The Sea of Senility

wadin' boot

Donny, you're out of your element...
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The Sea of Senility

By Wadin' Boot

1-Sea of Cold- 56.0°N 1.4°E [/B]

“Joe Frankston?”
“Who’s calling, it’s goddamn 2…no fuck… 3 am.”
“Sargeant Jennifer Castillo. Company A, 5th Battalion, 59th Aviation Regiment.”
“Oh… ”
“We got one. A recovery. Mt Adams, we heard you like this kind of work.”
“Anderson tell you to call?”
“He tell you to call now or yesterday?”
“He told me yesterday. He told me yesterday to make sure to call you today, right at 3AM, just to be an ass.”
“Son of a bitch. That joke never gets old for him does it?”
“I guess not.”
“Paid on spec? Or after?”
“Anderson said whatever you want’s fine by him.”
“You care if I double up for the PI?”
“That’s your business, Anderson wants you.”
“Then there’s room for an intern.”
“Can they handle a crowbar and follow orders?”
“Probably. Sure.”
“They need to be at your place in 5 minutes.”
“Is that a question?”
“That’s Possible.”
“When do you need me?”
“Winds are forecast to pick up later. There’s a car waiting for you out front of your apartment.”

I looked out through the blinds. A guy in fatigues was sipping a coffee, leaning against a black towncar, engine running. When he saw me peeking out he raised it up. Salutations. They knew I was here.

“Well I’ll be damned. A Lincoln, who knew the 59th could be so kind? You guys sure no how to treat an old dog right.”
“Anderson insisted. There should be coffee waiting.”

Sure enough the guy was now holding up another coffee.

“What is he, a mindreader, he listening in?”

A male voice too

“Yes sir, just making sure you got your wake-up call.”

The man with the two coffee cups and the towncar is talking to me now. I must be going mad. Beware of grunts bearing gifts.

“No crème, no sugar. Americano, scalding hot. Anderson’s orders.”

An hour later I am looking out the window of the helo. You look down there, to the rocks, cliffs, canyons, the fields of ice- and there are so many ways to die. We see it all from the King of helicopters, the Chinook, capable of high altitude flight, stable, big through the hips, roomy, a marvel of engineering.

We took off with the full moon brightening the gloaming. Through a camera lens, a telephoto, the Moon’s seas- or at least the ones I could recognize- Tranquility, Vapors, Serenity and Cold- look like eroded finger-holes in a brilliant bowling ball. Swing the lens down, along side of us, at 8,000 feet, the views of Cadaver Gap and Disappointment Clever are outstanding, and as the sun begins to rise, and as we made our way further east and south, tongues of glacial ice caught the first rays and turned cutthroat orange. At least on the popular routes, I could see no lines of soon-to-summit climbers, we’re too late, they’re already pushing up over 13,000 feet now. And with the camera lowered, Mt. Rainier looked, as it always does on late summer mornings, spectacular.

I’ve worked down there. Recoveries mainly. Shooting where the bodies were found, where the rescues were made. Photos for the coroner, for the PI, freelance too. I got a good memory for most of them, I can tell you about the climber’s name and age, the accident, the absence of their planning or the unanticipated troubles, or why they failed. I can tell you how they were found, and what they looked like. I can describe my page 1 shots, but I never would, not my style.

I guess the one that bothered me the most, excepting Jenny of course, was this kid, snowboarder, just a mile from Paradise when he vanished. Maybe four years back. He was supposed to start his intern year at UW, and he never showed. They found his car, we never found him. I say ‘we’ but all of it should be ‘they’ and ‘they’ never found him. I just document. He bothered me the most because he was on the path to become something great, so full of potential

My intern, Steffi Johns, seems wowed by it all, this vertical perspective, how could you not be thrilled? Until now we’ve done vice, features, politics, celebrity, sport, searches and rescues. We’ve waited days while nothing happened and we’ve talked, I’ve told her my philosophy. No didactics, no theories, just work, do the job, get the angle, get the shot, repeat, double check, change settings, repeat, and anticipate something better. The last part is the hardest. I’ve taught her about as much as I possibly could. Excepting a full helo-based alpine recovery. We hadn’t done one of these.

She’s taking photos, oblivious to the Madigan grunts that are looking at her like a chunk of meat. You couldn’t blame them, she was mostly dressed from the night prior, a long one, mainly in Belltown, but then after parties. She smelled like a big night of drinks and cigarettes, dressed in Chuck Taylors, jeans. Her top left little to imagine, a great big set of Rolling Stones lips on a ripped and faded too-tight black t-shirt. The cool early morning air and the altitude made her hairs stand on end, other things too. No one complained. She was, if I didn’t know better, probably still a little drunk, or a little hungover. Despite this, she’s professional. Who am I to judge her anyway? It’s her work I care about, and she’s never given me anything to complain about.

She ferrets through my spare camera bag, checking what I had and what I didn’t, testing the cameras, changing the lenses. The same models as hers, she wouldn’t have much of a learning curve. She looks up for a minute, gives me a thumbs up. Me and a five grunts return the gesture. They’re smiling, I am not. After all, the coffee, by the time Steffi showed without her gear, was no longer scalding. I have simple needs.

We’re headed further south-east, past Little Tahoma, over Packwood, on to Mt Adams. Right to the headwaters of the Lewis, at the base of the glacier. Anderson said a forward group was already in place, they’d scouted for put down and, with visual, would get us down More risks in landing on a mountain than any other time. This should be no big deal though, 75-hundred feet, no winds yet, and good shoulders on top of or between the moraines.

There’s a body down there. We don’t even need to search, it’s straight up recovery. Hikers found it several days back, there’s a femur sticking out of the terminal ice wall. We were here to dig it out, figure out who it belonged to. Anderson was giving me a scoop, again, no reporters but us. It pays to have your fishing buddy, your best friend run mountain rescue.

II- Ocean of Storms 18.4°N 57.4°W

I’d like to think that in every man’s life there are moments, when clearly observed and appropriately interpreted, that suggest a need to retire. Awareness of these situations demarcate a Sea of Senility. It's a vast horrible place of no return. I dream of this crap. For me at least, the tides of that imaginary sea seem higher every year, more real. It’s my version of global warming.

Involuntarily, toes get dipped, the waters are lukewarm, inviting even. Call it what you will, incompetence, the wind down, or as Steffi said- the dwindles. One of those moments happened this week, more frequently too- but when they’re not witnessed they’re much harder to remember. A witness enables memory much like a photo and this latest one, was a king tide moment.

Let’s say you’d been up a whole bunch to take a piss one night, and you’d slept poorly because you were thinking about the past, names and places, and opportunities missed. And the full moonlight through the blinds makes it look like day. When you finally wake, it’s with some deep reluctance you heed your alarm. The coming day will not bring surprises or challenges. It’s yours to screw up. You shave maybe, one bulb burned out because Alice is long gone and you don’t give a crap how the bathroom- or you- looks. The light’s not good, you’re quick and efficient with the razor though, cutting hairs that once grew black and thick but now have patches where nothing happens. You stare back at eyes that saw too many days on the water, they’re pale, a little red and cloudy, maybe like a fish eye that’s turned, iced at market, or a black-and-white shot of a gas planet. There are bags beneath those eyes, creases, deposits of yellow fat beneath the thin skin of the upper eyelid. Pores that years ago held a wealth of blackheads, even oil, now they’re gone, just small craters.

You dress fast, a clean pile, a dirty pile. You avoid the latter and think little about it. There’s no sense worrying about what you wear, there’s no-one you need to impress. The comb runs quick, and after a month, gets gummed more with dried skin than hair. You pull the socks, find the shoes, the shirt, make some toast, some coffee, hot, damn hot, take your pills and leave for work. Again.

“Hey Joe, good morning.”
“Morning Steffi. Why are you grinning?”

She whispers to that gargantuan fact-checker from Spanaway with the faux-mohawk, all wise-ass and no respect. Amazingly Gus, Big Gus, was of the belief that a ring in his lip and a diamond in his nose looked good. In my day, when kind words and lawyers weren’t necessary, pain would have leveraged him a new appearance. Who says there is no role for random violence and bullying?

“Hey old man, you know you’re wearing different shoes?”

Steffi is laughing now, sort of a soft, embarrassed, wheezing laugh reminiscent of a whoopee cushion that failed to fire.

“We had to tell you Joe, better us than someone important.”

I looked down, and yes, I was wearing different shoes. And that was the moment.

“Fuck you.”

I have four pairs of brown work shoes, soft-soled, all comfortable enough to walk the hill on James- 1st Ave to Harborview- and back. Before you imagine these as velcro-laced orthopedically-friendly mail-order efforts, I’ll vouch they’re not. They’re Italian, Ecco’s, leathers tanned deep, subtle in their mottling. The shoe guy at Wooly Mammoth said ‘Ecco’ means “Here I am.” He was wrong but I bought them anyway.

Here I am indeed.

There are subtle differences between three of the lace-up pairs, and most days I probably could have got away with that. Loafers are my final pair. Here’s the problem, today there’s a loafer on one foot, a lace-up on the other. Not only that, the chinos had a crotch stain on them, a little rim that dried up a hue darker than the khaki. A spot that changed how the fabric moved, stiffened it. I’m too old to blow my milt, more like I pissed on myself, or spilled something, maybe a digestive, some maalox. I must have mixed the clean pile with the dirty. Worst of all, I couldn’t recall the circumstances surrounding the staining, nor the selection of shoes.

“Fuck me. I should just retire now.”
“Don’t talk too loud or Michelle will do it for you old man.”
“Any assignments?”
“Amy’s not in yet.”

Amy’s the photoeditor, my boss. Benevolent and fair. We three are united in a mild semi-professional hatred of Amy.

“Nothing on the scanners?”
“The prospect of scoop is….wait for it…. zero.”

They say it unison, like some form of synchronized dual-hearted anti-newspaper downer.

“Excepting maybe you. The progressively more demented Photojournalist, a photo-essay-“
“let’s shoot it for Parade Magazine. Get your photo beside those patriotic Jesus plates and Marilyn Vos Savant’s column- Genius, the Jesus, the fool”

The fact checker, much as he was generally annoying, had a redeeming wit. His trinity made me chuckle even now. Parade magazine was the gall of the industry as far as I was concerned, he shared my opinion of that mindless dribble. Score three for the sophomore kid with a hook in his lip, zero for Joe Frankston, 40-year veteran photo-journalist, cognitively impaired but still ambulatory.

“You’d do that to me Steffi, too, after all I’ve done for you?”
“Time-lapsed decay. Can I take a picture of you Joe?”
“Son, there are points in a man’s life where he doesn’t give a crap what happens. This, right now, talking to you guys, is one of them.”

Of course I lied. Better to come off as a grouch, keep the stereotype alive. I didn’t mind their kidding so much, any attention is better than none. Steffi could say anything, she was on my side and always would be. But out there, in my state of growing inconsequence and dare I say it- incompetence- that vast silent Sea waits, and out there, off the coast a little, late at night when I can’t sleep and there’s no one, no one at all, no one even telling me I have different shoes on, that’s when I hear the sirens calling.

3- Sea of Nectar 15.2°S 35.5°E

Cam Anderson and I had been here before. Maybe not this high, not at the headwaters, not where the glacier spits out is bile of volcanic rock and grist, but we’d been on the Lewis before. Forty years ago now. I still have a picture of it on my dresser where the clean pile is supposed to live. Cam’s there with a glass flyrod in one hand and a Steelhead in the other and I’m standing next to him holding my hands upturned showing nothing. Cam says I look like Jerry Lewis in that shot. Alice is there too, smiling, some Jackie O sunglasses on and in a swimsuit that still looks good to me. The colors are faded, the deep of the emerald forests and the pale of the river waters behind have yellowed and browned. The blue sky is now gray, the shadows are the only things that look the same.

We were camping, a secret spot, so well hidden that Cam stopped us on the highway at a mile marker, walked into the verge and with a loop of rope, pulled away a downed tree that hid a small path just wide enough for a car. He motioned us on, walked ahead of us, kicking or moving blow-down debris out of the way. Led us, him walking, us in the car, down a quarter mile of overgrown road that scratched and gave the springs a creaky workout. The type of track that makes you hover over the clutch a little and hold in 1st gear and lean way forward in your seat so you can get an angle on what’s about to go under your axle, all the while wondering when you’re going to bottom out, run aground. You don’t dare let Alice or Juliana, sitting in the backseat know these doubts, there are impressions to be made.

At the end of this path, there was a low beach covered in sands, bordering it, a thicker two-foot rise of bank and tree roots, and then a small stretch of middle q3 year floodplain, covered now in dried moss and deep needles, sheltered with tough-rooted mature firs. A fire ring of river stones sat in the heart of it, and you could pitch a tent almost anywhere and know the peats and mosses would make for a comfortable bed. In this high summer, everything was dry, warm and soft.

Later, after we set up, Cam showed me how to cast a fly, Alice too. That’s when he caught his fish, when we took that photo. We borrowed his gear the next day, same place he’d been, a short run into a broader turn in the river, 3 foot waters over a boulder strewn riverbed.

If you saw her cast you would have laughed, it wouldn’t last long though. Alice hooked one first, and later I did too. I’d give my left foot for another day like that. 25-years-old, with my girl, those waters, just a hint of glacier in them, one-blanket nights still warm till midnight, holding each other closer as the night got cold. I’d take that fitful sleep of forest noises and river murmurings any day over Sea dreams. And then those giant ghost fish, at the ends of our lines, coming out of those cocktail-colored waters, all pressed and fit with colors and brilliance.

Cam was with his girl too, Juliana Ford. She was thin, angular, face spattered in freckles, pale moon-bright skin like a fish just fresh from the salt. It worked for her though, those great big Venus-green eyes stared at you once and you’ll never forget her. She had this high screechy voice and was funny, sort of mean funny in a way that Alice and I were not. At least not yet. That sort of humor creeps up on you when your corners are knocked off and you’ve seen enough to distinguish between lousy and outstanding. More than that though, it’s a humor that anticipate the arrival of mediocrity or hypocrisy, revels in it, teases it. It leaves as you age, when you find no humor in the misery of others.

(It occurs to me as I write this, for Steffi and the kid, I might be their heel… as in… “here comes that lousy old soft-shoed, has-been, piss-pants goof…”)

Juliana had a twin sister, Jennifer, identical. I met her only once. Back then they were at those inevitable stages where twins know their lives will take very different paths, depending on their choices, wedged apart by men or opportunities best taken separately. With those kinds of virginal, expectant energies, the two of them together were more fun than any of us could handle. Cam was pleased Jennifer finally met a guy. One that she liked more than Juliana. It meant they all could move on. The first thing he did, after making out and sealing the deal, was to teach her to fish.

Jennifer’s guy, Felix Castinaux, loved climbing and was the sort of super confident, handsome and charming guy that in retrospect, when all is said and done, when the dead are buried and mourned, is remembered as an ass. That jerk made Jennifer climb. We wouldn’t be here today if he taught her instead to tie flies, maybe start with something beautiful, perhaps a Skykomish Sunrise, reds and golds. But instead he showed her ropes, crampons and karabiners.

Cam and I found his body, Jennifer’s too, still roped together 300 feet down a cliff wall on Mt. Shuksan. We couldn’t get them out at first, even with June’s thaws, the snows were too deep and ice shelves above us too dangerous. I took pictures of how they lay and where, rushed back to develop them in a chemist's darkroom back in Sedro Wooley, drove back next morning a showed the police, the Mt. Baker ski patrol. And the guys who knew what they were doing came and did what we couldn’t.

There’s no mystery to why Cam Anderson and I are here today, on Mt Adams, recovering a body. It’s what we do. It’s what we like to do.

IV Montes Harbinger 27 °N 41.0°W

The First one out of the Chinook was Steffi. Next the grunts already gearing up with step ladders and digging tools. Finally me and Cam Anderson, old men in no hurry. No catching up, not our style. Steffi was already setting for her shoot, backdrop helicopter against a small rise of clumsy boulders and a deeper shot of the Mountain’s North-East face. She was picking her way slowly, too slowly, unlike her really. Maybe with a hangover and the altitude, navigating the field of football-sized still-jagged rocks proved too jarring, or the Chuck Taylors were too tight, that canvas has a tendency to rub raw fast. Her discomfort was vaguely amusing, and, with my telephoto, I got some good tease shots of her looking both pissed and wildly out of place.

At the edge of the glacier, she found her form. There, about seven feet up on the ice wall, and three foot from the glacier’s gravel and dust surface, was the bone. Unmistakably a femur, jutting out and surrounded with some sort of clothing, maybe fur, maybe skin. The bone wasn’t fresh, rather it had yellowed, centuries perhaps, and towards midday, when the sun struck it, when the shadows came out, Cam joked that you might be able to tell the time by it.

She’s on a stepladder now with the army guys falling all over themselves to help her. They steadied the ladder, pass her things. I got a photo of that too. In spite of the hangover, Chucks, or both, she was loving it. I decided I wasn’t going to shoot anything important. I’d seen her work. She was there, her angles were good, her eye, even hungover, better than mine. I’d show her how to invoice Cam when we got back to Seattle.

The soldiers set up some imaging equipment. The way Cam explained it, sound waves bounced through the ice looking for forms and shapes. What reflected back was analyzed, assimilated and made into images of structures, like a fishfinder only Department of Defense sophisticated. In an hour, they had a pretty good feel for where the body was and how the extraction should go. It wan't easy, the mass was folded and contorted, bones once straight, appeared to have warped and jumbled together, compressed for decades, centuries perhaps. There was an object beside the body, neither stone nor bone, a bag maybe. There was also what the Geek described first as a staff.

“Perhaps a spear, or a walking stick.”
“Ain’t that interesting. What do you think Joe?”
“Maybe it’s an ice-age fly-fisherman.”
“Winter runs. Hardcore.”
“He’s got good taste in rivers.”
“You remember when we camped at thirty mile?”
“That was the name of it?”
“Oh I don’t know. You know the time, with Alice and Juliana?”
“First steelhead. First really great girl. You don’t forget those things.”
“Could take a lifetime for some men to figure out what’s more important.”
“Not me. Fish is a fish, but a girl, my god, a girl is everything.”

I watched Steffi. There was nothing more I could teach her. She was by far my best intern. I would tell Amy, I would tell Michelle, we would be fools not to hire her. And when they say they don’t need a new photographer, that’s when I will tell them I’m done. I made up my mind, maybe the air was a little thin here, my cognitive reserves depleted, but I made up my mind. Maybe when that’s done I’d go fishing more. Something futile, mindless, that makes me think of the past, something well away from the ocean. Steelheading seemed about right.

But for now there was a girl, and getting her where she needed to go was my priority. In my nightmare, there are landmarks, leaving shore you come across a Sea of Islands, each one of them legacies, my legacies. Not the page ones, but the things I helped bring to light. And she’s the last one of them, the biggest, brightest and the best, before the waters open up and the waves foam towards that sharp edge, the 90 ° drop at the end of the ocean, where the flatness of my world ends. This philosophy, this sick, twisted, non-linear, non-cartesian and depressing worldview, I never share it with her. But old men know it, maybe not those same images, locations or thoughts, but they know what I’m talking about.

They use a concrete saw, a 3-foot diameter blade, hooked it to a generator, uncooled on account of they were cutting ice anyways. Sometimes the saw struck rock and sparks flew from the cut. They made terrace cuts, parallel, and 90 degrees, behind the body, carved out, and moved a level down. Then they drilled below the body, four-foot bits kept on plane with tripods better suited to a 50-cal. The bore holes were used to channel what looked like a giant lawn edger, a heavy, flat, D-shaped blade forged on the end of a six-foot crowbar. Again, guided on a plane heading for the posterior cuts.

Two soldiers alternated their swinging of the sledgehammers, first from the north then from the south, while the others looked on. With the day getting hotter, they took off their shirts, moved in shifts, and Steffi shot it all.

One from this sequence would come out like a Lewis Hine, an instant classic. You’ve seen the Hine picture, there’s a guy in front of an industrial boiler, he’s got a wrench as big as a baseball bat, and he’s tightening a nut, hunched over, biceps and triceps popping. This would look similar, somewhat homoerotic, patriotic, and ghastly, the men against the gray ice, parr-marked in sediments. It would be cover material, a wire shot splashed on papers across the globe, derivative yet unique. This is what they should hire Steffi for.

The photographer in me can't help but see the imagine not as a Hine, a one-off, but rather as a Muybridge, a clinical sheet of negatives, studies in motion, a series. Pounding away at the ice where a man was trapped for centuries. Set, swing, step, retrieve. Like a spey cast, only more regular. A repetitive, dull, machination, every fifth picture virtually the same. Paste them inside a slit wheel and you could view them as they spin, a crude forty-frame movie, a flickering task of Sisyphus, the men pounding an unending river of ice mining for the body within.

They would eventually get it out, still entombed, as one of the grunts put it “like Han Solo in Carbonite.” They lever the block onto a stiff aluminum stretcher, wrap it in plastics and move it into the Chinook. The soldiers scour the site, they clean it, they stop for a while and drink from their canteens. They wave Steffi over and she’s talking, holding her camera bag, there’s flirting. Then Cam shouts it’s time to go.

When the helicopter takes off Cam asks a favor of the pilots, follow the river, follow the Lewis, hold at around 45 hundred feet, between the mountains and down the valley. I know what he is doing. It’s the same as me. He’s looking down over this terrain, he’s watching the waters move towards the ocean. He’s remembering old times, looking for thirty-mile, thinking of Juliana, of Alice and Jennifer. I wonder if he is thinking, as I am, of whether or not we will ever return. I’m wondering if he, like me, is thinking of that green water making its way to the pacific, where it’s lost in fog and a skin of low cloud.

Cam turns back to me.
“What are you guys gonna call it. You need a good headline?”
“Don’t know, you got any suggestions?”
“You need catchy, like those Brits. Remember that fossil guy they found in the mud- Pete Marsh, Bog Man?”
“You need something like that. That was a good one.”
“Steffi, you got any suggestions?”
“Madam’s Man?”
“You know who would know?”

It then occurred to me that maybe Gus, the gargantuan fact checker with the diamond in his nose, maybe he’s a small reef off that last Island, maybe I should put in some more time with him, get him doing more, whip him into shape… No...the thought of that frightens me, the gulf is too great. I turn my head to look down at that river below, broadening, now damned, now flowing. And I think of what the night will bring and wonder if the Moon will wake me again tonight.

Moon Geography

Lewis Hine Photo

Edward Muybridge Photo Series

Pete Marsh the Bog Man

Mark Walker

Active Member
As always, excellent narrative. One grim know you're getting old when you already know the references without having to look them up.:D

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