Today, April 17, is Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen’s birthday, in 1885. If the names don’t resonate, think Out of Africa, the best movie ever filmed (for my money) and the title of a memoir of Africa, written by Blixen under the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen. Blixen nee Dinesen was born and lived much of her life on her family’s estate north of Copenhagen, but it is her seventeen years spent in Africa that define her for much of the public.
I fell in love with the Africa portrayed in books in my mid-twenties and was therefore completely prepared – especially as a Dane - to also love the movie Out of Africa, which was released in 1985. Accordingly, I developed a strong interest in the events and people included in the film. Fortunately, just about all of the major real-life characters portrayed in Blixen’s story either penned auto-biographies or were the subject of professionally written biographies, and I’ve read them all. Of the bunch, there’s no question that Blixen was the most fascinating.
After a romance with a distant cousin failed to flower, Blixen married his twin brother, Bror Blixen, in 1915. and the couple went out to Africa to establish a Kenya coffee farm with their families’ moral and financial support. They purchased land framed by the Ngong hills to set up an estate that eventually covered several thousand acres. As expansive as the estate was, at an elevation of 7,500 feet, it was a bit high for coffee, and Bror turned out to be much more interested in hunting than farming, as well as something of a rounder. Accordingly, Karen contracted syphilis – apparently from Bror - after a year in Africa and had to return to Denmark for treatment, which at the time consisted of taking doses of both mercury and salvarsan, an arsenic derivative.
The treatments were successful, and she returned to Kenya pronounced cured after about a year in Denmark. Though she was apparently clear of syphilis, the disease (or something) ravaged her health for her entire adult life. She died on the family estate in 1962, reportedly weighing sixty-some pounds at the time.
Bror sought and was granted a divorce from Karen after about a decade in Kenya and Karen subsequently took up with the scion of an English aristocratic family, Denys Finch Hatton. Finch Hatton was the handsome son of an Earl, a graduate of Eton College and by every account a dashing and charismatic figure. Where her marriage to Bror was something of an arranged personal and business partnership, Karen loved Finch Hatton deeply, spending some five years in a live-in relationship with him at the coffee plantation. Throughout those years, however, the fiercely independent Finch Hatton steadfastly refused to marry Karen, causing her a boatload of anguish and grief to go along with the joys and passions of an adventurous and creative romance.
In May, 1931, that romance was coming to an end, with Finch Hatton having moved out of Karen’s house and subsequently losing his life in the crash of his Gypsy Moth airplane at Voi Airport.
The final failure of the coffee plantation – now a museum owned and operated by the nation of Denmark – followed, in 1932, Blixen returned to the family estate for the rest of her life. She never returned to Africa.
In the book Out of Africa, Karen wrote these words:
If I know a song of Africa, does Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?
A failed marriage, a failed deeply romantic relationship, a failed coffee plantation. One could understand a Karen Blixen who returned to Denmark cynically bitter about her time in Africa, but the fact is that she considered that period the most exciting and rewarding of her life, and viewed the ravages of syphilis the price to be paid for her success in becoming an internationally accorded author.
Africa will do that to you. I finally got to there, with Cindy, in 2013, and though we visited South Africa as opposed to the too-often-violent and dangerous Kenya, given the time and money, I’d go back in a nanosecond…even to Kenya to visit the Blixen Estate.
September 2, 1945, seventy-two years ago, at the end of the summer between, for me, kindergarten and first grade, the Empire of Japan surrendered unconditionally in a ceremony aboard the USS Missouri. Thus, a global conflict that had actually been started almost exactly six years earlier, on September 1, 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland came to an end on the deck of a United States Navy battleship. After taking the lives of an estimated 60 million human beings.
Though the shipboard ceremony was the official end of World War II, it had actually ceased some two weeks earlier, when the U.S. dropped the second of two atomic bombs on a Japanese city, and they decided maybe they wouldn’t fight to the absolute end after all. In truth, I probably remember the dropping of the bomb(s) more distinctly than the surrender signing ceremony. And in a way, it’s even more important in that it has been estimated to have saved the lives of perhaps a half million American servicemen, and I’ve always firmly beleived that my cousin, Blaine, could very well have been one of them.
By the summer of ‘45, he already had used up most, if not all, of his chances of surviving the war in the Pacific. He’d hopscotched across that ocean, making I-don’t-know-how-many landings under heavy fire. He’d had a landing craft sunk out from under him during one of those landings, wherein he and a buddy decided that instead of waiting around to be picked up, they’d just swim in, a distance of several miles. And on a Sunday morning that he was assigned to an anti-aircraft gun crew, a kamikaze pilot flew his bomb loaded plane into the company worship service, killing many of his friends and a chaplain that he adored. When he came to our house for dinner, after making it home in the fall of ’45, he broke into sobs when he told my parents about that incident, agonizing over the fact that because the suicide pilot came in with the early morning sun at his back, the gun crew was unable to acquire him as a target and interrupt his deadly mission. Today, we might call it survivor’s guilt
Ironically, Blaine’s brother Jerome, was also in the Pacific theater, but stationed in Honolulu for the duration, didn’t really have such a bad war…if any can be good. Blaine, on the other hand, came home rope thin, malarial, and shell-shocked, which today we’d term PTSD.
But you know what? He healed. He got a job, went to work, married, raised a family and lived a fine, useful, and fulfilling life. A life that might well have been denied him if he had participated in that final landing of the war in the Pacific. The one that got cancelled.
So seventy-two years ago today, Japan gave up its cruel vision of a world which would live under its conquest after the perfectly horrible death and destruction brought about when the United States unleashed on them a terrible destruction of two atomic bombs, and Blaine got to come home.
Am I morally conflicted about that? What do you think?
Originally posted August 26, 2016
Today is National Dog Day, a time to honor dogs, present and past, and all they bring to our lives. This dog is Cheri, a Miniature (half-way between a toy and a standard) Poodle, who lived from 1963-1973. She just may be the best dog ever to share my life, but probably did not get the acclaim she really deserved because in that era, she shared the household with Mike and Pat, two truly beautiful matching black and white English Springer Spaniels. Because "the boys" were flashy pheasant hunting machines and certified characters of the first degree, their adventures and misadventures (twice they "eloped" for two weeks but made it back home hungry but otherwise undaunted) simply got more play than Cheri's marvelous temperament and sterling behavior.
Cheri was calm, loyal, affectionate, absolutely obedient and blindingly intelligent. She had the house to herself, dog-wise, for the first half of her life, and then had to make room for newborn daughter, Kristi. That can be a recipe for trouble, but Cheri never, ever growled or snapped at Kris, even when the little girl started toddling, more than once bumping into Cheri, or at least requiring hasty evasive action.
Cheri was truly a remarkable dog and only one of the many who have added so much to my world and whom I have loved and was loved by in return. Over a lifetime, I've raised dogs, trained dogs, shown dogs, hunted with dogs and field trialed dogs. Decades ago, I remember a (I believe) National Geographic television special on the history of dogs that included a line talking about the bond that develops between a puppy and a boy or girl "when each discovers that the other is somehow like themselves." You probably have to grow up with a dog - which I did with my Cocker Spaniel, Taffy - to fully understand how you indeed come to inhabit the same world as a child with a devoted dog as a constant, loving companion.
I once read an author who discussed dogs' "tragically short lives," and that's one of the reasons why these days no dog shares our household (other than occasionally my stepson Nick's bouncy little "cocktail" dogs, Leia and Sara). Personally, I have reached the point where I don't want to tell another dog a final goodbye. I recall a few years ago, in a magazine devoted to hunting dogs, a piece about the owner who realizing it was time for his devoted dog to trade this world for the next, took the euthanized animal to one of their favorite hunting fields and buried him beside a little stream. In recounting his walk back to the road and his car, he stated, "For just an instant, you think you hear the whistle of the Master, calling His dog home."
And in the last analysis, that's how it is with dogs. In reality, they are all His dogs, sent to this world to grace our lives for the time we get to love and care for them, before they go home. Once, in a philosophical discussion with a pastor friend of mine, the cleric asked me if I thought dogs go to heaven. My answer: How could it be heaven without dogs?
Originally posted May 24, 2016
Back in the spring of 2008, when I was just beginning to get back into “serious” photography, I signed up for and attended a Popular Photography workshop in Durango, Colorado. I’ve loved Colorado since I was a little boy and we would visit my Denver-based uncle and aunt at their rustic cabin at Eldora in the Front Range. So when the chance came along to combine my growing renewed interest in clicking the shutter with the opportunity for some quality instruction in one of Colorado’s premier locations, I jumped at it.
The instructors for the workshop were Beth Wald and Tom Bol, both of them very successful photographers with perennial National Geographic contributor Wald perhaps outranking Bol, at least a bit. But they both did a great job, and the workshop was a fun and valuable experience, the value of which, to me, was probably enhanced because it came at just the right time in my development as a digital – as opposed to film – photographer.
There was one incident, however, during the time we were all together that I found kind of frustrating, involving a photo I essentially “grab-shot” at the gift shop and restaurant at Mesa Verde National Landmark. At noon, the line for the cafeteria snaked directly past an elderly Native American woman who was weaving what appeared to be a rug on a wooden loom. I had stowed my equipment, except for my camera, but asked politely if I could photograph her and she agreed. All the while this was going on, the line was moving, so I had to work fast or lose my place and go to the back. I raised my D300 with the on-camera flash popped up and took one shot, which when I looked at it later, I really liked. It showed the wonderful cragginess of the woman’s skin, her colorful native dress and displayed to an extent the process in which she was engaged.
At the end of the day, we were to show to one of the instructors what we considered to be our best work that day. This day I was assigned to Tom Bol and showed him the weaver photo along with a couple of other so-so pictures. I noted for him that the weaver photo was purely a grab shot…an opportunity that fleetingly presented itself that I – well – grabbed. After briefly criticizing the harsh light from the on-camera flash, he asked me, “What are you trying to say with this photo?”
I was quite taken aback and stammered something akin to “I guess I don’t know.” There followed a lecture from Tom on the importance of A) knowing what you wanted to say, and B) saying it. Reviewing it in my mind today, however, I’m sorry I didn’t say something closer to, “Not a darned thing,” which was the absolute truth. As much as one gets that “saying” question – especially at workshops – I don’t know that I’ve ever made a photo that I wanted to “say” something other than, “Hey, take a look at this. It’s (take your pick) beautiful, startling, heart-touching, curious, or interesting.” With interesting probably being the best of all. To me, a photo that is not at least a bit interesting is not worth shooting. And the weaver at Mesa Verde was indeed interesting.
The reason I have not blogged on this previously is absolutely not because I can’t accept criticism. I usually deserve it, and I can and do accept it. But I’ve thought that perhaps I was the only photographer who thought like this when it comes to saying something with my photography. Recently, however, in reading a biography of Dorothea Lange, I came across a quote from Jack Delano, himself a legendary photographer, musician, composer and author, who said, “I have always been motivated not by something inside me that needed to be expressed but rather by the wonder of something I see that I want to share with the rest of the world.”
So there you go. No more complicated than that, and the next time someone ventures to ask what I am trying to say with a photo, my answer will indeed be along the lines of, “Nothing really.”
Originally posted Mar 14, 2016
The Space Shuttle Atlantis (Orbiter Vehicle Designation: OV-104) was launched for the first time on my birthday - October 3rd - 1985, but that's not why it's special. It went into space a total of 33 times, but that's not why it's special, either. It was the last manned space vehicle mission, probably in my lifetime, launched from Cape Canaveral on July 8, 2011, and I was there to see it along with my daughter and her family. And that is why it is so very special. I wear its mission patch on my leather bomber jacket, and it's framed and matted photograph entitled "ONE LAST TIME: The Final Launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, July 11, 2011," hangs in the entry way of our home. I'll be the first to admit that it's not a great picture, but It was the last expression of the 30-year space shuttle program, which until it was struck by tragedy, we had come to view almost as routine as an airline flight.
As many are aware, my daughter Kristi, son-in-law Leo, and granddaughter Delaney live on Florida's east coast about 50 miles due north of Canaveral. And I'd seen launches before from that distance, the first one being a night launch back in the late-nineties. From that far away, what you see is some flame at the time the rockets are ignited and liftoff, then a long, long contrail which follows the shuttle out of Earth's atmosphere. For that night launch, we simply went over to the beach, which is straight and un-obstructed all the way to Canaveral, and watched the fireworks. One thing that you don't hear on television, and I've never heard reported or commented on before, is the huge sonic boom as the ship leaves the earth's atmosphere, generally out of sight by that time.
The second launch that I saw was also pretty exciting, coming on the Fourth of July, 2006, when Discovery was launched. That one came in the middle of the afternoon, and the kids by then had moved 15 miles up the coast from Ormond Beach to Palm Coast. It was Leo's idea - and a good one at that - for us to drive over to Flagler Beach, and time it so we would be at the top of the high bridge over the Intra-Coastal Waterway at the time of launch. If you've never seen it, I should tell you that during a shuttle launch, and especially on a holiday, central east coast Florida essentially stops in place to watch the event. That phenomenon seemed to completely un-nerve a young Flagler Beach policeman, who in driving across the bridge himself, thought that he could somehow throw a little weight around and get traffic moving again with the launch only a minute or two away.
He couldn't, but he did stop to hassle me a bit as I stood leaning against Leo's truck. "That truck has to move," he said.
"Okay," I said.
"I said that truck has to move," he said. "Move that truck."
"Not my truck," I said.
"Don't get smart with me," he said, rather forcefully, actually.
At this point, I reviewed my situation and noted that I was on vacation and would be for another two weeks, so what would an afternoon visit to the Flagler Beach police station amount to? So I stuck my head in the passenger window and said, "Let's review who's getting smart. You said the truck had to be moved, and I acknowledged that and told you it's not my truck, so who's getting smart with whom?"
By that point, Kris, who was observing all of this, was quite convinced that I would be going straight to jail, but the kid simply grunted and moved onto the next car, which would have been about number 28 in a one hundred vehicle line on the bridge. But before he could get snarky with anyone else, there it was: the flame and contrail heading northeast out over the Atlantic against a crystal clear blue sky on the Nation's birthday. And I'll never forget that.
As memorable as it was, however, that experience couldn't begin to match the final launch of Atlantis and almost certainly the final manned U. S. space shot in my lifetime.
We got up reasonably early that morning to head down to the Canaveral Shore National Seacoast, determined to get as close to the launch site as possible. That turned out to be somewhere between two and three miles on a fairly crowded beach. Not close enough to seen Atlantis on the ground, but plenty close to see ignition, liftoff, and to track the shuttle vehicle as it headed out to sea on an almost due westerly heading. The only question that morning was whether the launch would take place at all. It had originally been scheduled to go the day before, but something - weather or a technical glitch - called for the launch to be scrubbed. The problem the next day was the weather itself, which was windy, cloudy and overcast...just inside the ceiling and visibility minimums that NASA demands. And if it couldn't go this day, it would then be some weeks before the involved astronomical window would open again.
I set up a tripod holding a Nikon body and a 600mm lens with a 1.4 tele-converter. Leo had his compact shortwave, AM/FM radio tuned to Mission Control and was reporting to us - and a group of listening others - on the countdown. It soon became apparent that this launch crew were more than a little determined to fly that day. There was a hold at nine minutes for the weather parameters to be specifically assured. Finally, they were verified as not that great, but "an acceptable risk." The countdown was resumed at nine minutes and ran smoothly until halted at thirty-one seconds, announced as due to a "failure." The failure was that the computer would not confirm that the service arm, which swings away from the ship just prior to launch, had been fully retracted, though anyone watching could see that it had. That was confirmed by "camera 64" and the launch commander announced "Press on." Yeah, these guys were going to get it done and get it done today.
And they did. It was estimated that over two million people watched Atlantis depart the earth's atmosphere that day. Arial photos showed I-95 as a parking lot with cars stopped in all six lanes, as well as parked catch-as-catch-can on the shoulders and filling the medians. Because of low-lying cloud scud, the shuttle disappeared from view almost immediately after being launched, but then topped out of the overcast, heading straight out to sea. It remained visible for a long, long time and finally after having disappeared, let us know she had left the surly bonds of earth with the expected sonic boom. It was truly an experience of a lifetime shared with three of the four humans I love the most.
Because traffic was a crawl all up and down that section of the coast that day, we stopped for pancakes, to let it clear out a bit and talk over the experience. Something that you just knew without asking, would never be forgotten in any detail.
I'm never confused that Americans live in the greatest nation on earth, although I've never been much of a flag waiver...something I got from my Dad who believed that an excess of nationalism can lead to war, and has. That said, the final launch of Atlantis that day touched me very deeply, and just reading about it can cause me to have to rub something that somehow gets in my eye.
And Atlantis was special. As noted earlier, she made thirty-three trips into space with never a hitch. She held the record for the shortest time between missions, once having been turned around and sent back into space in a period of forty-five days. She was supposed to have been relegated to a "parts hulk" several years before her actual retirement, but with the loss of two of the other craft in the program, her life was extended until we completely stopped going into space. In a way they saved the best for last. And at the end of Atlantis' useful life and the shuttle program itself, she came home. Though earlier slated to wind up as a static display at a park or airport somewhere, in actuality, Atlantis has been put on permanent display at the NASA museum at Cape Canaveral.
One day - maybe on my trip to see the Kids this spring, I need to make a run down there to see her up close and personal. I'll have to remember to take along some Kleenex.