Saturday, January 4, 2014

Holiday Hoops

Looking for work, a way to earn more income, and a chance to shoot sports (something I rarely do anymore), I approached the committee of the Macomb-Western Holiday Tournament about the possibility of photographing the event. And bringing along advertising banners to promote my business as a part of the deal. We agreed to terms, and I recently spent three days in Macomb, inside Western Hall, on the campus of WIU, photographing 24 games in three days.

The tournament has a long-standing tradition and reputation as a good one. It draws many strong Class A teams from the region, including my hometown Pittsfield Saukees. This was a bonus. I figured I'd see some familiar faces.

I shot my first tournament in 1979 for The Pike Press in Pittsfield, when I was taking a year off from college. Then later, when my first job out of college was at The Macomb Daily Journal, from 1983-1987. The tourney was something I looked forward to every year. Though it made for long days, it provided me with an opportunity to sharpen my sports skills. 
Circa 1985. No motor-drive. A single frame

Western Hall is a pretty good facility to photograph basketball. The lighting allows for a camera setting of 1,600 iso, 1/500th of a second at 2.8. This is NBA arena quality light. And it's daylight balanced. Games each day began at 9 a.m. The last game began at 9:30 p.m. The tournament is well-run. The schedule stuck, barring overtime in any games.

So. The action began. There are morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. The early games draw a thinner crowd and the energy in the hall lacks. As the day moves on, it all picks up.

My usual, and favorite place to shoot is along the baseline,  where the three point arch meets the baseline. I find shooting from the right side is easier. Referees seem to roam the left side and get in the way.

Though I use new, digital, Nikon D3 cameras, all of my lenses are old, manual focusing, Nikkor AI-S prime lenses. Sharp as tacks, tough as nails. Most are from the 80's. They fit the D3 bodies, and I use them because I can't afford to drop 15 grand or more in a new lens system. From the baseline position, I used my 105mm for short work, the 300mm for shooting the other end of the court.

I was soon reminded that the quality of a contest can affect the quality of the photographs made. Slow moving games don't provide the opportunity for great images in the same manner as when shooting two good, evenly matched teams.

Shooting from the seats. Photo by Steve Davis/Register-Mail
Western Hall has seats behind the baskets and an open balcony. When tired of shooting from the floor, I chose an "overhead" position to make fresh, different looking images. From these positions, I used a 180mm and the 300mm. Shooting from these areas made for some of the most solid photos during the three days.

I haven't shot sports on a regular basis for three years. I haven't shot sports on a regular basis with manually focusing lenses for 13 years. I quickly leaned there was "rust in the system."

The lack of practice, 54 year-old eyes, cameras with matte focusing screens, and a glitch on the 300mm that prevents it from focusing whisper smooth. And again, 100% manually focusing. These were legitimate issues and they all came together.

But to throw out a quote we used at The Daily Herald. "We can't publish excuses."

My overall percentage of sharp vs. soft focus was around 50% for the three days. It's a bit embarrassing to publish that. It would be a failure by most standards. It certainly wouldn't cut it for Sports Illustrated. Some of the images were so grossly soft it was hard to believe I had thought they were close to sharp to begin with. It's a sad, frustrating feeling, sitting there, knowing your eyes and reflexes may not be what they once were. That your livelihood is being taken away due to physical issues, but the passion for what you do is still there.

Taking a deep breath, concentrating harder, and reacting faster, I never thought of giving up. I'm really hard on myself. I expect a lot. 13 years is a long time to not manually focus fast moving sports and expect to shoot 90% sharp. What I did shoot sharp sure wasn't all luck. And when I saw that I nailed a good one, it was a confidence booster. I seemed to shoot better when the action was faster. Like The Sundance Kid when he was trying out for the pay train guard. Taking aim with his pistol, he misses a stationary target, but hits it when thrown. "I shoot better when it's moving, " Sundance said.

300mm under the basket. Full frame, no crop

Part of the agreement with the tournament was to provide  10 images from each game for their web site. I had wanted to shoot more feature work in the three days. But in trying to keep up with feeding them images from each game, with 15-20 minute breaks between each contest, didn't allow that to happen. It was just like the newspaper days. A lot of deadline pressure.

Metamora coach
I shot coaches, cheerleaders, and detail shots if they were there in front of me. I just wasn't able to roam around and look for them as much as I intended.

The days were long. Usually 8 a.m to 11 p.m. in the hall. The diet consisted of concession stand pizza and bottled water. I was subjected to lots of blaring music. My fingertips grew sore from focusing.

It became a bit tiring. I tried to keep up to the challenge. And the challenge was this. As the games grew bigger and more important. So did the fatigue and burnout. I tried to rise above it and produce.
Details, Details

I suppose I could do myself a favor, raid the piggy bank, and give in to auto focus lenses. Aren't we supposed to embrace those things that make our lives easier?

Not me. I like a challenge. I'll take Rand-McNally over GPS.

This is not meant to be insulting to anyone. This is not self-righteous. Deep down, my professional colleagues know it too. A monkey can pretty much make a photograph with an auto focus camera. Aim the camera, push the button, and bingo! Having used auto focus for many years when I was employed by The Register-Mail, I can say it IS a nice feature. Pretty slick!

I'm just one of those people who still look at photography as a craft. It takes hand-eye coordination and fast reflexes to nail a sharp photo. I feel a professional photographer should know how to manually focus a camera, and shoot the camera in a manual mode. Then, after mastering those two thing, use the "luxuries" of auto focus and program modes. By taking the hard way, the percentage of what I get sharp is not going to match auto focus. Not unless I shoot sports on a consistent basis again. Maybe never.

It's just so much more gratifying to know I've created a strong image with my own skill set, rather than letting the camera create the image for me with its mechanical technology.

I sat through, and photographed, 768 minutes of basketball. My sore fingers are fine again. Bring on the next tournament.

To view galleries of all 24 games, go to

Canton bench reacts to shot that sent them to overtime with Macomb

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Trib, The Sun-Times, and 180 degrees.

I'm still upset. Shock, anger, and sadness filled my mind and heart yesterday, upon hearing that the entire staff of photographers at the Chicago Sun-Times and its suburban papers were let go. Approximately 30 people were abruptly dismissed. One of them, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Wrap your mind around that one. A major, metropolitan newspaper no longer has a staff of photographers. The newspaper industry that I was a part of for 27 years has sunk to a new high of lows.

I know most of the people who were dismissed. One is a great friend and former co-worker. I spent ten years working in the Chicago market. Some of it at The Daily Herald. Some of it at The National Sports Daily. I always wanted to work in a big market. I got there after spending three and a half years in Macomb, Illinois, at the Macomb Daily Journal. I worked hard and honed my skills to be able to build a portfolio worthy of the quality required to work in a competitive atmosphere, with some of the best photojournalists in the country at that time, in the 1980's.

I didn't make it to Chicago the first time I tried. And that's what this story is about. I knew I'd write about this someday. Yesterday's events made me think back. The timing seems right to share this story.

My photojournalism career began in Macomb in August of 1983. After a couple of years of working six days a week, and split shifts for $11,700 a year, I decided I had enough material and experience to attempt to make the big leap to the "big time." I had been working hard, at a craft I loved. Still do.

Maybe it can still happen, but back in those days, a person could call a publication, talk to the photo editor, and ask if one could drop in to show a portfolio to the editor. Whether there was a job opening or not, the editor would almost always agree to meet with the photographer, critique the portfolio, and show them around the photo department. It was possible to meet the picture editor eye to eye. Not deal with a human resources person via a computer, the manner in which business is now conducted.

A portfolio in those days consisted of approximately 20 single images and maybe a picture story or two. Nearly all the photos were black and white. The portfolio was not on a disc or zip drive. They were 11X14 prints, mounted on black matte boards. The stories were made up of smaller prints, presented in the order of the story, and mounted on 2-4 boards, taped together on the backside, and folded in on themselves.

It was not uncommon to spend an average of one hour per print in the darkroom, to achieve the technical quality necessary to put that image in your portfolio. It had to be PERFECT!

A luxury was to have two portfolios, allowing the photographer to apply for two jobs at once. The portfolios were mailed in "Fiberbilt" shipping cases. They were heavy. A cover letter and resume' were thrown in, along with recent clips and tearsheets of the photographer's work.

Of course one hoped for good news. To get the job. But 99% of the time you could be guaranteed two things. Acknowledgement that the portfolio had been received. And, if you didn't get the job, a typed note thanking your for applying, HAND SIGNED in ink, by the photo editor.

Now, 99% of the time, you receive neither.

So. I was ready for prime time. Or at least thought I was, after a couple of years of working in a small market. I made calls to The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and asked if I could come up and show my work, knowing there were no openings at the time. Both papers agreed to see me.

Jack Corn was my contact at The Tribune. Robert Schnitzlein was my contact at the Sun-Times. The Trib is on Michigan Avenue. The Sun-Times was across the street, along the river. A short walk. My appointments were timed perfectly. One after the other. Chicago was new, big, and intimidating. I hadn't been downtown, by myself, many times.

The Tribune was the first stop. I got through the lobby, and up the elevator to the floor that was home to the photo department. Once there, it was interesting to see how a big paper operated. There was a lot of activity. Quite a contrast to my one man show back in Macomb.

I met Corn, shook his hand, thanked him for agreeing to meet with me, and the two of us retreated to a small, quiet area, away from the fray. I opened the shipping case and invited him to look. During a review/critique, the conversation can flow, or it can be quiet. If it was quiet, I'd look to the editor's eyes as they looked at my work, searching for a sign in their expression as to whether the print was "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."

Corn wasn't too positive. I don't recall any specific words. What I do recall is this. As he sat there looking at my work, he was casually letting his cigarette ashes fall onto my prints! Indifference and disrespect. The whole process lasted about a half hour. I was given some feedback, none of it positive, and sent on my way.

Jack Corn is still alive. I hope he reads this blog. I want him to understand that how a person treats another can have a big influence on that person. There's nothing wrong with the brutal truth. But it's how it's presented. I want Jack Corn to know he was an egotistical asshole. At least that day.

I made the walk to the Sun-Times feeling like a beaten dog. I thought it couldn't be any worse there, but I wasn't counting on it.

The process at The Sun-Times was much the same as The Tribune. Check in, find the photo department, etc.

Robert Schnitzlein was no nonsense as well. But he spun his advice and critical feedback of my work in an encouraging way. Mr. Schnitzlein could tell I was still green, and not ready to work in Chicago. But he gave me constructive advice on how to improve my work. I remember him telling me, "We hire young, aggressive tigers."

He sent me on my way with goals, a smile, and told me to keep in touch.

The difference in how I was treated by one man and another man was 180 degrees.

Mr. Schnitzlein moved on to work for Reuters. I wish he could read this blog too. I would like him to know what an impact he had on me, and my subsequent work back in Macomb.  He passed away in 2006.

I spent two more years in Macomb, then got my big break when I got a job at The Daily Herald in suburban Chicago. And it is while working there, that I got to know many Tribune and Sun-Times shooters.

I believe there is a tie in with my story, and what happened to the Sun-Times people yesterday. Just how far the industry has fallen. Civility and respect too. The bottom line rules. Workers are expendable.

The Sun-Times people were called into a meeting, read a short statement, and sent packing. The Sun-Times executives dropped their cigarette ashes all over my friends yesterday. The opposite of how they conducted themselves 28 years before.

Different people. Different management. I understand that. But it is maddening.

An entire photo staff was wiped out.

And the dumb asses in "corporate" wonder why they're on the way to going out of business.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

May 12th

May 12th, 1973: I saw dad for the last time at about 11 this morning. Then, at 2 p.m., the funeral went out to the cemetery. Lynn didn't want to see dad. She said she wanted to remember him the way he was in Tacoma.

The funeral was just a regular type, on a clear, windy, beautiful Spring day. I kept wanting to go back and just sit there. But people dragged me off. Gary stayed all night tonight to help out.

My final words to dad were this morning, when the casket was still open. They were, "I'll see you someday, dad."

May 12th, 2013: It was a Saturday in 1973. On a Saturday, four months earlier, I'd have woken up and mom would fix me breakfast. From there, who knows? Off to do something with a friend, or help out at the hardware store. Now, the store was closed, and we were burying dad. Life had changed quickly and dramatically.

I'm not sure about 1973. Maybe we went to the funeral home one last time to say our good-byes. Maybe there was a second visitation leading up to the actual funeral service. I can't imagine the service lasting for three hours. I'm sure it didn't. The time frame indicates 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Regardless. Family and friends made one last trip to the East side of the square and into Plattner Funeral Home. I wish I could remember the minister's name. We didn't go to church much. I don't recall any friends of dad speaking during the service. That practice hadn't really caught on yet in 73'.

In yesterday's blog, I wrote of Lynn's decision (which I supported then, and do now) not to view dad.

I said my good-bye. At some point the service began, and we sat through it. I'm pretty sure our family was in a side room, able to view the casket, but around a corner and out of sight of the main chapel. Near the end of the service, a partition was pulled shut, the casket was closed, the partition reopened, and we were led out to the waiting cars. Dads friends brought him out to the hearse, and the procession headed west to the cemetery.

How about my "clear, windy, beautiful Spring day" line? I must have been practicing to write a novel someday! Cliche' as all get out. But that's exactly how the weather was that day.

We got to the cemetery and the service picked up again. It was hard to sit there. People were all around, but you feel alone. Like you're on an island of grief. That surreal feeling kicked in again. This just CAN'T be happening!

And at the end of it all, though I didn't want to leave, we had to. But no one had to drag me away. There was no drama.

Everybody got in our cars and drove away. Back to our lives. Except for dad.

Lots of people congregated back at our house on Prospect Street. Cars lined it, up and down. Mom and I weren't left alone. I can't emphasis enough, the support we got during the whole ordeal. Mom, Dad, and their friends. And me, from my friends and classmates. Nothing unkind or out of line was ever said to me at school. My classmates were awesome. They still are.

Mother's Day was the next day. Someone pulled me away from the fray and we went back uptown to pick out a Mother's Day card. Mom held onto that one. I think it might be in the same box as dad's visitation registry book.

Back at the house, I got out of my suit and back into my jeans. The nervous energy I had was unstoppable. In our backyard, right by the ditch that lines Clinton Street, there was a mound of dirt. The mound was there to help support a utility pole. Neighbor kids were around. We were outside, the adults in the house. I decided this would be a good time to take a bicycle, use that mound, jump the ditch, and land on Clinton Street, Evel Knievel style.

I got up speed, came to the mound, lost nerve and momentum. The front wheel hit the far side of the ditch, the seat post came over from the back, and put a nice gash in the back of my head. Somebody helped me to the bathroom and we home remedied the wound. Some adult popped their head into the bathroom, sensing a problem. We waved them off. Mom didn't need any more problems that day.

Gary refers to my cousin, Gary Gray. He is mom's nephew. Aunt Jean is mom's sister. Gary is her son. I love Gary, and looked up to him then. I still do. Gary wound up working at the hardware store for a couple of years or so. He's four or five years older than me.

When the crowd had really dispersed, and most people had gone home, Gary and I shot baskets in the backyard that evening. I just couldn't sit still. I wanted to do anything to occupy my time and mind.

I'm not so sure that whole experience didn't trigger something in me. To this day, I'm not much of a sit still type guy. There's a lot of world out there to be seen. I like to be on the move and checking it out. Who knows what tomorrow brings?

That's pretty much it. There was all of that going on for three months. The end came, and then life went on. Though with a huge void. There's no great ending to this blog. I wrote about my experience for three months. Have come to the end of it, and life will go on. The void is there, but time helps heal.

There will be a couple, maybe three more, blogs on this subject. Some follow up thoughts and notes.

Cancer is not kind. I miss dad.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

May 11th

May 11th, 1973 & 2013: The same day, 40 years apart. No diary entry was made on that day. What would have been a Friday in 1973. There was no opportunity or no desire to make one.

Anything from that day, the day of visitation for dad, is memory recall. And there isn't a lot of it.

For sure, I would have missed school this day. And the day before, the day after dad's death. And I'm fairly certain, for the first time in years, maybe since Grandpa died in 1963, the hardware store was closed for anything other than a scheduled day. And the store was only closed on Sundays.

In blogging today, it just struck me that Grandpa and dad died 10 years apart. Ten years goes by like the blink of an eye from the perspective of a 54 year old. Back then, it seemed like a hundred years between Grandpa and dad's deaths. A lot of growing up happens to a kid between the ages of four and fourteen.

Friends and relatives had all made their way to Pittsfield by now. Whether it's a funeral or a wedding, people are around. Something is happening all the time. And one is being pulled from all directions. Things are scattered. There's never enough time to give everyone the attention one wishes to.

 What I remember from that day is this.

Mom, myself, and a few close family members went to the Plattner Funeral Home mid-late Friday morning to view dad. Maybe this is common practice, though I don't remember doing this after mom's death in 2004. For lack of a better term, this was a "run through," before visitation was to open to the public late that afternoon and evening. It may have also helped some of us get over the initial sadness of seeing dad in a casket, enabling us to be slightly more composed when greeting people later on.

We made the trip uptown and went in. It was hard. I don't remember how any one of us dealt with it. Some tears and composure. Or a complete breakdown. I'm thinking the latter. I believe I specifically  remember Uncle George being along for support.

Through the anguish, the one thing I did notice, and was uncomfortable with, is that dad wasn't wearing his glasses. He wore glasses most of his life. From the time I was born and knew him. He just didn't look like himself without his glasses. Thinking like a "child" again, I debated on saying anything. But this really bothered me. I brought it up to mom and the issue was corrected by the public viewing. There was no questioning or debating it. After I brought it up, I think others agreed.

Lynn opted not to view dad. And I support her 100%. It was her choice. And I was mature enough to understand her decision, even at that age, and that moment. She wanted to remember dad from our visit to Tacoma in March. Not the way he'd become as a result of the disease.

We weren't at the funeral home too long. From there, it was back home to wait and ready for the evening. I don't remember anything from this time period.

Visitation may have been from 5-7 p.m. The turnout of people was tremendous. I ran across the registry book a few years back, looking for something else. It's packed in a box. There may have been 300 people pass through that night. Like most any visitation I've been to, there were a lot of tears, but there were also some laughs and stories.

Did time fly by, or drag? I don't remember. But eventually, it was over. The last people came through and expressed their sympathies and said good-bye to dad.

We went home and prepared for the funeral the next day.

I remember thinking how tomorrow would be the last time I saw dad. Ever.

Friday, May 10, 2013

May 10th

May 10th, 1973: Tom Plattner came down to the house today to set the funeral arrangements. Peachy Foreman, a guy that works at the hardware store, had this to say. "I was up early, and after we had that rainstorm, there was the most beautiful rainbow in the West. I'm sure that was your daddy, going to heaven."

Aunt Betty and I are going to St. Louis to pick up Lynn today. The funeral will be Saturday at 2 p.m at Plattner's. Although I wanted dad to be buried in Quincy, next to grandpa, there is no more room. So the burial will be in the new addition of the West Cemetery.

May 10th, 2013: And life went on. There was the next day. But it sure felt empty, and it sure was sad. Mom, me, friends of dads. All of us had to begin wrapping our minds around the concept that he was gone forever. We'd never talk to him again. Looking back 40 years later, I don't think we had the slightest of clues as to the impact of losing him would have on mom and me. I've only begun to figure some of it out in the last five years or so. I guess I'm slow.

I wasn't up early enough to see the rainbow Peachy spoke of. I don't even remember it raining later in the night, after dad died. Peachy loved dad. He took dad's death hard. Peachy's beautiful words usually echo in my mind every year on May 10th.

Tom Plattner was another of dad's good friends. As was John Sutor, the other funeral home director in town. I don't know who made the decision, or how it was made, to select Plattner. Dad and Elmer Meyers had defeated Plattner and Dale "Wimp" Willard, in a one hole playoff during the Labor Day Sweepstakes golf tournament at Old Orchard Country Club in Pittsfield back in 1967. I was so happy for, and proud of dad that day. Plattner and dad had known each other a long time.

From what I've been told, the building that housed Plattner Funeral Home, on the East side of the square, was the first location of grandpa and dad's hardware store when they moved from Quincy to Pittsfield. A fitting tribute, if my facts are correct. Dad would lay in rest in the building he once worked from.

Plattner made his visit to our house pretty early. Once again, the kitchen was the center of activity. There were several people around to help mom. Friends and neighbors, offering help or bringing food. Like always, find yourself in need, and you find yourself stunned at the number of people willing to help and comfort you. It was amazing.

I was milling around the house, getting ready for the trip to St. Louis, when I happened to overhear conversation at the kitchen table. Mom was there. Plattner, Peachy, Ed Pease, others too. They were working on coming up with the traditional six pallbearers. They had five of them, but were a little bit stumped on who the sixth should be.

As a "child" listening to adult conversation, my instincts told me to keep out. I hesitated a second or two before saying, "I think I might have an idea." Suddenly, all the adult eyes were on the kid. It felt good. An adult moment for me. I was being listened to, not dismissed. "What about George Goodin?", I suggested. Their eyes lit up. "That's a good idea," someone said. Mom liked it too. I had just contributed to my dad's funeral arrangements.

The five men already selected were some of dad's best buddies. Ed Pease, Albert "Bud" Schimmel, Donald "Peachy" Foreman, Paul Beckenholt, and Byron "Barney" Roodhouse.

Goodin was a little bit more of an outsider. Not as tight with dad as the others, but well known and well liked around town. He, just like Mr. Beckenholt, worked at G&W Furniture. I thought of Goodin, based on one of my favorite "dad stories" from a few years prior.

Goodin and dad were on opposing teams during a golf match one day. The bullshit was flying. George told dad that if dad could beat him, George would subject himself to a mohawk haircut. The golfing intensified at that point. Dad got hot and made a big run. Goodin didn't bother following the score. He beat dad by a single stroke and kept his hair.

Dad would later recount the story. He was a stroke or two ahead of George, really late in the match. Dad elected not to say a word. He was just going to present the card at the end of the match and drop the hammer. Dad regretted this strategy. He said he wished he'd brought the score to Goodin's attention at that late point, and put a lot more pressure on him, forcing him to choke. I've said it before. Dad and his buddies had a lot of fun with each other.

While mom was kept busy, and taken care of around the house, late that morning or early afternoon, Aunt Betty and I headed to St. Louis and Lambert Field, to pick up Lynn, who was flying in from Tacoma. It gave me something to do to occupy my time. And it would keep Aunt Betty company too.

Due to the big flood of 1973, beautiful Route 79 was closed. From Louisiana, Missouri, we had to continue West to Route 61, travel South to Wentzville, and get on I-70 East there. At the airport, we waited for Lynn to arrive. For some reason, I don't recall us actually going to the gate, but waiting in a bigger lobby area. Aunt Betty excused herself, probably to use the restroom, and told me to keep a watch for Lynn. I was leaning against a support beam or something, when I saw Lynn approaching. I remember feeling like a lost puppy, but not breaking down when I saw her. "Hi, Lynn," I said.

The three of us made the trip back to Pike County. I don't recall a single word, or thought from any conversations in the car, during the two hour ride home.

I also recall little if any, from the rest of the day and evening, once we got back. Lynn would stay with Aunt Betty at her house. I think mom and I were alone, though one of mom's sisters may have come to town by this time. The house was seeing a lot of activity, all hours of the day and evening.

Visitation would be the next evening. Friday the 11th.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

May 9th

May 9th, 1973: Dad is now today, not rational. He hardly knows anybody. But he did love everybody.  For about 9 p.m. on May 9th, 1973, my father died. We all loved him, and would do anything for him.

May 9th, 2013: What a brief, somewhat unattached, and sort of cryptic entry, in that original diary. But then again, I'm surprised I had the gumption to write anything at all. I'm sure it was written through a flood of tears.

I'm a big fan of Warren Zevon. When Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer a few years ago, a film crew followed him around as he put together his last album. In that film, Zevon says, perhaps borrowed from another source, "All good stories end in death."

Virg Kriegshauser used to have a more basic saying when things ended. "That's all she wrote."

May 9th of 73' was a Wednesday. Throughout the day, there was no indication it was going to be dad's last. At some point in the past week, he'd been moved from home, back to the hospital. His condition was that bad. Those "in the know" probably were aware this was the final stage. The "death watch" had been on for seven days or so. Maybe I knew it too. But I guess I just pictured him going on and on, in that condition, for a longer time. To this day, I have a hard time letting go of some things. It was sure evident then.

His condition was bad. I'm sure he was heavily sedated. I attended school that day. But I'm betting mom was with him most of the day. Not at the store. I don't think I saw dad on the 9th. Whether by coincidence, or by design of the adults. I can't recall the day I last saw him alive. Maybe two or three days before.

I know it was a nice, Spring day. When I got home from school, one of the first things I did was hop on my Honda Mini-Trail 50. Usually, it was ridden on the track made in the yard. Today though, I got it over the ditch in the backyard, and across Clinton Street to a big farm field that has since been developed. 20 acres or so, it provided more room to ride, but it was more boring than the track in the yard. Not yet planted for the season, I rode up and down the rows.

At some point, the mini-bike experienced trouble. Stalled and quit running. There are no excuses for behaving like an asshole, but, I was already on edge. This set me off. I threw the mini-bike down and began kicking it. Then, hearing something, or sensing something near, I stopped and looked around. One of our neighbors, Phil Casteel, was walking towards me. I blushed with shame. He'd surely seen what I'd been doing.

Phil and Carolyn lived just up the street. Two of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. Christian people. They had three children. Tom and Marcia were grown and out of the house then. The youngest son, Michael, was still around. Mike was probably six or seven years younger than me.

Casteels volunteered, or were asked to help out, and feed me dinner. Phil had walked to the field to invite me, and tell  me what time to be at their house. This is another indication that mom was probably sticking close to dad's bed side. And another indication those in charge did not want me there too. To see him die.

The mini-bike was done. I got it back to the garage, hung around the house alone for awhile, then walked up to Casteel's house for dinner. Their kitchen table was near windows too. Just like ours. Phil, Carolyn, Mike, and I ate. The mood didn't seem all that somber, but I think conversation was sparse. Michael has recently told me, even though he was still a young boy at that time, he was aware of the situation and felt sorry for me.

Dinner was nice. I don't think it had been more than over when a call came in to Casteel's home. Or a car just showed up in their driveway with no notice. It was Ed Pease, one of dad's best friends. I was handed off to him and bid the Casteel's good-bye after thanking them for dinner.

There may have been silent communication between Pease and Casteel's More so, if he'd called first.

I got in Ed's car. He was a big man with a voice to match. Sort of like Paul Harvey. Deep, and a good tone. He didn't have a lot to say, and he didn't make much eye contact. I didn't think anything too much of it. I assumed we were headed to the hospital to see dad. Or to Aunt Betty's house to hang out.

"I'm afraid your mother's got some bad news for you," Pease spoke, about halfway to the destination. It could only mean one thing. But I had to ask. "Is he dead?" Or, "He's not dead, is he?", I quizzed Pease. Ed said nothing. Just stared ahead, out the window of the car.

We pulled up to Aunt Betty's house, directly across from Illini Hospital. A bunch of cars were around. We got out of the car, walked up the steps that cut through the small hill on the sidewalk to her patio, through the door that led into her sun porch, and up a step into the kitchen. All this happened in slow motion.

Once in the kitchen, things sped up. I moved my head from left to right, looking around, trying to get a read on what was going on. Everybody had congregated in the big kitchen. I have zero recollection of who was there, except for Pease and Aunt Betty. Mom was not there. I felt panic and anxiety.

Not much time had passed before the noise of the back door shutting signaled more people arriving. It was mom and Dr. Bunting. They'd made the short walk across the hospital lawn to Betty's house. Mom was crying hard. Bunting was stoic and supporting mom. His right arm around her shoulder, his left hand on her arm and elbow.

It was that moment when I knew dad was truly gone.

Everyone remained in the kitchen. I bolted into Aunt Betty's den, landed in a big, overstuffed, round chair, and wailed. Someone made a move to come console me. Dr. Bunting advised them to let me be. "Let him bawl," I heard the doctor say from the kitchen.

I had noted in my diary that dad died around 9 p.m. I would swear it was earlier than that. I remember it being still light. The late stages of dusk.

I cried and cried until I couldn't cry anymore. I don't know how late we stayed there. Eventually, people dispersed. Mom and I made it home. I don't remember if a friend or relative stayed with us that night.

My original diary entry is disjointed because I think I'd made part of an entry, thinking that would be it for the day. When dad died, I added that announcement later.

Obviously, I remember a great deal more from that day than was put to paper. The details are so real. Living it and recounting it were, and are, surreal.

Three months to the day. He was diagnosed February 9th. He died May 9th.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

May 2nd

May 2nd, 1973: I haven't been very faithful in writing, but I thought I better let you know about dad. He is not very well. He was in the hospital for about a week. They were trying to get his strength back, and to just let him rest. Well, eventually, he did get to come home. But I don't think he has gained an ounce of strength back. His crap is runny, and he has to have someone stay with him while I am at school and mom is at work.

I think now, I must face up to the fact that he may be laying in bed and dying. There are brown spots where he took the cobalt. And he was once a strong man, he is now very weak. There is hardly enough skin on his rump to cover his bones. And the clincher is that he has things mixed up mentally. Last night, he woke up at 4 a.m. and asked mom, "Who took me to St. Louis in an airplane?" (He has been in bed since Good Friday.) And tonight, he thought Mary Ruth had left him $80. (There was no money to be found.)

So. All we can do now is hope and pray.

May 2nd, 2013: Reading the original diary notes, and typing them in here, was a smack in the head. Dad was at the end of the line. April must have been a horrible month. Looking way back to the beginning, I'd guess he had stage four lung cancer when he was diagnosed on February 9th. Things had gone downhill so fast.

It was a just a matter of time now.

I have filled in a few blanks from April, with a few situations and incidents I remember. I wish I hadn't suspended the diary. I wish I could remember more details.

The cancer had obviously spread to his brain. There was the "airplane ride" moment. Mary Ruth refers to our good friend, Mary Ruth Kendall. I can't recall if Mary Ruth had been to the house for a visit, or not, the day dad dreamed of her leaving money. He was convinced she'd left the money on a table or nightstand. I remember us responding to dad's inquiry by actually looking about the room. We wanted him to see us making the effort to find the "money." We didn't want to dismiss him. Anything we could do to put him at ease, physically or mentally, we did.

And to this end, I have no idea whether he was being sedated and medicated while at home. Surely he must have been. Margaret Dixon would have been the one to administer the stuff. Dad was in moderate pain, I'm sure. But he didn't complain much. Maybe, hopefully, due to the medication. No kid or wife wants to see their dad or husband suffer. No one in any situation like this, would want to see a loved one suffer.

Going back to his state of mind at this point.... I have read and heard, that terminal patients with brain cancer, often revert back to their past. I've also been told that, even though they can't communicate, one of the last things to leave them is their hearing.

Dad was coming up with a lot of stuff "out of left field." Some of it made no sense at all. But I can remember him rambling on at one point about running around with Art Biddle. I knew Art as the local dairy man. He owned Biddle Dairy. It was located behind the post office. There was a loading dock. Sometimes, Art would sit out there on the dock. He had delivered milk, in glass bottles, around town. One of his stops used to be Phil and Carolyn Casteel's house, on our street. The kids in the neighborhood would run to his truck while he made his stop there. It was a "UPS style" truck. Sliding door, easy in and out. Art might let us ride a couple of houses in the truck, before giving us the boot and going on his way.

Apparently, Art and my dad did some running around together when they were younger. Maybe when dad was single, and between his first wife and my mom. Before I was born, for sure. I knew nothing of this. It was fascinating to me, that the cancer in his brain was triggering memories from 20 or more years prior. There were other recollections from dad too. But I don't remember every one them.

I abandoned my original diary again after May 2nd. I didn't pick it up again until May 9th. Somewhere in the next seven days, dad left 717 Prospect Street  for the last time, and was taken back to Illini Hospital, there in Pitttsfield.

The blog will return on May 9th. The day he died.