Sunday, April 19, 2009

A farewell worth signing off with

(WELCOME VISITORS FROM ROMENESKO, ETC. This blog was active for the weeks just before and after the DMN newsroom layoffs. Comments are off now, but Randy's email address is on the bottom of his farewell. We had some other pretty good good-bye notes (though nothing at this level). Click here to read all I got.)

If someone else wants to send in a farewell, I'll be honored to post it. But if this is the last in the series, what an ending. Some of the farewells from the younger people who lost jobs showed that the DMN ate some of its seed corn. This one shows that we also lost some of our old growth forest. The institutional memory this represents can never be replaced:

Whenever a Monkey Screams, Think of Me

I always wanted to be a writer, but somewhere in the sixties I got sidetracked by a Polaroid Swinger.

Now, being a writer seemed to be an admirable profession, but being a photographer seemed to be just plain cool. And being a newspaper photojournalist with a Nikon dangling from your neck as well as a press pass opening doors, whoa, that was tres cool.

So that's the road I took. That road led me here, and from here came all the memorable characters and exciting destinations.

I replaced a footnote in history - Jack Beers, who almost won a Pulitzer if his flash hadn't triggered Bob Jackson's reflex-response which froze on film the exact moment Ruby shot Oswald.

What I heard about Jack Beers was that he was a Mapsco unto himself - he knew every back road in Dallas by memory. That is something to emulate, I said to myself, and to this day I'm a student of directions and try to go mapless in Big D.

We all have heroes in our chosen profession and mine were right down the street at The Dallas Times Herald. Their photo department rocked in the 70's and 80's, and you only had to pick up their paper every day to be inspired to go out and try to beat them at their own game.

Legendary shooters like Jay Dickman and Skeeter Hagler would fast-talk you, wise-crack you, all the while snapping pictures intuitively at the exact decisive moment while you were standing beside them shooting the breeze like an idiot.
I fed on the rivalry, studied their skills, pushing myself to make better and better pictures.
Focus editor Bob Compton was really my mentor, a lovable, laid-back guru to young journalists, the newsroom Yoda who transcended space and time over the decades. He taught me how to find a great feature story and how to go after it in the face of long managerial odds. It was all about going for the heart. Uncle Bob was my spiritual guide in this business, a great lover of everything Texan.

I salute him to this day. Without him the well would have gone dry years ago.
My good friends were always in the photo department, the folks I used to eat dog food nachos with at wild goodbye parties with commode-hugging inebriated future mayors (when the police would arrive, somebody would say: "Send out the theater critic, let him handle it.").

After Friday Night Football we would caravan to the rather seedy Guadalajara on Ross Ave., eat greasy cheese enchiladas together and wait for late-night celebrities such as Lyle Lovett and Paul Simon to show up as sirens wailed and the bodies piled up outside.

We had one photog we treasured so much we threw him a goodbye party not once, but six or seven years in a row, the count being lost. Every year we always put the same notes up around the DMN to establish general confusion: "Jay Godwin is leaving The Dallas Morning News, please come to his Goodbye Party and wish him well!".

Jay, being the nice guy he is, would always faithfully drive up from Austin for his goodbye party even though eventually he really didn't know any of the people who attended his party.

One constant that still persists: you can be assured that walking through the halls of the photo department, you will hear sounds and see sights you will not witness anywhere else in Belo world.

An old geezer trying to breakdance to Michael Jackson, folks wearing riot gas masks during the basement leak, the Art dept marching in angrily to demand the stereo be turned down, a year-round Christmas tree decorated with the ex-boss's badge a blonde riding an invisible horse, Bic lighters exploding in fireballs in reaction to overruled edits by executive Sports editors, reporters hiding out in the darkroom darkness snoring away, a cowboy photo editor reading "Lonesome Dove" over the dept intercom, holiday grapefruits from upper management being hurled at lab personnel resulting in flurries of memos, staff meetings with shocked staffers photo-shopped into bikinis, on and on it goes ...

Some days being a news photographer is like being in a dream. One memorable shift, I photographed a cop killing in Grand Prairie, then Chuck Berry and Elizabeth Taylor at the Meyerson, and finally a botched burglary where a pathetic robber was trapped in a chimney trying to enter a house. One morning I was climbing a West Texas mountain with paraplegics in wheelchairs, that night I was photographing prostitutes in Juarez. If you love life and its wonderful tapestry, this job's for you.

A few personal notes with universal meaning:

Gary Barber, thanks for walking with me down to HR. That was above and beyond. But next time, let's take the stairs. Less traffic. It will be easier on the both of us.
I'm leaving David Woo in charge of highly-questionable requests on the 50/50 camera equipment program.

Doug Swanson, I'm leaving Woo in charge of you. Sorry about that. But at least you'll be able to survive a silver crisis. I guess I'll try to finish my photo essay "Voluptuous South Dallas Strippers and Their DMN Reporter Boys On Assignment." I've only got one picture in the essay and it's of you, but it's a start.

David Guzman, no matter what, take 15 more seconds out of that video edit. It's too long.

Mona Reeder, please don't get drunk again and try to steal my dog in the middle of the night. These days you could get shot by some neighbor defending his castle.
Irwin Thompson, you knucklehead, if I get one more call from you impersonating a Morning News subscription salesman ...

Leslie White, sorry I fell through the dumpster and snapped the LCD display off my video camera and then contracted a deadly staph infection that nearly ate my nose off but it was all for Elvis you know.

Nathan Hunsinger, may your scratch disk never be full. Ron Baselice, you misspelled your name in your latest video. Sonya Hebert, when things get slow and you have nothing to do, please enlarge the type on all the photo computers. Do Mahoney's first.

Tom Dillard, my original boss, wherever you are in the afterlife, I apologize for getting hired in 1975 while wearing a nice-looking suit and a Boy Scout haircut, and then showing up a few weeks later looking like Wavy Gravy from a Grateful Dead concert. It was a plan that worked.

Steve Blow, I still can't believe the DMN sheriffs let us go down Highway 16, the longest state highway, not once but twice. Twenty years from now on the story's anniversary, I will track you down in the Nursing Home For Folksy Metro Columnists and we'll hop in the Honda Civic hatchback and go looking for Arkey Blue again.

Richard Pruitt, hanging around you created a thirst for gadgets and camera equipment that leaves me very well-stocked for a free-lance career. At the time of explaining those purchases to my wife, I wanted to strangle you. Now I drink to your materialistic spirit. She does too.

Gerry McCarthy, I would say I will miss your constant stream of e-mail spam, but I just don't think I've hit rock-bottom yet. The abyss has got to be pretty deep for that to happen.

Guy Reynolds, if I get any more butt-calls from you, I'm sending Roky Erickson your way, the 13th Floor Elevators and all. Lara Solt, kill your babies. Michael Hamtil, I would love to buy you lunch, but, as you know, I have left my wallet in the car. Evans Caglage, don't get too good at anything you don't want to do around this place.
Mr. Ainsworth, you know what to do with those cross-dissolves. Louis DeLuca, you are the most well-rounded photographer I know and I do not mean that in the jelly-belly sort of way. Tom Fox, check with the card-stacker, see if he needs an assistant.

Chris Wilkins and Brad Loper, order me some boudin to go from the Shaq. Ahna Hubnik, to somewhat quote the Prairie Mystic known as David Leeson, a video is never finished, it is only abandoned, especially by our web audience.
Vernon Bryant, thanks for setting my camera controls when they became too small for me to see. Juan Garcia, remember: when something just doesn't look right, it's probably right.

John Zak, sorry I never got my mileage in on time. Maybe in the next life. Jerome Sims, please organize me before I die. Courtney, give me back my monkey.
John Rhodes, or rather Mr. Atomic Fireball, for growing up on the grounds of a mental institution, you seem perfectly sane to me. Melanie Burford, we'll always have the Taco Joint. Kye Lee, Richard Pruitt wants his carbon-fiber tripod back. Pronto.

John Davidson, the Boss With A Bite, if I just would have taken your advice years ago when I asked you where I should go with my career and you said: "Take a left out of my office, turn right, go to the window, open it, and jump" - none of this would be happening now.

I will really miss the wry wit of Jim Mahoney, who pounds the mean streets of Big D looking for amazing local pictures. It's hard to forget his comment about one of our more colorful globe-trotting photojournalists: "It really doesn't bother me that she goes away on these great international assignments, it just bothers me that she always comes back."

To former staffers Paul Brown and Ed Hille, as far as carpetbaggers go who headed south to plunder the plantation, you guys were the absolute best.

Paul, why we ended up with chocolates on our pillows and golden telephones by our toilets in the most luxurious hotel in San Antonio during the Pope's 1987 visit is a mystery that Belo Travel obviously must have had to answer for. The high-performance rented Mustang - hmmm, that too.

Ed, on the matter of the Nikon 85 mm 1.4 with the major focus problem you gave me in a big-hearted gesture upon your departure over 20 years ago, I sold it recently on E-bay for $500. A true confession.

Judy Walgren, dance with me, woman. How many cows did that African tribe offer for you again? I bet the numbers are down in this economy.

Allison V. Smith, give me a reflector to hold and a Hasselblad to load.

Barbara Davidson, during the swamp tour when the redneck alligator-hunters were showing off and crashed their airboat into the riverbank in the middle of nowhere, and all looked lost for us, good thing you pulled out that Canadian charm.

And then there was the great tale-spinner Joe Laird, our longtime society photog. He could easily segue from telling stories about machine-gunning "Japs" on Iwo Jima to stinky hippies skinny-dipping in the Trinity River at the 1969 Lewisville Pop Festival and then on to escapades of the rich and famous of Dallas smuggling diamonds across the Atlantic in their, ahem, privates. My eyes were as big as softball-sized hail.

And thanks to all my DMN buddies and future photo Pulitzer winners who appeared in our humble home movie "East Dallas Vice vs. Godzilla." Evans Caglage, Jan Sonnenmair, Juan and Leslie Garcia, Nuri Vallbona, Milton Hinnant - they all died horrible deaths at the hands of the monster and his evil BMW driver, Ken Geiger. William Snyder as detective "Sunny" Crockett saved the world at the end.

We were very young and crazy then.

To all the cameras I've loved before, thanks for the auto-exposure, the auto-focus, and the auto-white balance.

There were many great reporters I've had the pleasure to work with.
Bryan Woolley, who never met a chicken-fried steak he didn't like. Bill Minutaglio, who I ate horse-sausage with unknowingly in Moscow one night before catching the Aeroflot flight where we sat next to the large Russian wolfhound. Bill, who was once told in my presence in the hills of Nicaragua that he had the face of a priest, also introduced me to the male Aretha Franklin one night. We also were chased by federales in Mexico when I mistook a pull-over hand signal for a go-ahead gesture. Sorry, Bill, didn't mean to scare the guacamole out of you.

And there was ____ , who made me go swimming with her in the middle of an assignment in the 80's. I wrote a song about the experience called "I Feel Like a Fool In Your Husband's Swimsuit." The tape got passed around the newsroom; she never spoke to me again. That was fine.

Brad Bailey, who I never could find for hours while on assignment at a nudist camp because he took off his clothes and just kinda looked like everybody else. Those Miss Nude Texas assignments only come around once in your lifetime, right, Jim (rhymes with Moroney)?

Miss Marlyn Schwartz, who refused to go on assignment with me in my lime-green 1967 Mustang with black racing stripes and no muffler because, well, it wasn't air-conditioned.

Not to mention ____ , who smoked the funny stuff in my car on the way to interviewing large and scary Texas Rangers of the law enforcement variety at
the nuclear plant and had me and my career frozen with fear and paranoia for days on end. She would not be denied. It was the 70's, man, and a lot of people were still stuck in the 60's.

Michael Granberry, I've come to the place where the road and the sky collide. I'm not running on empty yet, but I probably could use somebody to doctor my eyes. As long a I don't run into Daryl Hannah, I think I will be okay.

Beatriz Terrazas, who proved to me she could roll with the best of the roller-derby girls.

Steve McGonigle, we were Horned Frogs all those years ago. As far as being an endangered species, things haven't changed that much.

I will miss the quiet intelligence of Zen Master Tom Huang, whose staunch support of photojournalism is a treasure for this newspaper. I remember, back in the heyday, going on assignment with him to the biggest BBQ festival in the nation in Memphis, Tennessee (well, I called it an assignment, the boss called it a "friggin' vacation").
After a few exquisite spring days covering good ol' boys partying to Southern rock on the beer-infested banks of the Mississippi, interviewing beautiful, wasted Scarlett O'Haras, and eating all parts of the pig and cow possible in the tastiest of ways, I noticed Tom had this blissed-out look on his face, punctuated by a subtle smile.
I asked what the matter was and he said: "I'm just not used to having fun on an assignment for the paper", a comment which seemed to justify the whole assignment to me.

Tom, I wish you were here now. This thing needs some editing.

Seen a lot of change here. When I first arrived, it wasn't too far away from the time when, if Metro needed an eye-burner feature photo, they would send the trusty Clint Grant to the zoo to grab an animal, bring him in the studio, then work with that chimpanzee or penguin or whatever til some magic happened to anchor the Metro cover. I am not making this up.

From black and white film to Kodachrome slides to color negatives to digital images and now HD video and frame-grabs, it all came to pass.

If I ever got down about the place, I would crank up the Springsteen between assignments, fast-forward the cassette to his third-most signature anthem "Badlands" with its uplifting chorus line: "Keep pushing til it's understood / And these badlands start treating us good." It seemed to cure the Belo Blues in that simplistic, unexplainable rock 'n' roll kind of way.

I've always found the photo dept to be an oasis of anarchistic, invigorating insanity within the rather buttoned-down walls of the DMN. Whenever an Observer story would come out with tales of our stuffy conservatism, I'd just scratch my head, remembering who hired belly dancers in the Dallas Life dept, or who made cheese nachos on the print dryers in the long-gone wet lab or just the vision of the tattooed Courtney Perry swing-dancing and laughing maniacally in the photo scanning room. I would wonder: what department are they talking about?

Photographers are much like drummers in a rock band. Somewhat crazy and unpredictable, a little Keith Moon is in every one of them. In the 70's, for those who remember, it might have been something in the fixer or ferrocyanide. Personalities, twisted humor and camaraderie always abound in photo. And the old farts there stay a bit young at heart.

I remember one stormy night falling off a ladder, breaking my ankle covering a protest. After the surgery the photo dept presented me with a framed, black-and-white crime-scene photo of the accident area, with my body drawn out on the sidewalk, surrounded by the very protestors I had been photographing and, of course, smiling members of the photo dept.

What could I say? That was a pretty thoughtful bunch of people, those photo friends of mine. I must admit the gesture did make the 23 pins and 2 metal plates hurt just a little less.

I really don't understand why photo departments seem to have the most gregarious, hilarious characters at a newspaper, but it's been that way for years at the DMN. John Rhodes could do stand-up. Melanie Burford, call Conan. Gerry, are you really Woody Allen? We have maintained that image while racking up multiple Pulitzers and gaining national recognition for serious work.

There were always surprises in this job.

Once, I went to a gentrified East Dallas neighborhood to shoot a fireplace. Just a stupid fireplace. The owner opened his door and a Doberman ran out to basically attack me. When I put my right hand out in defense, my Nikon took a slide down the arm, perfectly landing around the snarling dog's neck.

I just remember standing there speechless and helpless, watching the Doberman grinning real big, running down Swiss Ave. wearing my gift like a new necklace, the camera bouncing with large ugly clunks! on the concrete street.
How do you explain that to anybody much less your boss?

Or the time I sat on my walkie-talkie in my car and the entire newsroom gathered around to listen to an hour-long argument I was having with my wife, largely about choosing a Mexican food destination. Ouch. Double-ouch when Christie found out about the public broadcast.

Hurricane Allen, 1989. Record flooding everywhere. I was in a crowded National Guard helicopter. We landed in shallow water. I stepped out and it was like being dropped into the dead calm of the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Water as far as you could see, horizon to horizon. A steady stream of the elderly pouring out of a quaint schoolhouse, escorted by soldiers through the waters. It was an unforgettable scene. In waist-deep water, I took one step. The big fat diamondback rattlesnake swam by only inches away and suddenly my heart was pounding like a runaway locomotive.

I showed up one morning for work and was promptly handed an amateurish camera and told to get some gym clothes and go workout with Jane Fonda. What, excuse me? The class was private, the press was barred, and I was posing as an excited fan snapping a shot after the workout. I have to admit - the picture was exclusive, great idea.

I was lucky enough to experience print journalism when the cotton was high and this was a bad-ass newspaper firing on all cylinders. We were all living way above the cloud line. At that time the possibilities at this outfit seemed limitless.

I remember developing color negative film amidst the chemical fumes, wearing a stained lab apron, when the cylindrical darkroom door noisily swung around and managing editor Stu Wilk stuck his head in. "Randy," he said, " Do you like Simon and Garfunkel?"
"Yes, Stu," I said, "I like Simon and Garfunkel." "Do you remember their song ..." and then he started singing:
"... they've all gone to look for America ... ?"

Boom. A few days later, Allen Pusey and I were criss-crossing the nation, from East to West coast, asking folks where they were on November 22, 1963.
From meeting the girl who first dyed Roy Orbison's hair black to getting healed by the spirit of Pancho Villa, it's been great fun. I have no regrets.

And, with the hurricane wind that's been blowing through our industry, I thought I was prepared emotionally for this day, but you never really are.
As the great philosopher Mike Tyson once said: "Everybody has a plan til they get their teeth knocked out."

I felt somewhat that way last week, or at least similar to when the 6 foot 4 inch Rockwall tight end slammed into me on the sidelines a few years ago and I woke up on my back, eyes to the fuzzy heavens, with a hole through my lip where my camera eyepiece had punctured it. The football team's doctor pushed aside the concerned cheerleaders, leaned over me and said: "Listen, son, let's get you over to the bench.
We're gonna patch you up with some Super-Glue."

So, I'm looking for some Super-Glue now.

It hurts at first, being released into this fresh water, but I feel really lucky to have worked here with some measure of success. Especially compared to toiling your life away in a smelly petrochemical plant, the South Texas life I escaped from.

My tight-knit family in Pasadena never did really understand this job. Myleather-tough brothers, who worked all their lives in ship channel refineries or the prison system or the prison system known as public schools, would look at me with shock-and-awe when I told them I had just been hanging out all day with Willie Nelson, or trying to find the best swimming holes in Texas, or riding around in a hot air balloon or chasing a Mardi Gras parade or mixing it up with Elvis impersonators.

"What?!?!?" they would say, "You call that a job?"

Yup. The best job in the world. It's the first one I ever had some 34 years ago. It was my ticket to ride. And I will never forget it, this place and all the usual suspects. See you a little further down the road.

Randy Eli Grothe
randygrothe@gmail.com

12 comments:

  1. Grateful to read thisApril 19, 2009 at 7:47 PM

    Ladies & gents,
    This is why the beloved Randy Eli Grothe is a Texas Legend.
    He has the soul of a journalist, the spirit of an adventurer.
    And he's the only guy I know who went swimmin' with Nikke Finke and lived to tell about it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Randy Eli Grothe is a Morning News treasure - photographer, videographer, and writer - a true Renaissance man. I laughed, cried, laughed, and cried. You're irreplaceable.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Dude--don't let anyone say photographers can't write. -Tracy Everbach

    ReplyDelete
  4. This is an awesome piece of writing. Thanks so much, Randy.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think there is a book in all of this, Randy Eli... I will look forward to reading the first draft the next time we hook up at the Taco Joint with Christie! You were the glue that held things together for me at the DMN. And from reading this amazing farewell, I am sure hundreds of others feel the same way. Love to you, Judy

    ReplyDelete
  6. You're right, Randy -- the abyss is far deeper than you think. Looks like it was a mistake to make me your Facebook friend after all. :-)

    Seriously, though, it goes without saying you'll be missed at the office. Thank goodness for Saturday Taco Joint outings (I promise to make the next one!).

    And for what it's worth -- and so people out there know how much I look up to Randy Eli as comic relief ...

    Dude, you have something in common with my old man (aside from the terrible eyesight and male pattern baldness. While it may bring a smile to my face to draw from you a small chuckle (which is still no easy feat), the handful of times I made you truly laugh out loud -- those were some damn proud moments for me. Like hitting the winning homer during a Little League game.

    Take care of yourself, my man. And by the way, I'm no Woody Allen, but I do cook up a mean bowl of neurosis.

    Cheers,

    - Spam I am -

    ReplyDelete
  7. Gerry, I'm reporting you to Spartacus and he will send legions of slaves with the sole mission to bring back your Blackberry thumbs and save the rebellion from further Spam attacks.

    REG

    ReplyDelete
  8. Randy Eli Grothe. You know how when you turn up in some godforsaken, very hot place, a place peopled by strange, vaguely menacing characters with indecipherable accents and weird customs, and there are one or two nice people with gentle eyes, speaking to you softly in English, recognizing how out of place you are, and offering, gently, to help? A place like Managua in 1985, Mindanao, Philippines in 1986, places like Mogadishu, Mombasa and Dallas. I arrived at the DMN in 1984 with too many sweaters and not enough socks. Dallas was as foreign to me as anyplace I'd ever been. Randy Eli Grothe was that soft speaking, smiling stranger offering to show me the strange and subtle ways of Texas. John Davidson, who based his approach to running a high-powered photo department on his experience leading combat platoons in Vietnam (protect your perimeter! pretty good advice, that), once referred to Randy Eli Grothe as The Unmade Bed Of The Photo Department), which has the ring of truth. But Eli was (is) also its beating heart. When I left the DMN for Seattle in 1988, I cried. Randy cried too. The only problem with Seattle is there aren't enough Texans and there is no Randy Eli Grothe to interpret for me. The first thing I did when I landed here was to buy a dog and name him Eli. I loved that dog and I love that man.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Paul, the military adage I tended to live by was "It's best to maintain radio silence" but I think that came from a different platoon than John's.

    REG

    ReplyDelete
  10. Gosh, to have Davidson's pleasant, unprickly, warm demeanor...

    ReplyDelete