Sunday, July 26, 2009

That's the way it was...

Most of us tend to remember where we were and exactly what we were doing when news broke that would change the world as we knew it.

I well remember preparing for work as the tragic events of 9/11 were unfolding…and the near-impossible-to-comprehend enormity of what had happened in lower Manhattan. I was standing in front of the mirror shaving. On the TV, Katie Couric on NBC's "Today" was speaking to Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski regarding the military implications of what had by then been determined to be a terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Miklaszewski paused a moment and described a severe jolt he had just felt. There quickly came the revelation of more of the unthinkable that was unfolding on that bright, sunny September morning. Another terrorist-hijacked airliner had just slammed into the Pentagon…

I likewise remember another day, also lovely in terms of weather. It was early afternoon on November 22, 1963. I was a first-year college student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and was relaxing between classes at the student union building. A television set was on in the lounge, tuned to the daytime drama “As the World Turns.” The network was CBS.

My eyes were elsewhere, but my ear was caught by the unmistakable voice of Walter Cronkite, the network’s evening news anchor, announcing that President John F. Kennedy had been shot, as his motorcade slowly rolled through downtown Dallas, Texas.

The first bulletins coming in from Dallas were read by Cronkite over the CBS News Bulletin slide. Before long, though, there were pictures, with Cronkite at his desk in the CBS Newsroom in New York. Our young, vibrant President had been shot, in the back seat of his open topped car, next to his glamorous and publicly-adored wife Jacqueline. For so many, the Presidency of JFK represented a time of promise for America. “This could not be happening” was the sentiment echoed as more and more of us gathered around that black and white TV, and Walter Cronkite, in measured tones, informed us that, yes it was.

Cronkite enjoyed the reputation of being the most trusted man in America. Such was the gravitas then of a network evening news anchor of Cronkite’s stripe. Originally a print journalist, a United Press wire service reporter, Walter Cronkite was recruited by another heavyweight, Edward R. Murrow, who brought distinction to CBS in his reporting from London during the German blitz of World War Two, and in everything he did for the network subsequently.

Indeed the team that Murrow assembled at CBS, which included the solid, dignified, and consummately credible likes of Charles Collingwood, Eric Sevareid, Douglas Edwards, and the ever-classy Robert Trout, were additional reasons that the JFK assassination coverage on CBS was, for me, truly iconic.

This was not to minimize the credibility of NBC or ABC, the only other network news providers back then, but CBS News in that era just seemed to me the pinnacle, the gold standard. And the personification of that status was the avuncular presence, each evening at dinner time, of Walter Cronkite and the CBS Evening News. When “Uncle Walter” delivered the day’s news, whether good or bad, you knew you were in good hands. The adjectives that come immediately to mind are solid, genuine…and human.

But back to that November afternoon in 1963…What I will forever find even more compelling than the initial Cronkite voice-over bulletin announcing the shooting… was seeing him, about an hour later, momentarily take off his thick dark rimmed glasses, and announce the confirmation of the reports that Kennedy had been pronounced dead, giving the time in both Central and Eastern zones. There was that brief wave of emotion in his voice and persona, as he regained his composure and told us that Vice President Johnson had left Parkland Hospital and would presumably soon be taking the oath of office to become the next President.

But going beyond this trusted anchor’s solid presence in delivering such news, you’d have to understand something more about television news in that era, to grasp just how impactful this reporting was.

I don’t think the term “up close and personal” was in common use back then, but if it were, this would be its touchstone…its practical definition.

For on that black and white screen, there was no clutter of crawls, flashing graphics, or other moving "stuff" that would later define the media. There was Walter Cronkite in shirtsleeves, with a microphone in front of him. That was it - nothing to distract the senses from the message. Well, to be entirely accurate, there was some additional movement in the picture, that of newsroom staff working behind him in the cramped, unglamorous CBS Newsroom.
But when the camera closed in on Cronkite as he delivered that confirmation of what we feared, it was as up close and personal as one could ever imagine.

There was a definite purity about that. We didn’t know it at the time, because, after all, what could it be compared to? Other than radio, of course.

As the tragedy unfolded over the ensuing days, black and white film footage was incorporated, as well as reports from newsmen on the scene, witnesses, law enforcement officials, and so forth. And of course, there was the shooting, right there in the Dallas police station, by a man named Jack Ruby, of purported Presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

But it was all tied together by our much admired – and trusted – CBS anchor Walter Cronkite and his team.

While this remembrance is about Mr. Cronkite, it is, I feel, entirely right to mention the superbly poised and appropriately executed anchoring provided by Cronkite’s colleague Charles Collingwood who relieved Mr. Cronkite as the broadcast continued.

This would presumably have been to allow Cronkite to start preparing his 30-minute evening newscast. I’m reminded in viewing the kinescope recordings of the live coverage of that afternoon how very iconic it all was. The setting remained that cramped CBS newsroom. Collingwood did not stumble or flail or miss a beat, amidst the staccato in-rush of new information from Dallas. When the venerable Robert Trout – who almost twenty years earlier had announced to the CBS radio audience that World War Two had ended – came over to describe the scene outside in midtown Manhattan, in terms of public reaction, Collingwood simply moved the single desk microphone over in front of his colleague.

If you view this footage through our 21st century media attuned sensibilities, it looks curiously quaint…and technically rather crude. But the expression that keeps coming back is “up close…and – very – personal.”

Whether it was Cronkite or Collingwood in front of the camera, we were there as some rather troubling history was being made…and our attention was where it belonged: on the news, as delivered by trusted – and trustworthy – anchor/reporters.

The 1960s would continue as a turbulent decade. The increasing U.S. involvement in Viet Nam…the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Junior… the Civil Rights and anti-Viet Nam war struggles and violence in our cities…And the 70’s would not be much of an improvement, with Viet Nam becoming a deadly quagmire, as well as the revelations of Watergate leading up to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

But if one had to swallow the bitter pills of these years’ troubling events it was somehow reassuring to have the news delivered each evening by Walter Cronkite.

Indeed, it was enlightening to find out much later that in certain European countries, the act of anchoring a newscast had taken on the term Cronkiting (or Kronkiting).

It was not long after the Kennedy assassination that I got to meet Mr. Cronkite. The year was 1964. Lyndon Baines Johnson was President…our involvement in Southeast Asia was on the rise, the civil rights movement in the Southern states was escalating, and LBJ would be facing a hard fought Presidential election, with Republican Barry Goldwater as his main opponent. But within his own Democratic party, the nomination was not entirely wrapped up. George Corley Wallace, the feisty governor of the state of Alabama, an avowed opponent of school desegregation in his state, and a populist whose anti Federal bureaucracy stands were winning him significant blue collar support outside Alabama, had mounted a campaign for the Presidency.

Wallace’s showings were strong in my then home state of Maryland. And Cronkite felt the Maryland Democratic Primary to be of national import. He was to anchor CBS’s live coverage, from the Southern Hotel in Baltimore. I was hired in a minor role on the CBS production team for that night’s broadcast. I can’t say I remember all that much about the experience, other than it being very fast-paced; but what I do remember was, at the end of that long continuous coverage…it must have been about 2 AM…Cronkite came into the hotel’s bar where we were all unwinding…and sat down briefly with us production functionaries to chat. I could not begin to tell you what we spoke about. It was enough to be in the presence of this great anchor I so admired, and to realize he was not above having a beer at the end of a very long broadcast with low level support people.

That was the sort of thing that made a young man with broadcasting stars in his eyes…glow in the dark.

It’s no secret, television news has changed…a lot…since then, certainly advancing technically. I suppose it can be said that Walter Cronkite and that more intimate, personal, and uncluttered presentation were a product of an earlier era in mass communications. The media now seem acutely aware of the many forms of competition…and the shorter attention spans of consumers of the product...and it shows.

In McLuhanesque terms of the media being the message, we might say the message has changed. The networks’ evening newscasts, once their flagships – and our prime access to the day’s news (beyond newspapers, of course) now struggle against a plethora of other electronic media. So much of the "product" seems disdainful of in-depth coverage.

Or else, the hard news, to which Cronkite and his colleagues were so devoted to covering, gets diluted by so much life-style and "demographics-driven" fluff and clutter.

Or perhaps the mass media are simply recognizing – and reflecting – a new zeitgeist of instant gratification, instant messaging, texting, tweeting…and short attention spans.

I strongly doubt we’ll ever again see the likes of Walter Cronkite. But, to paraphrase his trademark sign-off, that’s the way it was…and I’m glad I was around for it.

©2009 Steve Ember

Sunday, July 5, 2009

God has a way of sending me Miracle Ducks...

Sometimes, in our roamings about, we are fortunate enough, out of serendipity, to speak to a stranger, and in so doing meet a very special person. Such was the case for me in September of 1999, in a lovely spot in one of my very favorite cities, Vancouver, British Columbia.

I was there for a few days to visit some dear friends, whom I’d met twenty years earlier in the club car of the (pre-ViaRail) Canadian Pacific Railway train, The Canadian, gliding through the magnificent Rocky Mountains scenery west of Lake Louise, on the way to Vancouver.

It took a while to get back to Vancouver to visit again with Alf and Joyce, but I did so in 1997, falling in love even more with this jewel of the Pacific Northwest, before heading north to Alaska. A planned photo trip two years later -- to coincide with the changing colors of the Lyall’s larches on the high mountain plateau of Larch Valley above Moraine Lake in the Canadian Rockies in September, 1999, and to once again experience the dramatic beauty of Moraine Lake itself -- allowed for a return to Vancouver to visit with Alf and Joyce before driving up the scenic coastline for a couple days at Whistler, and thence across to Alberta and my beloved Rockies.

I was staying at the stately Hotel Vancouver, in a lovely part of downtown Vancouver. The weather was uncommonly sunny and dry, and I was enjoying some time on my own, just roaming about with my cameras, taking in the many inviting aspects of this special place.

A favorite spot of mine is the Centennial Fountain, the main feature of an inviting plaza that sits just outside the hotel along the wide expanse of West Georgia Street. I’d taken photos of the fountain two years earlier, but this time, I was trying out one of the newer Ektachrome slide films I’d come to like a lot. And the warm early autumn sunlight on this magical afternoon could not have been more inviting for photography.

But here’s where the serendipity kicked in…and I’m so glad it did, as it became one of those magical experiences one remembers and cherishes as a very special part of travel.

As I was scouting the right angles to shoot the fountain and capture the play of back-lighting sun on the dancing waters, my eye was immediately caught by a photo opportunity not to be missed.

It was impossible not to be “hooked” by the sight of a very sweet looking woman in a sun hat sitting at the fountain behind a large poster-bedecked, flower-adorned cart with a hand-made white sign on which appeared the message, in black letters, “Too many people with no place to live.” Below it in red, “Please help.” Oh yes, she was talking to...a very large white duck, comfortably perched at the top of the cart, wearing what appeared to be a lovingly handmade duck dress.

There is something very special about people who love animals and are not at all hesitant to demonstrate that love in public. The woman and the duck were interacting in a most sweet and tender manner in the warm sunshine, with the waters of the fountain rising behind them. There was something about that scene that had me smiling broadly, including inside.

I sensed a story there, beyond the chance for some special images on that E-200 film, and I asked if I might chat with this person…and her very calm and friendly feathered companion…

I learn her name is Laura Kay Prophet, a resident of Vancouver, and her little friend is “Bobbi the Duck.” There is an ineffable sweetness and kindness about this person, and her story is about as touching as it gets.

Severely abused as a small child, she has for many years devoted her existence to helping Vancouver’s homeless. And she’s a sort of psychic reader, proceeds of which go to her charity “Duck Soup.” I make a contribution to her work, and we continue to chat. She even lets me pet Bobbi the duck, who is clearly used to such attention from humans. As we chat, Laura Kay points out that Bobbi has tear ducts on either side of her long yellow and black bill, which she explains is most unusual for a duck. “She cries real tears, just like humans.”

Naturally, as we speak I shoot a number of images of this touchingly sweet relationship.

All people who love animals, no matter the breed, are very special in my book. But something about Laura Kay’s gentleness and trust in the goodness of humanity (she could have turned out a lot less so, given her terribly tragic childhood) made me feel just a bit more glad to be alive that day…and honored to have had the experience of meeting her.

Back then, before blogs and web sites were comfortable options for reaching out with my photos and thoughts, I produced a printed newsletter for those who followed my work. It usually coincided with having a show, or introducing new images. As I recall, on returning from the Canadian trip, I included, along with images of Larch Valley, and Moraine Lake, one of my photos of the Centennial Fountain, with a narrative about the shoot. I think I closed with something like, “Let me tell you next time about Vancouver’s Duck Lady.”

I meant it as a tease for the next newsletter, but as I read those words now, and realize they were written ten years ago, and the promised “rest of the story” never got written, I feel genuinely saddened.

Sometimes, we get just too damned busy, and lovely moments and best intentions get sadly shoved aside by this or that deadline or new project.

Recently I purchased a high quality film and slide scanner, so that I could start paying more attention, in a more technically up-to-date way, to the decades of mainly travel photography on film that pre-date getting my first serious digital camera last year.

Ah, so much to re-discover…and re-live.

Well, here’s where that word serendipity also fits. Last evening, in trying to make sense of a tiny corner of a huge backlog of haphazardly “filed” slides, I came across a sleeve containing six of those E-200 slides I’d taken on that sunny afternoon in Vancouver of Laura Kay and Bobbi.

Sadly, some of my notes from that trip were not immediately at hand, and some details were eluding recollection.

Google continues to delight and sometimes even astound me, as I look for bits of useful information, often relating to years-old images. So, on a whim, while my Epson printer is squirting its fine little droplets at a sheet of photo paper to produce a hard copy of my favorite of the “Duck Lady” images, I type in something like “Duck Lady Vancouver B.C.”

To my surprise and delight appears a short documentary, made by a Vancouver film-maker in 2004 as a project for the Vancouver Film School.

Once again, I’m in the presence of this kind and gentle soul who had so affected me. She speaks of her work, and the special relationships she enjoyed with ducks before Bobbi was given to her. “God has a way of sending me ‘miracle ducks’” I’m touched by her reminiscence of one such creature, Harvey, dying in her arms, and understand how she had to have felt. I also learn that she has physical impairment from Multiple Sclerosis which, on some days, leaves her weaker in terms of visiting the homeless who so depend on her kindness.

I hesitate to write more in this post just now, until I hopefully hear back from either the VFS or perhaps Ms. Prophet to update this five year old information.

In the meantime, may I share this vignette with you, with the hope that Laura Kay is still visiting that lovely plaza in downtown Vancouver…and if Bobbi is no longer her companion, that she has been blessed with a new feathered friend to love.

I am very glad to have made your acquaintance, if only briefly, Laura Kay Prophet. You are one of God’s very special people.

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