Cape Central’s Dreaded Rope Climb

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I never played any team sports and, despite the fact that I’ve covered just about every big sporting event to come along, I’ve never had any interest in any them. Super Bowls, championship golf tournaments and college bowl games were just another day at the office. I’m a cyclist, but that’s pretty much a solitary sport, at least the way I do it.

PE was probably my least favorite class at Central High School. The rope climb, which was intimidating when I was a freshman, became one of my favorite challenges later on after I had spent a summer loading and unloading trucks for my dad’s construction company.  I could zip up the rope using only my upper body after that workout.

Still, every time when I got up to the top of the rope and just before I slapped the rafter holding the collar that secured the rope, I wondered how often that thing got checked.

“What’s a Jesus Nut?”

I had similar concerns when I was doing a story on the sheriff’s helicopter (that’s me dangling in the rescue sling during a practice). On the first day, I asked the standard question, “What happens if the engine quits? Do we gently auto-rotate down or do we drop like a rock.?”

“Let’s find out,” Andy, the pilot said, gaining some altitude over a rural area. He cut the engine and we gradually descended toward what looked like a smooth, green pasture. Just before we touched down he fired up the engine and did an abrupt pull-up.

It wasn’t a green pasture, it was a green, algae-covered pond. We agreed that we wouldn’t mention the experiment in my story. Andy’s dead now, so I guess the statute of limitations has expired.

After establishing that a helicopter WILL set you down relatively gently if you aren’t aiming at a farm pond, the pilot said the worst thing that could happen would be a failure of the Jesus Nut.

Seeing the expression on my face, he explained that the Jesus Nut is the thing on the very tip top of the shaft that holds the rotor on.  “If it fails, ‘JESUS!!!!’ is about all you’ll have time to say before things go REALLY bad.”

Now, I know what they should have called the thing that held the rope to the rafter.

Reversible orange and black gym uniforms

The girls had blue and / or green suits that ranged from “hideous” to almost not too bad, depending on what year you went to school.  The boys were luckier. They had basic shorts with a shirt that was orange on one side and black on the other so you could tell teams apart.

These guys look like they are formed into lines so they can duck under the divider, run across the gym, perform some act of pain and run back. I don’t see any smiles.

Coach Goodwin checks his list

Coach Robert Goodwin and I had an uneasy relationship. Well, it was uneasy from my perspective. I tried to stay as far below his radar as possible. Since I possessed no jock characteristics, he generally overlooked me.

I DID make a mistake one day. He had us running endless laps of the track. “It’s good for you. Every lap burns out the nicotine equal to a cigarette.”

I don’t know what kind of scientific study he was quoting, but I made the mistake of piping up, “I’ve got a problem, then, Coach. I don’t smoke. I’m building up a huge nicotine deficit that’s going to come back and haunt me some day.”

He was not amused. I’m not sure, but I think I’m still supposed to be running around that track.

Calisthenics: Are we having fun?

If the weather was bad or the coach’s mood was bad, it was push-up, chin-up, jumping jack, sit-up time.

When I got to SEMO, phys ed was a requirement. By the time I got all the academic classes scheduled, the only PE class open was something with a fancy name that was really nothing but calisthenics. The instructor told us on the first day that we would do a series of tests to establish our baseline and that our final grade would depend on how much better we were at the end of the semester.

My mamma didn’t raise a fool. When I took the baseline test, the coach was appalled at what lousy shape I was in. At the end of the semester, though, he was convinced that he was a great instructor because of my tremendous improvement.

The next semester, the only thing open was Beginning Wrestling. This did not sound good. The first day, two or three of us showed up; the coach said to come back for the next class to see if anyone else signed up. On the second day, he said the the group was too small, so he was going to fold us into the Advanced Wrestling class. I didn’t like the way that sounded.

I showed up for the first day of Advance Wrestling, took one look around the room and decided that I liked all of the body parts I was born with and dropped the class. That’s when I decided to transfer to Ohio University, where PE was not required.

The Principal Was Not Amused

I don’t know if I was driving by the school or if someone tipped me off, but I took a picture of the American Flag flying upside down over the Nell Holcomb School on Sept. 7, 1967. The flag in that position is an international signal for distress.

International Distress Signal

The Southeast Missourian ran the picture with some kind of cute cutline.

The ink on the paper must have still been wet when the principal called to ream me out for embarrassing him and his school. You can’t really SEE purple veins sticking out on someone’s forehead over the telephone, but I had a clear sense that they were.

After letting him vent for awhile, I gave him the only answer I could come up with: “I’M not the one who raised the flag.”

That reminds me of an important lesson that proved more valuable than anything I was ever taught in school.

How to deal with irate callers

I was dealing with an irate caller at The Jackson Pioneer one afternoon, being as nice and polite as only a well-brought-up high school kid can be.

When I got off the phone, the editor, with a bemused look on his face, said, “Kid (they always called me Kid), let me show you how to deal with that kind of call.”

He picked up the telephone receiver and said into it, “Yes, mam, that was clearly the most egregious act of nincompoopery that has been committed since the cooling of the earth’s crust. If it was within my power, I would have that incompetent jerk flogged, if not shot, as an example to the rest of the profession.”

Hang up

‘Now,” he continued, “here’s the trick. Right in the middle of your diatribe, hang up. Right in the middle of the sentence. Nobody would ever think you’d hang up on yourself; they’re going to assume it was a telephone glitch. If you’re lucky, you’ve managed to work them out of their mad and you’ll never hear from them again. To be on the safe side, though, NOW would be a good time to walk across the street for a cup of coffee. Let one of your coworkers be the one to catch the call if she’s still got bile to spill.”

The only thing they remembered

After I moved out of the newsroom and into telecommunications, I’d tell that story when I was training call center personnel. I never actually heard a customer service agent do that, but I know that it was usually the only thing they’d mention from their training when I’d run into them in the hallway years later.

Capaha Park Lagoon Ices over in 1968

Treading on thin ice, literally

Cape Girardeau's Capaha Park Lagoon frozen over January 1968Four folks brave – or foolish – enough to ignore a DANGER sign walk on the ice covering the Cape Girardeau Capaha Park Lagoon in late 1967 or early 1968.

This picture was on the end of a roll of film of buildings I was shooting for The Southeast Missourian’s year-end Achievement Edition. (In internal Missourian-speak, that was called the Atomic Edition. Never did learn why.)

When I came home from Ohio University on Christmas break, editor John Blue asked if I’d drive all over Southeast Missouri taking pictures of new construction.


  • Shoot all of the new commercial buildings you can find in each town.
  • Shoot a handful of new or remodeled residential buildings with a value of more than $25,000. (For awhile, I thought I might have a future as a property appraiser.)
  • Start at the far end of the circulation area and work my way to the center so they didn’t have to pay me mileage to backtrack.

Easy money for a college student

Most of the rolls of film had a note on them that said, “Printed 1/11/68,” so I’m going to assume they were shot within a week or 10 days of that date. It was a pretty good gig. Five dollars a shot, plus mileage. I’m sure I scored a couple hundred bucks for a week’s work.

That was good money in those days. When I left The Missourian to go to school in Ohio, I think I was making about $80 or $90 a week as a reporter.

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.