Reflections on a golden life

On the job...Always on the job
On the job...Always on the job

As a new year heads into day 2, just two weeks after my 64th birthday, I sit in my study, starting on a second pot of coffee, reflecting as much on the future as on the past.

According to some measurements, I’m in my golden years.  They used to call this retirement but at 64 I have no desire to retire.  I worked late into the night on a video project, then arose early to write a story for a political web site,  edit some photos for a magazine and compose this piece.

Sorry, I can’t think about or consider slowing down. It’s not in my genes.  I went to work full-time at 15 and have been going balls-to-the-wall ever since.  It’s in the genes. I come from a family of workaholics.  I once left a job after 11 years with 51 weeks of unused vacation time.  Even when riding a motorcycle — my primary source of relaxation — I’m thinking about upcoming projects.  When I stop to take a break, I’m checking emails or using somebody’s WI-FI to write down an idea that came while riding.

In one corner of the study sits an array of disk drives containing thousands of hours of video collected over the past 10 years for a project called Our America — a look at the first decade of the new century.  It make take another decade to edit all that footage into something usable.

I’ve been trying to edit a collection of photographs taken over the last 49 years into a photo book.  Maybe this will be the year that project is finished.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate — and even more lucky — to live an exciting life, one filled with adventure, travel and a unique seat for a show called history.  A journalist is — first and foremost — an observer of history.  During a 10-year sabbatical from journalism, I worked inside government and politics and had a unique chance to be part of history — from working on the House of Representatives Science & Technology Committee to help transfer DarpaNet from the Department of Defense to the National Science Foundation to turn it into to the civilian Internet to witnessing — and then investigating — the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

In 1982, Amy and I took former Texas Gov. John Connally to dinner after he appeared at a fundraiser for a Congressman I worked for and listened intently as he talked about that day in Dallas in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.   On Sept. 11, 2001 I arrived at the Pentagon shortly after the plane hit and spent the next 36 hours photographing the tragedy and aftermath.

It hasn’t been all fun and game. I battled alcoholism for too many years but — with the help of AA and the support of a loving wife and good friends — have been sober for 17 years, six months and 24 days (as of this writing).

But past — someone much wiser once said — is prologue and we can only hope that the future brings more challenges, more excitement and more satisfaction.

It’s 2012 and the best part of life may still be ahead.

So let’s get started.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on a golden life”

  1. Keep up your photography, your writing and your health. Congratulations on 17years of sobriety. You will live for another 20 or 30 years. A belated happy birthday to you.

    Mary W. Bushnell

    You are too young to remember the following event.

    A Visit To The Circus
    by Mary Wallace Bushnell, 1994
    July 6,1944 dawned a hot, humid day in Connecticut. My family and a close neighbor were anticipating an excursion to the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, which was playing in Hartford. This was a special treat for us as World War II was still on. Gasoline, being in limited supply, was reserved for necessary trips only. The thirty mile drive to Hartford did not meet that criteria. Our neighbor had bought a car from a draftee. Along with the car came gasoline ration stamps. There was our ticket to go! Nine of us piled into their extra car and headed for Hartford. We ranged in age from 5 to 47 years old. My Mother had four of her children along, and the neighbor had three of hers. My 16 year old sister was working for the “War Effort” in the tobacco fields in the Connecticut River Valley that summer and did not accompany us. The motto was, “Lucky Strike Goes To War”. The neighbor’s baby did not go either. He was at home tended by a war refugee, who was stranded in the states when the war in Europe broke out. She spoke no English.
    I was a skinny, pigtailed school girl dressed in my pink, party dress. We parked in the parking lot at the “G. Fox and Co Department Store” at Hartford and rode a city bus out to the circus grounds. Even that was exciting to me as I had never been on a city bus or used bus tokens. The temperature that day hovered in the nineties, and the circus grounds were stifling. The area smelled of hot canvas, hay and animals. There were circus vendors milling in among the lines of ticket buyers. They were selling balloons of all colors and little fake monkeys made of brightly dyed pink and blue rabbit fur. I wanted one, but there was no extra cash for such frivolous things in my family, and I knew not to ask
    As we waited in line to purchase our tickets, my vision suddenly started to blacken. I had fainted from the heat. My Mother half dragged me to a shaded area outside, and I lay down next to an auxiliary tent on the grass amid the tent ropes. Mother went for lemonade for me. After I was feeling better we strolled around outside. I saw Gargantua, the famous gorilla. I felt very special with all this attention.
    Some time later we went inside the main tent to join the rest of our group. They were already seated high in the bleachers. My Mother suggested that we sit down lower in case I were to faint again. We moved down to a row closer to the front. At last the show started. It was wonderful. One did not know where to look, there was so much going on. There was lively band music, colorful, funny clowns, vendors hawking their wares of pink cotton candy, peanuts, and gaudy toys, which all held a special attraction to me. The tigers were in one ring going through their act. “The Wallendas,” were up on their perches ready to start their high wire act. It was incredibly exciting in the eyes of a young girl.
    Suddenly, about 20 minutes into the start of the circus, there was a collective cry, and people were pointing down towards the other end of the tent. A lick of flames could be seen racing up towards the top of the tent. I thought it was a part of the show and was absolutely mesmerized watching it spread further. I was unaware of it at the time, but the band switched tunes to the, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the traditional call to alarm in circus jargon. I was totally unaware of my immediate surroundings, when I felt someone tugging on my foot from below. I looked around and saw that our group was not in sight. They had jumped down through the bleachers, six feet to the ground, and my Mother was calling for me to jump as well. I did, and we all walked out through an opening where a man was slitting a hole in the side of the tent with a knife.
    The scene outside the tent was total bedlam. People were screaming, crying and running from the tent to escape the inferno. The fire intensified and made a tremendous whooshing sound. Flames shot high above into the sky. The thick black smoke billowed over the scene, staining peoples’ faces. Flaming bits of canvas wafted over the panicked crowd. We felt the intense heat on our backs.
    In the immediate seconds after the start of the fire, our neighbor’s two young sons, aged 5 and 7, shirtless because of the hot, weather, slipped out of their mother’s reach and disappeared into the crowd that was attempting to leave the tent through one of the main exits. We regrouped outside, a safe distance from the tent. Our neighbor was crying and her remaining son, Jimmy was trying to comfort her. The mothers held a hurried conference. It was decided that our neighbor and Jimmy would search in the area for the two missing boys. My Mother would attempt to contact the husbands. They would meet back at the lot where we had parked the car.
    My family started to leave the area. The circus elephants were close by and frightened me badly, as I had always heard that elephants stampeded when they saw fire. Their trainers were lining them up trunk to tail and walking them off down the street. As we were crossing to the other side of the street, I looked back in time to see some supporting tent poles fall to the ground. The circus grounds were adjacent to a residential area, and people were on their porches watching the fire. My Mother asked a man if she could use his telephone. She was lucky to be connected to our home phone as on a follow up attempt, the telephone circuits were jammed with calls. We were on a party line of seven. Incredibly, the local grocery store shared the line. Conrad, the clerk answered our ring, and told my Mother that the Wallaces had gone to the circus. My Mother, Mrs. Wallace, told him the terrible news and asked him to contact the husbands who were teaching summer school at the University of Connecticut. We then took a bus back to the department store and went inside where our minor scratches and cuts were kindly ministered to by some employees there.
    After searching for some time, our neighbor and Jimmy found the older of the missing boys. He was with a young girl who lived in the area. She took him to her home, where Jimmy remembers being on the porch. There was no sign of the other son. The husbands arrived after what seemed an eternity, and by then our neighbor with Jimmy and his brother had arrived back at the parking lot. Jimmy’s Father went through the temporary morgue looking for a body that could be that of his younger son, but there was no match. Seven hours after the start of the fire they found him in one of the many shelters which had been set up for lost children. The shelter had been trying to contact them at home. The child did not know his last name but knew their car license number, and they had been able to obtain the home phone number xaaxathrough the Motor Vehicle Department. That was of no help since the baby sitter did not speak any English. There was a happy reunion at the parking lot and we all headed for home at last.
    There had been over seven thousand people at the circus that day, and most of them were women with their children. One hundred and sixty-eight were never to see the end of that day. Many were burned beyond recognition. Others were trampled. Several family friends were killed. In this era, no one had psychological consoling for such an experience. One of my sisters had screaming nightmares for months; my other sister was mute for two days. I showed off my leg scar, where I had had a deep scratch, for years. Life went on and the war came to an end with great celebration in our town.
    In March of 1991, the media aired home movies of the fire taken by a bystander. Their existence was previously unknown to us. It was indeed shocking to view these graphic shots of the fire at its height. Time does not diminish the horror. New findings have shown the fire to have been the work of an arsonist. Also it was revealed that a young girl killed in the fire, whose body was never claimed, though it was unburned, and whose photograph had been circulated world wide at the time of the fire, has finally been identified these forty-seven later. This new data has brought the fire into focus once again for us. I say us, after all these years, because my husband of nearly thirty-six years is Jimmy, the neighbor’s son who was with us that day at the circus.
    — published by the “Hartford Courant” on the Op Ed page at the time of the 50th Anniversary of the fire.

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