Saturday, December 31, 2016

R.I.P. Trooper Bob

On the eve of the Eve, I received some sad but not unexpected news. Robert L "Bob" Williams, 93, passed away today after a long illness, and a very full life. Bob grew up in Kentucky and Ohio, joined the Army early in WW2, and ended up as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division. They are the guys who jumped into Normandy the night of June 5th to secure the areas behind the beaches -- where the landings would be the next morning - D-Day, 1944. As a kid of the 50s, I knew a lot of history, and knew a great deal about WW2, though it was a long time before I figured out that those soldiers I'd heard of, and seen in the movies - "To Hell and Back," "The Great Escape," and "The Longest Day" - were also Chesley the pharmacist, Toke who sold lawn mowers, Howard at the clothing store, and Dick who I flew model planes with. They were the vets who had regained their lives as civilians, and in some cases shared their stories, but in most cases, you had to pry it out of them. After the French Presidential elections of 1974, when I ended up working as Giscard d'Estaing's personal campaign photographer, I found myself in Paris in early June, at the time of the 30th Anniversary of DDay, and wanted to go the "debarqement" beaches in Normandy. With Tom Herman and Robert Wiener, Paris denizens of the time, we piled in a car and headed to Omaha Beach, unaware of what we would find. We spent the next few days meandering the beaches, meeting vets, seeing Omar Bradley (the last of the 4 star generals in his last appearance at a reunion) and early in the morning of 6 June, 1974, hired a local French fisherman to take us out into the fog, off shore a mile or so, where the landing craft had come. We wanted to try and see what they saw, though obviously without the live fire and hellish welcome. We went to Ste. Mere Eglise, a small inland town where dozens of paras fell before they even had a chance to fight. It was a moving experience, and without meaning to, it began what became an every 5 or 10 year effort to spend time with these wonderful veterans. (I returned in 1979, 1984, 1994, 2004, and 2014...) Each time I came back, I would try and get a magazine interested in doing a story. The usual response would be something like "we don't do Anniversary stories..." and yet on every trip, once I got to France (often starting in former bases in the UK with the vets...) some one, usually TIME would want my pictures. Thing is, as a TIME story noted in 2004, in the crappiest days of the Afghan and Iraq wars, "Why D-Day Matters" was one of those pieces which tried to explain the elemental greatness of what became Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation," and attempt to help us understand ourselves. 
In early 1994 I became aware of the fact that a number of 70+ year old WW2 vets, paratroopers, in honor of the 50th Anniversary of DDay, wanted to jump again. Out of a perfectly good airplane. It was their way of saying how much it had all meant to them. The Pentagon of course was worried that there would be a headline like "8 DDay Paratroopers Die In Parachute Accident..." and you know thats what formed their position on accepting the jump in the first place. Ergo, each trooper had to have 5 certified jumps (and none of them was under 70 years of age, with several way beyond...) that year to prove they wouldn't be a liability to the festivities. So it became known that the vets would jump again around June 6, in a large farmers field not far from Ste Mere Eglise. It would be quite the show. 
Well, through a long and hilarious series of events to be recounted another time, I, along with Peter Turnley and David Turnley ended up far from the Press pen, a gnarly fenced containment near the VIP area, about 1/2 mile from the 'Drop Zone.' No, the Turnleys and I were exactly where we weren't supposed to be, and upon our arrival, a somewhat officious Air Force control officer gave us one of those "Media are not allowed here..." spiels, to which we responded that maybe we weren't allowed, but we actually were there, and there was no place for us to go since the path to the Press Pen was directly opposite the drop zone. "We promise not to bite a single veteran..." was my own response. I just hate the officiousness which accompanies officious people. So.. as he tried to inform us of what we could and couldn't do, the sky filled with parachutes and cheers went up from the crowd all around.. at some distance, but all around. And perhaps it was in tribute to the fact that most of those paratroopers had been, in 1944, dropped far from their intended drop zones, this time the same thing happened. Instead of hitting dead-on in the drop zone, they landed even further from the VIP area, on the far side of a berm, past the railroad tracks, in a field populated with healthy, milk producing Norman cattle. Instead of crisply sounding reports of their boots hitting solid ground, it was a series of mud induced sqishes, landing up to their knees in the mud and assorted other bits. To quote one of the vets upon alighting..." Jeezussss Chrrist.. I wait 50 years to jump in this place and I land in a pile of cowshit!!!" 
After the last vet had landed, we started forming up with them, as they were expecting some other kind of fly over, and wanted to get the vets over to the VIP area and out of harms way. I figured... if they feel it’s safe to walk, then I feel it's safe to walk.. So across about 800' of barren dirt I went behind a few vets, in front of several others. About 3/4 of the way across there was a small shed, something one of the farmers had no doubt used to store stuff for those Norman cattle. I ducked in, thinking, maybe there will be more.. I waited a couple of minutes, and was broken from my revery by the sound of C141 cargo planes over head, slowly heading to the Northeast. All of a sudden, it became clear, another tribute jump was about to take place. This time it was 800+ active duty Paras from US bases in Germany, and they filled the sky with their camoflaged parachutes. It was as if they'd been sprayed across the horizon by the nozzle of a giant garden hose. They hung nearly motionless against a blue sky which might have been swirled by Van Gogh, slowly settling towards the earth. Then I looked down again, and there coming towards me, was a tall, strong looking 71 year old veteran. I hopped out of the shed, with my 28mm I shot a half dozen frames as he walked towards me, then turned and joined him for the last 100 yards to the VIP site, where I was, in short fashion, grabbed and tossed sans ceremonie, into the Press Pen. From which, of course, you could see absolutely nothing. There was a lot of grumbling in French and English, though none of it from Peter, David or myself. One of the pissed off American photogs asked how the hell we’d been out there in the middle of the drop zone, and when we laughed and started to describe the completely accidental and lucky nature of that good fortune, he replied “Accident!? Accident?! Burnett and the Turnleys get the only picture - that’s no Accident!!” I realized that this is what makes for reputations, and just giggled under my breath. A few minutes later, with the “show over…” we were all released, and figured out the next most important thing to do, which was getting film to Paris, and thence New York. 
The following week TIME ran a double-page, full bleed, of my picture of the paratrooper, erect, proud, and mud up to his knees, surrounded by a backdrop of parachutes. It was another in those moments where you realize that as a freelancer, your choice of assignments, often leading you in advance of the editors you work for, was a big deal, indeed. Once the photo ran, I shortly there after heard from the guy in the picture (not being a wire photog, I of course never got his name at the time…) He was Robert L Williams, 101 Abn Division, and he couldn’t have been more pleased to be in my picture in TIME (and subsequently a lot of other publications.) There is a kind of unwritten rule that anyone whose picture you get into TIME or Newsweek as a full double page becomes a friend for life, and so it was with Bob. We would see each other now and then. I ran into him at the June 2000 opening of the DDay Museum in New Orleans (later renamed to World War II Museum) and in 2004 when I needed DDay vets for another TIME story (yet another cover and 8 pages of “we don’t do anniversary stories…”) I called Bob and photographed him for that story, a portrait shot at his Kentucky home. I made some prints in the late 1990s, signed them, and had Bob sign them (at the time we thought just maybe there was a market for such prints, but only a few sold…) and for several of those prints, he signed just to the left of my name, with the signature “Robert L WIlliams 101 Abn My field of dreams…” 
And it truly was. So much of his later life was formed by what he’d gone through in WWII. Once a year or so, I’d pick the phone up and give Bob a call, just to check up on him. In 2014 I asked if he’d made plans to head to Normandy for the 70th, and he said that no, he wouldn’t go this time, that sitting 9 hours in an airplane just didn’t agree with him anymore. And let’s be honest, at 90 you pretty much should be able to decide what you do and don’t want to take part in. We last spoke a year or so ago, and I could feel that the old soldier was slowing down. But there was never a hint of sadness or anything negative in what he had to say. I sent greetings to him on FB a few months ago, and heard back from his son that he was not well. Today, I read that his final battle is over, there will be no more combat for that wonderful paratrooper. And now that he’s gone, I think somewhere he’s probably flying around again as he did when he was just a young pup in a uniform. But this time, he doesn’t even need that perfectly good airplane. Best of luck Trooper Bob. Godspeed   We're just sayin'... David

In Life After Election

David says I have not written a blob for weeks. And he’s right, but there has been such a swirl in information that I couldn’t catch up.  There is no good place to start.  It’s been a long month, emotionally and physically but that’s no excuse.  I am watching “Love, Actually” for the 20th time, and it is so romantic it just makes me smile.

So where to start?  We were exhausted so we are lucky to have generous cousins who said to take a week in Fla. in their home.  And we did.  Unfortunately, David has itched for the last few weeks so it was not easy to relax, but we went to the Dr. And he seems so much better that maybe these last few days will actually be a vacation.

Getting older is not easy, but we went to see my high school boyfriend, who is in assisted living.  Its not easy to see your dear friends aging. Even if you are the same age. This big strong guy who played professional football, fragile and dependent on the people who take  care of him.  He is not unlike most of us but his mental degeneration was much more serious.  All I can say is, He was my first love and that is not easy to forget.

The holidays are never easy.  Ours started at Thanksgiving.  All the kids were in town and we made three turkeys for ten people.  You want to talk about leftovers, our whole dinner was about leftovers. Jordan  made a slow cooked turkey breast in the CrockPot, David and Joyce did one where they took out the back bone and butterflied it,  and I made a regular roasted bird.  They were all great.  But Thanksgiving is about leftovers, and we had plenty.  It was a joy.  Everyone who came took leftovers home.  So we could all celebrate for days. And we did.

Lets just talk about the year and the season.  I drove to Boston two days a week to teach Presidential Poliitics at Emerson,  It was great.  I drove up on Tuesday and back on Wednesday teaching two different classes.  The kids were amazing and the class was as well. We focused on Polling and Strategy.  If you have all the numbers, you can tailor a message to the campaign.  From that you can develop a political strategy.  At some point you can crunch the numbers and from those develop a strategy and a message.  No Universities seem to  have done this. But Harvard tried and they got the media, while we succeeded and didn’t get any press.  Yes, it was frustrating.

So let me talk personally.  I am so fortunate to be able to guide these young people in terms of decision making.  Spenser was amazing and we took his numbers and translated that into a strategy and a message.  Not easy because having students make critical decisions is not the norm, but Emerson students are not the norm. 

It was a great semester an I hope I am invited back as an instructor, and an  inspiration. But if not, I learned so much, and that’s what life is really about.  We’re just sayin’…. Iris    #EmersonPolitics

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Caretakers

Sometimes, when we have expectations about people or situations, we are surprised by the actual occurrences.  That was certainly the case for us this week when we “vacationed” in Boca.  We needed to get away, and my cousin generously allowed us to stay in his lovely house.  It’s always nicer to get away when you don’t have to spend a fortune. So we are thankful that he allowed us to use his house which is close to friends and all the things we needed to do.

My high school boyfriend, who by the way will always be my boyfriend, is in an independent-assisted living facility.  From what I understand, he exhibited signs of dementia or altzheimers, and he couldn’t live on his own.  When you think about people who need to be cared for, you don’t think they will be people who are athletically strong and dynamic. You think people who have issues about remembering or functioning will be old and infirmed. This is not always the case. And while he is physically strong, he is having problems with short term memory.  He remembers everything that happened when we were in high school, but not what happened yesterday.  Anyway, the most difficult part of the visit was to see him with “caretakers.”  They love and respect who he is and who he was, but they are still caretakers, and that is disconcerting — to say the least.

Quite a few years ago, one of my favorite cousins had a serious stroke.  His recovery has been long and painful for both he and his wife.  The example of my parents is always with me:  it is not easy to be a caretaker.  Over the years his speech has improved but he is still unable to communicate what he wants.  The painful part is that he knows exactly what he wants to say. He knows exactly what he wants. He is just limited by his ability to express it.  But we spent some quality time with him tonight.  We ate caviar, drank wine, cleaned out all the leftovers in her fridge and told stories, old and new.  He laughed and was a full participant in the conversation. Although his vocabulary was limited, there was no doubt that he was totally involved in what we were all saying.  It was such a joy to see him as he always was — with only some limitations.

As is usually the case with my cousins, she discovered that new friends of hers were also long time very good friends (family) of ours.  She invited all of us to have lunch.  It is impossible for me to explain how much we loved and lost touch with these people. And it will not happen again.  It’s terrible when we lose track of people we love.  Because you never know what is in the future.  It may be that everything remains the same. Or it may be that something dreadful will happen to them or you. And it may be that too much time passes before you reconnect.  But whatever it is, based on this week in our lives, we must treasure the people we love and never let them be missing persons in our lives. 

It was a wonderful week - happy, sad, enlightening, tragic, and inspirational. I intend to keep these wonderful people in my life.  Because love and memories do not just appear, they have to be nurtured and respected.  As part of what we do everyday.  We must all be caretakers.  We’re just sayin’… Iris

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Half a Life Ago....

I guess when you have been doing something for nigh on' fifty years, there aren't many weeks that go by without some kind of memory, some anniversary which hops out from the cloudy mess of "today," and reminds you that there was Life in a previous era.  For the most part, even as an ex-math major I have some disbelieving moments when I try and do the calculations of some thing which has very clearly made a long term impression, but seems impossible to really be "that long ago...."     And so it is that yesterday marked a day which I shall remember for a very long time.  It was the beginning of winter, 1981, in Poland, at a time when Solidarity and its vibrant leader Lech Walesa had created what would be come one of the first  crashes of the Eastern bloc underpinnings.  From small beginnings at the Gdansk shipyard, and building into something which spread across the whole of Poland, the movement itself became one of the "intolerables" which the Soviets, in their role as leader of the Warsaw Pact countries had decided must be put down.  Like Hungary in 1956 and Prague Spring in 1968, Solidarity was a force which came from within, the "effect" which had been borne by the stilting force of the Communist orthodoxy.  A human reaction to a not terribly human stimulus.  It was clear in the fall of '81 that because of the rise of Solidarity, and the consequent flummoxing of Polish officials, that year-end articles in all the weeklies would look upon this social uprising as something of note.  I was the recipient of another of those "magic phone calls..."   -- an out of the blue call from Arnold Drapkin of TIME, who dangled one of those photographic trinkets in front of me.   TIME was putting a team together to cover the next couple of weeks of activity in Poland, and would I join that group.  Those calls which came the first week of December usually meant just one thing: MOY -- or as it was then known... (because it was mostly men...)  the Man of The Year.  Then as now it was one of the biggest stories in print journalism, and to most of us, it was pretty clear that Lech Walesa would  be that Man.   As usual I pretended that I had to check my schedule, but internally, from the moment Arnold say "Hi..." I was up and running.  "Yes... " I said with a mildly diffident conviction.  I mean, really, you never wanna let on that you're totally psyched to be asked to do that story, do you? Or maybe, just maybe, you do.

Logistics were a bit of an issue.  I had no visa for Poland, and in the early 80s, they were about as easy to come by as an affordable mint Nikon SP on eBay.  We thought of trying the consulate in New York, but after a day decided my chances might be better in Paris.  There, things  were a little more open, slightly less tense than with the Americans.  So off I went to Paris, hoping to snag a visa quickly and head east to Warsaw.  The Polish embassy was just off the Bld Ste Germain, a big imposing, 19th century palace of heavy rock, and I made it there on a Tuesday to apply for my visa, and hope for the best.  It was cold, snowy, and very un-Parisian those few days, and while I did look after the visa process, annoying some chap in the Visa section a couple of times a day, my lasting memory of that waiting time is playing indoor tennis, bundled up, and emitting frosty breaths, with TIME photo  editor Barbara Naglesmith.  She'd lived in Paris for years, understood the ups and downs of difficult visas, and I think she just wanted to get my mind off of the worry.  That was really the point.  You see yourself as a journalist, a photo-fucking-journalist, and the thing you do best is take pictures.  Waiting around in the snowy cold for a visa isn't exactly the kind of thing you are remembered for.  Of course there were always people who would try and cheer you up, reminding you that spending a few days off the clock in the city of light isn’t such a bad thing, especially on someone else’s dime.  But when you are picture hunting, when you are ready for the story, nothing is more frustrating than being a single sheet of paper away from cranking up your cameras.

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, I heard they had approved the visa, and I was ready to book.  But I still had to convince the consul that if he could just stay open a few more minutes, and let me get there, I  could be on Friday’s morning plane, and not lose another day.  I remember how breathless I was, walking the stairs of the Consulate, and that feeling of great satisfaction as I walked out with my passport in hand.  Then I realized there was little to be joyful about. I’d been on the story 4 or 5 days, and hadn’t taken a single picture yet.  I tried to refocus as I packed my “worldsLargestHalliburtonCase” and took the Lufthansa flight which eventually got me to Warsaw.  The TIME team had already started working the story.  Saturday night there would be a big rally in Gdansk, Walesa speaking.  But my path would be slightly different.  In the morning I would go with Greg Wierzynski, a Polish born, American TIME correspondent, who still had family in the country, to one of his distant cousins’ farm, a couple of hours out of Warsaw.  In the afternoon, another car would take Greg to the rally in Gdansk, and I would head back to Warsaw, and start working Sunday for real.  Everything seemed to be falling in to place.  We made it to the cousin’s farm, I shot like crazy, Greg left, and towards evening I headed back to the city.  It was storming with snow flurries, and as we drove those country roads we kept passing long streams of APC’s and Eastern bloc Jeeps.  I remember thinking, “that’s a LOT of armour…”   followed by “hey, its the Warsaw pact.. that’s what they do!”   Who knew?

Back at the hotel, during this time of privation, even the Intercon had virtually nothing in the cafe after 6 or 7pm.  They closed early so that the staff could get home.  But it meant nothing to eat except a bar of chocolate from the lobby “Hard Currency” store.  You can only eat so much chocolate.   In my room, later, I dumped my film and started making caption envelopes (we still have them!)  About 11:30 I called the UPI office, to speak with my old friend Ruth Gruber, a yank who had worked her way across one Eastern bloc bureau after another for UPI, and was currently in charge of their Poland operation. We chatted a while, and at was exactly midnight, the line went dead. Dead.  I tried hanging up and calling again. No luck.   I gave up, went to bed, and tried sleeping off my nervous energy.

Early the next morning, unaware of what had happened overnight, I rose and wandered into the lobby.  With all the international hacks staying there, the lobby of the hotel was a constant source of rumor, background, and lies, with a few actual facts tossed in as well.  My memory is of the absolutely brobdinagian Danish Radio reporter, a man whose enormous and elongated pear shape was topped with a totally unruly mass of silver hair, racing around the lobby, in the fashion of  a night watch man, yelling “the soldiers have raided Solidarinosc!!!”  It took me a minute to try and fathom what had gone on.  You try not to look to be TOO stupid, but sometimes you just have ask “what in the hell happened last night?”   Walesa had been arrested backstage at the Gdansk rally, was being held by the Army and Poland had been declared to be in a state of Martial Law.  

The shock of the news chilled my bones, but I grabbed my gear and headed to the Solidarity offices.  Hundreds of files and papers were strewn about the place. There had obviously been a major sacking by the authorities, but there was almost no one there but a few other reporters, so I kept moving.  I went to a church, ever mindful that Poland — whose Cardinal was now the Pope in Rome — was a devout Catholic country.  From the church, there were other stops around the city, always trying to be on the alert for some one - a cop or a soldier, who might demand you give them that last roll of film you just shot.  Sunday evening, I found myself back at the cathedral, the faces of the worshippers telling far more than could words.  As the service ended, I wandered back into the street to find a group huddled in the cold, several women holding candles wrapped in paper lanterns.  They didn’t say a thing. They didn’t have to.  That night, that Sunday, was 35 years ago.  It feels like a week ago.  From time to time I remember some little moment of that trip, and they are crystal clear.   

Then there was Sygma photographer Henri Bureau - the man who had once jokingly told me that owing to his propensity to show up just when the shit really hits the fan - that, in his words… when the leaders see me coming —- they tremble.  Henri had gone to Gdansk, made the last pictures of Walesa before his arrest, and was now busy packing his bags to get out of town with his film.  He called me over to where he was packing, his cameras stacked in his fishing bag, his winter boots next to them.  “Have a look…” he said… and I did, looking at the boots and poking my hands inside.  I handed them back to him.  “Ca m’intreresse ce que tu fait…” (“I’m interested by what you’re doing…”)  and then reached over, and pulled the inside bottom of his boot, yielding a dozen rolls of shot film - his Walesa take.  If he wore the boots (this was way before the days of magnetometers & heavy xray machines) all the way home, his film would make it.   I asked if he would carry my film, and he agreed, if I would agree to bring his cameras out.  “Deal,” I said.  I was probably the only photographer to leave Warsaw that week with a full set of both Nikons and Canons, not to mention a couple of M-4s.  

Henri took the night train to Berlin, made it unscathed, though of course this being 1981 and no email, no social media, no internet to speak of…. we had no idea.  He flew on to Paris, and his pictures ran around the world (including TIME.)  We were cut off in Warsaw from what happened  on the outside.  It was said his pictures of that week bought him a house in the French country side.  Yeah, that’s what the photo business used to be like.  My films made it to Paris, then on to New York, and into several pages of that week’s magazine.  But somehow the publishing  never really held up to the combination of exhilaration, fright, anger, and worry which made for those few days of shooting Martial Law.  Chris Niedenthal, the great Polish PFJ was a true friend.  We trouped around the city for a couple of days, looking for something symbolic which could make a picture, but wouldn’t get us arrested.  I remember the gut punch I felt when I’d mistakenly raised a camera in the car, just as we were being passed by a jeep-full of soldiers.  Nothing happened, but it was a reminder that you still had to be cool.  

A few friendships were solidfied that week. Most of us are used to the company of friends and are often good with strangers. We would often run into the same group of 50 photographers,  no matter where you were around the world. But when you find yourself in inhospitable territory, and the job of photographer becomes many times more difficult, it can be very soothing to just have a few pals to have a drink with at the end of the day, before you had to do it all again, tomorrow.  I waited a few more days, snuck all my film out on that same overnight train to Berlin, then flew to Paris, gave someone hopping off the plane Henri’s cameras, and then off to London, where I took my first and only flight on the Concord.  Home in a couple of hours, only to wonder if anyone was taking notice of the pictures — and hopes that they would shed some light on what had happened that week.  Those “2nd week of December” memories come back every year.  You see a date on a calendar, the appointments secretary working on that cramped little desk in the back of your mind, sends a note to the frontal lobe, reminding you that it has only been 35 years - in my case, about half a life - since that week in Warsaw.  Amazingly, in the course of the next year and a half - the summer of 1983 -  as things calmed down, and Pope JPII came back for a 2nd and even more energizing trip to Poland, the Soviets and the Polish hardliners had no idea, their time was slowly coming to an end.  

Sometimes it can be something as prosaic as a phone line being cut.  You just cannot always know what it means, so you grab you camera, and try to figure it the hell out.  When you see the small crowd outside the cathedral, with candle-lanterns trying to shed a bit of light in the oncoming night, make a few frames.  You just never know.   We’re just sayin’… David