THROUGH A LENS DIMLY
I remember it being a warm, muggy, early summer afternoon back in 1961. I had been with the paper for about a year and a half and as the new man in the Photo Department, I had the crappiest shift with days off in the middle of the week. I didn't care. I was living la dolce vita; the good life.
I started my shift at 3 PM, and as usual, I was in the office before 2:30. Sully, the Night Photo Editor, handed me my assignment sheet. There was only one assignment blocked out for me. The sheet didn't contain much information. Just that it had something to do with an Air National Guard unit that operated a NIKE ground to air missile defense base in Roslyn, a small community on the north shore of Long Island. This was 1961 and the Cold War was in full swing. These missiles were supposed to shoot down any Russian long range bombers or inter-continental ballistic missiles that might be launched in our direction. It was an uncertain time and school kids had to endure air raid drills that had them crouching under their desks. Like that would protect them from the effects of a nuclear blast.
Anyway, the assignment sheet said that I had to meet Swifty in the newsroom. He would fill me in on the details and together we would go up to Roslyn.
Swifty was a likeable Englishman with an unmistakable British accent. He and his English wife had only been in the US for a short time. He was a general assignment reporter and she did stories for the Women's Page section.
I liked Swifty. He was short, wiry and always animated with a grand sense of dry British humor. We worked well together and he was one of the few reporters who actually took the time to inform a photographer about all of the minutiae involved in his story so that we would both be working on the same page. Not all reporters considered photographers as equal partners.
I found him at his desk with a phone to his ear. I hovered nearby until he was finished. I heard enough of the conversation to understand that he was talking to a contact in regard to this story. When he finished, I sat on the corner of his desk while he filled me in.
He explained that the regular Air Force, under whose aegis the Air National Guard served, had some concerns about the security of these NIKE bases that were being run by the "Weekend Warriors." So, they were planning an exercise that evening, to test the efficiency of their security procedures. Swifty and I were invited to participate.
Our first stop was at the home of an Air Force Captain who lived near the Roslyn base. We met with him and several other Air Force Personnel. They were all dressed in casual civilian clothes and the captain's wife served coffee as they outlined their plans.
They had concocted a bizarre scheme to decoy the armed sentry at the front gate, away from the entrance. The captain and his wife would drive to the base in their family car and would park across the road, in sight of the sentry.They would appear to be having a heated argument and after a few minutes, the wife would bolt from the car with her blouse ripped open, screaming that she was being attacked. She was a beautiful woman, and the sight of her nearly exposed upper body was sure to attract the attention of the sentry. And, being an upstanding American male, he would surely come to her defense. At which time, another part of the team would drive up and would overpower the guard, allowing the invaders to enter the base and throw smoke grenades at buildings, missile silos and other critical installations, thereby proving that security had been breached and the base compromised.
I had a question.
"Weren't the sentries armed?"
The Captain looked at me with annoyance.
"Ummm, well yes. So keep your head down."
This did not please me. I knew that there were times when being a journalist would be risky. This was risky to the point of being downright foolish. I didn't want to become the story. I had a wife and kids and a large mortgage. If I had to die on the job, I would have preferred it to be doing something heroic. Not crawling through the bushes in Roslyn doing a story on NIKE base security.
An hour later dusk was settling as we drove to Roslyn behind the decoy car containing the Captain and his wife. Trying not to whine, I expressed my doubts to Swifty, seated next to me.
"Damn," I said. "It's gonna be dark by the time this goes down. The only way I'll be able to get any shots is to pop some flashes. (Remember, this was almost 50 years ago. We were shooting black and white film and even pushing the ASA to 1,600 wouldn't help much in the dark without flash) That's sure as Hell gonna draw some fire."
I pulled my car to the curb just down the block from the decoy car. We could clearly see the sentry at the gate and through my rolled down window we could hear the rising voices of the decoys as they started their subterfuge. I snapped my 90mm lens onto my Nikon and braced it on the window ledge. There was a light illuminating the area around the gate and my meter said that I could shoot at a half a second at f.1.8. I slowly squeezed off a couple of frames which I hoped would show the sentry listening to the shouting emanating from the decoy car. Oh, what I would have given to have had today's digital cameras with the ability to check my shots on the LCD screen on the back.
Suddenly, the woman jumped out of the car with her hair mussed up and the front of her blouse unbuttoned as she ran toward the sentry, screaming for help. Through my lens, I watched the the sentry's expression turn to amazement as he witnessed this comely woman charging toward him. I squeezed off a few more shots, knowing that these action images would be blurry. I wasn't going to risk firing any flashes at this point. Mainly for fear for my own safety, but also because it might ruin this security test for the Air Force. Oh, I was such a patriot. I told myself that perhaps I might be able to pose this scenario after the operation had concluded.
The woman was now clinging to the guard as her partner approached, screaming for her to get back into the car. The sentry looked bewildered. Nothing in his training had ever prepared him for this.
Swifty and I got out of the car and headed across the street, ducking behind bushes and trees to avoid detection. As we got closer, we saw the other members of the team running up and I thought, "Oh, shit. Here come the bullets." The sentry reached for his side arm. The attackers had their guns pointed at him. I cringed in the shadows. People were going to die. I turned on my flash.
"Bang, bang," I heard someone say. "I got you."
"No you didn't. Bang, bang. I got you."
Good grief! I was ten years old, again and playing cops and robbers in an open field near my house with my playmates. Everyone was play acting. I started using my flash as I shot off my Nikon. Bang, bang, Flash, flash.
Somebody decided that the infiltrators had won and one of the team stood guard over the "wounded" sentry while the rest of us crawled on our bellies up the road to the missile silos. Well, everybody but me. I had on a pair of freshly laundered and pressed slacks and a clean shirt. I wasn't going to ruin them by crawling down a dusty road on my belly. I did crouch though, as I darted from bush to tree.
"GET DOWN," one of the team whispered loudly in my direction. "You'll give us away."
"I hafta pee," I responded.
I almost did, right there, in my pants, as our world was suddenly bathed in bright arc lights.
"Drop your weapons! You are surrounded," boomed an amplified voice echoing from the darkness just beyond the lights.
There were a few more "Bang, bang, I got you's," from our valiant band of warriors, but, we were soon overwhelmed by a larger force of heavily armed troops with big, potent looking rifles aimed our way.
I lifted my Nikon to document this turn of events, but before I could fire the camera, someone snatched it from my hands.
"PRESS, PRESS," I shouted. "I'm a non-combatant."
"Bullshit," grunted my captor. "You snuck in here with the rest of these saboteurs.
My hands were tied behind my back and I was led, along with the rest of our trussed team, to an area near a shed. I saw a group of soldiers rolling out a hefty looking fire hose. Oh, crap.
I gave up any hope of surviving this assignment with my clothes unscathed. But, I had a couple of Nikon lenses and a bunch of M-5 flashbulbs in my pockets.
"Hey, guys. Fun is fun. But, I have some expensive camera equipment on me and I'd hate to have to sue the Air Force if any of it got damaged." Wow. I should have gotten a medal for my bravery in the face of the enemy.
Some crusty sergeant with a sleeve full of stripes grabbed me and started frisking me.
"Damn!" he shouted as he pulled lenses and flash bulbs from my pockets. "How come this jerk wasn't searched. Look at the weapons and little bombs he's carrying."
We were forced to kneel in the dust as a torrent of water spewed from the fire hose, knocking us flat and thoroughly soaking us.
After what seemed like an eternity, the water was shut off and our captors untied us and declared themselves the victors. My cameras were returned to me and I was allowed to set up a shot showing the "Weekend Warriors" hosing down the regular Air Force security team and everyone spoke about what fun they had that night.
I phoned Sully and told him that I was done but would like to make a quick detour to go home for some dry clothes. My feet were squishing in my wet shoes.
The story ran the next day. Swifty had done a great job describing the silliness that took place. One photo ran. It was the set-up of the invaders being hosed down. I suppose that shot summed up what took place but I never liked to use set-up shots on stories like this.
Oh, well. It makes for a good story about life on the front lines of journalism, even if it wasn't a shining example of news photography. Some days ( or nights) are like that.
This is where this story should end. But, you may have noticed that the title of this piece wasn't "The Night Raid" or "Testing Military Security." It was called "Swifty." And it was meant to pay homage to good reporter and a really nice guy. I had more assignments with Swifty, after this one. He was a pleasure to work with and I enjoyed being in his company. We never really socialized other than at company picnics. When we had some breaks in the action on subsequent stories, we mostly talked about this crazy profession we loved so much. I had no knowledge of his personal life, nor he of mine. So, you can imagine how shocked I was when I came in to work, one day, and learned that Swifty's wife had found him hanging from a rafter in the basement that morning. I couldn't imagine that there was anything so drastically wrong in the life of this happy go lucky Englishman that would cause him to make the decision to take his own life. I just couldn't imagine anything like that.
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