, all six of us gained passage back to the van.

The next day we packed the van and quit that down.

As I mentioned before, ten years later I wandered farther, ranging from South Carolina to Arizona, Colorado and Hawaii. In 2000, I paid state income tax in three states. After ten years of wandering, I returned to Texas.

In modern America, our first friendships are formed in school, from elementary school up to high school. We are thrown into a cauldron of kids from all kinds of life situations. Kids from families foreign to our experience. By the time we reach graduation, we have a tight group of friends we think will remain in our inner circle.

For some, college replaces that circle of friends, people we can’t imagine we will grow distant from. 

Either way, life proceeds and the onboarding opportunities for new friends narrow and the attrition opportunities expand. For me, one high school friend went the distance. Until distance and marriage made it inconvenient. From college, three stayed in the running. Post college, H was the only solid friendship I formed. And Spyrison. But that is a story for another time.

Distance, sustained distance, is a hard row to hoe for most folks. I have only three friends from those days. I took it hard at first. I don’t make friends easily, but I have a strong loyalty gene. Got it from my father.

I had to learn that some people just aren’t built that way. You can’t blame them for being who they are. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not fair to yourself.

When you choose to wander far, you not only choose for yourself, you choose for them. So choose wisely.

Wandering Near

When the photography bug bites, you go wandering. How far you go depends on the length of your leash.

The truth is, if you have the right vision and the right lens, you can find a wealth of images without leaving your house. But rare is the man who has the vision to limit his scope. To find the profound in the prosaic.

Common wisdom tells us that to capture grand images, one must have a grand subject. Ansel Adams and Yellowstone. Any National Geographic magazine you’ve ever seen. How can you capture the captivating story in a pedestrian setting?

Special wisdom tells us that grandness can be found in small things, but who among us can attain this level of awareness without effort? The memory of Eden fades as we claw our living out of the unforgiving soil. How long did it take for the children of Israel to forget the oppression of their Egyptian taskmasters and yearn for the fleshpots of their captivity? Humans are incredibly dense. It is the way of our people.

I had learned the lesson of finding the profound in the prosaic back in Fred, but I am of the denser sort of my race. It had only been a decade or so since I had wielded a camera with a solid purpose, but it seems that I had to learn my lessons over and over until they were ground into my consciousness.

It came down to the length of my leash. First and most important, I had lassoed a star—The Woman. Only a fool would stray from such a luminary, and though I was, and remain, a fool, I was not such a fool as to forsake my pole star. And there was the matter of the kids. I was well and truly anchored and with no regrets. I might be a fool, but I was no fool.

So I turned my attention to the radius of my delimited world. The longing of a domesticated canine contemplating the length of his leash. The tension between three squares a day and the great unknown that beckoned from the other side of the screen door.

[Inside looking out dog]

The sacred  geometrical rite of loading the dishwasher.

[ditto]

The mystical mist of a sprinkler in summer.

[ditto]

The convergence of a freshly plowed field.

[ditto]

The weathered shake shingles over a  window.

[ditto]

The primary palette of a robotic fire hydrant.

[ditto]

The chance sighting of Marty Feldman’s spiritual grandson at the t-ball game.

[ditto]

The ascendant motion of a vent pipe in an alley.

[ditto]

The Fibonacci curve of a spiral staircase.

[x]

The evanescent fluff of a weed in summer.

[x]

Of course. to capture such images I had to dip into the realm of the technical, the domain of my father. But I must confess that I learned only as much as required to tell the static story of a moment frozen in time. Depth of field through the proper selection of an f-stop, frozen motion by virtue of a fast shutter, blurred motion via the slow shutter, the delicate balance of aperture versus time. I was never a technician. I would never be an Ansel Adams or an Ernst Haas.

But sometimes life conspired to widen my palette.

 

 

The Next Camera

Fifteen years after my first tentative steps into photography, The Woman did what she does. Out of the blue, she bought me a camera for my birthday.

I hadn’t asked for a camera, hadn’t even talked about photography. She just bought the dang thing and who knows why.

Here’s a life tip for you. If you’re in the market for a wife, forget the Hollywood glam-mag fantasy images of some impossible vision of physical perfection. Look for The Woman of your generation. Selfless. Generous. Ebullient. Full of life and as giving as life itself. Look for someone who is better than you could ever think of being, and then spend a lifetime trying to be worthy of that transcendent vision. Count yourself lucky if you have the good fortune to capture lightining in a bottle. Live with her day-by-day, sharing a breath of the same air, walking side-by-side with true grace of the spirit. Do your best to avoid snuffing out that flame of eternity. Rinse and repeat.

But, as I was saying, she bought me a camera. A Canon AE-1. I was mystified, but I didn’t let that hold me back. In fact, I went crazy.

She might have had occasion to regret the gift. After a few rolls and a decade-and-a-half beyond my initiation with the Argus C3, I rediscovered the seduction of life from behind the viewfinder.  I can’t count the times I threw myself prostrate on the floor or the street, or hung out over empty space, to acquire the right angle.

For the perfect shot of the Peeping Tom

[Peeping Tom]

Or The Good Daughter

[F-16]

Or The Number One Son

[Goggles]

A photograph is the antithetical symbiosis of jazz. Photography is skill and inspiration frozen in time. Jazz is skill and inspiration experienced in the evanescent moment, best if absorbed, diminished by the attempt to capture it. Both are an exercise in simultaneously embracing and letting go.

And that is the lesson of life.  A balance of owning and releasing.

As a wise man once said, you have to hold it loosely.

 

In For A Penny

There’s a thing about a real camera. It’s seductive. One minute you’re ripping off snapshots, the next you’re trolling the neighborhood for real shots.

The snowstorm offered obvious opportunity and I took advantage.

[snow pics]

But such photos are child’s play. Anybody can capture a compelling scene if it’s been airbrushed by nature for the purpose. Snowstorms are rare in Fred, Texas, and when the photogenic layer melted away, the easy targets evaporated.

Without the softening layer of snow to provide the glam-photo landscape shot, I was at a loss. In my view, my environment didn’t offer the best subjects for dramatic portraits. As a student of National Geographic, I envisioned grand vistas, exotic locales. How could I take great photos without great subjects?

Some have said that familiarity breeds contempt. I say that familiarity engenders blindness. For the creative mind, familiarity is the curse of existence. We live with a thing to the point that we can no longer see it for what it is.

For the prosaic, an ear is an ear. But but when properly considered, the whorls and caverns of an ear embody a wealth of nuance and design. Given time and opportunity, a thoughtful mind can get lost in its intricacies.

Thus it comes as no surprise that my omnivorous mind sought out less predictable targets, and suddenly the small world of Fred opened up to me.

A few shots from my nascent photographic explorations survive.

[Other Fred shots]

It took me a few decades to translate that experience from image to words in the form of the Fred books, but it was a lesson that would serve me well.  And I commend such thoughtful cross-discipline considerations to the general populace.

Forget thinking outside the box. There is no box. Dare to think. Dare to do.

 

The Wheelbarrow

The Red Wheelbarrow
William Carlos Williams

 so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

In 1974, winter hit Fred, Texas, morphing the landscape into an alien world, an ice planet that mocked the wardrobe of the average citizen.

But I was not an average citizen. I had survived the Yankee Exile, served my time at the pleasure of the American Gulag in the land that was high in the middle and round on both ends. I had the wardrobe. And I had a camera.

Actually, it was Dad’s Argus C3, but who was counting?

It had been a year that had rocked the nation. In the heat of summer, Nixon had become the first (and only) president to resign from office. The long national nightmare was over. A month later, Ford pardoned Nixon, prolonging the delirium tremens for the more rabid of his enemies, but as a teenager informed by the satiric stylings of The National Lampoon Radio Show, I saw the whole melodrama as more of a comic farce.

The sturm und drang of the Passion of the President seemed as relevant to my everyday existence as a lover’s quarrel between the captain of the football team and the head cheerleader. I was as likely to stumble into a fairy tale cast as the knight in shining armor as to peer into the machinery of such exalted proceedings.

With one exception. The  lottery held every winter—the day you discovered your odds of being drafted—was controlled by the President.

Like every other America teenage male, I watched the televised proceedings, tracking the likelihood that James Taylor and I would be pressed into service. It was a roller coaster ride. (Although I was pretty sure JT was safe. He had a history that rendered him an unlikely candidate. I, on the other hand, lacked access to the Class A pharmaceuticals that might grant me a similar immunity.)

The first year of the lottery I drew 24, a sure thing for being drafted if I were not four years away from being eligible. Still, it was sobering. The second year I got 254 and breathed a sigh of relief. The third year I got 44. I was still a year away from being eligible, with a whole new drawing a year away to give me a new number, but the threat was becoming more real by the moment.

The next drawing would be for keeps.

Then the unthinkable happened. The next winter, the draft, which had been in place since WWII, was abolished. What else could Nixon do to me? Not much as it turned out. Seven months later he resigned.

By then I was in my first semester of college, enjoying a second level of liberation. There’s a thing thing about being a preacher’s kid. You live in a fishbowl, every aspect of your life under the scrutiny of the general populace. When I went off to college, I left that behind. I was just another citizen.

It’s hard for the average citizen to understand how liberating it is to suddenly find yourself an average citizen. Or how daunting the challenge of redefining yourself. There are so many options. So many potential landmines.  And I stepped on a few.

Given my default operating position as an observer and my father’s lifelong interest in photography, it’s not surprising that I found the appeal of a life behind the viewfinder.

I had escaped the horror of war. I had been afforded the luxury of redefining myself. The future was a blank canvas awaiting my first brush strokes. And the uncharacteristic ice storm in Fred, Texas, offered me a spartan palette for the purpose.

I was born during an equally singular ice storm in Fort Worth. Now, eighteen years later, I spied the wheelbarrow abandoned behind the pump house. Somebody, probably me, had left it out.

Countless times I had hauled dirt and sod in that wheelbarrow while helping Dad implement his perpetual mission to leave both the physical and spiritual world better than he found it.

The clean lines of shed and shadow, of wheel and handle against a pristine layer of snow called to me. I donned a coat, grabbed the Argus C3 and light meter, and stepped into the cold.

Wheelbarrow

Evidently Dad had felt the same urge two decades earlier during an ice storm in Fort Worth while attending the seminary.

IceTree

He obviously had the advantage of years of expertise in technique, but I’ve heard it’s better to be lucky than to be good. I had the advantage of a better subject.

But I can’t help but think that we shared a propensity toward life behind the viewfinder, searching for beauty and purpose in this fallen world.

 

Photomicrography Low-Tech Style

My first exposure to photography was prompted by the need to have something to present at a science fair. Three guesses who came up with photomicrography. Obviously not me, since I had never heard of it.

Of course, we had a microscope. I mean, who doesn’t? Here we were in Fred, Texas in 1972 and we didn’t have a shotgun or a fishing pole or a football, but we had a microscope and a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. We also had an International Harvester tractor, but that was an aberration.

Dad had his Argus C3, a cable for triggering time exposures, and a tripod. Everything a growing boy needs for his science project. The drama that ensued was one of many of Dad’s lessons in creativity and perseverance.

Warning: We now venture into the realm of technical detail.

We set up the microscope on the kitchen table, pointed it at a human hair (mine), and positioned the camera above it. There was the matter of focusing, but Dad was all over it like a tick on a June bug.

Step 1: Focus the image in the microscope.

Step 2: Set the focus on the camera at infinity.

Step 3: Track the light coming out of the eyepiece of the microscope by raising and lowering a sheet of paper until you find the point where the circle is smallest.

Step 4: Position the lens of the camera at that point.

Step 5: Take a half-dozen or so time-exposure shots of varying duration, from one to ten seconds. Repeat for the next subject.

Step 6: Take the film to Silsbee (the nearest town sixteen miles away) to be processed.

We got back 24 photos of a white rabbit in a snowstorm. I was mystified. Not surprising since everything about the process was as foreign to me as a date with the head cheerleader.

Dad deduced that the culprit was the ambient light in the room. He fashioned a tube from a toilet paper roll, taped a flat piece of cardboard at the bottom with a hole just big enough to fit over the eyepiece of the microscope, and stuffed black cloth around the top.

Twenty-four hours later we had a set of prints featuring a blurry human hair in a circle of light on a black field. It became obvious that if we were to rely on a trial-and-error approach, we required a shorter time between the T and the E.

No problem. All we needed was our own personal darkroom. However, we ran into a scheduling problem. To be precise, outfitting a darkroom wasn’t going to happen on a preacher’s salary in a million years, and the science fair was just a week away.

As I pictured my academic career disintegrating before my eyes, Dad announced that we might be able to pull it off with a Polaroid. I pointed out that we had Polaroids and darkrooms in equal quantity, but Dad was too busy explaining that while such a camera lacked everything that the true photographer desired, it delivered the one feature that we required: instant feedback.

The next day he walked in with a borrowed Polaroid and two packs of film. We were in business. That is, until the first few attempts produced a reasonable representation of a black bunny on a moonless night. It turned out that the Polaroid was fully automatic. Holding down the button didn’t hold the aperture open like it did on the Argus C3.

Dad explained the problem. “With a real camera, you pick an f-stop and then use a light meter to set the length of the exposure. Somehow the Polaroid figures all that out for you. But how do it know?”***

He examined the front of the camera and noticed a small lens next to the main lens. “Ah, a built-in light meter.” He then used tape and cardboard to fashion a cover for the light meter that could be pulled away without disturbing the set up.

A few minutes later we had our first successful image. In a few hours I had everything I needed to build a display for the science fair.

[Photos from microscope.]

Even so, the experience failed to endear me to photography as a pastime. That came later.


*** A mechanic, a sales guy, and a redneck are discussing the greatest invention ever.

The mechanic says, “It’s the automobile. It gave us mobility and changed society forever.”

The sales guy says, “No, it was the telephone. It revolutionized communications, made anyone accessible to anyone else, anywhere in the world.”

The redneck says, “It’s the thermos.”

The other two say, “How is that?”

The redneck says, “Well when you put something hot in there it stays hot right?”

The mechanic says, “Yeah.”

“And when you put something cold in there it stays cold right?”

The sales guy says, “Of course, it’s a thermos.”

The redneck says, “But how do it know?”

 

The Camera

[Image Argus C3]

Dad was 10 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and when his brother died at Guadalcanal. He was 14 when the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrendered. He was 21 when a WWII hero beat out an intellectual liberal to break the 20-year hold the Democrats had on the presidency.

He’d married my mother the year before. A few years later the kids showed up, two years apart in stair-step fashion. It  was the Fifties, the golden age of the slide projector.

[perhaps a video of vacation slide shows?]

Somewhere along the way he bought an Argus C3, The Brick, a solid little workhorse that was one of the most popular cameras ever produced.

Of course he started off with film, but a guy in the Fifties with a new family and a fascination with technology isn’t going to be satisfied stuffing scallop-edged prints into the little stick-on photo corners mashed onto the coarse black pages of a photo album.

A real man planted the tripod opposite the couch in front of the picture window (drapes drawn), extended the vertical bar, raised the silver screen, and looped the triangular handle over the hook. Then he positioned the slide projector on the coffee table, adjusting the front leg to target the center of the screen, loaded a tray of slides, and signaled a kid to kill the lights. Popcorn optional.

And boy did we have slides. Baby pics. First step pics. Birthday photos with the party hat and the candles. And then came the vacation slideshows.The Henry Ford Museum. The Statue of Liberty. The Smithsonian. The Grand Canyon. The Petrified Forest. The Arizona Meteor Crater (which could contain the entire town of Fred, Texas). Redwood National Park. Disneyland. We managed to hit the park on July 4, 1972, so the fireworks and the Parade of Lights were particularly impressive, and by then Dad was quite accomplished in managing exposures. Unfortunately, all those photos were lost in a multitude of moves.

A few years later I caught the bug and burned a few rolls of film myself. But that’s another story.

Life, Jazz, and Cameras

“Life is a lot like jazz. It’s best when you improvise.” – George Gershwin

And jazz is best experienced live in a small club packed with true believers.

Then amazing, astounding things happen. Feats of prodigious skill and imagination. Allusions that make you laugh.  Soulful passages that pull a sigh out of you. Whispered melodies that move you to tears. All magnified by the energy of live music, the voyeuristic intimacy  of artists engaged in musical conversation, the realization that this thing unfolding before you in this sanctuary has never happened before and will never happen again.

For a brief moment you wonder how you can capture the lightining and immediately realize it’s like trapping a firefly in a jar. To try to own it is to kill it.

Instead, if you’re wise, you let it own you. You ride the roller coaster, face turned to the sky, hands raised to the heavens. And afterward, when you unbuckle the seat belt and climb out onto the platform, simultaneously exhilarated and enervated, you smile with gratitude.

If you’ve never held a ticket for this roller coaster, come down to Austin on a Tuesday and I’ll sponsor you into this select fraternity. Festivities begin at 10 p.m. Prepare to hang for a few hours in the swirling maelstrom of the mystery of humanity and discover a different plane of spirituality wrapped up in the mathematics of chaos. Or just dig the amazing skill of three musicians at the top of their game.

I’m talking about Ephraim Owens, high priest of soulful jazz, Red Young, the Einstein of the Hammond B3, and Brannen Temple, percussive genius, all mixing it up in a way that will confound anything you may have experienced up to now.

If you want to take a different trip into life, come a few hours earlier to encounter James McMurtry. Not jazz, but an equally captivating and transcendent journey.

The point is that live jazz is a microcosm of life—best lived moment by moment and somehow diminished when encased in vinyl or cellophane or silicon.

The best of life is lived in the moment and savored in memory.

So what is it about a camera, because that is what we’re talking about, as you will discover, that calls to a man, urging him to forgo living the experience for the process of documenting the experience?

I can’t speak for my father, who emmersed himself in the discipline, but I know that life conspired to mold me into an observer rather than a participant. In addition to my nature, my peripatetic existence as a preacher’s kid (much like that of a military kid in this regard) aborted my feeble attempts at bonding with my peers. And when I finally achieved geographical stasis in my teen years, my academic leanings and lack of interest in hunting, fishing, or sports created a vast gulf between me and the denizens of the small East Texas town where I landed. And the preacher’s kid thing didn’t help either.

Playing the role of the observer. It is my besetting sin and the role I have spent a lifetime both embracing and attempting to surmount.

When you walk into a room, do you immediately gravitate to the center of the action or drift to the periphery and watch? If you embrace the latter, then I welcome you as a fellow citizen of that high desert. I have learned to play the court jester, but nature and nurture have formed me for an observer and chronicler of life as she is lived. Long before I sat down to write novels, I set out to capture the world from the back side of a lens.

Perhaps Dad had similar motivations. Or maybe he just liked cameras.

There’s this thing about my dad. He was born in Port Arthur, in the same town as Janis Joplin but twelve years before and a whole world away.

Space doesn’t permit me to establish the Southern Gothic setting of his derivation, but as the youngest in a family of two girls and four boys, he emerged as a polymath, six semester hours short of a doctorate, one of six people in North America who could read Sumerian cuneiform. His voracious curiosity couldn’t be constrained. It ranged from astronomy and cosmology to  theology, metallurgy, mechanical engineering, agronomy, and who knows what else,

So it is no surprise that he was captivated by the potential of the camera and embraced it and all its technical accouterments. I wish I could ask him what drew him to the back side of the lens, but I squandered that chance, living life and making my own way in the world.

Late in life I have come to the realization that of the many things we shared, photography looms large, even though we never discussed it. Perhaps if we had also shared a love of jazz, we might have found ourselves one night marinating in the primeval soup of that expression of life and could have ventured into a discussion of photography, and then I could tell you what drew him to the practice of recording life as an observer.

All I can say for sure is that it is something we shared separately. As was his nature, he embraced the technical side of it. As is my nature, I embraced the story of it.

And therein lies the story.

*If you want a sense of the man, check out the foreword to Living with Fred, and then click on the Richard Whittington link to see who showed up for his funeral. The most telling anecdote is the one from  my cousin Beau Vincent. Over a decade later I cannot read it without misting up. I may be a crusty old reptile, but even crocodiles shed tears.