THROUGH A LENS DIMLY
I had been frostbitten during an Arctic operation during my service in the US Navy in 1952 and normal circulation in my fingers never quite returned after that. Subsequently, anytime the weather dropped below freezing my fingers grew numb, regardless of the insulating value of the gloves that I had to wear. The numbness I could tolerate. It was when I managed to get to a warm location and my hands began to thaw, that I was plagued with incapacitating pain. The weather forecasts for each of the four swearing-in ceremonies that I covered always called for mind boggling cold with wind chill factors that got my digits aching a week before I had to be there.
My first experience was Lyndon B. Johnson's inauguration, in January 1965. LBJ, you might recall, became President upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Johnson won a landslide victory when he ran for re-election in 1964 and was inaugurated on the Capitol steps on Wednesday, January 25, 1965.
I had covered Kennedy's funeral some fourteen months earlier and perhaps the decision makers at Newsday figured that I was well enough acquainted with Washington to be able to handle myself at the swearing-in ceremony. Any such day dreams that I might have entertained on the matter dissolved the minute I got out of the cab from the airport. The security perimeter around the Capitol precluded my cab from getting me anywhere near the ceremonies. I was faced with a long hike in the teeth of the frigid arctic-like wind. One bit of good fortune was that I wasn't burdened with anything heavy, like several cameras, long lenses or tripods such as I would use at later inaugurations. I had only been with the paper for four years and Newsday hadn't gotten to the point where they issued photographers any equipment. What I had was what I personally owned. And, that was one Nikon F, a 35mm lens, an 85mm lens and a 135mm lens. That was it. The paper supplied me with as much black and white Plus-X and Tri-X film as I needed. But, we were using 20 exposure rolls instead of the 36 exposure rolls used by everyone else. That normally would suffice us considering that the bulk of our assignments were head shots and real estate pictures. It would be some years before that would change and then we got 36 exposure rolls.
At any rate, I was not over burdened as I made my way from one security check point to the next. The "next" would be the last one that I was allowed to pass. I had been issued a credential that allowed me to stand in the crowd with the chosen few thousand civilians who had some sort of political connection. And, "stand" was the operative word. There were no seats for us commoners. We stood, packed shoulder to shoulder, like so much cattle waiting to be led to slaughter. Newsday had a bureau in Washington and they were recognized by The White House. Our correspondents got seats in the press sections with a clear view of the Inauguration stand. I could almost see the Capitol Dome from where I was standing.
Oh, well. I photographed whatever I could see. I raised my camera over my head and shot the "Hail Mary" view of the surrounding crowd. I snapped on my 135mm lens and photographed the armed security people on the surrounding rooftops. When the swearing in got underway, we heard the ritual piped in over loudspeakers that were placed in the area. But, none of us could see anything remotely resembling an inauguration ceremony.
Newsday wasn't wasting money putting me up anywhere for the night. So, when it was over, I trekked out of the security zone until I was able to flag down a cab to take me back to the airport. The next day the paper ran Page One and several inside pages with wire shots of the ceremony and lots of wire side bar. They did run one shot of mine, deep inside, of security on the roof tops. I had arrived. I was now an experienced inauguration shooter. Hurrah!.
The second time I was assigned to cover an inauguration was January 20th, 1977. Jimmy Carter was to be sworn in.
Remembering the ache in my fingers back in '65, I started doing finger flexing exercises to try to promote better circulation, a week before the event. I don't recall if that helped or not.
Things had certainly improved for me, since then. Newsday wanted a wrap around cover photograph of the swearing in. The presses would be re-configured so that there would be no space in the gutter separating the front page and the back page. It would be one contiguous picture. I was given specific instructions to make sure that I had Carter and the Chief Justice at the right side of my photo (which would constitute Page One) with the assembled dignitaries to the left.(ergo; the back page.) Oh, by the way, I had credentials for the main photo stand, right smack in front of the dais where everything would take place. And, I had a couple of Nikons and lenses from 24mm to 300mm. We had come a long way, baby!
The first thing that I had to do was run by The White House and get something to show the Carter Family moving in. Not that I was expected to get inside to show Rosalynn Carter directing the movers where to put the family furniture. But, I was able to make a shot through the fence of a U-Haul Van being unloaded at the back entrance and that shot ran the next day.
After that, I went to the Capitol, endured a very physical inspection of myself and my gear, and then found my position on the photo stand. I set up my tripod with one of my Nikon bodies and the 300mm and placed another body with a short lens to hang by its strap from the tripod crank. I checked the scene through my 35mm lens and owing to the fact that my position was so close to the action, it gave me what was needed for the wrap around photo with a little wiggle room to crop if need be.
Now all I had to do was stand around for four hours until the ceremonies began, flexing my frigid fingers to keep the blood moving. About an hour before the start, we were told to leave our equipment where it was and go down to ground level to be inspected by security, once again. In the meantime our equipment was being sniffed by bomb dogs. Don't forget that we were in the early stages of paranoia since the assassination of JFK not too long ago. And, it was destined to grow much worse.
I used the time to make a quick pit stop at one of the many porta-potties that were in the area and then climbed the stairs back to my perch. The ceremonies went off on time and I kept busy shooting the wrap around shot when Carter raised his right hand and placed his left hand on the bible as Rosalynn looked on. Then I used my 300mm to shoot close-ups of the new President making his inaugural speech. I also shot side bar of some of the notables on the dais and crowd shots and whatever looked good.
A messenger picked up my film and my next assignment was to find a good spot along Pennsylvania Avenue to photograph the Inaugural Parade. There were a couple of other Newsday Photographers assigned that day. I was the only one staying over because I had to shoot one of the Inaugural Balls later that night. I passed off my parade film to one of the other shooters and went to my hotel to clean up and get dressed in the suit that I had brought along. One of our reporters and I were credentialed to cover "The People's Ball." It was held for the benefit of some of the ordinary folks who had helped to get Carter elected. It was jammed with ordinary citizens and food and drink had to be purchased. I shot a few pictures of the people doing their thing, but I knew that none of this would make the very crowded paper that was already on the presses 300 miles away on Long Island.
The Carters made an appearance, late in the evening. A mob of photographers surrounded them as they danced and posed for the cameras, and then I made a beeline for the offices of UPI to get a couple of shots transmitted back to Newsday.
I was back in Washington in 1981 for Ronald Reagan's first inauguration. This time the effort included three shooters as well as the Chief Photo Editor and the Director of the Editorial Art Department. I went down a day early with the Photo Editor and the Art Director. Now we were publishing color photos for the first time. On the plane ride down to D.C., the Art Director sketched out his idea for Page One. There was no plan for a wraparound, but this would be the first color Page One we would do and he wanted it to look good. He wanted a very tight, colorful photo of the new President being sworn in, with his wife at his side and the Presidential Seal showing on the dais lecturn. Ah, artists. They can picture things in their heads that don't always look the same in real life. However, halfway through the one hour flight, the pilot announced over the intercom that Iran planned to release the hostages from the American Embassy that they had been holding for over fourteen months, as soon as Reagan took office. Paul Back, our Art Director scribbled furiously on his pad and a new Page One layout took shape. My color shot of Reagan being sworn in had to share the page with something of the hostages. Such is life in the world of journalism. It is a very liquid medium.
The weather forecasts for that week had predicted colder than normal temperatures. I had come prepared to be able to endure a long session on the exposed press stand. I had purchased an exceptionally well insulated jacked and had also some chemical hand warmer packets from a sporting goods store. As soon as my fingers started to feel numb, I slipped one into each glove and kneaded them to get the chemical process started. They did the trick.
I went through the security routine, just as before and took my assigned spot on the stand. After awhile, the dignitaries started taking their places on the Capitol steps. As more and more of the assembled men and women arrived, I realized that our premier color Page One wouldn't be very colorful. This was a very formal affair. Men were in black formal wear with black top hats, black coats and black scarves. Anything colorful that the women might have been wearing was hidden behind heavy black coats, scarves and hats. I might just as well have been shooting Tri-X instead of Kodacolor. My thoughts were being echoed by other photographers near me, who were obviously shooting for a color front page for the first time. Well, our Art Directors could complain all they wanted. They weren't getting the flashy picture that they had conjured up in their minds.
there was a collective gasp of relief from all those who were
shooting color. Nancy Reagan was coming down the Capitol steps
to take her place on the dais. She was clad in bright red, from
head to toe. A beacon of color in a sea of black. How great was
I wasn't assigned to cover any of the balls that night. All of the Newsday team were to get to the airport and grab the first available shuttle back to Long Island. By the time I was able to get off the stand and walk a mile or so with all of my gear and find a cab, the rest of the crew were already winging their way home. The last shuttle of the day was already boarding by the time I was racing through the terminal. I was stopped short of the gate by a barrier manned by a security lady. She wanted to see some I.D. My arms were filled with equipment so I just grabbed the string of press credentials still dangling from my neck and presented them to her.
"That's no good," she exclaimed. "I have to see a driver's license."
"MY God, Lady," I shouted in exasperation. "Every goddamed terrorist in the country has a driver's licence. Not too many have credentials issued by police departments and even the White House."
I still had to put down my gear and reach into my wallet to show her my drivers licence. It was either that or miss the last flight.
Another Newsday Photographer, John Keating, was assigned to the center press stand. By then, I had a 600mm lens and I was using it from a side stand.
After the ceremonies, we shot the parade. Stan Wolfson, one of our Photo Editors, had come down to do the editing. He had been a shooter and understood the value of advanced scouting. He had arranged to get me up on the roof of an office building overlooking the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route. It was also close to our bureau so I was able to make the short walk to drop off my parade shots before going back to shoot the grand fireworks display over the city that night.
Oh my God. I don't recall being any colder in my life. Not even the day in 1952 when I got frostbite in the Arctic. Or, maybe it was just because I was a lot older. At any rate, this year, as I have since my retirement in 2002, I shall watch the festivities in the comfort of my den, on a hi def, wide screen, color tv, with a hot cup of coffee in my hand.
It was a great adventure, while it lasted, and I wouldn't have missed the opportunities to have been there. But, I'm glad that I didn't have to freeze my digits this time. Life is good.blog comments powered by Disqus
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