Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Beware the Quietude

I spent last Thursday and Friday traveling on the campaign trail (a kind of abbreviated trail it was… Boston, New York, and New Jersey) with Senator McCain. We have entered the period which in World War II was known as the Phony War. War may have been declared, and sides were drawn, but there wasn’t the kind of battle which would later come to typify what WW2 was about. There were a few German planes dropping a few hundred bombs on England, but for the most part, each side was marshalling its troops and materiel, and trying to figure out what the easiest, swiftest way to “Check Mate” might be. Here, after a year long brawl which has finally left two candidates standing, things are also taking a little breather. Given the ups and downs of the last 6 months, it began to seem like we were in a permanent world of Primary. That the whole of our existence, no matter what happened elsewhere on the globe, was to be metered by the cackling metronome of state Primary elections. Hillary and Barack trading quips, blows, and name calling became like the air we breathe. Something that surrounds you at all times, passes in and out of your lungs when you inhale, and which will never go away.

That there finally was a “winner” was almost a jolt. The near revery of the Primary circuit was interrupted only by the rumble of consession. Hillary had seemed to be the likely standard-bearer a year ago, yet, once the cracks first appeared on the ice bed of inevitability, her chance of skating to victory just seemed to melt away. So, now we have two. And in its own way, the tenor of the day to day has become like the halcyon days of Ronald Reagan. Never one to exert himself too much, or too quickly, Reagan was scheduled, on good days, to do a morning event, maybe an afternoon or evening event, and plenty of rest in between. Both candidates now have slipped into that Reagan-esque mode, quite happy to spend a few events dealing with core issues, and leaving enough time for a proper breath of air, review VP choices, and a chance to raise some money. I can confirm that those long days – which we will see again in September and October, as the days to Voting draw near, take a real toll. Photographers, like many in the digital age, have seen their entire M.O. change radically. Once, in a world almost too far gone to remember (that is, 2000, and before) we would shoot film during the campaign day, making envelopes to be dropped off with couriers, or left for pick up at hotels, so that the film could be sent to New York, where it would unceremoniously be developed, made into contact sheets (or slides into slide mounts), captioned, then sent to picture editors, who would scan the images for something which could be used in that week’s magazine to illustrate some salient or subtle point. Now, for essentially the same money (or because of inflation, demonstrably less) we take the pictures, act as the lab rat (process on our laptops), the courier (upload the choices on internet lines to the office), and the editor (we are the ones who choose what to send). OK, you could make a point that we have the chance to limit what goes into the magazine as only the images we like, true, but what then do the editors do who used to pore over our work? It certainly is a different method, and has taken some adjustment. It means that on the road, you have to try and upload your pictures onto the laptop at each bus ride or flight, so you can get a head start on all the captioning, and choosing, a very time consuming process, required to get pictures down to a feasible & transmittable number. And if, God forbid, you have a few minutes, well you better go back and look at last night’s work, or what you shot earlier today, because there might be a picture you missed. It’s unending, really. And it means there is no time for, dare I say it, reflection. No time to really ponder what it all means. Everything becomes a race about time. The “why” and “wherefore” are left in the dust. And still, it’s possible, no, probable, to find that you are up till 2 or 3 in the morning of an already long 18 or 20 hour day, just to get your editing finished, and hard drives organized with all the image files.

So, when I describe a McCain trip as Reaganesque, it’s not really a slam. I mean, there is a certain charm in just covering two events a day, as long as you get SOMETHING which gives you a feeling of a picture out of the ordinary. On a Reagan-Day, you have enough time to get your pictures organized, edited, and sent to the office, and avoid staying up till after Conan O’Brien has long since left the building. It’s almost like feeling you are a photographer of Leisure. Except, that news and information, rather like the air around us, abhors a vacuum. And so it was on Friday, having just boarded the Straight Talk Jetblue in Philadelphia, bound for DC, that I found a slot in row 24 of the perfectly sized little jet (25 rows of 2x2). I sat down and unbuckled my Thinktank pouch belt for the last time. The Thinktank belt system, secure and embracing, always keeps the gear near by without it flopping on your hips, and the decision to unclip that buckle is a genuine statement of “I am done shooting for a little while.” I had just settled into my seat, grabbing a couple of zucchini sticks with ranch dressing (you never stop eating on the campaign) to fight that nervous hunger which always accompanies a take-off. In the row in front of me, an NBC cameraman turned to look at his colleague – in row 23 - with a wincing look on his face. He had just put down his cell phone and looked pained. In a soft voice he said “Russert had a heart attack at the bureau this morning, and died.” The words were almost too simple, too straightforward to deliver the message they conveyed. It was a quiet Friday afternoon, the world had dodged another bullet that week on the road to calamity, so what he was saying couldn’t really be, could it? We both asked at the same time, “Are you sure?”

“I just got off the phone with someone in the bureau.” That seemed to have secured a finality to the truth, but none of us really wanted to believe it. We all started to click through the Jetblue InSeat Video channels,… CNBC, CNN, Fox News.. there was nothing, and for a second I probably told myself… “It can’t be true… it hasn’t been on TV yet.” But when you are close to an event, or in this case, even if by cell phone, close to someone who is, you are ahead of the reporting curve. Yes, at NBC offices they knew, but they were still trying to figure out how to deal on-air with it. Then, as we began to taxi out to the runway, Tom Brokaw came on camera – a sadness draped over his being -- and delivered the official report. Russert, 58, had passed away immediately after collapsing at the NBC Washington bureau. I guess I could have imagined this happening, like most people, if he had been a little older, a little more frail, a little less full of that boundless Buffalo energy which he always seemed to display. Hell, he’s younger than I am. This just isn’t supposed to happen. And that, perhaps is what haunts all of us when we hear of the sadly early death of a colleague. We know that the bell tolls not just for thee, but for me, and that none of us is immune from the forces of nature which govern our bodies. We all live on the cusp of mortality at any minute, at every second. We abide in the excitement and energy of youth, yet must remain aware of the delicacy which is life itself. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow. So to act like we are is a waste of whatever talent, whatever gifts of enrichment we may hold. Our chances – and they are just that, chances – in this world are governed by the balance of our own power, discipline, energies, and the co-equal forces of nature which surround every pore of our beings. It is a sad moment like this, when a colleague passes too quickly, too young, that we need to remind ourselves, that whatever it is we value -- our lives, our loves, our dedication and passion to the things we do – cannot even for a day be put on Hold. Tim was about a dozen years older than Obama, and a dozen years younger than McCain. And probably two dozen years younger than the should have died.

Yesterday, Father’s Day (or as it is known by my sweet daughter as Poppy Doodle Day), Iris and I went to the Vietnam Memorial to meet a life long pal of hers, Frank Scozzafava. Scozzi, who Iris still introduces as “the boy who walked me home in the 2nd grade”, was spending the weekend with a half dozen of his buddies from Vietnam. They had gone through advanced training together, and traveled as a group by ship to Vietnam in 1966, where they spent a year firing artillery in support of Australian troops on the southeastern Vietnam coast. One of their group had found their Sergeant on the internet, and this weekend they all gathered at his place in Winchester, VA for a reunion. They hadn’t seen him in 41 years, but within minutes, the old camaraderie had resumed, and again, they were that tight group of friends that nothing could disrupt. At the “Wall,” given that it was Father’s Day, hundreds and hundreds of single long stem roses, with hand written notes of remembrance lined the memorial, and as we walked the length of the black marble, it was impossible not to read a few of the inscriptions. These 5 guys, all in reasonable health at 61 or 62, walked in that tremulous fashion that overtakes you at the Wall. There is no rushing, no running, no swift movements. We all moved liked Muggsy, the big guy in the group, who walks with a titanium knee. I stopped a few times to read a note. There is something about the script which was a part of our folks’ generation. They learned how to write properly. Long meaningful, graceful strokes, lines which seemed inspired by the fender of a 1931 Cadillac. There is no mistaking their handwriting for a younger generation’s. And so, I picked up one card, and read it.

Bubby, born two years before me, had been killed at 21. He, like many of the cards on the wall that day, had never had the chance to be a Dad. Had never had the chance to see a kid grow up and in ways you cannot explain, mimic the best of your habits. Had never had a chance to see a kid graduate from college, and carry a whole bagful of personal dreams. I wept, not just at the fact that he had died so young, but that the pals from his unit still, after all these years, send Bubby’s 91 year old mom flowers on Mother’s day. When we are gone, will we have been the kind of people who remain in someone’s heart like that? Memory is, still, Life. We’re just sayin’… David


Alfonso Cevola said...


Iris&David said...

Actually, an editorial correction. I always describe Scozzi as walking me home in the first grade-- and carrying my books. I dumped him in the 3rd grade for Peter Lybro. It was a foolish mistake.

Anonymous said...

To Iris - maybe it was a foolish mistake to dump Scozzi for my brother, but did you have to mention his name?