Monday, December 24, 2018

a Christmas Eve story...

About four years ago I received a message from my agency office that someone had called, and was inquiring about somehow getting a print of a picture I did Christmas Eve 1970 - an improbable forty eight years ago. I was on my way then to Alpha 4, the old Con Thien basecamp up on the DMZ, now manned by Army instead of Marines, and on the way, stopped in Phu Bai to get the chopper north. As it happened, it was the day Bob Hope and his band of merry makers were performing a USO show for the 101st Airborne Division, and I stuck around long enough to make a few pictures. Among those photographs was a group shot of a mass of guys in fatigues, the faces of the audience of soldiers, all cheering the show in front of them. In the front row are a couple of senior officers, but it’s mainly a collection of hundreds of faces of grunts. It’s a picture for which I’ve often thought “how can I find some of these guys?” I was a terrible reporter in those days (and still am) and almost never wrote down anyone’s name/hometown/age, etc. In the magazine world you could skate by with a good picture and a broad undetailed caption. That has remained one of my great regrets over all these years.
In the note I got, there was a phone number in Illinois, asking me to please call back. Because it’s kind of a pain to get prints made, and takes a lot of hands-on time from someone in the office, we generally don’t get into selling prints other than in the art market, which is, at least, monetarily worthwhile. So it becomes a kind of low priority. I called the number and reached Terry Knox, and got the story of how he found the picture. He first asked to verify that I was really the guy who shot the picture at Phu Bai… and when I said yes, he started crying, and weeping openly.. it was very moving. It’s been so infrequent that I run across someone who was actually where and when I was in a place that it really hit me, too. It felt like the telephone equivalent of reaching our hands out and holding on to each other.
Bob Hope USO show arrives in Phu Bai (Terry Knox in red...)  1970  Christmas Eve

“Especially at Christmas time,” he explained, “I start to think of my friends who didnt make it back. The other night, it got to me again, and I got up in the middle of the night, and went to my computer. I typed “bob hope show phu bai” into google… and was taken to a page with your picture. I started to look at the picture, and realized I was IN it. I got chosen to go by the first Sergeant who did a lottery, and one other guy and I were the only two people from our base to go. I didn’t know anyone else in that crowd.” Spec 4 Terry Knox and I had a long conversation, and I promised to send him a print (I actually sent him 3 16x20” prints) and we hung up, each of us quite happy to have tried to close a tiny circle in our lives. Four months later, while I was on assignment in southern Illinois, Terry drove down and we finally met. Like the rest of us, he looks very little like the 23 year old version of himself in the picture, but the smile on his face, as we met, and hugged, was probably as broad as my own. In so many of the situations I have covered in my fifty years of taking pictures, I am the anonymous photographer, photographing anonymous subjects, and those rare times that we close those circles, it seems that a tiny bit of order has been added to the world.

  • Terry and DB  2015
photograph ©2018 David Burnett/Contact Press Images

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