Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Watching and waiting

On the eve of destruction a brown thrasher paced through its liquid repertoire, each note dripping with lyricism, lust and a hint of threat. Beyond the thicket where the horizon opened to infinity and the terrain fell away to distant Fawn Creek, skies darkened to a purplish bruise and darkened still. Leaves stirred and restlessly fluttered, and grew still again as if swaying to the thrasher’s song.
Inside, I prepared.

Even before the first colorful blobs transformed the southwestern landscape into a mad kaleidoscope of shifting patterns and hues, I packed my camera gear, external hard drives and laptop into heavy-duty plastic tubs stored in the basement. No detail large or small escaped me: I charged the laptops and Kindles, the iPods and iPads, topped off a small whiskey bottle, added an extra flashlight from the upstairs bedroom plus an assortment of battery chargers, prescription pills and checkbooks. A Gore-Tex rain jacket. Pliers to shut off the gas. Two lawn chairs.

When I could think of nothing else to add, nervous energy propelled me to the kitchen where I cooked a huge pot of chili con carne infused with fresh red chile sauce. It was, perhaps, the finest pot of chili I’d ever cooked, fitting for a last meal. I stocked the refrigerator with beer and pop, watched doppler radar, watched the skies darken to an eery twilight lit by the first sizzling bolts of lightning.

Three tornadoes on the ground near Wilson and Russell. A severe thunderstorm warning for northeastern Marshall County, winds of 60 miles per hour and hail reported at Barnes. Another cell hammering Clay with winds and quarter-sized hail. A red arc separating from the larger pack advancing through Jewell and Republic counties, the arc blossoming as it curled down toward Salina and Manhattan. The arc implacably, irreversibly moving northeast on a direct path for our house.

How long, I wondered, mentally ticking off the minutes until Lori left work to head for home. If she hurried, she’d make it in time. The thought of her being caught on the road terrified me.

On the stove the chili simmered. The thrasher grew silent. There were no dramatic cloud formations, no towering thunderheads or churning updrafts, only a congealing charcoal smudge cutting light to a filtered glow that could have come from anywhere, or nowhere at all.


Watching and waiting seems to be what we do most during tornadic outbreaks. We wait for news, we wait for the latest updates, we watch trees bend and whip as if electrified, we watch the skies for signs and portends, we wait for the red blotches and blobs to descend upon us. Some of us listen, for sirens, for the tell-tale locomotive chugging of an approaching twister, for thuds and clunks that might be hail, for the wind in the willows. It’s as much psychological as it is physical. Time seems suspended, seconds dragging like hours. Of course, we’d been forewarned so many times, and with such vibrant use of the language, that certain destruction seemed all but inevitable. “Life-threatening” was the catch word, uttered with such regularity that nobody doubted its veracity. We were in for it this time.

While Lori was perfectly content to rest on the couch with her laptop and a cup of coffee (coming off a 24-hour shift as she was), I paced the floor like a cat—her description to a friend on Facebook. Now and then after waiting and watching I’d add something to a duffel I’d placed strategically on the kitchen table—a pistol, a charging cable for the laptop, even the Wacom graphics tablet, oddly enough. A few minutes of sitting at the computer brought fresh ideas for things to pack, plus a renewed bout of nervous energy that had to be consumed in further pacing. So I paced, and waited, and watched red stains spreading like blood across an overlay of Kansas, the bloodiest of which were caged in scarlet boxes delineating tornado warnings. 

Perhaps most surprising was the speed and intensity at which the storms exploded. Facebook became the best source for reportage; it wasn’t long before warnings flew fast and furious. Most originated in locations that would steer them around us, but more than a few zeroed in on our small town as if programmed. The only consolation was that we weren’t alone.

Long after our customary bedtime, in an uneasy interlude while watching a tornado pass between Randolph and Olsburg on a trajectory that might bring it to our back door, an e-mail from my brother in California reiterated what my family had long espoused: that they couldn’t reside where tornadoes existed. “I couldn’t live like that,” was a common theme, but of course they could. They could do it just like they live with high crime in the cities, the heavy traffic, the polluted air, the congested, overcrowded conditions, the droughts, the floods, the hurricanes, the earthquakes, the wildfires, the torrential rains. They could do it because they would adapt to the inevitable trade-offs. No place is perfect. Home comes with conditions. 

Nor would I care to leave. Lori and I have carved out a life for ourselves on the edge of a small prairie town, if not a lifelong dream then something close to it. We’ve found our place and ourselves, and that’s not something one relinquishes lightly. Certainly not for a few edgy nights when nature goes on a bender, when waiting becomes excruciating and watching mesmeric, when all the disparate distractions clogging our lives spin off leaving only the core of what truly matters. 

Rain lashed the windows as the air grew electrified. Thunder rumbled so deep it could be felt in the bones. Lori dozed on the couch, both of us fully dressed and ready to run, the duffel packed, flashlights at hand. On doppler radar the approaching cell mutated into a blaze of yellows, greens, reds and a small particle of purple that bore close scrutiny, moving fast, narrowing the miles to an uncomfortable margin, a thread, survival calculated by degrees, trajectories, potential intersections, and, ultimately, interstices. Somewhere beyond the ridge to the south the cell veered slightly to the east, lifted into the unseen clouds and passed on. 

I breathed a sigh of relief and touched Lori on the shoulder. “Let’s go to bed,” I said. 

Friday, April 06, 2012

The all-around town edition of the Way We Worked Project: Casey's General Store, Alcove Cattle Co. and the Blue Valley Nursing Home

 Annual tornado drill


 Tornado drill

 Annual fire extinguisher certification at the nursing home

 Shipment morning at Casey's

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Another welding photo, this from the Beattie Farmers Co-Op, with a reminder that one can never take too many welding photos

Not who you think I am

       We hadn’t been in the small town of Cuba for more than 15 minutes when an elderly lady approached to express how much she enjoyed my photography. I thanked her, flattered at the recognition, when a sudden infusion of doubt poisoned the compliment.

No good deed goes unpunished, I inwardly groaned.

Had our encounter been anywhere other than Cuba, there would have been no suspicions about my identity. But I sensed something amiss, and asked the nice lady who she thought I was.

“Aren’t you—?”

When a lengthy pause ensued, I offered a suggestion based upon such variables as location, probability of correctness and location: “Jim Richardson, the National Geographic photographer?”




The same conversation popped up twice more, each time eliciting awkward silences and pained expressions. Not knowing how to proceed, I introduced myself and explained that I was part of a Blue Rapids contingent come to take notes on Cuba’s famous week-long Czech festival in preparation for our own event. My own part was ancillary, more personal than purposeful. Fortunately, the residents of Cuba (and the hundreds of others from far and wide who showed up for the fried chicken lunch) were outgoing, friendly and welcoming, if not occasionally a little befuddled.

Cuba was like no other town I’d ever visited. Small to the point of slowly disappearing, its downtown nevertheless included a service station, bar/cafe, antiques store, post office, library, and grocery store—something of a rarity, for only two exist in Republic County. (The second is in Belleville, the county seat.) An engraving on the oversized town hall, a massive two-story brick structure with colonial-style architecture, greeted visitors and residents alike with a cheery “Vitamé Vas,” a Czech welcome. The town’s location, one mile south of Highway 36, isolates its businesses from casual travelers, often tantamount to a slow strangulation. Like many other small rural towns, the population appeared to be showing its age to the point where sustainability is a word one hesitates to use. But such was the case with Cuba. As Dale Huncovsky, co-owner of the Cuba Cash Store, put it, “We have to keep trying. We’re not giving up.”

None of those things make Cuba exceptional, however. What makes it so are the omnipresent  photographs taken by Richardson. They’re in the town hall, notably upstairs where a gallery of images taken from National Geographic excursions line the walls, giving it something of an international flair; they’re in the Two Doors Down Cafe, whose small gallery of luminous works span the walls and, content-wise, the globe; and they’re in the antiques store, wallpapering the back room with images of townspeople and events dating back 30 years or more.

It was there, stepping through a bead-draped doorway, that I ran into a mental blockage of monumental proportions. One minute my brain was chugging along at a good pace, pleased with several of the photographs I’d taken of old baby carriages lined up outside, several interesting doorways and signs (“Accepting Hot Czech’s Since 1869”) and the shadowed metalworks of the restored blacksmith’s shop, and the next my brain piled headlong into a barricade. Facing me wasn’t just a large expanse of relics, some of dubious worth, but a shrine built around Richardson’s Cuba photos portraying the people in their everyday lives, each an exquisite slice of life, each better than I could ever hope to replicate. Entranced, I moved into the room like a somnambulist, dragging my feet as if loathe to proceed, afraid of the inevitable blow to my self-esteem, the ineffable perfection of his work.

“I should hang up my camera and get a real job,” I told my wife. “I can’t compete with that.”

No wonder Richardson’s presence was palpable. And, as I later learned, no wonder I was mistaken for him. Both of us are gray-bearded and gray-haired, both favor hats, his a fedora and mine a broad-brimmed Tilley, and both prefer Nikon cameras. When the realization dawned on me, I felt like a poser, a fake, masquerading as one of the best photographers on the planet, and in his own adopted hometown!

Brilliant, Tom. 

But it couldn’t be helped. After touring the remainder of the downtown area, our group returned to the town hall for a presentation on our own projects, including the Czech festival (where I intend to offer our one-of-a-kind fusion Czech-Mex green chile cheese kolaches) and the Way We Worked Project. I was feeling a little off-kilter by then, conscious of the confusion surrounding my appearance and wanting nothing more than to ditch the hat and camera, when the elderly woman approached me again. 

“I know who you are,” she said.

“And who would that be?” I asked, a little surlier than I would have liked.

“You’re Tom Parker,” she said, “and I like your photos in the newspaper.”

She smiled brightly, and after a moment of shock I smiled, too, and taking her hand in mine I thanked her from the bottom of my heart. 

“Move over, Richardson,” I thought. “There’s a new kid in town.”