Monday, April 15, 2013

11- The Poor Man's Bar-St Thomas, USVI-1995

Megumi and I had begun, what would turn out to be, a two-year separation. Nineteen years together without a cross word; now over. Sometimes unhappiness can lie unexpressed, just under the surface, chillingly quiet, and then explode with the power to  destroy everything. It was so hard, each looking into the other’s eyes unsure of what we were seeing. We wouldn’t accept the past and couldn’t imagine the future. And life has it's way of moving on whether you're on board or not.
In September 1995
Hurricane Marilyn devastated the US Virgin Islands. Quite by coincidence, and on very short notice, I was offered work through an engineering firm with FEMA documenting the storm damage. The offer, tendered by someone I’d never met or worked with before, was unusual in that I was expected to pay for everything up front, to be reimbursed later. That, and demanding I decide and be ready to go in six hours, would normally have raised a number of red flags, but I jumped at the job  to get as far away as possible. As it turned out I was in the islands for nearly two, soul cleansing, months. Perhaps time to find what I was looking for. During this period I wrote something everyday. A lot of it poetry like this poem written, a few lines at a time, while taking refuge in the best little bar St. Thomas had to offer. The Poor Man’s Bar was like a thousand others in the islands except here they’d give you the bottle
and you poured your own drink.
I stumbled up its stairs the first night, the only place open in the storm-ravaged town of Red Hook. But even as time went on, and conditions improved elsewhere, it was the only place I wanted to be. After a lingering chat with a Rasta Man, down on the beach, I'd sit at the end of the bar and jot down thoughts about the day's doings when inevitably someone nearby would draw me, first, into their voice and, finally, into their story. The revolving cast of characters I encountered there revealed a little more of themselves each day. I guess I came to be included in that cast as well. I certainly opened up to some of them too. Hurricane Maryland left pain in her wake. There was much to mend. It was a healing experience for us all, a strange place at a very strange time. This is the story of "The Poor Man's Bar".

Searching through the freshly shattered pieces of my life
In the wreckage of a Virgin Island hurricane,
I was shooting for the government while working on my head,
Seeking shelter from the damage and the strain.
The storm had passed in Red Hook and it spared this little bar.
It seemed a place where lonely people went to be alone.
I’d stop there nearly every night and watch them from afar.
And when I had a drink, I’d always pour my own.

                            THE POOR MAN’S BAR
Their eyes stare out from sun lined faces, Some with smiles and some without,
That hint of lives in other places. Loved ones left behind no doubt.
The music’s rock. They like it loud. This home away from home
The locals call The Poor Man’s Bar, up here you pour your own.

Her name is little Angie. She’s what some would call petite.
She always takes the same stool, and she drinks her whiskey neat.
She lost her love to the mainland. The hurricane took her car.
She’s biding time with her memories now, here upstairs, at The Poor Man’s Bar.

James, with wooden club in hand, explains the only rule,
“Don’t throw nothing out the windows, Not an ashtray, not a stool.”
He’s not someone to trifle with when he’s not feeling nice.
And he keeps that cudgel limbered up by pounding bags of ice.

A whirling dervish tending bar, Dee turns the music down.
“Listen up,” he tells the crowd, “Let’s all just drink a round,
For Rick who’s gone and won’t be back To pour his own again”.
For he clearly knew when the big wind blew, that he’d lost his closest friend.

Now John by trade’s a watcher, and he usually knows the score.
You’ll notice how he never turns his backside to the door.
He’s in tune with all the tension like a broker on the phone.
And he’s drawn here like a magnet ‘cause he likes to pour his own.

-Rasta Larry-
Now there sits Rasta Larry, just returned from Bomba’s shack,
Tortola’s full moon madness, just a memory flashing back.
His eyes look out forever for some distant island home.
He likes to burn one down on the beach, come up here, and pour his own.

Scotty hangs here often even tending bar some nights.
He drinks his coke with Absolute and smokes Marlboro Lites
That silver coin around his neck? A birthday gift he says.
A marker of another year he’s counting in his head.

Young Tyler’s found another cause and charges in again.
Damn the danger-full ahead. She’s just not one to bend.
Her youthful zest will drive her on and take her memories far.
And years from now they’ll wander back up here, to The Poor Man’s Bar.

There’s a tale in each and everyone who’s here to pour their own,
And given time they’ll tell it, every bit, down to the bone.
But you’ve really got to listen, learn to see ‘em as they are.
‘Cause there’s drama down in Red Hook, here upstairs at The Poor Man’s Bar.

 Like I said the characters were revolving and I revolved as well, out of St. Thomas and on to a string of jobs that kept me working around the Caribbean for several years.
The story has a good ending though. Like two wanderers in a Tolkien tale, Megumi and I stumbled our way together again two years later. Certainly older and probably wiser, we endure as a couple yet today, a testimony to the power and the mystery of love and those with the will, in spite of it all, to somehow hold on to each other, however far apart they drift.

Click link below for video version of The Poor Man's Bar

Thursday, April 11, 2013

10- Shooting My Last Dallas Killing

Shooting My Last Dallas Killing

I have this pattern of quitting jobs in the spring or starting new ones, depending on how you look at it. By late March of 1973, I was ready to move on, leaving a marriage, a house, a career, a town and soon a way of life I’d embraced for almost 3 years. No kids, no touch, no foul. A clean start, I guess, for everybody.
Funny, if it hadn’t been for that divorce, I might yet be under the seductive spell of Texas. That can happen. I’ve seen the Lone Star State tighten her grip on others like that as life moves inexorably on. I had no intention of that happening to me.
There’d been a lot of stress at Channel 8; more so since the union had lost a recent vote to organize the photographers and editors. Morale was low and respect was nonexistent. I recall being told at one point that I was paid to shoot, not think, but that’s another story. Clearly my personal beliefs were at odds with the conservative TV station on more and more issues. With so many things going on in my life it was no wonder something had to give.
I was at Mother Blues one night where some friends in a band were playing and they let me sit in. I hadn’t played with anyone professionally for 3 years. There was something about jamming in front of a live audience that really made it special. The music just flowed. It was overwhelming.

Journal Entry: Sunday- March 18, 1973- 4:40am
       It was the closest thing I can imagine to time tripping. I mean, there I was, sitting behind this organ, eyes closed, a big grin boogyin’ from one side of my face to the other, and just playing my ass off, you know? When for a second, just for a second I began to drift…  I was in Memphis… and it was as real as I ever remember it being… but as always, I come back.

It had only been 3 days since my divorce was final and I wasn’t exactly happy with what “coming back” meant.
The next day, after rediscovering my soul the previous evening at Mother Blues, I bought a 1939 Hammond organ (with 1937 pre-amps) from Wells Music and quietly began looking for a band. Three months later, I was playing with Dave Norfleet on guitar, Gary Leggett on bass, and Bill Adams on drums. We called ourselves Freedom Street after an old Memphis band I’d played in. We started drawing a pretty good crowd in Oak Lawn at The Fog, later called Bobby McGee’s, several nights a week. People were beginning to notice.
Bill Adams, Gary Leggett, Chuck Richardson, Dave Norfleet
Dallas Mafioso Tony Caterine, owner of the Castaway and Losers Clubs, stopped in one night and was impressed by the band. He made us an offer we couldn’t refuse and signed us to a booking contract. Tony promised his talent agency would keep the band on the road from Hawaii to Georgia as long as we wanted the work. And in spite of a short stay in prison, where he still managed to conduct business, Tony did just that. Before long, I gave up my apartment and lived full time on the road while he managed the band. It was a killer at first trying to keep a day job while working so late in the nightclubs but I needed cash to live on until we got established. But the end was in sight. Tony fronted me some money. I gave notice to my boss, Burt Shipp, and was soon shooting my last stories for WFAA-TV.
It was no secret, I just wanted to turn in the gear and leave, but the afternoon call on the police scanner meant one of my last days at the station would probably be a late one.
I was only a few blocks away from a shooting at a convenience store, and already headed in that direction, when Burt’s voice crackled on the radio, “You on that Hoss?” He called everybody Hoss. “Yep. I got it Burt”.
More reports were coming in on the scanner; shooter down, multiple victims, ambulance and fire rolling. I pulled to the curb in front of the store. Two police units were there already and a third was arriving as I grabbed my camera from the trunk. I was using film and had to shoot very sparingly with only 3 minutes of film in the 16mm Canon Scoopic. Not like it would soon be with videotape cameras where I could start rolling, even as I ran up to the scene, with a whole 20 minutes of media to burn.
Two officers were tending to a wounded girl on the floor near the check out counter. Just beyond them the clerk lay dead. I stayed back and to the side hoping to go unnoticed by the police while I gathered a wide shot and panned over to the arriving ambulance crew. Through the lens, I followed them to the victim where a blue uniform, first blocked my shot, then ushered me outside the door beyond the newly established police line. There was time now to cross the street and shoot back wide at the whole area with the storefront and emergency vehicles jammed together outside. The girl had been secured to a gurney and I filmed her being moved to the ambulance. Police were now saying two more dead, besides the clerk, were in the store. The shooter had chased a woman inside with a gun. The clerk and a customer tried to interfere and were each shot. The woman ran to an isle but was cut down at point blank range in front of the store’s magazine racks. The gunman then turned the pistol on himself and fell on top of the woman. They died there together.
After the ambulance pulled away, I moved farther down the front of the store, ducked beside a Coke machine, and peered inside. Cupping my left hand to the glass, I focused on a policeman near the bodies and released the shutter. The officer was awkwardly straddling the pools of blood and piled bodies sprawled in front of the magazine racks. I could see he was flipping through a newly released copy of Playboy. He saw me but didn’t seem to mind I was taking his picture. It was an amazing sight but one I didn’t even realize I’d shot until I saw it back at the station after it came out of the processor. An editor pointed it out. Strangely, nothing seemed out of place, not the policeman checking out the new Playboy or me shooting him doing it, or the couple lying between his feet for that matter. You become pretty callused to this sort of thing if you see it enough. Before Dallas I don’t think I’d ever seen a dead person. Now I’d seen more than I could count. A violent incident like this was mundane. I felt nothing and that bothered me.
It was more than time for a change. Rock and roll and Mafia management may sound crazier than the news business and a bad marriage but it seemed a whole lot saner at the time. Especially when I later received a letter from Tony, still in his prison get-a-way, thanking me for repaying my loan and conducting myself in such a professional manner.
I didn’t owe anyone any money. I owned my own gear. The band was tight and on the road. And life, while unpredictable, was good again.

09- Playing Golf In My Living Room

Playing Golf In My Living Room
All my friends play it and swear by it. Men love it. Women love it. Kids love it. But I hate it. It’s boring.
Golf would be more fun if paintball guns were involved. I mean, knowing you could be hit in the back of the neck at any moment would add an element of concentration to the game I could learn to respect. But that’s just me. Hell, I’m a guy who thinks basketball would be more entertaining if players were equipped with roller skates and cattle prods too. I’d pay to see that.
Most of my experience with golf involves photographing tournaments and waiting as the old men of the clubhouse scene, with their hands in the air and shushhhhing everyone, exert the one moment of power they are allowed all year. Finally they’ll drop their hands and I can move into position for the next shot… along with hundreds of other people of course; a hard enough task without this interference. Unless you’re shooting for the tournament TV venue from a fixed position, live golf contests are no fun to cover. Even shooting with a large studio type camera from one location has it’s drawbacks. In order to follow that tiny white ball, as it tracks toward you in the air, you must set the contrast so only the white spot shows against a field of black. In others words, you don’t see a damn thing but that small white speck, and you pray you don’t lose sight of it while your camera’s on air. Maybe the technology has improved by now but that’s how we did it then. If you mess up, everyone on the headsets will know because the director will say something, or even worse replace you on the camera. It happens. And with that, let’s talk about something else…
As for actually swinging the clubs themselves…well, there are several good reasons I don’t enjoy that, but one example in particular sticks in my mind.
I was working with Bob Brandon and Dan Diamond. We were part of a five-man crew taping a show called “Golf Shots Video Magazine” on the island of Kauai at the Lagoons golf course. The host was former PGA champion Dave Stockton. The shoot ran for several days, and while I’m not an enthusiast of the game, I was amazed and entertained by the exotic layout of the course and the golfing skill of the host. It was a lot of fun.
On the final day of the shoot, the last scene took place on the Lagoons driving range. Stockton finished his lines; laid the driver he had borrowed from the rental shop on the ground next to the unused pile of range balls and joined the crew and several clubhouse workers in congratulating themselves on a job well done.
Now I’ve never claimed to be a golfer. I’ve said I don’t even like the game. But I had been watching one of the world’s best demonstrate his technique over and over and over. Perhaps that was what inspired me to pick up the driver lying next to the waiting pile of golf balls. That and the fact one ball was already teed up and just begging to be blasted, straight and true, out into the blue and green yonder.
The rest of the group was engaged in their conversations and not paying any attention to me. So I picked up the club and proceeded to address the ball. I turned my head to the left and visualized the white speck falling away in the distance. Turning back to the ball, I fixed my gaze, concentrated on keeping my left arm straight and my head down and drew back with all my might. Back around I came with a vengeance, anticipating the solid ping of contact but instead........Whoosh! How could it be? I had missed the ball.
The shocking disbelief of the near miss gave way to a sudden dread the entire group had seen my humiliation.....But no... I glanced back... maybe not. They were still involved with their conversations. One or two perhaps had seen some movement and maybe thought it was a warm-up swing. Yes, that’s it. It was a warm-up swing. I certainly felt warmer.
I just needed to relax a little bit. You know. Shake out the shoulders, wiggle the butt, and reset the feet. Don’t try to kill the ball, just make smooth, solid contact.
I appealed to my inner self, took two deep breaths and became one with the ball. Unfortunately becoming one with the ball was not the same as hitting it.
Whooosh! Damm! I missed again.
I noticed the conversations behind me had stopped and worse, there were a few outright snickers. There’re never gonna buy three warm-up swings. This next one’s gotta be on the money.
I can’t tell you how bad it felt to miss that ball a third time........Whoooosh!
The laughter was loud, as I laid the club back on the ground and walked away, but not nearly loud enough to cover Dave Stockton’s stinging observation, “That’s great Chuck,” he howled, ”You can play golf in your own living room.”
The crowd roared.
I haven’t picked up a club since, and the world’s a better place for it.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

08- The First Crash Of Sky 9 April 8, 1980

It’s been 36 years...36 years on April 8th, 2016
Between 1980 and 1994
Channel 9 lost 6 helicopters
and 5 colleagues.
I was on board the first time Sky 9 crashed.
Monday April 8th, 1980, at 9 a.m.
Haney Howell
Jug Hill
Chuck Richardson
When the pager goes off you just get up and go, simple as that. I left early, leaving Margie in a warm bed, explaining I would be searching in the helicopter for a lost cross-country skier in the Medicine Bow Mountains. I sped to the downtown helipad meeting pilot Jug Hill and Haney Howell, the reporter, before sunrise. Jug and I flew together in Sky 9 every weekday morning for the early news show on KBTV. This was really no different from every other morning, just earlier. Haney was there to report on, what might turn out be, a strong human-interest story requiring more than a pilot and photographer.
The weather was cool and clear in Denver but the mountains were overcast with reports of wind gusts up to 70 miles an hour. Cloudy or clear, I always wore mountaineering sunglasses in Sky 9 to hide my eyes.
Currigan Helipad 
On these early mornings, just minutes out of bed, sleep was never very far away and if Jug noticed me nodding off in the left seat, he would immediately put the helicopter into a dive jolting me awake. He loved to see me gasping, my arms grabbing at empty air. “You must a got a little too much of that “poor man’s either” last night” he’d howl, between laughs.
After awhile I learned to sleep sitting straight up and, with my mountaineering glasses on, he couldn’t tell whether I was awake or not; just one of my little copter survival skills. And copter skills were very important with no camera mount, no gyro-stabilizer, no monitor and sometimes a hair raising trip standing outside on the skids for, what we thought was, a better shot.
The search was going on in the Rawah Wilderness Area located at the top of Poudre Canyon west above Ft. Collins. We found the Rocky Mountain Alpine Rescue Headquarters and met rescurer Hunter Holloway who accompanied us in Sky 9.
No camera mount, no gyro-stabilizer, no monitor, no hair brush.
And you might have to shoot standing outside on the  skid.
The cross-country skier had been missing since Sunday morning. We had been searching the area for 45 minutes with no success when Hunter suggested we go back and rendezvous with the ground teams. As we approached the Chambers Lake parking lot, we could see people on the ground and decided to land. Jug mentioned something about a Chinook helicopter in the area but I never saw it before the crash. There was some later question as to whether he hurried the landing because of the nearby Chinook but the approach seemed normal to me. I’d seen Jug quickly spin the helicopter for a landing dozens of times. Rather than turning in a slow bank, he’d freeze the front corner in the direction he was turning, and spin the ship around that point. It’s a very quick way to come about. This time, just as he began the maneuver, a strong gust of wind hit us broadside. The small tail rotor couldn’t overcome the natural tendency of the ship to spin the same direction as the, much larger, overhead rotor. This loss of “tail rotor effect” sent us into an accelerating spin. By the second time around, I knew something was wrong. I was pushed against the door by centrifugal force. With more altitude we could have overcome the problem but at 200 feet there was no hope. Jug tried to get more power from the collective (the emergency-brake-like stick located between the seats) but the thin air at 10,000 feet wouldn’t let the blades bite like they did in lower, thicker air. He literally broke the collective off pulling on it with his left hand as we crashed.
It was all so surreal, and very chaotic. One second there was gray to my left and green to my right...then gray... then green... and gray and green. Round and round we total silence. I remember very clearly after the first, and slowest rotation, Jug calmly saying into the microphone, “Hold on.” But after that, as we spun faster and then crashed into the treetops, there wasn’t a sound. It was eerie. Either my brain turned off the audio, or the helicopter headphones silenced what must have been a very noisy final approach. The searchers below hit the ground as we tumbled down through the trees, the rotor chopping 3-foot sections as we fell. Shrapnel shot everywhere as Sky 9 separated into thousands of pieces of flying debris. They said it was quite a sight, the tail rotor splitting off and landing on the other side of the road. Loud as hell. Sorry I missed it. The view wasn’t as good from my position.
There were small pieces of aluminum honeycomb
from the rotor and splinters of wood everywhere.
While I didn’t experience anything like my life flashing by, there was something worth noting. I’ve vocalized the same two words every time I’ve been in a life-threatening situation the moment I realized I was in real trouble. It’s happened enough times, and I mention this only because of this remarkable frequency, that I’m sure, if conscious, it’ll someday be the last thing I say,
“Oh Shit! ”, the words perfectly encapsulating both the explosive emotion and the total comprehension of the moment.
The chaotic, bumping and banging came to a sudden dark and airless stop. The cabin remained intact, but we came to rest inverted and on our left side, breaking out the Plexiglas around me. There’s no doubt all four of us would have been killed except for one thing...the cushioning effect of 20 feet of soft, fresh Colorado Champaign powder. Powdery snow that was now flooding, like water, into the broken cockpit. I was upside-down, on my head and left shoulder, and entangled in headphone and video cables. Only my right wrist, located somewhere near my face, could move. It was completely black. I couldn’t see but more important, I couldn’t breathe. With my free hand I grabbed at my face realizing only now it was snow I was gagging on. Jug was suspended from his seat on the right side, up and out of the snow. In the confusion, he unfastened his seat harness, and fell, head first, into the normally overhead control panel. Jug now stood in the only place available to him...on top of me.
I don’t remember saying anything but Jug swears I was yelling “Fire!” I do remember thinking that fire was a distinct possibility but I don’t remember saying it out loud. As I was clearing my face of the choking snow with my available hand and finally able to breathe, I saw my fingers were covered with blood...blood from my head. This is where Jug claims I screamed, “Fire!” but I only remember yelling, “Get off me! Get off!” as his boots stepped all over my upside down body. I didn’t feel any pain but I certainly was concerned about that blood.
I needn’t have been. It was pouring down from the Jug’s head where he’d received a large gash from falling into the control panel after releasing his seat belt. It was all his blood on me but at the time I was convinced I was hurt pretty bad. It was a scary moment. Jug scrambled up to and out of the side door. I freed my arms from the snow, sat upright, disentangled myself from the cables and climbed to the edge of the doorway just as the huge Chinook passed low overhead looking, for all the world, like the mother ship in “Close Encounters”.
Once I realized I was still alive, my next thought was of the camera gear. I found the TV camera buried in the snow under the front of the helicopter but it wouldn’t fire up. It must have fallen out through the broken Plexiglas. The recorder was in the back seat and seemed to be all right. By now Jug had found a passing motorist, who gave him a sanitary napkin to use as a temporary head bandage. I can still see him being led away from his fallen copter with that Kotex tied on his head and a large gauze bow under his chin. Haney was in the back seat just regaining consciousness. He couldn’t move his arms or legs. The camera recorder had struck him in the head. He was put on a backboard and taken to the waiting Chinook, trying to shout over the engines in sort of a half-stoned voice, “Chuck, Get pictures. Get pictures“.
They were both flown to the hospital in Ft. Collins. Jug escaped with a few stitches and Haney regained control of his extremities by the afternoon. Hunter Holloway had escaped without a scratch. I had smashed my right leg into the center console and hurt my lower back in the crash but didn‘t feel any pain for about an hour. I was taken to a small cabin a half-mile away to stay warm.
It was then I noticed my shin was swelling tight against the inside of my pant leg. My back was beginning to throb too. I was hurt but didn’t say anything. I didn’t want anyone to make me leave the crash site because my back pack was in the luggage compartment of the wreckage. I didn't want to lose my money, credit cards and IDs. I didn’t care to have my personal possessions picked over by just anyone, or even worse left behind in the deep snow.
Gary Croshaw, the northern bureau reporter for Ch 4 showed up at the cabin about an hour after the crash. I told him what happened, but said we crashed too far off the road for pictures. He’s a good friend. I can’t believe I said that. I must have been in shock or more likely embarrassed to BE the story instead of COVERING it. I didn’t want anyone to see Sky 9 like that either.
The story broke on Denver radio stations early that morning and Margie heard as she was driving to work: “Sky 9 has crashed. There is no word on survivors.” You can imagine how she felt.
What a way to start a Monday
The pain was just beginning to kick in as I caught a ride back to the crash site to retrieve my backpack with a borrowed shovel from a sheriff’s deputy. The cockpit had remained remarkably intact in spite of the trees, and the inverted landing. The ship was more on its side now than I remembered, the rescuers must have rolled it a little, but part of the top and all of the left side were still buried in the snow. There were small pieces of aluminum honeycomb from the rotor and splinters of wood everywhere. The luggage compartment door had come open as we were falling and the contents scattered.
The snow had been trampled by rescuers and there was no way to tell where my falling back pack might have hit and disturbed the snow.
If they had found it, they would have brought it to me or, more likely, set it aside with the other camera gear. Since it wasn’t in plain sight, my guess was it landed under the wreckage. I tried to dig with the shovel but found nothing but more pain from my now steadily throbbing legs and back.
It was cold and windy but I stayed there, waiting and chatting with the deputy, until a crane arrived that afternoon and lifted the wreck. Sure enough, there buried underneath Sky 9 was my pack. My posessions were intact.
Within the hour Chief Photographer Sam Allen arrived from channel 9 and drove me and the gear back to Denver. We talked about the crash and compaired other close calls we’d had along the way and hoped it wouldn’t happen again. But, of course, it did. Over the next 14 years the station lost 5 more news helicopters and 5 lives. It was dangerous work.
All these years later, almost another lifetime, the joys and sorrows of the last 36 years seem all the more precious. All this living has been extra; a gift.
I tell traveling companions they’re safe with me because I’ve already crashed once, so the odds are not in favor of it happening again.
I’ve stopped at the crash site a few times over the years while crossing over Cameron Pass. I’ve paused at the three chopped-off trees on the north side of the road by the Chamber‘s Lake parking lot. I’ve sat there, beside the road with Margie, watching the sun sparkle off the broken pieces of plexi-glass still littering the ground. It makes me feel humble; humble and very, very grateful for all the extra time.