Thursday, September 22, 2011

Follow that Trail

My phone rang last month and a smokejumper was on the other end. “I’m jumping this week, lots of blazes, but I got your message and I’ll find a way into that safe for you even if we have to crack it open.”

I had been waiting for this call for weeks. It all started with a cold call to a guy named Steve who knew a lot about the history of smokejumping—including the period of time when the paratroopers I am writing about worked for the Forest Service as smokejumpers. This guy was an absolute wealth of information, and he ended up sending me interview transcripts and knowing just whom I should talk to.

One of the guys Steve sent me to was Wayne. Wayne was equally enthusiastic and genuinely excited to talk with me. With Wayne I hit the photographic jackpot—almost. He told me an incredible story that resulted in a big orange carrot dangling in front of my nose.

One day, as he was busy manning the jump station, a man came up to him, handed him a manila envelope, said there were priceless pictures inside the Forest Service should have, and walked away. When Wayne had a chance to look at them, he knew immediately what they were, and stashed them in the safe in his office for, you guessed it, safekeeping.

Time went by and Wayne retired. The photos, he realized when we were talking, must still be in that safe—which no one had opened for years. “Call Dan (his successor) and tell him Wayne said to find the combination to that old safe and get those photos for you.”

Okay—I had a location, information, and a plan. The first time I called Dan he was out on a jump. The second time, too. I left a message that must have sounded crazy, to the effect of ‘you don’t know me, but the guy who worked in your office before you left some photos in a safe and he wants you to get them for me.” I didn’t know if I would ever hear from him.

It took a while, what with Dan being kind of tied up smokejumping into blazing forest fires, but he did call me back. He also promised that he would find the combination of the safe in his office. A week later came the bad news that no one seemed to know where that combination was, and the safe was so old and tough it was looking like it would be a big job to break into it by force. Still, he told me not to worry. He’d get the job done. Firefighters are like that.

Not long after, Dan had more news for me. They still hadn’t located the combination, but he had discovered the photos had been digitally scanned at some point. A CD was on its way to me! Some time after that, a package arrived in the mail. On that CD were a few old images I had seen before, but instead of the old blurry, many-photocopied, hard-to-reproduce versions I kept finding, these were crisp and clear and bright. Better still, there were a few images I had never seen before. Jackpot!

These are the kinds of detective trails that need to be found and followed for just a handful of photographs that will end up in my forthcoming book, Courage Has No Color.

There are many more photo stories where that came from. Sometimes these chases turn out to be of the wild goose variety; sometimes they are sheer gold.

Thank you Steve, Wayne, and Dan!


Gretchen Woelfle said...

All the slogging, then bonanza! It's the story of our research lives.
I'm on the trail of old photos as we speak. Wish me luck.

Annalisa said...

what great people to follow through and get the job done right!