Essays taken from a weekly newspaper column published in the Washington County News, Washington, Kansas. Look for my book, "Dispatches From Kansas," available from Amazon.com, or from the author.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Friday, March 26, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Great Bend edition
Last days, last thoughts (Part 1)
Desperation sets in as the final days of my Vernal Equinox Project bleed away. Four days before the grand finale I didn’t want to go anywhere much less aimlessly search for an image but then I remembered a conversation I’d had several weeks ago with a friend. The sun was low but not that low when I set out for the ghost town of Cleburne, and this time I brought the Glock.
Some places possess a menacing aura completely at odds with their pastoral settings, as if the ghosts of past souls linger against their will and none too happy for it. I’m reminded of the forgotten campground in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and of an old stone house in a hollow along the foothills of the Sangre de Christos outside of Las Vegas, N.M. And others, the litany goes on, and what’s surprising about the list is that I don’t consider myself particularly well-traveled. I’ve certainly never sought out places of paranormal influence, indeed I prefer to leave them to their own dark deliberations. In Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring there’s a scene where Frodo and entourage are trying to enter the abandoned dwarf mines of Moria, and Boromir tosses a rock in a dark pool of water. They’re frustrated at being blocked by a massive gate, harried by all sorts of evil creatures and Boromir’s act is as impetuous and angry as it is regrettable. You know he shouldn’t have done it, that something will awaken that should have been left sleeping. Some waters are best left undisturbed.
I won’t say Cleburne is that way. A good haunting would be more preferable than what the place has degenerated to, a hangout for louts and drunks, most of whom appear to be armed and eager to crank off dozens of rounds when the mood strikes them. From the littered shell casings and empty beer cans (all samples of the least expensive alcoholic beverage known to man), the old town of Cleburne is often a free-fire zone no sane person would care to visit.
And all the more distressing because of it. Its jewel-like setting tucked against the low hills bordering the Big Blue was an ideal spot for a town, and for a while it prospered as most small rural towns did, even if insular what with the conditions of the roads and the mode of travel. Like Randolph, Irving, Mariadahl and others, it was dissolved by the creation of Tuttle Creek Reservoir, an ill-named (some would say deceptively-named) flood control project in the 1950s. What remains is a small grassy park with a few splintery swing sets, mismatched picnic tables covered with an awning plus several frost-heaved sidewalks disappearing into the encroaching woods. At one time a small house was visible through the trees but on my return visit there was nothing left but a charred foundation. The only building of any kind was a toppled outhouse. Below the town a stone-arch bridge crossed a narrow trickle of water. Most visitors probably never see it because of the dense woods, and indeed in summer when trees and shrubs are leafed out it recedes into the vegetated background.
To the south stretches a wide slough, from which rose a din of thousands of chorus frogs. With the late afternoon sun breaking through the clouds for the first time in days their songs gave the place a festive, springtime air, lightening somewhat the gloomy atmosphere that seems to perpetually endure. It didn’t prevent me from slipping the pistol under my sweatshirt, though. It wasn’t ghosts I worried about, but people.
But any high hopes I might have brought to the venture were quickly dashed. There really wasn’t much to frame or shoot, as if the brooding ghost town repelled creativity or vision. A nonstick veneer meant to send packing the itinerant artist. Later I was relieved to learn that I was not alone in feeling unwanted at Cleburne. A friend confided that he and his wife had regularly camped there for years until they chose to seek alternatives. When asked the reason, he just smiled and said, “You know why.”
The bridge was my only chance at redemption. As if deliberately derailing any likelihood of success, I made the mistake of wandering down with my normal lens instead of a wide angle that the bridge patently called for. Walking back through thorny locusts under that oppressive air didn’t appeal to me as much as making a rapid getaway, so I used what I had. It struck me that some days the magic is there and a photographer can do no wrong while other days the photographer couldn’t take a good picture if his life depended on it. David DuChemin called it the “suck-mode.” I’d classify Cleburne in the latter category. One image I thought almost perfect refused all manipulations in Photoshop, Lightroom and a host of presets, leaving me with the bitter reminder of a What the Duck cartoon where the duck tells a cohort who’s spent all day trying to fix an image, “Around here we call that ‘polishing a turd.’” My polish job ended up in the trash.
I used to believe that if you did something on a daily basis eventually you’d get so good at it that it came effortlessly, sort of a magical transference of creative genius bestowed by the gods of expression. From what I read from seasoned photographers, that’s not the case. Some days you can do no wrong and some days you should have stayed in bed, but then you never know until you’re neck deep in failure. For the past week I’d felt dried up and this only heightened the sense. So much for practice makes perfect. We’ve been lied to from day one. It was time to go home and lick my wounds, and to plan the final push.
(To be continued)
Monday, March 22, 2010
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Two more because I gotta
Vernal Equinox Project: Day 79
Friday, March 19, 2010
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Vernal Equinox Project: Day 77
Where the road takes you
The former road, now a spongy leafy path unmarked by tire tracks, meandered crookedly through dense stands of cedars huddled beneath the outswept arms of bur oaks. Shadows pooled in a deep draw to my left. After a hundred feet or so the road broke into a small clearing dominated by a tall barn, its upper beams exposed like rows of rotted teeth. On either side were two smaller outbuildings, one a rusted railcar, the other galvanized tin whose siding hung in tatters. It was unearthly still, even the incessant cries of snow geese heading to roost along the river having died away. Not a breath of air moved.
I waited at the clearing’s opening and listened. The sun dropped another degree to brush the tops of the distant trees. Clearly I was running out of light. But I hesitated and waited a few moments longer, restless eyes roving the gathering shadows, ears alert even above the incessant ringing that stands as an eternal reminder of a misspent youth with guns, and here I was again, ready to tackle the world at full-tilt boogie.
I reached under my jacket and hauled out the Glock. Okay, I thought, let’s do this.
More frequently than I care to admit I question my sanity for committing to another photographic project. A friend once told me that as he was being schmoozed about a job he wanted nothing to do with, he tuned out the chatter to formulate a resounding answer why he could not be involved. When the time came for a response he opened his mouth to say “no” and heard “yes” instead, much to his consternation.
“I hate it when that happens,” he said.
We let emotion snare us rather than letting reason dictate its own intractable logic. It’s also difficult to say no to something you find meritorious. Beneath the obvious pitfalls of dissociative behavior lies a comical tendency toward indulging in Quixotic quests. Jousting with windmills is as much a part of our nature as staring at the night sky and wondering what’s out there. Not that we’ll ever truly know but we’re damn sure not about to give up trying.
Like my friend, I said yes when I should have said no. Not long ago another friend asked if I wished the project were done with, to which I replied that I was indeed quite eager for its conclusion. Afterward, my response sounded hollow and false. Something else is at play here than me running about with a camera though I haven’t the means to decode it. The best I can explain is that we’re drawn to the things that fulfill us, also that it’s a one-way street. Once started, there’s no turning back. That’s not to say that a vacation now and then isn’t warranted.
Taking a break was uppermost in my mind when I dragged myself kicking and pouting to the truck one evening last week. My destination was two abandoned barns along East River Road, both tucked back into woods with only their upper beams visible to mark their presence. Just getting there posed its own set of difficulties not the least being the deep muck and soft shoulders. Parking was a whole ‘nuther thing, leaving me queasy about pulling over too far and not at all confidant that four-wheel-drive could free me.
At the first site I slowly angled onto the shoulder and felt the truck sinking but at a manageable rate. I walked down a grassy two-track to a small clearing in which one large barn stood surrounded by two smaller outbuildings. It was a lovely spot and I was thinking of tracking down the owner to ask if we could camp there some evening when from the nearest outbuilding rose a shriek of metal on metal followed by scraping and clattering. The noise was like a knife cleaving my resolve. Making it worse was the memory of my asking myself whether I should pack a pistol and the answer that I wouldn’t need it. Not listening to one’s hunches is a surefire recipe for disaster and one at which I unfortunately qualify as an expert. It wasn’t always so but age and a laid-back rural lifestyle seem to have dulled my edge.
While mentally berating my lack of foresight I looked around for a solid stick or plank to use as a weapon if needed and found nothing. For a long time I stood there paralyzed with indecision until a barred owl called. It was in a tree about ten feet away, its liquid black eyes boring into mine as if challenging my loutish trespass. Who? it asked. I wanted to reply that I often don’t know myself but instead backed away to make my escape. Perhaps the other barn held fewer intangibles.
It didn’t. The road narrowed to a worn center track with greasy edges, making me worry that I’d meet another vehicle. The barn itself looked very interesting but the shoulder was black with muck and impossible to navigate. I drove an extra mile until I found a place to turn around, and headed for pavement and something strong to drink.
It’s often when we’re acting childishly, stupidly or illegally that we most feel the eyes of others—or something—upon us. Isolation does nothing to dampen the sensation. As a Baptist teenager I chalked it up to God’s omniscient scrutiny though now I prefer guilt, another traditional Baptist trait.
Advancing across the clearing on my return visit I felt that familiar prickling between my shoulder blades, part uncertainty and part feeling silly, which might be the true impetus behind most guilt. That my steps brought me into sight of a battered windmill whose presence explained the previous clattering uproar didn’t slow my inexorable march as much as make me feel even more ridiculous. If our journey is predetermined as I was taught then whoever is in charge has a twisted sense of humor. For a moment I wavered there, halfway across the clearing, the Glock drooping, until the barred owl once again called out. The pistol snapped up and I moved onward, determined if nothing else to see this through. If asked why I couldn’t say to myself or the owl, knowing only that the road takes us to unlikely places and we in our unwitting folly are forever helpless to alter course.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Vernal Equinox Project: Day 76
Notes on the following post
Last call for 110
On a cool fall morning with a weak sun burning off the fog choking the fields, a police radio crackled.
The voice coming from the radio was carefully modulated and professional, a female voice with a tone that belied none of the emotions surging beneath the surface.
“Washington County to Washington 110,” the voice said.
After no response, the voice repeated the call.
“Washington County to Washington 110.”
Again there was no response.
An American flag fluttered in a whisper of a breeze where a crowd had gathered between evenly-spaced rows of headstones. The silence was deafening, and palpable, a living presence. It seemed for a long moment the crowd was rooted motionless to the grass, unable to move or breathe in anticipation, without even the creak of gunbelts or rasp of starched uniforms to break the terrible hush.
After a while, the radio crackled again.
“Last call for Washington 110.”
This time there was an answer.
Of all the funeral rites conferred on fallen law enforcement officers, none is as moving or heart-wrenching as the “last call”—and this in ceremonies already laden with emotionally draining rituals such as the mournful notes of Taps and the wail of bagpipes, and, in many instances, a military color guard and the sharp staccato of a 21-gun salute. But where Taps and bagpipes are universally applicable, the last call is personal, a radio transmission directed toward an individual who is no longer there except in memory, where the unnerving silence between transmissions is as articulate and eloquent as any spoken word. And memories do not answer.
That’s left to someone else. Finding an individual capable of answering the last call without disintegrating into a blubbering wreck is a challenge in its own right, less science than gut feeling. It has nothing to do with machismo or toughness or courage or any of the other qualities used to denote an innate capacity to face down an enemy or opposing forces or even one’s own demons. Rather, it has everything to do with determination to see something to its bitter end, and, in the case of the last call, the ability to look mortality and unspeakable loss in the eye and to not back down.
It was left to Undersheriff Traci Hattesohl to pick such a person for Sheriff Bill Overbeck’s funeral. Not an easy decision nor a enviable one, she was having a devil of a time until the one person to whom it made most sense to pick stepped up and volunteered.
“I didn’t even consider her,” Hattesohl said.
Joni Wiese, a part-time dispatcher and the daughter of Bill Overbeck, saw it different. “I figured I was a shoo-in,” she said.
The moment of decision had a comical touch. It was almost a standoff, with Hattesohl on one side wondering if Wiese could do it without falling apart (and suspecting herself incapable of the same), and Wiese determined not to take no for an answer.
“I think she thought I’d fight her for it,” Hattesohl said.
Wiese had worked for the department since August. The job wasn’t the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of wanting to work in law enforcement, nor was it influenced by her father’s career as a rural sheriff. What it had going for it was availability: there was an opening and she applied for it.
A dispatcher is the central hub of any police agency. Besides directing officers to emergencies, disturbances or other calls, they answer phones, create logs and records of all incoming and outgoing communications, keep track of officers in the field and relay messages between department personnel and other agencies. Frequently they must provide immediate emergency instruction to highly emotional and distressed callers and do so while remaining calm and reassuring.
At the core of every radio communication is a ten-code. There’s a code for an officer being out of service (10-7), a code for an officer going back in service (10-8), a code asking for an officer to repeat the last broadcast (10-9), a code requesting vehicle registration (10-27). There are codes for summoning ambulances, tow trucks and assistance from other officers, and codes for bomb threats, hit-and-run accidents, false alarms, bank alarms, fire alarms, traffic collisions and security checks. Dispatchers have to know their ten-codes by heart.
From the start, Overbeck taught his daughter the ten-codes.
“We’d play cops and dispatchers so I’d learn my codes,” Wiese said. “It was just something we did. My dad was my coach.”
Every dispatcher has his or her own personal phobia, an event or what-if that fills them with dread, not so much for the event itself but in questioning their own reaction. If they’d be up to the task. For Wiese, it was a fear of having her father killed in the line of duty on her watch.
An Albuquerque police dispatcher once said that a dispatcher’s biggest fear was of having to orchestrate a situation involving an officer down or a high-speed car chase, when a normally placid existence behind a radio console explodes into a counterpart of hell itself. Then one day he was faced with both situations. Point man at the center of a juggling act between competing jurisdictions, officers screaming for help, officers demanding information and relaying information from a chase helicopter to the officers on the ground, he said afterward that he found an inner resolve that kept him composed and organized until it was over. He was proud of the way he handled himself, he said. And then he fell apart.
In the aftermath of her father’s loss to cancer, it wasn’t the bedlam of shouting voices Wiese had to face, but the absence of voices, and in particular, one familiar voice.
After the decision was made, Wiese kept it to herself. She didn’t even tell her mother, Janet, not sure of the reaction she’d get. The night before the funeral, though, her mother learned of it.
“My mom was shocked because I didn’t tell her,” she said. “But she came up and told me I’d make dad proud if I did it.”
On the day of funeral, the choreography of the funeral went through its intricate paces. A lengthy procession led by sheriff’s department vehicles with flashing lights as well as fire equipment from Hanover made its slow crawl from the church to the cemetery. Firefighters and law enforcement officers from a half-dozen jurisdictions rolled in, the former with American flags flying from each truck, the latter with black tape slashed across their shields. A military guard shattered the calm with a 21-gun salute, followed by the solemn chords of a bagpipe.
The moment had come.
At the sheriff’s department, Peg Obermeyer, a dispatcher on loan from the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department and a former dispatcher for Washington County, picked up the microphone.
“I was sitting there thinking, can I do this?” she remembered. It was her first last call, made more difficult because of her former association with Overbeck. She knew it would be hard, harder than anything she’d ever had to do behind a dispatcher’s desk, and she wasn’t sure if she could go through it.
She also wasn’t sure if the radio was working. When she’d tested it earlier, an officer in the field said the transmission was extremely weak.
There was also a sense of pride. If anybody was going to get the honors, she wanted them. Overbeck wasn’t just a former boss, he was a friend and a mentor.
She keyed the mike.
“Washington County to Washington 110,” she said in the calmest voice she could muster.
The designation was assigned to Sheriff Overbeck. After the transmission, she counted off the seconds. She would allow five seconds to pass before the next call.
In the cemetery, with the last notes of the bagpipe fading away, the radio cackled to life.
Hattesohl handed her radio to Wiese. Their eyes met and never wavered but locked on tenaciously, desperately.
At the count of five, Obermeyer repeated the transmission. She hoped on the other end somebody was hearing her.
Wiese white-knuckled the radio and stared at Hattesohl. She knew that if she lost it Hattesohl would, too. Just as she knew that if Hattesohl lost it, she’d do the same.
The seconds drew out into what seemed hours until the strain became almost unbearable.
“Last call for Washington 110.”
“110 is 10-42,” she said. “110 is gone home.”
Behind the dispatch console, Obermeyer started shaking. It wasn’t until later that she realized how happy she was for being granted the privilege of doing what she just managed to do.
Wiese handed the radio back to Hattesohl. At her side, her son, Preston, broke down and wept, and it was the crack in the dam of their resolve, and the crack spread until it encompassed her and Hattesohl and everybody around them, until deputies and grown men and women and children were blubbering like babies.
Wiese was relieved she’d made it that far before coming undone. “I held up pretty good,” she said. “Until my son fell apart, and then I did.”
Scientists say that some radio waves pass through the ionosphere and continue on unabated by solar winds or the trajectories of asteroids or planets and journey outbound past the ill-defined borders of the solar system and into deep space, where they travel at the speed of light into whatever lies beyond the farthest reaches of the Hubble space telescope. The electromagnetic signals bleed into others and fade and pulse and become ghosted with static but otherwise retain their structure and their message until becoming too faint or lost in interstellar noise.
Memories are like that. At first painfully strong, with distance they weaken and lose signal strength but experience in the process a metamorphosis.
A mike is keyed, an electromagnetic pulse unleashed. A woman plays cops and dispatchers with her father. A daughter answers when a father can’t.
“I figured I owed him that much,” Wiese said. “I made my dad proud.”