Jacob’s Ladder

By David LaBelle

Last week, I met an interesting man who found purpose and meaning for his life through an uncomplicated routine of service and acceptance.

Sixty-five-year-old Jacob Jones wakes before dawn, rolls his wheelchair out of the enclosed patio he currently calls home and boards two city buses each morning leading him to an asphalt parking lot behind Starbucks in Midtown Nashville.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Jones arrives early in the morning.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Armed with a jar filled with salted peanuts bought in bulk and bags of discarded baked goods gleaned from restaurant trash bins, he wheels to his regular spot, arriving just after 6am. Soon, the still landscape comes alive.   Squirrels inch down from nearby trees and flocks of birds, waiting on wires, descend for a morning meal.

“When I began four years ago, there were 6 squirrels that showed up, now there are about 60. And 500 birds turned to 10,000,” he laughs.

Jones began this routine over four years ago after literally falling off a train near Nashville.   Originally from Cleveland, the cross-country traveler said he rode boxcars coast to coast. Then one fateful day, he recounts, “I got up and it was early in the morning and I went to the door to take a wiz. And sure enough the train lunged around a corner and I fell out of the door. Yeah, so I fell off the train and couldn’t get back on and had to walk 10 miles into town, once I stopped somebody and found out where I was. I have been here ever since. “

“But it is a blessing from the Lord, “ he insists.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Jacob Jones, 65.

Jones accepts donations and tips to buy food for his little friends, mostly salted peanuts, and gathers discarded bread products from nearby establishments.   He buys only salted peanuts in bulk then fills the jar he carries. “That way they get the salt they need,” he beams.

“Knowing that my little birds and squirrels are waiting on me, that gets me up in the morning,” Jones says with a smile stretching across his bearded and weathered face.

Besides feeding “God’s creatures”, Jones, who claims he is a cousin of the famous retired Dallas Cowboys’ football star “Too Tall” Jones, also directs traffic, watches out for seedy characters and helps limit the mischief in nearby parking lots.

“It’s a great arrangement,” he assures. “I watch out for the cars, make sure people don’t break in or steal and they let me gather tips to feed my birds and squirrels and get bus fare back home.”   He proudly wears an official badge claiming it was a gift from Vanderbilt Hospital.  “It cost them one-hundred dollars to make,” he assures, “The cop shop, they made the badge.”

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Squirrels and birds enjoy a morning feast.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Since embracing a nomadic life at the young age of 15, the self-proclaimed world traveler is now mostly confined to a wheelchair. He says he only can stand and walk a few steps with the aid of a cane, after slipping on the ice two years back and breaking his leg in several places.

“After two operations, I am lucky they didn’t just cut it off and give up on it. I’m just lucky what little bit I can do. That’s a blessing,” he assures. “And it’s a good thing they haven’t chopped it off yet. I could imagine trying to walk with only one leg; it would be a hopping situation,” he laughs.

A generous friend, a widower, allows Jones to sleep in his enclosed patio in exchange for watching over his place.   He says there is even a wheelchair ramp the man’s deceased wife once used.

“It’s a blessing”, Jones insists. “I even have electricity so I can use a heater in the winter and a box fan in the summer heat. Yes, it’s a blessing.” he smiles.

Jacob Jones is nothing if not thankful and appreciative.   He believes, “everything is a blessing from the Lord.”   And much like the creatures he feeds daily, his is a modest life dependent on the “The Lord” and the goodness of friends and strangers.

“We are all the Lord’s creatures,” he smiles.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Few of us, if any, know where our life road will lead. We have youthful dreams – professional aspirations that seldom turn out the way we imagine. Jones says his dreams started at the age of 12. “I wanted to start my own business, so at the age of 13, I started a private contracting company. But not just in any area, in Millionaire’s Row, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Yeah, I got a lot of contracts doing the landscaping on their lots, big lots. I had been learning how to do that since the age of nine. I stayed there until I was 15 when I started traveling around the world and ended up over in Europe. I started my own photography studios at the age of 16.”

DSC_9982

Today, Jacob has more focused and much simpler, yet profound dreams. “My dreams now are to walk closer and closer and closer to God everyday. Yeah, that’s a blessing.   Because I know one day I see him again, meet him again. When death comes for me, I will meet him again. And I want to be right with Him when I am standing before Him because you don’t want to be wrong with Him. I mean the whole universe moved to obey his command when he sent me back.”

When asked what he meant about being “sent back”, Jacob, like a great narrator from a Disney movie, rewinds to the story of the day he died.

The way Jones tells it, he was on vacation while working with Gulf Oil in Houston, Texas in 1979, when a decision to sleep on the beach in Galveston after a day of fishing would alter his life forever. Because it was Spring Break and all of the motels were filled with students, he couldn’t find a room.

“It can be warm in the day but at nights sheets of ice can form,” Jones remembers. “Unfortunately, it was one of those nights and I died of exposure. The police found me and I had been dead over an hour, no heartbeat, no pulse, no respitory [sic]; I passed on. And the doctors had been there and already certified me DOA. And they took my shoe off and put a tag on my toe. So I was basically waiting on an undertaker to zip me up in a body bag and take me away from the beach. But meanwhile, during that hour I was traveling through that tunnel of light everyone talks about.   And as I get closer to the end of the tunnel of light, all peace that surpasses all understanding overcame me. And I was feeling better and better the closer I got to that light at the end of the tunnel. And the light at the end of that tunnel, that’s God’s glory shining through. There was over 100,000 of us that had died that night; we were all traveling through that tunnel of light.   And just as I got ready to step out of the end, God spoke to me: It’s not yet your time. And I looked up and I said, Oh God. I recognized who He was; His voice filled the entire universe. And as soon as that last word was uttered out of his mouth, I jumped.   And I jumped and I was back in my body. The whole universe rushed to obey His very command. And in less than four seconds He singled me out and sent me back.   And it took me 30 years of traveling around this earth to find another He had sent back, so He doesn’t do that very often.”

When he “came back,” Jones claims his body was made new, renewed. All of those pains from former injuries were gone.

That event changed not only his life, but also his outlook. “I was a drinker back in the 70’s. I gave it up. Yeah, it wasn’t good for my health and it wasn’t good for my thinking abilities either.”

Jones smiles broadly and casts his eyes toward the heavens. “I can’t complain at all; anything the Lord gives me is a blessin’. He has been watching out for me since I died. All kind of good things have happened since he sent me back. I know he’s been watching out for me.”

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

John lends Jacob his umbrella while he repairs his friend’s leaking one.

Jacob was the first person John met, besides his housemates, when he moved to Nashville two years ago and they have been friends ever since. John, whose wife is a divinity student, stops by at least twice each week to give Jacob the weather report, which earned him the nickname of The Weather Man. Even on his birthday, John stops to warn his friend, “I looked at Weather.com and there is red over all of Tennessee.”

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

“Oh, that’s not good,” Jones smiles. But once the downpour begins, he maintains his post for several hours.

The 44-year-old printmaker says he admires Jones.   “Jacob has such a positive personality. Practically every single day I see him, he asks what’s going on, and as I  am walking away, he always says, ‘have a blessed day.’ He has a spirit of thankfulness and gratitude, never negativity, never feeling sorry for himself for anything. You know he’s out here even if it’s about to flood. He sees what’s positive.”

John adds, “Jacob is the one in March who clued me in on what’s going on about this scammer who robs people. I went to the Vanderbilt Police and talked to them in April, and they said Jacob was their eyes and ears out back. They know who he is and appreciate what he does.”   And Jones appreciates what his friend does for him.  “When my wheelchair broke down, he came down and repaired it for me. And he’s letting me use his umbrella while he patches mine. Yes, it’s a blessin’.”

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Like the birds and squirrels in his care, Jones is dependent on the kindness of friends and strangers.

I asked this man with the smiling eyes and an unusually calm spirit of gratitude why

he continues to rise so early and ride two buses just to feed birds and squirrels and watch over parking lots?His eyes twinkle with genuine care. “It’s a blessing,” he nods. “And we are all God’s creatures. It gives me purpose and a sense of peace on this planet. I try to be a blessing to all. “

DSC_9029

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

An object becomes human

By David LaBelle

We pass by them every day on the streets of our great cities – those nameless forms. They shuffle about, asking for change or food or cigarettes.  Most sleep on sidewalks, in parks, in alleys, even dumpsters. Many are alcoholics or drug addicts, but not all. Some are physically sick, while others suffer varying degrees of mental illness. Some are drifters looking for something.  Many are alone, without family or friends.

John

Today, I saw a crumpled form on the sidewalk in downtown San Francisco.

Collapsed in front of a financial building, his legs and arms were being cooked by the harsh sun. I tried to engage him to see if I could help but he didn’t respond. I backed away and watched for nearly a half an hour as hundreds passed by, most without even looking down, though only a few feet away. I was sure any moment I would record someone stopping to help the man. But nobody did.

The familiar scene saddened me, as it always does.

John first

John1

John 4

Finally, I couldn’t watch any longer and had to intercede.   This time I was able to arouse him, get him to his feet and help him into some shade.

He wasn’t drunk or stoned as I imagined, but said he had fallen and passed out.

He said his name was John Day, and had recently been released from the hospital following an appendix surgery. The plastic identification band was still around his wrist. He also said he suffers from narcolepsy and can fall asleep mid-sentence.

DSC_6765

I learned that John has been on the street for three years and has no family except a younger brother, which he worries about. Like me, he is a native Californian, born in 1951.

He said he “felt sad that most people were too busy to care anymore.”

In short, the bent and crumpled object became human.

And I found him to be delightful.

My Top 10 reasons for photographing

Because of great reader response to this month’s photography column in Ruralite Magazine, I decided to share my top reasons for photographing.

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 11.17.31 AM

Borrowing from CBS late-night host David Letterman’s “Top-10″ approach, I have assembled my top-10 reasons for photographing.

I am only sharing numbers, 1, 5 and 10 – the reasons receiving the most comments.  To see all 10 reasons, please click on the link provided.  Hope you see yourself in this list. https://www.ruralite.org/magazine/

No. 10 – I’m terrible at living or participating in my own life. Often, it’s easier to live vicariously through the lives of others.  A camera allows me to do this.  It’s less messy and painful, and it requires less introspective work on my part.

No. 5 – The camera is my Superman’s cape.  By nature I am cowardly, but armed with a camera and a mission, I am filled with a courage that washes away my fear.  My camera boldly pushes me to talk to anyone from Hollywood celebrities and homeless wanderers and make pictures in intimidating, sometimes dangerous environments.

No. 1 – But of all the wonderful gifts the camera has given me through five decades, the greatest blessing has been a powerful voice to speak to others who do not have a voice.  It is one of the greatest connectors. Nothing equals the euphoric sense of purpose I feel when photographs I have made somehow help others.  When people feel represented, understood; when the photographic image shines light in dark places and cleanses or helps us heal, I feel a heightened sense of life purpose as a bridge and a connector.

On that day and in this place

Chip Wood

Chip Wood

by David LaBelle

I remember that day – those graphic black and white pictures moving across the AP and UPI wires, most notably the now iconic image made by John Filo of Mary Vecchio, a fourteen-year-old runaway bent over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller in horror.   I was a staff photographer for the Ventura County Star Free Press, my first full-time newspaper job.   I couldn’t have imagined the spring of 1970 that 40 years later I would begin directing a photojournalism program on the same campus, 2,400 miles away from my southern California home.

Since coming to Kent in 2010, I have walked the sometimes grassy, often snowy hill many times, usually alone, trying to understand how such a tragedy could happen.

Like so many others, I’ve touched the bullet hole in the metal sculpture made by a .30-06 round by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970.

I have drawn my face close and looked through the small opening, towards the infamous pagoda, as if hoping to see through to the past.

05

Kent State, Ohio, May 4, 2015- The 45th commemoration of the 1970 shooting.   © Photos by David LaBelle

The pagoda at the top of the hill near Taylor Hall, where National Guard troops fired into the crowd of students.   Bill Reynolds calls this place “the vortex of evil.” 

Kent State, Ohio, May 4, 2015- The 45th commemoration of the 1970 shooting.   © Photos by David LaBelle

Chris Everett

Kent State Alumnus, Chris Everett, on campus the fateful day, says he thinks about Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer, wondering what contributions they might have made to our world.   For the Professor Emeritus from Northern Arizona University, coming back for the 45th memorial reunion was emotional. “I cried, I laughed,” he said.

Like Everett, I have often thought about those young lives and how many experiences they missed the past 45 years. Each was near my age. Only 19 when she was gunned down, Allison Krause was six weeks older than me, and William Schroeder just six weeks younger than me when their lives were cut short.

For my generation, time is remembered and history marked by killings and assassinations.   John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and four Kent State students Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer, not to mention Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green, students killed with shotgun buckshot at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi 10 days after the Kent State Massacre.

04

Like most people my age, I remember that era well.   I remember the anxiety about being drafted and sent to Vietnam, just as I was starting my career. I remember the day I received notice that my draft lottery number, 169, was high enough to avoid being called to war. I believe they stopped that year at 150.

I try to explain to my children life was different in 1970.   Times were wild; people were smoking pot, burning draft cards, bras, even banks in protest.   People distrusted government, police, institutions and “the establishment.”   Our country was entrenched in a war in Southeast Asia few understood; a war on foreign soil that claimed thousands upon thousands of young lives.   There was rioting in the streets, looting and burning of buildings. There were beatings and killings of innocent people because of their color or race. There were radical hate groups with acronym names like the S. L. A. I try to explain people were afraid, and many of us truly felt the end of the world was near. I remind them when people are afraid, fear often pushes them to do crazy, even inhumane things.

“It was very complex, very complicated,” offers retired professor David Bachner, Scholar in Residence for the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC. “The unmitigated tragedy of the event is overshadowed by the complexity. People romanticize that era – and the music helps – but the stuff that shouldn’t be romanticized is too often forgotten. For those of us who lived it, it wasn’t a cakewalk,” he quietly adds.
So why come back here, year after painful year? Why build a memorial to remind us of the shameful tragedy?

Vietnam veteran Bill Reynolds, one of those holding vigil in the parking lot the commemoration morning says “ It’s important to keep the memory of Kent alive. It is easier to avoid a mistake then to repeat it,” he assures. Then he warns, “We are on the verge of a race war, economic war.”

Bill Reynolds

Bill Reynolds

“Everybody comes here for their own reasons,” offers Chip Wood, 68, from Tallmadge, as he quietly sits against a tree, a distance from the activities below. Wood, who completed two tours in Vietnam, said he has only missed a few of the May 4th gatherings. He takes comfort in believing “What happened here helped stop the war.”

Like most I talked with about the tragedy, I cannot say with certainty why I am drawn to this spot, but I am. Maybe Bob Dylan had it right when he penned the words, “the answer is blowin’ in the wind?

Kent State, Ohio, May 4, 2015.

Kent State, Ohio, May 4, 2015.

Caring

by David LaBelle

That God cares deeply about all life is evident.

Blink

Blink

It is also evident that He has put into the hearts of individuals to do different things and dream different dreams.

While some labor tirelessly to find cures for diseases, others are preoccupied with discovering ways to better grow food and feed the world.

And then there are those who seem blessed with hearts of compassion for animals, all animals. My brother Steven is like this, so also is my youngest son Henry. And no canine ever enjoyed more love and respect than those blessed to be cared for in the homes of my dear friends Penny Harvey and Greg Cooper.

During this coming year, I intend to introduce you to a few dedicated people who sacrifice much to preserve life and offer dignity to creatures large and small. They’ve made caregiving for our hairy, furry, feathered and finned friends a life mission and purpose.

These caring souls feel a charge, a responsibility, to guard and protect those animals unable to care for or protect themselves, especially victims of men’s reckless intervention or greedy poaching. Some even risk their lives to defend God’s creatures. In oceans, barren backcountry, dense forests, or in populated neighborhoods, most of these dedicated humans work quietly, out of the spotlight.

Connie Michaels will lead the way for this compassionate group.

Fury

Fury

Michaels is a park naturalist who has worked primarily at Quail Hollow State Park in Hartville, Ohio since 1989, when she began as a volunteer. For the past quarter century Michaels has cared for injured or relocated creatures and educated the public about turtles, snakes, toads, mice, fish or any other small creature that finds its way to her. But of all the animals residing at Quail Hollow, her greatest love is for the birds of prey, otherwise known as raptors.

In a sense, the birds are like children the unmarried Michaels never had. She has known them that long.

Like any good parent, Michaels knows each bird’s personality and habits.   She grows concerned when their behavior changes or if they don’t eat.   She worries about their health and finding and maintaining food sources that provide them with enough nutrition. She monitors and keeps detailed records on each animal.

Though she is paid only seasonally, Michaels cares for the animals at Quail Hollow daily and organizes an army of volunteers year-round.

“When I first started as the seasonal naturalist there was a full time naturalist who had the responsibility of overseeing the care of the birds,” offers Michaels. “The steady reduction of park personnel caused the elimination of that job as well as many other positions at the park leaving only a seasonal staff.  Animals however are still there requiring year round care and while they are attended to by a dedicated staff of volunteers, someone has to make sure there is adequate food and supplies, that they are eating as they should, and if they are in need of veterinary care.  I have hope that this will soon change.”

Michaels, who does other volunteer work at the park besides animal care, says she probably “devotes about 8 to 12 hours a week just to the care of the birds.”

“Fortunately, I do not have to pay out much of my own money,” adds Michaels. “The Quail Hollow Volunteer Association has established an account for the care of the raptors and the other animals at the nature center.  Each year they budget a certain amount of money and along with this I receive donations from some of the organizations I present programs to.”

Michaels, who has two dogs and two cats at home, says her relationship with the birds is different.   “Dogs and cats have learned to interact with us and respond to our care and affection. That is why we call them domesticated,” insists Michaels.

“I have grown close to the birds emotionally, but as they are still wild animals, I don’t expect them to want to be close to me. They will take food from me because they can’t hunt for themselves and perch on my arm only because they have been trained to do so, not because they have a desire to be near me.”

That said, Michaels has known Skye and R.T., two red-tailed hawks, Chopper, a Bard owl, a peregrine hawk named Fury, and her personal favorite, Blink, a six-inch-tall eastern screech owl, for years. She’s known RT since 1998, Skye since 2000, Fury since 2002, Blink since 2008 and Chopper since 2010. They have traveled many miles together performing educational sessions for school children and adults.

Though she is reluctant to admit, little Blink, who she has known the past seven years, is her favorite.

“He’s just such a personality and such a favorite of everybody,” offers Michaels.

True indeed. Even my wife said, “Blink is the only owl I have ever wanted to hug.”

It’s been a rough and bitter winter for Michaels.   First, Blink, the popular little owl with so much “personality,” disappeared in late fall.   Sure her feathered friend had been stolen, Michaels took Blink’s disappearance especially hard.

sign

Flyers with the little owl’s picture were posted about town and online. There was even a reward offered for the return of the tiny raptor.

Michaels placed a small wooden transport/carrier box outside the compound with a note attached asking the small owl with the big voice be placed inside.

A cold hope

A cold hope

With Blink’s fading picture attached, the box sat silently through fall and a bitter, snowy winter, as if holding vigil for her feathered friend. The box still sits empty at the gate of the sanctuary, an emblem of hope against hope somebody will return the six-inch-tall eastern screech owl.

Connie Michaels is heartbroken over Blink's disappearance. She believes someone broke in and took the popular little owl.

Connie Michaels is heartbroken over Blink’s disappearance. She believes someone broke in and took the popular little owl.

And then, amidst the icy gray of winter, Fury, the feisty falcon who Michaels had known for at least 8 years, died, apparently of old age.

Added to these losses, Michaels’ 94 year-old-mother died in January.

As a naturalist, Michaels is also a realist and understands biology. Animals and people die.   Death is very much a part of life in her world.

“I will continue to supervise their care until someone else becomes available to step in and take responsibility for them,” says Michaels, who turned 70 last October.

“At the present time, I am the only employee at the park who has the experience and knowledge to do so. It concerns me that if I should become unable to do this, there is not anyone at this time to take it over.  Not that there aren’t potential candidates, but there needs to be someone hired full time. “

“It’s a long-term commitment,” she insists. “You get very, very much attached.”

“I love them and I can’t just walk away and leave them, not knowing whether or not they are being cared for.”

With Chopper

With Chopper

I know the feeling.

After five years guiding and strengthening a photojournalism program at Kent State, and shepherding many young lives, I, too, am having a hard time letting go.

But as it will be for Michaels and anybody who gives of their heart beyond a paycheck, the time comes when we must trust others will continue to water the seeds we have planted.

In the end, all we can hope for is that those who take the reigns will care as much as we have.

In This Face

The human face is a vessel capable of carrying the weight of a thousand experiences, and a myriad of subtle, even contradictory, emotions even the best poets would be hard-pressed to describe.

When we study another’s face, search another’s eyes, each of us sees something different, maybe even a reflection of ourselves.

I am not a photographer who seeks peak action or overt emotion. I am drawn to the quieter, more complex expressions.

Recently, my family and I listened to a young man named Bol Aweng tell the story of being separated from his family and fleeing his village in Southern Sudan while under attack by government troops. Aweng was just six-years-old when he ran for his life and began a trek to Ethiopia and then to Kenya. He spent 14 years in various refugee camps before arriving in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2001. He became a U.S. citizen in 2007 and said “it was the first time he felt he had an identity.”

Bol Aweng

Bol Aweng

Now living in Ohio, Bol Aweng is one of the 35,000 Lost Boys of Sudan.

I watched the kind face and contagious smile and shot about 30 frames during the hour-long presentation, watching intently for one frame, one expression, that might summarize what my ears and my heart were hearing. But nothing I saw through the viewfinder matched what I heard in his voice. And then, for a half-second, it was as if a veil covering the past was lifted, and an expression as deep and complex as any I had ever seen emerged.

Hidden beneath the warm smile, I saw a shadow of the frightened six-year-old separated from his family by war. I imagined the cruel memories Aweng must have of the 18,000 countrymen who were slaughtered, starved to death, or killed and eaten by lions and other wild animals while walking 1500 miles in search of food and safety. I saw a young man living in refugee camps for more than a decade, wondering if his parents and siblings were dead or alive; a family he would eventually see again 24 years later.

In this proud face I also saw faith in the God who led him to America.

DSC_0712

“I started feeling that God is here and if there is something bigger, then I need God to be the one to help me in that,” Bol said of his time in the refugee camps.

“I was so excited when I received the letter,” remembers Bol. Finally, after a long wait, he was going to escape the horrors of war and finally realize his dream to come to the United States, “a safe place.”

His face held the story of finally escaping the horrors of war and realizing his dream to come to America, only to be delayed en route to New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

Bol said he questioned himself, “Is it me following war, or war following me?”

But also in this wise face I saw an educated man, a soul tempered by gratitude and filled with guarded hope for peace and the future of his countrymen, especially the mothers and children. His eyes spoke of quiet strength, purpose and a steel resolve to help his family, bring healthcare to his people and continue rebuilding the village of his childhood in South Sudan.

I saw a talented artist, able to communicate in colorful paintings the scenes from his incredible journey.

Above all, in this amazing face, I saw an incredible tapestry of sadness, joy and hope woven so tightly together they are inseparable.

To learn more about this amazing soul, please see the following links.

Bol Aweng’s Story

The Lost Boys of Sudan

Paths that cross

By David LaBelle

There are people we meet, strangers at first, whose eyes and faces feel as familiar as family. We look at them curiously, trying not to stare, asking ourselves if we know them or have met them somewhere. We struggle for context, to place them on our life path, as if they are ghosts from another time, another dimension.

Six or seven years ago, I met someone who felt like a soul I had known for centuries.

Sarah was living on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, and her husband of 60 years had died a few years earlier. I was writing about women who had lived in the shadows of their famous husbands, yet accomplished so much with their own quiet lives.  Sarah and I hit it off immediately. There was something in her dark, dancing eyes that felt so familiar, as if we had known each other for decades.

Sarah

Sarah 2010

I would stop by and visit her periodically, watch a little football (she loves watching sports, especially football). Sometimes we would just sit and talk about the lives we had lived. The “Cotton Queen,” artist, wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had spent most of her eight decades in Tennessee, while I grew up in California. She enjoyed hearing the stories of my life, which were so different from hers. Even after my family and I moved away from Lookout Mountain, I would often stop and see Sarah whenever we came back to the mountain to visit.

Last year, during a Thanksgiving visit with my wife’s family, I stopped by to see Sarah. Her health had declined and she was now bedridden with around-the-clock care.

“Sarah, do you remember me?” I asked, leaning over close to her.

Her eyes twinkled and she said, “I can’t believe it’s you.” She reached up and touched my face.

It was late afternoon and she was tired. I told her I would come by and visit again the next day, a little earlier.

But the next day, when I stopped to say goodbye, a different caregiver than the pair I met the day before would not let me in. I explained I had written about Sarah and that we were friends. When the caregiver wouldn’t budge, I asked her to talk to Sarah’s family and ask if I could see Sarah again. I would come by again tomorrow, my last day on the mountain before returning to Ohio.

But when I arrived the following day, the caregiver said the family had denied my request, “for fear of upsetting Sarah.”   She said the family knew who I was because of the article I had written about Sarah a few years earlier, but “they did not know me.”

And that was true.

During my family’s six months on Lookout Mountain and my visits to Sarah’s house, I had never met any of her children or family members. Since Sarah was independent and still driving at that time, this wasn’t unusual.

Sara2

Clearly disappointed at not being able to say goodbye to my ailing friend, my wife explained to me that “outsiders” just dropping by to see people, as was my custom, was not proper etiquette in this privileged mountaintop community. People called first and scheduled visits, she assured, especially the long-time residents like Sarah’s family.

On the way home to Ohio I thought about Sarah, who as a child held her father’s hand, less than fifty yards from the bed she now occupies, and watched in wonder as Charles Lindberg flew past her Lookout Mountain, Tennessee backyard.

I thought how quickly lives change and suddenly someone who is used to managing other people’s lives loses their independence and others make decisions for them.

And it struck me how as adults we often have friends our children or family members do not know.

I understand the responsibility of family members, especially children to protect aging parents.

But I also hope if I lose my ability to care for myself, my family will allow me to make as many decisions as possible, including who I can see when I am in my final days.

Though we were not “close” friends as one who knows another for a lifetime, I am thankful Sarah and I crossed paths in this life, if only briefly.

I wish I could have seen her once more just to say goodbye.

Bridges to History

I am not a celebrity photographer, nor have I ever aspired to be.

For most of my life, I have chosen to tell the stories of those who live in the shadows of life, usually clothed in struggle and far removed from the spotlight of fame. I do so in part because it is a familiar world from where I came.

But as a photojournalist, I have met a lot of famous people – presidents, musicians, actors, activists, artists and athletes – celebrities from all walks of life. And lately, I’ve been thinking about some “famous” people I would like to have met –souls walking this earth the same time as me – people like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, baseball heroes Roger Maris and Jackie Robinson, Ansel Adams, C.S. Lewis, Norman Rockwell, John Steinbeck and John Candy to name a few.

And then I think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK

Atlanta, Georgia, 1986

 

Like so many other historical figures I wish I could have met and didn’t, I have often wondered how different the civil rights leader was from the glamorized and memorialized portrait time often paints.

But I have met people who knew him.

I‘ve met Andy Young, Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King. I have even had the privilege of joining them on a short and very emotional bus ride during our country’s first annual holiday recognition of Martin Luther King Day in downtown in Atlanta 30 years ago.

And an Alabama friend, and fellow photojournalist, the late Charles Moore, documented many of the civil rights demonstrations. He captured many of the now iconic images of people being sprayed with water hoses and attacked by police with clubs and dogs. He often talked about hearing King speak the first time, and how moved he was by the young preacher’s charisma and power to engage an audience. Moore was also impressed with King’s calm demeanor in the face of such hatred and danger.

Now, in light of the recent release of the movie Selma, I asked another friend, 78-year-old Clarence Bozeman, retired teacher, high school principal and Alabama native, his thoughts after seeing the film. After all, Bozeman was King’s personal weekend driver for two years in Montgomery.

Boaeman BW 2014

Clarence Bozeman, King’s driver

 

As a 21-year-old Alabama State University college student, Bozeman played a cameo role in our nation’s history. Beginning in 1958, Bozeman drove King’s 1954 Pontiac, shuttling King, his wife Coretta, and their two children from home to church, school, or wherever else they needed to go.  The young preacher was not yet famous.

Five years later, after the March on Washington and the “I have a dream speech,” King was a household name…and a target.

“The movie brought back a lot of memories of the beatings and what I have seen,” Bozeman said. “And the dialogue triggered a lot of thoughts in terms of trying to get that march together.”

Bozeman said, “From a historical standpoint, it was relatively accurate, but I felt a lot of key layers were ignored. I thought more people ought to be included in his cadre.”

“I was wondering about the role of Reverend Ralph Abernathy, his closest confidant, his closet friend. They were inseparable. They gave very, very, very, minimum, little information about him.”

Bozeman said Abernathy was in the motel room when King was shot. He was also in the room when King died at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Bozeman remembers Dr. King as “a calm and focused man,” who he never saw lose his temper. And he was “a modest man” who rode in the front seat of his car while Bozeman was driving lest he appeared as though he was being chauffeured.

“When he was with me, he was just about like he was in the movie, always focused. We did short talk, conversation. But it was never any laughing out loud and kneeling over in laughter, joking; we didn’t do that,” remembers Bozeman. “ I didn’t see that with him. Other people have talked about how he had pillow fights and acted silly, but I never saw that side of him.”

And Bozeman also remembers the last time he saw King, shook his hand and was invited to a private dinner with civil rights activists and lawyers. It was in Cleveland in 1967, when King spoke at a hotel downtown.

Within a year, Bozeman’s former boss was dead, assassinated in Memphis.

Pensive BW

Bozeman remembers the day when his former boss was shot and killed

 

Bozeman still gets teary-eyed remembering the day he heard the news Dr. King had been killed.   He was driving home from teaching at Empire Junior High School Thursday afternoon when the news came over his car radio. “I pulled over to the side of the road and wept uncontrollably,” he remembers.

“He was a caring man always concerned about the downtrodden,” Bozeman remembers. And now looking back, Bozeman believes Dr. King was “a prophet,” God-sent for a special mission.

I find it interesting how history remembers famous people. Often, our mainstream image is far removed from the reality of the person. But with two degrees of separation from Dr. Martin Luther King, I have formed my own picture of the man, though admittedly it is faint and incomplete.

He was clearly a man with a mission, and a figure for a time and a movement. Clearly a bright mind, talented orator and influential leader; he was also a man cursed with the same weaknesses, fears and even guilt, all humans suffer.

I wish I could have met him and talked with him privately.

And if I knew then what know now, I hope I would have had the courage to stand up to the injustice and maybe even march with King and so many others who risked their lives for what they believed was right.

Brothers

Before the wheelchairs

Before the wheelchairs

Can you imagine?

I hear this often from those who spend time with Dan and Dustin Ripley.

2. angels

Angels

Truly, I can’t imagine possessing a healthy, functioning mind, while being imprisoned in a deteriorating body.

I have tried to imagine, but I cannot. Not fully.

Even their father, Dale, says he can’t imagine how they do it; how they remain so happy and positive.

Dan, 29, and his brother Dustin, 27, have Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a crippling disease that devours their muscles.

Both are intelligent young men, with active minds trapped in helpless bodies.

4. Danny

3. Dustin Above: Danny, Below: Dustin

 

The brothers graduated from Tallmadge High School with honors, despite confinement to wheelchairs and ventilators. Dustin even worked delivering mail on Kent State’s campus until the disease eventually stole his motor skills.

Dan is likely a savant. With a computer-like memory, able to recall sports facts with lightening speed, he can answer just about any obscure stat about a sporting contest. If he could speak clearly, he could have his own sports radio show; he is that knowledgeable. (By the way, he predicted, before their win over Detroit, the Dallas Cowboys would compete in the Super Bowl. He is picking the big game to be Denver against Dallas.)

A Normal Beginning

Their lives began like a lot of other boys’ – going to school, playing baseball, and going to the zoo.

But when Danny was about 5 years old, the muscle-stealing disease started attacking his body, and he couldn’t keep up with the other kids. By the age of 8, the joyful red-head was sentenced to a wheelchair, no longer able to run and jump. Or even walk.

When Debbie was pregnant with Dustin, the family found some comfort in knowing their second child had escaped the terrible disease. Tests early in the pregnancy indicated he would escape the hereditary disease, which claimed the life of Debbie’s brother, Michael, at the young age of 19.

Then came the day when someone noticed the little boy peculiarly climbing the stairs. Dustin would step up with one foot and follow with the next, one stair at a time.

More tests were done. The news that followed devastated the family.

By the age of 4, Dustin was showing signs of the dreaded disease, and soon the third-grader was also in a wheelchair.

Now, the family looks at their unique situation as a blessing because although Danny and Dustin have the disease, they also have each other.

Debbie covers Dustin as the family prepares to go to  a movie.

Debbie covers Dustin as the family prepares to go to a movie.

Seldom Apart

Whether in their bedroom — lying less than six feet from each other — or in the open family room, the brothers are almost never apart.

Unable to even move their heads, each stare up at the ceiling or at a television screen – connected to life by a groaning, wheezing machine that breathes for them. Like newborn babies, they are completely dependent on their parents and their nurses.

They have a lot of time to think. And talk to each other. Most of the time without seeing the other’s face.

It’s difficult for them to speak, and even more difficult for other people to understand them.

But they understand each other when those around them cannot.

“Dan doesn’t really have to speak,” Dale says. “Dustin understands him.”

But then both have hearing as acute as jackals.

Loading up

Loading up

Going to the movies

Going to the movies

Nurse Erin feeds Dustin popcorn

Nurse Erin feeds Dustin popcorn

Squabbles and Bickering

As brothers do, Dan and Dustin have their disagreements, and bickering squabbles erupt. Both boys admit.

“Usually it’s over what we want to watch,” offers Dustin.

“I watch the Today Show; I want to know what’s going on,” he explains. He sighs and rolls his eyes. “I like sports, but not as much as Dan does!”

Then there are times when Dan wants to sleep, but his anxious little brother won’t quit gabbing. Moods change.

Though the brothers get upset with each other, they love each completely. They’re close in ways most of us can’t begin to comprehend.

“They love the hell out of each other,” assures Muhammad Davis, a 31-year-old LPN and one of the boy’s weekend caregivers.

“You could tell that they are extremely close, by just spending a day with them,” adds Davis, only two years older than Dan. “They’ve known each other all their life, and that’s all they have is each other. They’re almost like a puzzle piece. You know if one is missing, the puzzle isn’t complete. They’re so connected. You know, they argue like any other brothers. But man, they really do love each other.”

Alone, Together with Fears

Often alone in the darkness of their bedroom, they talk about their fears.

Dustin is a “worrier,” who worries about “everything.” He fears spiders will climb on him and said he’s had nightmares about it.

Side by side in their bedroom

Side by side in their bedroom

I try to imagine being unable to use my hands, more helpless than a newborn, and having a spider crawl on me. Suddenly, I appreciate his fear, his helplessness, his vulnerability.

But his biggest fear is that something will happen to his parents, to Dan, or his nurses.

Both Have Dreams

Though both boys hope for a cure that will give them back their legs, they have other goals.

Dustin, clearly the more romantic brother, dreams of getting married. He said he is looking for a woman who is “pretty and fun, and doesn’t care what color hair she has.” Then he adds one more quality: “And smart.”

“Do you believe you will ever walk again?” I ask Dustin.

He ponders the sobering question.

“Not until the Lord comes back,” he gurgled. “Then I will walk again.”

I turn to Dan and ask about his dreams.

“I want to be a better person, and not be selfish,” he says.

He laboriously tries to explain he feels that sometimes he isn’t kind to his brother or his parents.

And sometimes he “gets upset and uses bad words,” adds Dustin.

Morning

“I slept well,” Dan advises on this morning.

Covered in blankets, waiting to be suctioned and have their bodies washed, the boys are awake. The wheezing hum of ventilators and beeping monitors are soon joined by the sound of voices on the television.

Much of their lives are spent this way – side by side, in beds or wheelchairs, staring at the ceiling or at a television screen, with the constant humming, wheezing and beeping of machines. Their bedroom feels like a science lab.

“Good morning, Dave,” pipes Dustin, a mask over his eyes and a little stuffed dog perched on his head, as it always is when he sleeps at night.

Mutual Admiration

When I asked Dustin whom he admired most, he didn’t hesitate and answered, “My brother, Dan.”

Big brother Dan, only about one-and-a-half years Dustin’s senior, hears the compliment and squawks something from his wheelchair I cannot understand. Like Dustin, Danny cannot turn his head or move his hands or feet. Clearly moved by his little brother’s words, Dan wants to assure me how much he admires Dustin.

Having a younger brother like Dustin “means everything,” I finally understand him to say. “He makes me laugh, he is fun to be with.”

“We are pretty close because we are here all the time together,” Dustin adds, the ultimate understatement.

Though bound by space, a disease, and a love for Ohio sports teams – especially the Buckeyes, Indians and Cavaliers – the boys (actually, young men) are as different as brothers often are.

Dan’s favorite color is red. Dustin loves yellow.

Dan’s favorite meal is roast beef. Dustin loves spaghetti, with or without meatballs.

Dan appears calmer, more accepting of his place in life. Dustin is anxious and filled with worries.

Everything is Difficult

Occasionally the family goes to a movie (accompanied by a nurse), which is a daunting task requiring physical strength and great patience. Nothing about this family’s life is easy.

Added to the stress of keeping an important routine – picking up medicine and supplies, doctor visits and such – is the increasing financial pressure brought on by the many expenses Medicaid and other insurances do not cover.

Debbie and Dale

Tired parents

Dale and Debbie admit they never really sleep deeply, especially during those late hours when no nurse is on duty.

They are always alert for the beeping warning that something is wrong. They fear if they don’t respond immediately, one of their children could die in minutes without attention.

Perspective

“They are so fortunate that they have each other,” insists caregiver Davis. “There are some patients out there who are like them, but they don’t have anybody else. So they always have each other, man. That’s very positive, they are very fortunate to have each other.”

Davis shakes his head and grins.

“You know, they’re amazing. To be able to smile and enjoy life, still even under the conditions they are in?   I admire people like that.”

“That’s why I try not to complain, and when I do complain, I ask God to forgive me.”

Danny on Christmas Eve

Danny on Christmas Eve

“I mean these guys can’t even do anything, can’t even breathe on their own. That’s why I thank God, after I sneeze. Thank you, God, for giving me my breath back.”

“I just can’t imagine,” he says walking back to their bedroom to finish getting the boys prepared for the day.

“I just can’t imagine.”

To make a donation to the Ripley family, click here.

Second Chances

For my “Christmas” post, I have chosen to share a self-portrait, of sorts.

The ones of us who gather stories of others, watching closely for half-second glimpses of authenticity, learn to recognize the moment a person briefly drops their guard and opens the window to their deep, complicated emotions. As storytellers, these are the treasures for which we hunger, the fleeting glimpses that reveal internal battles and victories.

Often times, it is in these passing moments we see our own complex selves as shadows in the mirror of our subjects.

I do not believe a photograph can capture a person’s essence as some claim. As human beings, our invisible spirits are far too complex to be captured or contained in a single photograph. It isn’t that the emotion projected is not authentic; I believe it is. For as the late Richard Avedon said, “You can’t evoke an emotion from a person that is not in them.” But a single photograph, a fraction of a life, can easily be taken out of context when standing alone to represent a person.

I do believe there are magical times when a photograph can record a shadow of a person’s spirit that represents their being, their personality, however incomplete.

I experienced one of those beautiful moments last week when I met a man named Alan in the hills of eastern Kentucky. He opened a window, briefly allowing me a fleeting glimpse of the struggle and joy in his weathered soul.

In a sense, the portrait of Alan is a self-portrait, as are many photographs I make of others struggling through this life. If I set out to make a self-portrait that portrayed how I felt and saw myself, as I often ask my students to do, it would look like this.
Truth is, many of us see and photograph ourselves – fears and dreams and failures – in the faces of others.

Alan

Alan is 54.

He said he is a recovering drug addict.

“I lost my mom in 2004 and when she died I give up. I hated the world. I hated people. I even hated myself,” he admitted to me.

“I started doing cocaine. I was on drugs, bad. They got me for trafficking coke in 2010 and I done 10 years in prison,” he continued.

“But it’s all behind me now,” he said. “I am doin’ good. Thanks to God, He’s keeping me clean. Been clean now, going on 8 years. No drugs. I’ve got the Lord.”

Then he added, “I got saved in jail. I go to church; I am a Christian. I love the Lord.   If it wasn’t for God I wouldn’t be right here right now,” he assured.

Now, instead of taking, Alan is giving. He led me inside his home to show me two wooden toys, works in progress for local children.   “I’m making this little house for a seven-year-old girl for Christmas.   It make me feel good to make things for people.”

Then he pointed to a toy truck. “And she’s got her a brother, he’s an eight year-old, and he said, ‘Alan, will you make me a truck,’ so I made him this truck and I am going to give that to him for Christmas.”

I know Alan’s road will not be easy; most life roads are not.

But I thank him for my Christmas gift and pray God will bless him on his new journey.