This post is the third installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

7. Helicopter Ride. In the Army, I was stationed in Kaiserslautern, Germany, as a Signal Corps photographer during the Cold War. My unit was the only Signal Company (Photo) in the U.S. sector of occupied Germany at the time, so its still and motion picture photographers were assigned to cover events anywhere from Bremerhaven to Munich. On one assignment, I covered all the territory between those two cities.

In the damp spring of 1957, the first U.S. Helicopter Company deployed to Europe arrived in Bremerhaven on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, and I was assigned as the still photographer to document its journey south along the Rhine River and then across Southern Germany to Munich. Helicopters? What role could they play in the Atomic Age? It took the Viet Nam War to set me straight on that.

I began by photographing the readying of the helicopters on the flight deck of the carrier, then views from the open door of my designated craft during the short flight to the Rhine, on to various landings along the route in plowed farmlands, and in one case, a municipal soccer field.

The stop that caught my attention was the one in a rural field where, on takeoff, the generator of the helicopter I was in cut out when we were forty feet in the air. Craft, crew, and single passenger with 4 x 5” Speed Graphic abruptly fell like a downed duck into a bed of black mud. Powered by inertia, the rotors kept turning as we hit, the sudden halt forcing the tips of the sweeping blades down to the ground, where one crewman had the luck of his life in darting between those blades to get away from the explosion sure to follow. But there were no sparks this time to ignite the magnesium-alloy skin, and the rest of us waited in a sort of daze for the rotors to calm down so we could seek higher ground with whatever gear we could lug.

We had to wait for the wrecker that was following us by road to reach the site of the crash and pick up the fallen bird. In the meantime, a crowd of local residents came out of nowhere to comment on damage to field and helicopter both, and I struck up a conversation in German (I’d had two years in college) with a sprightly man wearing a dark green loden coat and Tyrolean hat.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. The helicopter company made it to its base near Munich, and the photo crew took the train back to Kaiserlautern.

8. Atomic Cannon. I knew it was the Atomic Age because as a soldier, I bivouacked with atomic cannon in Germany, all barrels pointing east. On one assignment in 1957, I was sent to photograph Soviet antennas rising above the trees just beyond the cleared boundary through the woods that marked the Iron Curtain. By the time I got there, the antennas had been moved. I took a photo anyway, which showed nothing but trees on a hill.

Returning from another training exercise, during which I had slept in a stainless-steel darkroom sink, and taken night photos using infrared flash bulbs, our company convoy got stalled in a traffic jam in a rural village featuring a right-angle turn in the center of town.

Creeping forward, we at last we came to the cause of the jam. An atomic cannon with transport carriers on both ends was jammed into the right-angle corner and couldn’t move. In the oncoming lane, it was straddling the corner, the trucks at either end, each with its own driver, hung up against stone walls, unable to inch either back or ahead. I’ve never seen a stucker pair of trucks.

Our lane of traffic millimetered past the turn, but while the cannon was in view, it never budged. As far as I know it may be there still as an ad hoc monument to the Cold War.

I remember the engagement with that cannon because until I saw it with my own eyes, I thought bivouacking was just playing soldiers like we used to do as kids during World War II. But this was no wooden gun, and we were no tin soldiers. This was a pointed show of strength against our then national enemy of choice. That realization quickly woke me up because I saw with my own eyes how vulnerable our big guns were in having to depend on roads built for hay wagons.

9. Khrushchev comes to ISU. In early September, 1959, I was hired as the Information Service photographer by Iowa State University in Ames. Timing was of the essence because Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev was coming to town during my first week on the job. He wanted to learn why U.S. farms were so much more productive than those in Russia. His entire entourage of dignitaries—both U.S. and Russian—was coming with him.

I barely had time to get my hands on the equipment (notably one ancient Leica) I was to use before I had to get memorable photos of one of the most famous men in the world.

One stop on the tour was a home economics lab equipped with several rows of gas stoves. A Home-Ec class was to demonstrate the frying of eggs for the Premier and his wife. But at the last minute the Secret Service ruled that said stoves couldn’t be turned on because they might cause an international incident by scorching the person of the Russian leader.

A quick-witted teacher had the students draw outlines of fried eggs on paper cut to the proper shape, with the words “Fried Eggs” written across the drawings. No sooner done than Premier and Mrs. Khrushchev walked in the door, followed by a retinue of high government officials from both countries.

I stood atop a wooden stool to record the delegation’s response. The front row directly facing the stoves, including both Khrushchevs, erupted into hilarity upon seeing the paper eggs on cold stoves, followed by a wave of laughter moving through the crowd behind them. Everyone had a good laugh, except perhaps for the sheepish Home-Ec teacher. I got my picture, even struggling with the primitive Leica I inherited with the job. I was happy, my boss was happy. I was happy that my boss was happy.

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

I once spoke at a wedding, advising those assembled to lead an original life. I was addressing the happy couple, but spread the word more broadly. The couple had a child in short order, but she soon found out he was a druggie and of little use, so she divorced him. It is harder to be original when coupled with a demanding other than by yourself. Even so, it is never easy to deliberately and consciously live your own life.

 

In Self-Reliance, Emerson wrote: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Which I wholeheartedly endorse. At first as well as last, your consciousness is your most valuable possession. Let others lead their lives while you tend to yours. They will be full of advice as to how you should go about it. Listen, but then trust your own judgment and inspiration. Yes, you will make mistakes, but the main thing to be sure of is they are your own mistakes so there’s no one else to blame. That way your learning will belong to you.

 

Which sounds like a retread of a moral tract worn smooth. But I intend it as a spur to creativity, not conformity. Our value to one another is in our originality, not our sameness. If we were composed of interchangeable parts, we would be robots and live interchangeable lives. But that’s not how it is. Each of us has something to add to the world. For proof, look to the blogosphere. All those voices in the wilderness, no two alike. Offering their wares, thoughts, opinions, feelings—whatever they care about. To dismiss them is to miss the point. They are trying to make it happen, whatever it is. Every blogger has his or her private agenda. Blogs are like sunspots: they erupt from the inside.

Which is why we are a mass of damp protoplasm run through with strands of sinew and muscle wrapped around a core of consciousness and unconsciousness. We are here to make things happen in our current situation, the circumstances that in practical terms make up our personal world. The world that counts for us because we are a part of it and it is a part of us.

In a world where others usually make things happen to us, how do we do that—make things happen inside-out? By using consciousness to our advantage. By pushing our mental worlds as far as they can go in framing our projects, whatever they may be. That is, laying the groundwork. Starting with the known and familiar of firsthand experience and heading toward the unknown and strange. Then letting go, trusting our mysterious unconscious to show us the way from there.

That is how I have written every blog in this series. I start with a small hunch or smattering of experience, and head out from there. I seldom know where I am going. There’s no outline, not even a goal. But I am heading somewhere for sure; it’s just I don’t yet realize my own destination. By jotting down keywords and phrases, then concentrating on filling in the gaps along the way, I get somewhere at least. Then I back off and let my other half take over—my unconscious mind. It already knows where I’m heading and helps me along, extending and completing what consciousness has been able to do on its own.

Consciousness and unconsciousness are flip sides of the same self. We are familiar with one; the other we don’t know, even though they are both flesh of the same flesh. The two work together, one in full view (on camera), the other in the shadows. You know this full-immersion approach is working once your project bubbles over into your dreams and dreamlike thoughts at 3:00 a.m. You’ve got to consciously prime the pump by throwing yourself into the project. Then let your unconscious carry you from there. One of life’s greatest discoveries is that it always will.

Before the Cuban missile crisis came to a head in October 1962, JFK carried on a secret, frank—and very unofficial—correspondence with Russian Premier Khrushchev, the two leaders comparing notes on their visions for what amounted to the future of the world. It was the mutual respect and understanding generated by this exchange that laid the groundwork of trust for the solution to the crisis when Russia removed its missiles from Cuba in exchange for removal of US missiles from Turkey. Without those backchannel letters that, once made public, outraged the military-industrial power structure so beloved of the CIA, the crisis likely would have festered into World War III and an exchange of nuclear missiles. (The full story is told in James W. Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable, Orbis Books, 2008.)

Our conscious and unconscious minds work as a team, exchanging data and feedback by channels we are completely unaware of—until a full-blown solution is announced. When I wrote during my island retreat in 1986-1988, I would often come to a block, which I took as a hint to go for a hike. Walking on snowshoes through the woods, my attention kept pace with the rhythm of my legs, but I stayed clear of the blockage that send me out. Until, after forty-five minutes, I suddenly saw through the obstacle to the landscape beyond. I just had to give my unconscious mind time to sort through the problem and come up with the answer that lay just out of reach. Which it did, invariably.

Consciousness frames the problem; unconsciousness works it through. If I (my conscious self) does its part, my twin (covert self) will finish the job. That way, I somewhat control my own output. I make conscious suggestions based on experience and research; my silent twin rounds out the whole. Both are in the same loop; I’m the one who knows only half of what’s going on. My unconscious half knows the rest. It’s a great feeling to discover the full picture spreading before me. After my hike, I pick up where I left off as if there’d been no break at all.

You don’t have to hike to give your unconscious time to work. You can listen to music, dance, stretch—any nonstressful activity will do. You can even take a nap or go to sleep. Your unconscious twin will stay at the helm.

The key to living an original life is doing your part the best you can, then trusting your shadow self to carry on while you do something else. You’ve got to prepare, practice, rehearse, mull, write drafts, and so on. There is no way you can avoid doing your share of the work. And doing it again, and again. This is your life; your task is to live it. After a while, you will so internalize what your are striving for that your unconscious self—which is as original as you are—will pitch in and give you a hand.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is get out of the way. That is, forget what others are telling you and listen to what your mind and your body are trying to tell you. As Emerson put it in Self-Reliance: “Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.”

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