We Played with Sunlight and Shadow

I shot pictures at Coronado Heights the other day. I want you to see them here,  and on Facebook, to see how my wife Polly and I played with sunlight and shadows, and loved what we saw and photographed.

Like most people who live comfortably, I spent most of my life not noticing things.

Then I met photographers. Life got better.

Good photographers will tell you photography is not just about taking memorable photos, but about being more awake in life — noticing things.

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Polly and I photograph our shadow near sunset.

Photographers notice everything. They taught me to love the low, mellow light near sundown (and sunrise), how it makes the world look softer. They taught me to see the beauty of action. Don’t just photograph a bird, my friend Travis Heying would say. Shoot a bird doing something. Travis, if he was shooting someone outdoors was always shooting them doing and being and acting. If he shot a rancher counting pasture cattle, he’d sit in the back seat of the pickup, hang his camera outside the back passenger window, and shoot the rancher’s face not only from behind, but with the face framed in the pickup’s side mirror.

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View through a sandstone window at the top of the castle at Coronado Heights.

So when I took Polly to Coronado Heights on Sunday, I timed it so we’d arrive near sundown at the little 1930s-era WPA sandstone castle. We shot photos and played with light and shadows. Polly noticed how pretty it was to shoot a photo through the stone windows at the top, showing both the stone and hillside beyond framed in the stone.  We shot many photos of the stone windows as the sun crept downward and suffused Coronado’s old hillside in low, yellow light.

I’ve loved photographers since my days at Kansas State University, where they had an unusually good newspaper photo staff, run by kids so artistic that we print people mockingly called each of them “FA.” “Hey, FA, come shoot this story with me.” (The “A” stood for “artist.”) Unlike we print people, who thought of ourselves as fact-gatherers rather than writers, the FAs thought of themselves as artists, composers, creators. Tim Janicke and Bo Rader came out of that dingy little darkroom while I was there, and so, after I left, did Pete Souza, who went on to become the chief White House photographer to presidents Reagan and Obama.

Good photographers are good because they become more alive than the rest of us – because they notice everything, from how the low yellow sunlight plays upon a stone, to how the wall hangings in a man’s office tell much about who he might be.

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Yellow light at sunset, softens everything.

I once wrote a news profile of Phil Ruffin, friend to Trump and billionaire owner of the Treasure Island casino in Las Vegas. For my final draft, I’d written what I thought was a decent story top, explaining why Ruffin was important.

Travis was the photographer on that story, and had gone to Vegas with me to meet Ruffin. When Travis read my story in draft, he emailed me a mocking note about how my story draft started: “Dumb,” he wrote. “Pedestrian. Dull.”

I wrote back, and mockingly said he could write the story if he wanted. I was joking. After all, photographers are not writers. Right?

Not long after, maybe an hour, Travis wrote back: “So now I’ve written your f-ing story. Do I have to do everything for you?”

I read the paragraphs he wrote –and I did not hesitate. I scooped them up, put them on top of my Ruffin Story, deleted my original story top – and put Travis’s byline on the story, along with mine.

Writing, as Mark Twain said, is not just about writing. It’s about noticing things, and while he was with me, Travis always noticed a lot.

By ROY WENZL AND TRAVIS HEYING

THE WICHITA EAGLE

April 25, 2010

LAS VEGAS — The wealth inside his casino office surrounds him like the scent of cologne: A photo of him with Mike Tyson. A Chinese carved mammoth tusk from the Ming Dynasty. A chess set made of gold.

But nothing evokes money more than the copy of a check hung on his wall.

$171,953,438.

It’s a personal check from his Wichita Bank of America account, written to pay his 2008 federal income taxes.

The man who wrote that check, Phil Ruffin, reclines in his office chair with a phone perched at his ear. On the line is America’s icon of wealth, Donald Trump, who tells Ruffin that his businesses are going well and that filming of the latest episodes of Trump’s show “The Apprentice” is going just fine.

“Good,” Ruffin tells him. “Maybe you should jack up your prices.”

I’d sat in the same office with Phil and Travis. And I had not noticed almost any of the things Travis noticed, until he’d pointed them out later.

But thanks to him and many other great FAs, I’ve learned to notice more, and live more vividly.

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“Supermoon,” shot by Travis Heying last November. He shot the photo from a mile and a half away from the pictured castle at Coronado Heights. I’m the tall guy in the middle of the frame. I’ve got this one framed and signed, hanging on my wall at home.

The Art of Letting Go

I met Roy Beckemeyer on a bike ride. I pedaled past Wichita’s Botanica flower gardens on another pretty fall day, while yellow leaves fell and squirrels ran and the gray-and-blue river flowed past green grass. I stopped when I saw Roy and his yellow dog, Jenna, coming the other way. When I rode away 20 minutes later, I felt like I’d just been paid.

Sometime before dawn
in the shivering -clear morning,
I’ll climb from my bag
of feathery down,
metamorphosis complete.

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Roy J. Beckemeyer and his dog.

Roy’s a poet. That bit above there is one of his. I first met Roy in 2003 when I thought all he did was chase dragonflies.  We walked through Chisholm Creek Park with his previous yellow dog for a story I was working on — two Roys and a yellow dog looking for dragonflies.

He’d done scientific papers on dragonflies, and was showing me habitats and behaviors while I researched a newspaper series about nature. Dr. Roy the scientist could glance at a dragonfly and tell which species it was (there are many), what their differing habits were, and how many tens of millions of years they’d been around. They are older than the dinosaurs, and still with us, he said. He’s got a PhD in engineering, so it meant something when he observed that dragonflies are one of nature’s early and brilliant flight-engineering designs.

Most of us ignore dragonflies. Roy befriended them, and taught me about them.

And so here I was again with Roy, on a fall morning, and this time I learned about poetry, writing, human nature, the creative process, the biological science of music. Our conversation flitted from topic to topic, like one of his dragonflies.

I learned that Roy has a couple more poetry books in the works, headed for publication.

I asked whether he’d heard of John McPhee.

I told him how I love the Beatles.

He told me about his passion for jazz.

“How come people like music so much?” I asked.  “Why the passion? Why does it move us so deeply, is there something deeply embedded in our brains that had some purpose?”

“It probably has to do with the bio-rhythms of our body,” Roy said. “From the mother’s womb on. We respond to rhythms.”

If I were to grow in your garden
I would be a rebellious sunflower.
While the others faced the sun
All day long, I would follow you
As you weeded and watered. I
Would be Johnny-Jump-Up,
A bachelor’s button, Love-In-A-Mist,
Something with character, with
a name you couldn’t forget, or a color
you could recall with your eyes closed.

If I could ever metamorph myself, I would choose rebirth as a Roy Beckemeyer and not another Roy.

Roy has long been one of the better poets in Kansas, and in prairie lands beyond our borders. But he’s got that PhD in engineering, which he used at Boeing for 25 years. He’s an accomplished field scientist who made discoveries and wrote scientific papers on dragonflies, dragonfly fossils, butterflies, and more.  At his home, you will see works of art, clay pots, and books shelved and piled everywhere. There are flowers enough outside his porch to feed all the butterflies and bees of Riverside. So when you ask Roy a question, you’re addressing not only a man but an interdisciplinary committee for the arts and sciences.

Then, all hollow bones,
All round eyes,
All wings
I’ll flap up to join
The Horned Owl returning
To his perch in the old sycamore.

Along that bike ride, before I saw Roy and his latest yellow dog, I’d been thinking about how everything I’ve done in life will be forgotten after I’m gone.

I’m not moping about it. I’ve just had more time to think lately. And to my surprise, I’m more at peace now than ever.

What helped get me there is a story in The New York Times Magazine this week about John McPhee, the revered New Yorker writer and teacher of writing at Princeton. McPhee has written 29 books, won a Pulitzer for “Annals of the Former World,” and just published “Draft No. 4,” a book about writing, which I am reading, slowly, to savor and learn.

The Times story quotes McPhee: “The fact is that everything I’ve written is very soon going to be absolutely nothing — and I mean nothing,” he told The Paris Review in 2010. “It’s not about whether little kids are reading your work when you’re 100 years dead or something, that’s ridiculous! What’s 100 years? Nothing.”

A few years back, or even before I lost my job in July, this would have been hard to take. Most of us, and not only writers with our annoying little egos, hope we’ll be remembered for something.

But that’s not how things work, as we older folks come to know. Time passes, life gets short, and the rich emotional topsoil of your younger self erodes off.

I once wrote compulsively, the way addicts chase addition. I put story copies in file folders, preserving them.

Now I play with my grandchildren nearly every day.  And I’m no longer worried that my kids after I’m gone will send my file folders to a recycling center.

Some of my stories did good things, which is part of why I liked them. I wrote once about how the Wichita Children’s Home had run low on supplies, including sandals to give to the runaway children they took in.

Some homeless children they’d taken in had burned their feet walking on hot summer pavement here in Wichita. A few days after my story ran, I did another story, with a photo of the staff at the Children’s Home unloading many boxes of sandals, clothes, shoes, medical ointments and other things to give to homeless kids.

But those things we do that we’re proud of: There comes a time, as with old clothes, where you need to lay them aside.

That’s what I was thinking on that bike ride, just before I saw Roy Beckemeyer: John McPhee apparently made peace with oblivion long ago. But if he did, why keep writing? Why keep researching stories, and learning new things?

The answer in the Times story comes one sentence after his quote about being forgotten: “Learning, (for McPhee), is a way of loving the world, savoring it, before it’s gone.”

That’s why Roy keeps writing poetry. And why he’s still doing poetry readings once in awhile, whenever he’s invited.

“But nobody ever wants to pay for poetry,” he said. “And no one shows up at poetry readings but other poets.

“I don’t care,” the other Roy said.

“I like poetry.”

So let’s dive in all
the way, wholly, entirely,
with all the abandon we
once brought to each other
every day. In spite of
all the past that’s pulling at our heels,
let’s rush headlong together
as if we had never turned
our backs to one another at all.

Poetry excerpted from “Music I Could Once Dance To” by Roy J. Beckemeyer, (c) 2014, Coal City Press.  

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Photo dragonfly by Roy Wenzl, taken July 2016.

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Finding family in the Path of Totality

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When the author snapped this photo, he had no idea it was four dear friends he hadn’t seen in over 30 years.

STEINAUER, Neb. – When the Path of Totality rolled over us on Monday, I was standing with my several families in a mowed off field at the south end of this small village in southeast Nebraska. People cheered and shouted and hugged in the midday darkness.

I wish there was a way that I could feel  every day, as I felt in Nebraska, standing alongside dozens of strangers who became once again a family.

I had come here to Steinauer, pop. 71, at my brother’s suggestion because he expected little traffic, but plenty of fifth-cousins-once-or-twice removed. Steinauer is the village near where my Wenzl ancestors homesteaded as immigrant peasant farmers in 1867. I brought along my stepson Henry, a science nerd finishing his last semester at Oklahoma State University. Henry had never seen a solar eclipse, or a town so small.

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Henry watches the eclipse begin in downtown Steinauer.

We’d come for a rare celestial event – the first of its kind here since 1979 — and found a place of temporary refuge from the everyday world, where people in the news either predict cataclysms, or seem to be creating them.

Up here, strangers like me came early, on the Saturday night before the grand eclipse, to listen to an astronomer, to see the stars through a strong lens, and to be embraced by the hospitality of rural Nebraskans.

They were glad in Steinauer that their village, settled by Czech and German peasants long ago, was centered in the eclipse Path of Totality, a 70-mile wide swath of land that would experience the total eclipse. My great-grandfather had left this village for Kansas in 1911 because the rolling hills that surround it didn’t appeal to him as a farmer. But I watched the low light of the sunset paint colors on those same hills on Saturday near dusk, and I thought they were gorgeous.

When the gold and pink faded and the stars came out, we peered at the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and an immense, globular cluster of hundreds of thousands of stars, burning many light years from Earth.

And two days later, we watched the moon blot out the sun.

Writers sometimes trot out the cliché about how we humans are all one big family, but for me and Steinauer, this was literally true. Descendants of Franz and Josephina Wenzl of Bohemia (and their friends) threw a low-key three-day party. They’d prepared coffee and beer, hot dogs and cinnamon rolls. They’d unlocked their fire station in the south corner of the village so we’d have a restroom for celestial events. Willard’s tavern stayed open far longer than it usually does, and offered not only Sam Adams on tap but custom-made black Koozies, to hold beer cans and glasses, and the Koozies said: “I blacked out at Willard’s Tavern, Solar Eclipse, 8-21-17.”

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Roy, Tom and Larry Wenzl in Steinauer, Neb. for the eclipse.

One of my distant cousins, Tom Wenzl from Bellevue, Washington, had come all the way to his ancestors’ home having never heard of the town or his own family history until a few months ago. When he found out that there’s a good solid house in Steinauer, available for only about $5,000, he called his wife. They are now talking seriously about moving here. His pension will go so much farther here than elsewhere.

I might want to move here myself.

Wenzls weren’t the only family I found in Steinauer. I took a photo of four random people posed around a marquee reading, “WELCOME TO STEINAUER, SOLAR ECLIPSE” only to discover they were some of my best friends from decades ago. In another work life, we had been a work family: Olser, Diana, Mary Lou, and her husband, Alan. We’d been young editors at The Kansas City Star.

I had not talked to them in decades, but Monday was a day of days. An hour or so before the eclipse, attracted by my Facebook post that said the traffic would be light in southeast Nebraska, they all showed up in Steinauer. Osler and Diana had driven nearly 800 miles up from Austin to do this. And we picked right up in conversation where we’d left off 32 years before.

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Diane and Olser traveled 800 miles to kiss during the eclipse in Steinauer, Neb.

When everything went nearly dark for two minutes, and Diana kissed Osler, I took a photo of that kiss that all of us will keep handy, as a reminder about life, in all the years to come.

I will keep it as a reminder of the joy we all felt that day, freed from the routines that wear us down, united by a celestial event that brought us together.

I’ve heard from many friends who went elsewhere for the eclipse, and they talk as I do, with a sense of wonder, about this communal event we gave ourselves in celebration on our small planet in the Milky Way galaxy.

Together we saw how powerful the heavens are, and how tiny we all are.

And so when the light dimmed to darkness on Monday, people cheered and shouted. And the Nebraska Cornhuskers weren’t even playing football.

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Nazis feel bold now. Ask yourself why.

One of the dumb things I thought people on the left did, especially after Trump started leading in the Republican primary polls last year, was compare people to Nazis.

Bringing up Nazis was an understandable temptation, after what Trump said early on about Mexicans and Muslims and anybody else who disagreed with Trump.

But I thought playing the Nazi card was always dumb move. If your goal is to get your opponents to listen to you, or so I reasoned, comparing them to Nazis is a dumb move.

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Source: Dana Hayes, Facebook

But now, after yesterday, it’s clear that reason went out the window a long time ago. Nobody listens to anybody anymore, unless they say things we agree with. And while many of our fellow Americans are not Nazis, and never will be, it’s also clear that many of us do what many people did in Nazi Germany years ago. We say nothing.

What happened in Virginia yesterday is a disaster for all of us, not only because American Nazis so obviously feel unleashed now, but because so many of us turn away.

I remember now, all too sadly, a Fourth of July years ago.

I was living in Florida then. One of the happy things about that was how a number of my distant cousins from Germany would show up two at a time, and use our townhouse as a base camp to explore Key West or Disney World or South Beach.

We were drinking beer on the patio one hot July 4 holiday. We could hear the crack of firecrackers going off everywhere around us, and sometimes the boom of something larger and illegal.

My Germans looked fascinated…and agitated, especially after they saw the pickup trucks.

We watched as pick-up trucks came by, another one every 20 minutes or so, with young Floridians riding in the bed, and holding big American flags.

We have nothing like this in Germany, one of my German cousins said.

“We would NEVER have anything like this in Germany.”

Why? I asked.

Shame, he said. “Because we are ashamed.”

Because of what happened in the war?

“Yes.”

I told him the truck riders with the flags were mostly young people in their teens and early 20s.

Most of them, I told him, could not possibly know what war we were talking about, or even find Germany on a map.

I told him most of those kids were probably headed to a beer party, and not some chest-pounding nationalist rally. They just happened to like American flags, I said — the flag is a prop for them, nothing more.

Still, he said.

We talked for a long time, as the firecrackers popped and as one or two more pickup trucks rolled past, big American flags flying.

Do they teach in Germany about the Nazis, and what the Nazis did to the Jews and everybody else, I asked?

Yes, he said. Not much, but enough to get the idea. And that is why you will never, ever see many Germans waving around German flags. It is shame, he said.

It is shame.

And it is knowing that we could do it again, he said. There are still people in Germany who would take us back there, but they don’t dare speak up now. But if that changes, he said, if people forget, it will all come back.

He told me all that could happen here.

No, I said. Nothing like that could ever happen here.

He laughed at me.

Magic Sands Washed Away My Worries

KONA — I waded into waves at a park near Magic Sands Beach. For the first time in 25 days, I felt calm.

The sun was setting in the Pacific, west of the Kona coastline. I pulled out my phone to shoot the sunset, being careful lest a wave of that clear, warm salt water knock me off balance.

I’m on the big island of Hawaii, taking that vacation we paid for before the layoff call came.

For 25 days before this, after I got the call, I couldn’t stop fretting. I need to find a job, I tell myself. I need to find leads for freelance work.

I need.

The waves washed in, over my feet. The waves washed out.

In those 25 days, I could hear a clock ticking in my head, counting down the minutes and hours until my severance package runs out. That will take weeks, for the money to run out, but it isn’t easy for 62-year-old lifelong newspaper writer to find a job, especially when he’s made a vow to never move from Wichita, and always be there for the granddaughters.

Every footprint I made in that coral-and-basalt sand was washed away immediately by waves that wash away all, given time.

In those last 25 days, I did what we’re supposed to do: I took mental breaks. We binge-watched Game of Thrones. bicycled between phone calls. I lifted weights. But every time

I did those things, every time I picked up a book or the iPad to read for pleasure, I felt like a goof-off.

Out in the water, 20 yards out from where I stood, a sea turtle popped up it’s head, glanced at me and popped back underwater. We stood watching, hoping to see it again — this was my first time seeing a sea turtle outside a zoo or aquarium.

For years now, whenever somebody else has a life crisis, I always give them good advice: When a shock comes, be sure to pace yourself.

I’d learned that lesson, or so I thought, when I lost people to sudden death, or when someone close to me has a serious illness and I need to pick up the pieces. Or when mistakes I’ve made have created crisis that require calm decision making.

“Pace yourself,” I tell people. “Take breaks, take days off, don’t fret so much. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

I hadn’t followed my own advice this time. When your job goes away, your lifelong career… well. Wow. Just…wow.

We stood and waited. The turtle popped up its head again, then disappeared. We waited some more, trading glances toward the setting sun and the turtle. My wife reminded me: watch that sunset going down over the rim of the Pacific horizon, because if we are lucky, there will be a green, incandescent flash of light just as the sun sinks.

Why would there be a flash of green in a sunset, I asked? Apparently it has to do with light spectrum, whatever that is.

I see the turtle again.

Light spectrum, I say to myself. I’ll have to Google green-flash-light-spectrum-sunset tonight, when we get back to the house.

I glance toward the sunset again.

Then I look for the turtle. And there he is again.

Then the sunset.

I won’t forget to look up the green flash, because I am not as distracted as usual. I can stand here for another hour or two, if I choose to do so. I can watch the waves wash away all my footprints showing I was here.

I have all the time in the world now, and not only because I am unemployed.

I look west again, just as the yellow sliver of the setting sun flashes green — and disappears.

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Aloha, We’re Going to Hawaii

“Gosh, maybe I should have stayed in newspapers, so I could get laid off and go to Hawaii for a week.”

That’s my old friend Gary, teasing me in an email. Gary Rice and I worked together at The Kansas City Star, then later at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and again later at the Wichita Eagle. He’s taught journalism at California State University at Fresno for years, since disappointment drove him out of newspapers.

He teased me after learning about my job loss, but also because he heard I’m going to Hawaii tomorrow. My wife and I planned it before the layoff, a celebration for her birthday.

I got laid off last month, so it might seem strange, or even stupid, to fly to the big island of Hawaii.

We bought the tickets for the plane ride and the tours months ago, though. We could have canceled, and got some money back. But sometimes you just need to say:

Aloha.

Over six days, we will snorkel and whale watch, and bike 15 miles down an active volcano to watch red-hot lava flows, and then ride all the way up to the peak of Mauna Kea to watch the sunset, and then look up to the Milky Way stars from an 13,803 elevation above the Pacific, during the Perseid meteor shower.

Aloha.jpgNobody understands this better than Gary, who wasn’t chiding me, but cheering me on. He was my boss and reporting partner long ago, and was always nagging us to go further with a story than I’d intended.

He’s always believed in himself, believed in discovery, believed in adventure, believed in bigger and better and different. He used to live in my house years ago, earning the modest salary earned by most mid-level newspaper editors nationwide. And yet he flew nearly every other weekend to the Carolinas or California or Texas some such place to watch stock car races, where loud cars go VROOM, VROOM, and drive around and around in circles.

“How can you afford to do this?” I’d ask.

“How can I afford not to?” he’d say.

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The author and his mentor Gary Rice in younger days.

He liked stock car races, just as he now likes flying the world on his modest college professor salary to climb mountain peaks. When I told him we’re going up Mauna Kea, he said, as he usually does, that he’d been there before me. It’s hard to keep track of him, but I think he’s somewhere in the Chilean Andes right now, camping above 20,000 feet.

He thinks stock car races and mountain climbing are necessities, like food and Lone Star Beer. If he ever got fired and lost his income, he’d still climb in the Andes.

He’s wanting me to test myself, as he always wanted. I often resisted, but I have no choice about testing myself now.

Since my life got up-ended, everywhere I go now, I feel like I’ve got Janus walking with me. Janus was the Roman god with two faces, one that looked forward while the other looked back. He’s the god of beginnings and endings, of gateways and doorways, of time and transitions and dualities. He’s my god now, until I sort things out.

I feel competing temptations every day. Do I look back to the familiar, and find a safe job, with full-time benefits, and settle for the security I had in the past? Or do I face forward, bet on myself, put my future at risk, and pursue something I can like even if it pays little?

I can hear Gary, all the way from the Andes:

“How can you afford not to?”

Aloha.

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Feeling the layoff blues

I had my first official put-on-the-necktie chat with someone in Wichita about a line of work I might take up now, post-layoff.

He asked what anyone in his chair should ask:

“What do you want to do?”

What I said surprised me, even as I blurted it out.

 “I feel like I’m an old blues musician who’s suddenly been banned from playing in all the bars and dance halls in town,” I told him. “And I just want somebody to let me come play again. just want to play.”

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The author with his father’s trumpet.

That’s odd, I thought later. I can’t play a note on a guitar, or even a kazoo.

I had blurted out something I had not said to anyone else, or even to myself until then:

I don’t want to give up real writing.

No matter what it costs me.

But maybe there was a reason I reached for that metaphor.

In 1978 my farmer father was baling hay one day, using an early model of one of those balers that make those big round hay bales we all see from our roadways.

Making those tight heavy bales requires a lot of machine pressure.

The baler stopped working. My Dad got off the tractor, and stuck his head into the round bale iron circle to fix it.

My father never much liked farming, I learned many years later. He farmed because farming supported his family. What he’d really wanted, as a child, was to be a musician, or an engine mechanic with a job that paid well and would let him play music more.

Anyway, the iron circle of the hay baler busted loose, with tremendous, sudden force. An iron bar slammed into my Dad’s mouth. It almost lopped his head off, and tossed his body end over end.

The surgeon told him later that one reason he survived was that he had a strong upper body, with shoulders and neck thick with muscle. It held his head in place.

An injury like that was devastating, and not only because farmers can’t ever afford the downtime.

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The author’s father with his trumpet, 1955.

My Dad was also a musician who lived for playing trumpet in dance halls.

I did not think he was a great musician. But HE thought he was a GREAT musician. He had blown his horn in his own band in dance halls for decades.

Now his mouth was a mess of black and blue and broken teeth and soft tissue — his upper jaw broken.  He couldn’t play. At first.

So, his band fired him, the geniuses. Even though he’d formed the band.

They hired another horn man.

He sank into a depression. He and I had a yelling match out in a cow pasture not long after, when he admitted to suicidal thoughts.

But he started blowing his horn right away.

He sounded terrible.

Trumpets are loud. To spare our mother, my younger brothers banned Dad from blowing the horn in the house during trumpet practice.

They told him to go play outside, even when it was freezing out there.

He did.

I felt bad for him, though I made him laugh one night: I joked that the prairie coyotes that had sung for decades outside our farmhouse were probably terrified into silence by the blaring of that terrible horn.

Anyway, Dad’s mouth healed, and he formed another dance band. And all the dancing couples from miles around came to hear him play.

But before that happened, while his face was still black and blue, I found my Dad playing on the front steps of the farmhouse one night.

I listened to the terrible trumpet for a few minutes. Then I made him stop to listen to me:

“What are you going to do if you can’t play in a band anymore?”

He shrugged.

“Then I’ll just sit here and play to the coyotes,” he said. “We have an understanding. The coyotes sing, and I play.

“It’s what we do.”

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Grandma’s Wisdom and Cherry Tomatoes

In catechism class we learned that God created the universe. But we knew in summer that Grandma created cherry tomatoes.

She grew them by the bushel. We’d snatch them out of the buckets and tubs and pans and old coffee cans sitting on her porch and eat them then and there.

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In honor of Grandma Wenzl, my wife and I grow cherry tomatoes in our community garden plot.

They’d feel warm from the summer sun. We rubbed the black Kansas dirt off before we poked them into our mouths. When we bit down, they burst like sour-sweet balloons, splattering seeds and juice on our shirts. No matter. Our shirts needed washing anyway.

I went to see her, sometimes every summer day, from the time I was a boy, to when I was a teen disking fields outside of town. During my first two years in college, I stopped in every weekend to load up a supply of homemade potato salad and cookies fresh from her oven.

I would sit on her porch and eat tomatoes or oatmeal raisin cookies, and I would watch her water her flowers. Man, this is good, I’d say. And she’d shrug and say that it was impossible to make a bad oatmeal raisin cookie.

She grew the tomatoes in the garden in back of her house, along with spuds and sweet potatoes and squash and raspberries and cherries and pears, all surrounded by peony bushes and rose bushes and more than an acre of irises and phlox and tulips and geraniums. All her pathways winding among the flower beds were covered with clover and thick green grass, and in the grass the robins stabbed their beaks at worms.

It’s all gone to grass now.

We sold her house after she died. Sometimes when I walk past, I see a rogue flower that escaped the lawn mowers poking blossoms through the grass.

She’d lived in town, two miles from our farm. My dad was her son. Dad and Mom had five sons. And our five names when Mom or Grandma called us in to supper amounted to six words shouted as one: RoyGaryLarryTomandRick!

I hated Kansas summers.

There are parts I miss, distanced now 30-some years. But I hated them then. There were days we worked 16 hours and went home greasy with sweaty dust. We knew what it was to be covered with grain dust, and that milo dust itches like poison if you scratch it. Blow your nose, and the Kleenex turns black.

It wasn’t all like that. Little things stand out, and we talk about them still.

Finding wild strawberries in the pastures. Waking up on a steamy morning to see coyote pups playing by the creek. Watching a full rising moon blaze up so magnificently red that you could mistake it for a prairie fire. Nearly falling down in shock when quail coveys exploded at our feet. Smelling rain just before it caught us in the open and turned the dust in our hair into mud.

We’d go fishing on a rare Sunday afternoon off. Mom told us fishing poles cost too much, but I’d found a hook and line in the garage somewhere, left over from Grandpa’s days, and we’d fish for bullheads in the pond. We’d wrap the line around one finger and yank fish out of water. We’d bait our hook with grasshoppers and jerk green sunfish out of the creek.

But most of the time, we worked – at plowing and disking, haying. Wheat harvest came at the same time of the first cuttings of hay.

Larry liked the summers.

He’s still living on the family farm with his wife and three kids. We talk about it sometimes, how we’d work dawn to past dark and be too tired even to watch TV after work. The walls of the bathroom shower would be black with grime, and we’d fall asleep on the floor, too numb from heat and bucking bales to remember what it was like to think, or to feel anything but dirt and dust and sunburn.

But we had no worries then, Larry said.

From the moment we woke up in the morning, we knew what we’d be doing all that day, which was stacking bales in the barn until our sweaty backs nudged right into the rafters where the hundreds of hornets made nests as big as frying pans.

We had no mortgages, he said. No car payments, no kids needing orthodon tics, no schoolwork. We had absolutely no knowledge that Dad and Mom were almost broke. We had no idea that farming might be killing our Dad.

“All we had to worry about was Dad yelling at us and cussing at us and pushing us out the door,” Larry said. “But even if he got really ticked off at us, what was he gonna do if we dragged our butts too slow to suit him? He wasn’t going to throw us out of the family. Not in summer.

“He needed us.”

We pushed all day, and we pushed hard. One day we almost lost Tom to a machine that tried to wrap his body like string around a turning shaft. We cut corners all the time, got run over by Angus steers, carried gasoline in leaky containers in the floorboards of smoking trucks because we always hurried. We ran and seemed to get nowhere.

We envied the city cousins sleeping until noon, sipping malts, watching movies, swimming in pools.

Dad ran us hard, ran himself hard – from one tractor to another in August, stacking bales and driving himself through back pain that eventually began to twist his spine. He yelled when we dawdled; Dad would catch us reading National Geographic or “The Lord of the Rings” over a noon hour, and he’d boot us out the door.

It had not always been this way. When he was younger, he used to drive slow at summer sundowns, with those red Kansas sunsets blazing pink all over the prairie, sunlight so thick with dust that you could see the bars of pink light stabbing through the green of trees. He’d roll us through the tallgrass, counting calves and telling stories.

He had time.

But as we grew from boys into men in the early ’70s, Dad was racing against time. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now: He was frantic.

The farm economy was failing us, and failing nearly everyone else. The story of what happened to our family during those summers is the story of what happened all across Kansas in the past 30 years. When we were young, wearing bell-bottomed jeans, nearly every farmstead sitting along the road from Greenleaf to Wichita had a family living in it. Now, many of those farmsteads stand empty – windows broken, barn roofs falling in.

We watched as the Dad who used to take us hunting arrowheads and fossils on summer Sundays worked from dawn to beyond dark, seven days a week, trying not just to get us to college but to keep us in shoes.

I’d sneak off sometimes to sit on Grandma’s porch. It was a refuge, and the cherry tomatoes were plentiful. I’d watch the bumblebees crawl inside the cups of her flowers.

Why does he yell at us so? I’d ask her.

“You wait,” she’d say. “You’ll learn what work is when it’s all on you, when it’s all your load to carry, when everyone depends on you.”

Did he yell at people when he was your little boy?

“He was always cheerful,” she said. “He loved music, and he liked to hunt. He read books every chance he got.”

You never yell at us like he does.

“I’d yell like the dickens if it was my farm and I caught you loafing in summer,” she said.

It’s not fair, I said.

She glared.

“Neither is the weather on some days.”

Originally published in The Wichita Eagle, Aug. 11, 2001

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How Not to Sleep While Living

BumblebeeandriverIn the summer of 2003 I waded through mud, chased snakes, caught butterflies and got my hands dirty while reporting a series of stories for The Wichita Eagle called “Hidden Kansas.”  The stories changed my life, startled me, stirred deep emotions –and made me feel more alive to this day.

You can do a version of this yourself – make yourself feel more alive. Even if you don’t write a story series.

I’ve been thinking about Hidden Kansas since I lost my job last month. I need to tap into that wonderful vibe again. Why? Because in my anxious search for a new livelihood, I can already see that I’m feeding anxieties too much—and sacrificing what’s more vital. I’m no longer paying happy enough attention to life-giving scenes and natural art flourishing just outside my door.  I’m not trying to write a sermon here about how we all need to stop and smell the flowers. But … what’s the point of having a job if you aren’t living life around it?

For the Hidden Kansas series, I hung out for days — or sometimes weeks, off and on — with scientists and naturalists based in Kansas. With geo-archaeologist Rolfe Mandel, I hunted Paleo Indian spear points made ten thousand years ago by Native American ancestors who hunted elephants and wild camels in Kansas. I hunted and caught (non-venomous) snakes with naturalist Joseph T. Collins. I collected 87-million-year-old shark teeth from the Gove County chalk beds in western Kansas with paleontologist Mike Everhart.

The premise of the series was to take my readers to little worlds and fabulous places just outside their doors – places most people almost always ignore.

Do most of us even glance at a river as we roll at 60 miles per hour across a bridge? No. But for Hidden Kansas, I rode a boat for miles, up and down the Arkansas River, with outdoorsman Kirk Woods, who taught me that water doesn’t just flow – it rolls and unfolds downstream, in a slow but predictable pattern, which is why rivers always have bends.

If you learn to read the water flow like Woods, you can know where the shallow parts and the deep parts (and where the fishing holes are), even while looking at the opaque surface of a muddy river. You can know, if you have Woods’ practiced eye, why it is that that beavers build their little homes on one part of that unfolding stream, and not others. You know that there is a glorious way that the water flow sculpts the landscape over eons of time, and how it creates patterns that thousands of species of fish and birds and mammals and plants pay close attention to.

Once you see those patterns, and learn to read them, you can never roll over a bridge on a river and ignore it. In those few seconds of crossing, you can see at a glance an entire intricate world playing out the circle of life just under the bridge railings.

Native Americans used to live this way because they had to. They could glance at a prairie full of thousands of plants and know which ones to pluck to feed their children. The parched and thirsty hunters and gatherers of those ancient Native American bands could glance at a flock of birds in a dry prairie, and know, from the flight pattern, that the birds were headed to a waterhole, and that if they followed the direction the birds were flying, they’d probably find that waterhole, too.  And in doing this, they did more than keep themselves and their children alive with protein and starches. By closely watching other living things, they became more alert and alive themselves.

Years after Hidden Kansas got published, about five years ago, I began riding a bicycle in the morning. At first I did this only for exercise. And at first, I took my cell phone along only in case I crashed the bike and needed to call for help.

But one day, while rolling through Chisholm Creek Park and its hundreds of acres of natural prairie in northeast Wichita, I saw a bumble-bee gathering food in the flower of a musk thistle. I got off the bike and photographed the bee.

That eventually led me to taking thousands of photographs, inside Chisholm and elsewhere, of flowers, and tree buds, and sunrises, and wild deer. An iPhone 6 has a fabulous camera, and includes photo editing tools that I then began to use to crop and tone my photos.  I’d sometimes spend five minutes and shoot hundreds of frames of one flower with a one honeybee working inside it.

I’d post many of these photos on my Facebook page. And naturalist friends like Jim Mason or Everhart would post comments, teaching me what species of bee or butterfly I’d shot that morning.

I learned how to be a photographer.

And I learned how not to sleep while living.

The original idea for Hidden Kansas came indirectly from my father, who died young more than 20 years before I took up the series. Dad was a farmer, and sometimes a kind of philosopher whose throne was either a milking stool or a hay bale or a tractor seat, depending on what task he might be doing when the philosophy occurred to him.

It was Dad who took us shark-tooth hunting in Kansas. And it was him, sitting on a milk stool, who said that the ground beneath our feet was filled with the bones and the stories of millions of creatures and millions of stories that had come before us.

He also said that most people sleep-walk through most of their lives. They become preoccupied with mundane thoughts. They ignore most of what they see around them on any given day.

I didn’t want to live like that. I need to quit moping about losing my job, and go for a bike ride this afternoon.

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