Capaha Lagoon: Funny What You Forget

The Southeast Missourian’s Don Gordon was a reporter of the old school. There was no flash and trash to him. He did what are dismissed today as “dull but necessary” stories – the kind that keep politicians and bureaucrats honest. I learned a lot from him in the three years we worked together.

I tried to emulate him, down to this crazy way he’d wrap a leg around the typewriter on the stand in front of him, like he was afraid it was going to sneak away or someone was going to steal it. I’m sure he was amused by my imitation, but he was kind enough never to make fun of me. When he got into a rhythm, his typing sounded like a machine gun going off.

He had kind of a long, hang-dog look and a perpetual five-o’clock shadow. I never saw him get stressed or angry, no matter what was going on.

We kept track for a long time; the last time we saw each other, he was working in Paducah, Ky. Then, he fell off the radar screen.

He always mentioned his favorite picture

Whenever we got together, he never failed to mention his favorite photo: a shot he said I took of a couple of kids fishing in the Capaha Park Lagoon oblivious to a dog eating their lunch.

I never had the heart to tell him that I thought he was mistaken. I couldn’t ever recall taking a picture like that. In fact, I had a sequence of photos of kids fishing that I thought he might have been thinking of, but none of them had a dog in them.

Still, I’ll take compliments anyplace I can get them. If someone wants to credit me for what they thought was a memorable photo, I’ll nod my head and agree.

Son of a gun, I DID shoot a picture like that

It was a single frame clipped off the front or back of a roll of film and stuck in with some unrelated photos. The date on the outside of the glassine sleeve says 4/21/67. That date might be right. It looks like it could have been spring. The kids are wearing sweatshirts or sweaters and there are leaves on the trees.

Don’t doubt the Master

Just goes to show that you should never question your old mentor when he tells you that you done good.

Barber Ed Unger Retired in 1983

Cape Girardeau Barber Ed Unger

The Southeast Missourian’s Out of the Past column on December 13, 2008 carried this note:

25 Years Ago: Feb. 13, 1983

After a million or more snips, Ed Unger is putting away his hair clippers and razor and retiring from the barber profession; Unger began barbering in 1935 on Main Street; he has been associated with several shops virtually all over Cape Girardeau.

Ed Unger knew my head well

Back in the days when I still had hair to cut, Ed Unger was most likely the guy who did it.

I don’t know who this kid is, but I was probably about that age or younger when Ed gave me my first trim.

The best part was that he didn’t mind if I read comic books while he was working away.

A Machine for Contemplation

Wright Morris, in his book, God’s Country and My People, described the barber chair this way:

A machine for contemplation, a throne for reflection, a couch for taking in or giving out information, capable of elevation, bodily suspension, facial and tonsorial transformation, the Iron Age went on to more imposing constructions, but none of them so well scaled to the nature of man.

Seated on a cushioned board placed across the chair arms, I first appraised the world from a point of elevation, observed my new head emerge from my old one, experienced the baptism of green tonic, held my breath in the cloud of fragrant talcum, and as I descended, heard the voice of authority pronounce the code word, “Next.”

Cape Girardeau Barber Ed UngerI have my own throne

When my brother Mark said that a buddy’s dad was selling three barber chairs from his shop, I told him to snatch one up for me. It took a U-Haul trailer to get it from Missouri to Florida and three friends to help get it into the house, but it’s been ensconced in my living room for over 35 years. It’s getting a little tired, but grandson Malcolm still likes to be pumped up and down in it.

Don’t discuss politics

My hair was a bit shaggy when I started working at The Athens (OH) Messenger in 1968, so I hopped into a barber chair to be made more presentable. At some point in the conversation, I mentioned my new job.

I was stretched out in the chair while he shaved under my neck with a straight razor when he asked, “Do you know ‘Joe Smith’, who’s running for whatever?”

“Yeah, I shot him last week. There’s a guy who’s a couple bricks short of a load.”

His next two sentences were, “He’s my uncle, ” and “Oops.”

I didn’t bleed much

I didn’t bleed much, but my conversation in a barber shop is now limited

  • “Mornin.'”
  • “The usual.”
  • “Thanks.”

Why Pictures Don’t Run

Bill East and Russell DoughtyBill East posted this picture of two 1966 Outstanding Seniors posing at the sundial outside the old Public Library at the Common Pleas Courthouse grounds.

That’s Russell Doughty on the left and Bill on the right.

I remembered Bill and Russ, but I didn’t recall taking that picture until I stumbled across the negative this evening. It was shot as a full-frame vertical originally.

Sometimes photos are cropped to save space or to remove distracting elements to tell the story better.

Sometimes there are other considerations.

Outstanding Seniors Russell Doughty - Bill EastWhen I looked closely at the plaque on the sundial, I noticed something I hadn’t seen when I pushed the shutter: a commonly-used four-letter word beginning with the letter S. [As always, click on the photo to make it larger.]

That turned a well-composed full-length vertical into a tightly-cropped square.

“IT” Happens

I’m not the only photographer who has had that happen: The Simon and Garfunkel boxed set Old Friends includes a live version of the song A Poem on the Underground Wall, prefaced by an anecdote from Garfunkel about its origin: he explains that a photo shoot for the cover of the album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. was ruined because the subway wall they had intended to use as a backdrop had obscenities written on it. Something that they didn’t discover until AFTER the shoot, according to one version.

Students wear costumes to class at Central High School

You find out who your friends are

My debate partner Pat Sommers, in the front row in the white sheet, attempts to send a message. Fortunately, I had other frames.

The Tiger was less lucky with a photo of a group of athletes, one or more of whom flashed the single-digit salute. It wasn’t noticed until after the photo was engraved, the page made up and ready to go to press. Just before we decided to kill the picture and lay out the page differently, one of the engravers thought he had a solution. He’d take some acid and carefully etch out the offending digit.

The only problem was that he wasn’t successful. When the paper was distributed, the digit was still there, except now it was surrounded by a white circle. I vaguely remember that there were repercussions. If I had been given a vote, I would have held out for neutering.

It’s not just people you have to watch out for

When I got to West Palm Beach, I was given an assignment for The Palm Beach Post to shoot a major piece on a small town that had gone on an annexation binge. They gambled that they could score a bunch of tax money if they acquired a bunch of undeveloped land, that wouldn’t require services for many, many years. (Or at least until the current crop of politicians moved on.)

The tiny village had a distinctly rural feel, so I was very pleased to shoot a photo of a pony looking through a fence within a block of what passed for the main drag. The editors liked it well enough to run it huge on the section front as lead art on Sunday.

Saturday afternoon, while the page was being put together for an advance press run, I got a radio call from an engraver.

“I can’t get in touch with any editors or your boss, but your name is on the picture and I think you need to come in.”

Do you see anything wrong with this picture?

When I got there, the engraver asked, “Do you see anything wrong with this picture?”

“No, you did a great job of separating it. It looks just like the original.”

“Take a closer look,” he said. “Let me give you a hint. There’s something in this picture that isn’t a fence post.”

Indeed, he was right. That pony was REALLY happy to see me. Fortunately, I had another frame. The engraver got a six-pack of thanks from me.

One-Shot Frony

GD Fronabarger c 1967

Everyone’s been shot by Frony

There’s probably nobody who lived in Southeast Missouri between 1927 and 1986 who hadn’t had his or her picture taken by One-Shot Frony.

G.D. Fronabarger started working at The Southeast Missourian in 1927 and stayed 59 years.

When I knew him, he was called One-Shot because he seldom took more than one picture per assignment. He’d line up a group shot with 50 people in it, growl through the cigar clenched between his teeth, “Don’t blink. I’m taking one shot,” push the shutter release and walk off.

He and I had a somewhat tense relationship in our early days. I was a reporter who got paid $5 for each shot that ran… when one ran. Because most of the staffers liked my candid style, as opposed to Frony’s more formal posed pictures, they’d connive to slip assigments to me on days when they knew Frony wasn’t available. He was gruff with everybody, but it always felt like he was a little more gruff with me.

Frony defended a controversial picture

Barge fatalities 12-05-1966That all changed after I went out on an early-morning spot news run Dec. 5, 1966.

A 19-year-old and another man were cleaning the inside of a closed barge with gasoline when they were overcome by the fumes. I took a front-page picture of the young man laying face-down on the cold barge deck while rescue workers lifted his partner out of the hold.

It was the first body I had ever seen outside of a funeral home – certainly the only one of someone my age – and it was one of the few I can recall The Missourian running. Seeing that, and writing the obituary of a kid I went to kindergarten with, showed me just how fragile life is. I never forgot it.

Predictably, the paper came in for a lot of criticism

I was surprised one day when I was in a coffee shop and overheard Frony defending “the kid” who took the picture to someone who was bending his ear. After that, Frony treated me a lot differently. Maybe he felt like I had paid my dues and had what it took to be a real newspaper photographer.

Fred Lynch is preserving Frony’s early work

Southeast Missourian Photographer Fred Lynch

I dropped in to see Fred Lynch, a Missourian photographer since 1975. I had seen his work over the years, but had never met him. While we were sharing war stories, he said that he was involved in a project to digitize all of Frony’s 4×5 negatives.

Frony was an early adopter of 35mm technology. He showed me a long telephoto lens one afternoon, and I asked what he planned to use it for.

“I’m going to stand here and shoot corruption in Illinois,” he groused, without a hint of a smile.

Fred pulled out a series of prints that showed a completely different side of Frony, the photographer. There were images that would qualify as art in any museum. He managed to capture a portrait of his era in a way I hope my pictures do.

I’m not sure how The Missourian will ultimately use the photos, but I’ll be first in line to buy the book if they publish one.

Frony’s Twister Tornado Warning Alarm

Tornado Warning Alarm owned by G.D. FronabargerI happened to be in town when many of Frony’s possessions were auctioned off. (A copy of the picture of him on the river front was one of the things that sold. I was touched that he had hung onto it for all those years.)

One thing that caught my eye was a Twister Tornado Warning Alarm. It was a quirky device that had a metal can in the middle. If the air pressure dropped suddenly, a buzzer would sound and a light would light. It had no practical use, but it was neat.

Auctioneer sweetened the deal

I bid two or three bucks and figured I had a clear shot. The auctioneer, though, wanted to boost the bid, so he threw in two pairs of Frony’s old shoes. One was an orangish color not seen in nature. NOW folks were getting interested. I think I finally had to go to five or seven bucks for my trophy, plus the bleeping shoes.

I felt foolish enough buying the Twister Torado Warning Alarm (which, by the way, is on permanent loan to the Mark Steinhoff Memorial Museum in St. Louis), the shoes made me feel REALLY foolish.

Frony Shoes are still in service

Frony Shoes, modeled by Matt SteinhoffIt turned out that Kid Matt, who was in high school at the time, thought they were the most comfortable things he’d ever found. And, showing that he had inherited his fashion sense from me, he insisted on wearing them in public.

I asked him the other night what ever happened to his Frony Shoes.

He was more than happy to pull them out of his closet to pose for this picture.

I guess you could say that the Steinhoffs have walked a mile in Frony’s shoes.