Turtles, Frogs, Dogs and Desperation

A question that comes up from time to time is where do you find inspiration and story ideas?

The short answer “desperation.”

There was this big monster in the pressroom that had to be fed every day. I thought I had put The Monster behind me, but I’m filing more stories doing this blog than when I working for newspapers. When you’re doing feature-type stories, you can’t rely on plane crashes, fires and floods to bail you out. You have to dig up topics out of the thin air. Here’s an example of  how ideas pinball all over the place, and rarely in a straight line.

I was looking at some random negatives from Cape when this turtle caught my eye. This was a Steinhoff pet from back in the days when we were made of tougher stock. We didn’t know then that the tiny turtles, available in plastic bags at the SEMO Fair or in every pet store, were death on the half shell. Don’t believe me? Check out this FDA warning about Salmonella-bearing tiny turtles. (Click on any photo to make it larger. Don’t forget to wash your hands if you touch the turtle.)

But, like they say in the infomercials, there’s more. A turtle made me think of a frog.

Pomeroy Frog Jumping Contest

Athens (OH) Messenger photo partner Bob Rogers and I would make contact sheets of our film, cut out the frames we thought would make a photo essay, push them around on a layout sheet until they looked right, size them to fit and make the final prints. The “winners” would be taped to the layout sheet to guide the composing room in making up the page. The “losers” would either get tossed in a box or, if we thought they might fit into a future layout, they’d get tacked on the wall.

After I covered the Pomeroy Frog Jumping contest toward the end of June, 1968, I had one photo that made it on the Wall of Desperation. It languished there until October 1. The well was dry. Some days you just can’t find anything worth shooting. I reached up on the wall, ran the photo 8-1/8 inches wide and 12-3/8 inches deep with this cringe-inducing caption:

“Frost is just a frog’s hop away, so don’t let winter get the jump on you. Don’t let being bottled up until spring jar you, though; about the time it seems a long time coming, warm weather will spring out.”

Bob, my nominal boss, didn’t give me any grief. He’d been there himself.

October 2, the day it ran, seemed to be a good day to stay out of the office. The publisher gave us a lot of latitude, but I didn’t want to discover his outer limits.

Another dry day

There’s a reason why I bring up the frog, as much as I’d like to forget it.

I was having another one of those dry days. Nothing was clicking. I shot a sequence of a boy trying to make it home on his bike with a loaf of bread under his arm, but the situation was so weak I didn’t even bother to get out of the car to get the kid’s name.

Mrs. Nellie Vess

The shadows were getting longer and longer and the day was getting shorter and shorter. This time I didn’t even have the frog on the wall to plug the hole. I made a turn down a dusty gravel road near Trimble. That’s east of Nelsonville and south of Glouster. If you don’t know where those towns are, don’t look for Trimble.

I spotted Mrs. Nellie Vess, a couple of kids and a puppy on the porch of a modest frame house with asphalt shingle siding. The home had seen better days, but it was still neat and clean.

After introducing myself and chatting for a few minutes, Mrs. Vess invited me in for a cold glass of water. I normally don’t accept things when I’m on an assignment and I really wasn’t thirsty, but turning down the water would have hurt her feelings. I followed her through her well-kept house to the kitchen.

Taped up on the refrigerator was The Frog. “I just love that picture,” she said.

“Lonely no more”

“Lonely No More” was the headline I put on the page. My caption was sparse: Mrs. Nellie Vess was lonely. Not many people passed by her home in Trimble and those who did seldom stopped in to chat. That was before last week when Patty Sue – part beagle and part question mark – moved in.  “Now I’ve got lots of company,” she says. One of her frequent visitors is Rhonda Kay Judson, 5.

Stories should have a happy ending

Don’t you just love heart-warming stories with happy endings? It’s too bad that too many don’t turn out that way.

A few months after the story ran, my travels took me down that gravel road near Trimble. Mrs. Vess was sitting by herself on the porch. There was no Patty Sue. There were no neighbor kids. Mrs. Vess told me that she had to go into the hospital for a brief stay and she had to give Patty Sue away. She was lonely again.

I’d like to tell you that I stopped by to see Mrs. Vess to keep her company from time to time, but I’d be fibbing. I never saw her again. I was just starting to learn that getting emotionally involved with everyone I photographed would soon empty my empathy pot and lead to burnout or worse. I could empathize with my subjects long enough to capture their souls, but then I had to cut them loose.

I turned down her offer of a cold glass of water on the last visit. And, I didn’t look in the rearview mirror when I drove away down that dusty gravel road.



“That’s My Girlfriend”

Here is my obligatory Valentine’s Day post.

I followed Bill Robinson and Jesse King out to their home on Robinson Road, just outside Athens, Ohio, on a cold, snowy January day in 1969. You’ll be hearing more about what I was doing there and see more photos in the coming weeks. Click on the photos to make them larger.

If there had been a Hoarder’s TV show back then, these old farmer bachelors would have qualified. Not long after I picked my way through a maze of tunnels of debris inside the house, they led me to the kitchen. It was piled high with dirty dishes and food of ¬†indeterminate origin.

“Have you ever tried one of these before?

Jesse, who did most of the talking for the duo, reached onto the table, wiped off a fork on his overalls and thrust it into my hand. With the other hand, he pulled a bowl off the table. It contained something that was sort of lumpy. In the dim light, I couldn’t quite pull out what color it was, but it glowed vaguely green.

“Boy,” he said. (Remember he was the talkative one.) “Have you ever tried one of these before?

I could see where this was going and it didn’t look good.

  • If I said “yes,” I knew he he would say, “Well, I bet you’ve never had any as good as these.”
  • If I said, “no,” he’d say, “Well, dig in. You won’t find any better than these.” I was a gonner either way.

I looked at the dish and the fork and did a mental calculation: These old goats eat this stuff every day and it hasn’t killed them. “No, Jesse, I haven’t.”

“Well, dig in, You won’t find any better than these,” he said, predictably.

The ghostly apparition

I forked up a small quantity of the unknown dish. Before I could say anything, I noticed a ghostly white form floating into the room. “WOW! This stuff really works fast. I bet I could make a fortune selling this stuff on campus,” I thought.

Jesse turned to the apparition and said, “That’s my girlfriend.”

I never found out the girlfriend’s name nor what the mystery green dish was. (For the curious, it was sort of like a pickle, with a strange gritty crunch that was either some kind of seasoning or, more likely, sand. I didn’t ask for the recipe. There are some things you’re better off not knowing.)

Here’s MY girlfriend

I ran across this frame from a shoot of Grandma Gatewood, an extraordinary woman who, at the age of  67 was the first woman to hike the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail in one season. When I shot her on the Buckeye Trail near Logan, Ohio, in January of 1969, she was 81 and had done the Appalachian Trail two more times.

The day was beyond miserable. The rain aspired to turn cold enough to become snow; it was so foggy you couldn’t see 100 yards; there was icy snow melt ready to fill your shoes and the trail was a quagmire that would suck your boots off.

When I was editing the film, I was surprised to find two frames of Lila Perry before she became Lila Steinhoff. I hadn’t remembered that she had come along on the assignment. Let me tell you, even someone as dense as I am knew that if you could find a woman who would give you a look like this under those conditions, she was a definite keeper and you shouldn’t let her get away.

We were married in June of 1969.

Valentines past

If you want to see the ones who DID get away, check out my grade school Valentines rescued from Mother’s attic last year.

A Home Dies

I hate fires. Maybe it’s because I’m a pack rat, but I hate to see everything that someone owns go up in smoke and flames. Even if the owners have insurance, the most precious things can’t be replaced.

I’m going to be sneaking away from Southeast Missouri more frequently. The Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum in Altenburg has invited me to speak on the topic of regional photography at a conference this fall, so I’m digging through stuff that I’ve taken outside Missouri. When I publish here, I’ll try to find something to say about it that will still be interesting.

The Reid Fire

The January 6, 1969, front page of The Athens (OH) Messenger contained the fire shot at the top, along with a short news story with the 5Ws and H basics. On what we called The Picture Page, I ran three other photos.

A Home Dies

Sometimes it’s harder to write a short caption that it is a long one. I hate to think of how many times the floor around my desk was covered up with wadded-up carnations of false starts.

This wasn’t one of those nights. When I got back to the office, I slid a piece of copy paper into our battered old manual typewriter and banged out, “The Reids watched their home die last night. A man at the fire said nobody was hurt. He was only partly right. -30-“

I don’t know if that was good journalism, but it was how I felt sitting there smelling of smoke and still shivering from the cold, grateful that I had a house to go home to.

How do you cover a fire?

Hang around a fire station long enough and you’ll hear a firefighter use the term “good fire.” He or she doesn’t mean that they enjoy seeing someone’s home or business burn. What they mean is that “a good fire” is one that tests them and their abilities.

Photographers use the same language. That doesn’t mean that you don’t ache for the people you are photographing; it just means that you have to channel that empathy towards creating an image that will bring that tragedy home to the reader. You exist in a strange gray area where you aren’t a spectator, but you also aren’t a participant. You are the eyes of the community.

I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. In this case, I shot available light so I wasn’t popping a flash in their faces and I used a medium telephoto lens so I could stay back 15 or 20 feet.

“I was busy trying not to die”

I tried to salve my conscience by telling myself that my photographs might cause the community to rally to the family’s aid. After the fact, I’ve talked with victims of tragedies to see if my presence caused them any distress.

I photographed a highway patrolman being worked on by medics after he had been shot at a traffic stop, then I requested the assignment to cover his recuperation. On our first meeting, I took along a photo of him on the ground. “Did it bother you when I took this photo?” I asked him.

“Actually, I was so busy trying not to die that I didn’t even notice you were there,” he said with a twist of a smile.

A salute to the chimney savers

Small rural fire departments made up mostly or all of volunteers are sometimes called “chimney savers” because that’s often all that’s left at the end. That’s not the fault of these guys who put their lives on the line. By the time the volunteers get to the station, crank up the truck and arrive on the scene, a lot of time has passed. The three and four-minute response times we’re used to in cities might be 15 to 30 minutes in the country. On top of that, it’s unlikely that there will be a fire hydrant nearby. Water has to be relayed from where there is one or a pond or stream has be be drafted for a water supply.

If I got there about the same time as the truck, I’d set my camera aside to help the firefighters pull hose and get set up. Part of that was so they’d be more likely to help me get my story and photos; part of it was because that’s what you do in a small town. I also served as an extra set of eyes for them. Because I wasn’t actively involved in squirting wet stuff on red stuff, I could warn them of power lines, signs of a flashover or a wall or roof that looked like it might collapse.

Photo gallery of a fire

Here’s a selection of photos from that cold January night. It’s been 43 years since I last looked at these pictures. I see things in them today that I didn’t see when I edited the film originally. After I had made my selection of the two family photos that ran in the paper, I tuned out the other frames. I didn’t realize until 2012 the range of emotions I had captured.

I’m glad I’m not chasing sirens anymore. It’s been a long time since I’ve used the phrase “good fire,” too. Click on any photo to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the image to move through the gallery.


Martin Luther King Day

In the spring of 1968, I was photo editor of The Ohio University Post and a photography major. One of my classes – it might have been Magazine and Newspaper Photography – had us form up into teams. We had to pick a geographical area, then document what happened in that area for a week. Classmate Lyntha Scott Eiler was on The Athena, the university yearbook. The publications worked out of the student union building on the Main Green and, since we practically lived there anyway, we picked that as our geographical area. We recruited two more team members and set to work.

The first part of the project was boringly routine: college students playing around with dogs, sunning themselves on the War Memorial, just light-hearted stuff.

A gunshot changed everything

The mood of the campus changed in a heartbeat with a gunshot in Memphis, Tenn. Dr. Martin Luther King was dead.

Memorial service changed to sit-in

My team was lucky enough that our area was where a National Day of Mourning service was going to be held. When it broke up, the crowd moved a block north to the major intersection in town at Court and Union Streets to conduct a sit-in. This wasn’t unusual. That was the traditional spot for the annual Rites of Spring riot and anti-war protests. Cops and students would do a choreographed chicken dance, then everybody would break up and go home. Few arrests were made and teargas wasn’t used until after Kent State.

We could have had a riot

This time, though, a redneck Athens police captain decided he was going to literally throw the demonstrators off of his streets. He didn’t realize how raw emotions were. It was as close to sparking a race riot as Athens has ever come. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the students were allowed to block the street for a “reasonable” amount of time.

I’ve been afraid for years that we had to turn in our film as part of the project, but I ran across it last week. I’m going to save the bulk of the photos for the anniversary of the National Day of Mourning to give me a chance to track down some of the students so they can tell me what they remember of that day.

I don’t recall what grade we got on the project, but I’m pleased with what I’ve seen so far.