I recently got a telephone call from my son, Anthony.

“Hey, backyard engineer,” he said, “How’s everything?”

That salutation was due because of my recent efforts—eventually successful—at turning your ordinary Coleman cooler into a fish live well for the 14 foot jon boat Ani and I recently bought so that we might take advantage of living close to the Rivanna Reservoir here in the Charlottesville area as well as to explore some of the Virginia lakes of various sizes.

The boat did not come with a live well but I was aware of a number of doityourself  conversions of coolers on Youtube and decided that from one of those I would devise my own.  I am not, by nature, greatly gifted with handyman talents but just how difficult could this be, anyway?  Well, maybe not difficult, but who would have guessed how many trips to Lowes (which is now fortunately much closer to where we live than in the past), how much money for various parts that don’t always quite work the way I’d thought, how many pieces would be left to put into a small box labeled “Left over from building live well.”  In short, I’m sure I could have bought a kit or even a finished converted cooler for less money not to mention the time spent figuring out how to make it work.  But then, it wouldn’t be mine, really, would it?

First the pump.  I bought online a fully submergible pump capable of moving 800 gallons of water per hour, more then enough but of course I’ve always been inclined to more than enough.  Reminds me of what TPS photographer Vince Musi told me once when his son was just a toddler and was denied something because it would have been too much, more than he should have, and the boy replied, “Could I have just a little bit of ‘too much.’”  That boy has a promising future, I’m sure.

So I’ve got the pump.  Now I needed the various pvc pieces that I would connect to the pump and eventually mount inside the cooler.  It would be one of these pvc pieces I would drill small holes into that would spray upon the surface of the water inside the cooler to provide oxygen and possibly comfort to the fish we may catch, and the minnows we may purchase for live bait.

I really wish I’d kept track of the number of trips to the plumbing department at the Charlottesville Lowes.  Isle 32 is where it’s all at in case you need to go there.  I bought some straight pieces, I bought connectors of various types, elbows, connectors with threads, without threads, some that looked exactly like what I needed but proved not to be.  I bought screws of various sizes, washers of nylon, bolts and nuts of different sizes,and, something I’m perhaps proudest of, a plastic electrical junction box that I could use to anchor my pump into by squeezing the sides just a little, jamming the pump in and then screwing in tea cup holding hooks on each side that I could use to loop the rubber bands that would hold the pump down in place.  Then I anchored it all to the bottom of the cooler with small bolts and nuts. All of this should probably be illustrated with a picture but I’m not good at that kind of picture taking.

I haven’t said anything about the cooler considerations.  Most Youtube demos called for a 48 quart cooler but being of the more is better ilk, I looked at coolers of every size I could find and finally went for a 70 quart cooler, a big white one that will also provide a middle seat in the boat which lacks one.  It was not an easy decision; trips to Wal Mart, Kay Mart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, the relatively new Gander Mountain store in C’Ville to see everything out there.  After buying the Coleman 70 quart version at Wal Mart,  I saw at Costco a magnificent cooler rated at well over 100 quarts.  But I might need a bigger boat to go with that one.

The short end of it is that I now have a working live well for our boat.  I demonstrated it to Anthony on his last trip home.  We still call it his home although he’s lived with his girlfriend in Richmond in a house they have rented and enjoyed for some time now.  I think Anthony was impressed by the powerful spray of water in the cooler and how I showed him the pump could be easily removed and lowered into the lake for both filling and emptying the cooler once on the lake.  I must say I’m still a little impressed that I finally got it all done and it functions well.  And it only took perhaps eight or nine trips to Lowes, plus all the other stores mentioned above, and an amount of money for which I don’t have the enthusiasm necessary to try to calculate.  It definitely wouldn’t be what one might call cost efficient.

Weather permitting, Ani and I will take the boat out tomorrow afternoon for the first time after building the live well.  Let’s hope all goes well.

Anthony, by the way, is becoming fairly handy himself.  He and Cary have raised three chickens that may actually produce eggs in the next month or two, or so they say.  And with the help of Cary’s father, Anthony built a chicken coop from some plans he found somewhere and it is quite nice.  It needs paint or stain and with all the rain we’ve had I think they’ve been a bit lax in that regard but it’s their chicken coop, not mine.

I can remember years ago when I was lying on my back on the driveway in front of our house, trying to repair something, maybe something on the lawn tractor or what ever, and Anthony was outside and I asked him to please get me the pliers from my toolbox that lay opened nearby.  I have never had what one might consider a serious toolbox and if someone, namely Ani, borrows something from it, I usually end up with less that I’d started with.  Tools don’t walk off by themselves and they don’t come back on their own I have always preached to no avail.  Anyway, when I asked Anthony for the pliers he said, “What’s that?”  I need to pause now for dramatic effect.

“What’s that??? I said, “What’s a …….pliers?” I may have used an expletive for emphasis, I don’t recall, but I was truly amazed that he had no idea what that was.  No image in his mind of that simple, every day, multipurpose device.  I continued to vocalize my amazement to which he eventually answered,  “Well, I know how to hunt and fish,” saying so with simple conviction and definite pride.  And he was right.  He did and does know how to do both those outdoor activities which I guess he got through me.  And after all, a pliers isn’t going to put venison on the table or some nice crappies on the grill.  He harvested two nice deer this past fall from which I wouldn’t mind getting a few more tenderloins if he can spare them.  And in a short time he’ll have eggs from those chickens he and Cary have named; he knows them and their habits quite well. In fact I think he’s become fascinated with them as I’ve heard and read that people who get into backyard chickens can do.  I’m not sure how it will be for he and Cary when the chickens outlive their egg producing lives.  In the meantime I’m hoping he and I can get out in the boat to do some fishing and put to use that time consuming, rather expensive live well his father created because he knew how to use a pliers.  Maybe Anthony didn’t know about pliers but I’m betting it will be Anthony who catches the fish.

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Calgary, Alberta Workshop

I’m happy to announce, somewhat belatedly, that I’ll be leading another photographic workshop for The Camera Store in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, next month.  This weekend workshop will run from July 29-31 and will be held on the rodeo and pow-wow grounds of the Tsuut’ina Nation, about a 20 minute drive from Calgary.  This will be the tribe’s 42nd Annual Rodeo and Pow-wow and will offer a great array of photographic potential.  Beside the rodeo and pow-wow there will be craft works for sale, Indian stick games to witness and wonderful people watching opportunities.  As with any native pow-wow there are stipulations regarding what one might not be allowed to photograph and this will be explained prior to the workshop.  Like any other event which offers cultural activities, one always needs to exhibit respect for others.  Asking permission before photographing is always a good thing to do. Consider yourself always in someone else’s back yard and conduct yourself accordingly.  I’m looking forward to this gathering.

Here’s the link to connecting with the workshop:

The workshop will be open for a maximum of 15 students and I believe there are some openings presently available. I’ve done workshops for The Camera Store now for three and it’s always a great experience for me. And anytime you’re in Calgary a stop at the The Camera Store is strongly suggested.  A great store with a wonderfully helpful staff.

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Way back in 1966 and 1967, while working on a Houston city story for National  Geographic, I covered two of Muhammed Ali’s fights in the Houston Astrodome, which was then still billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” I was not then or ever, a sports photographer.  I wanted to cover those two fights because I felt I could possibly show the relatively new and dramatic Astrodome in use for something other than a baseball game.  And in truth, I wanted to see the fights.

In November of 1966 Ali destroyed Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in three rounds.  Then in early in 1967 he toyed with Ernie Terrell for 15 rounds, making the taller Terrell suffer through the full length of the fight at the end of which both of Terrell’s eyes were swollen almost shut with just narrow slits remaining, bloody gashes appearing beneath them like sloppily applied scarlet mascara.  Many of the 35,000 in attendance thought Ali could have ended the fight earlier, but he instead taunted Terrell, repeatedly asking him,  ”What’s my name..?” as he mercilessly pummeled the fighter who before the fight had insisted on calling him not by his chosen Muslim name but by his name at birth, Cassius Clay.  I remember how astoundingly fluid and quick was Ali as he moved about the ring.  This was not a plodding pugilist. Constantly in motion, Ali was never less than a beautiful vision of graceful athleticism.

I didn’t come away with any memorable pictures from either of those bouts, both of which I photographed from a ringside position just to the immediate right of Ali’s corner.  In fact, for the first fight I was asked to please get the hell out of the seat where Ali’s long time and eventually legendary trainer, Angelo Dundee was to be seated between rounds.  What did I know?  I’d never covered a fight before, let alone a World Heavyweight Championship.  I moved over.  No problem.

Today I watched a few Youtube replays of both fights and can at times just briefly make out my presence at ringside, aiming one of my Leicas, trying to frame an image between the ropes.  I didn’t know Neil Leifer then, or now, for that matter, but in watching the Youtube replays of one of the fights–I think it’s the Big Cat Williams fight–I can see him shooting from the opposite side of the ring.  Leifer, of course, has made some of the truly classic boxing pictures and marvelous images of other sports as well. His image of Ali standing over the downed Sonny Liston at the end of their second bout has to be one of the all time great sports images.

The Washington Post ran a picture today from the Ali/Williams fight with “Big Cat” stretched out on his back on the mat while the referee leads Ali to a neutral corner.  That had to have been made from a remote camera somewhere up on the catwalk in the Astrodome. I’ve been up there.  It’s a hell of a view. The picture is accredited to Associated Press.  I’m sure it’s not full frame.  I’d love to see the whole image, see where I was that night at that moment.

Ironically, what I most remember from trying to photograph those two heavyweight championship fights fifty years ago, was a picture I saw but didn’t make, shortly after the end of the Ali/Williams fight.  I was in Williams’s dressing room where he was, accept for his wife and a small black preacher, unattended, no reporters, just me. Williams, slumped and battered and still in his robe, was kneeling on the cold concrete floor of the dressing room while the preacher stood in prayer with one hand gently crowning the fighter’s head. The fighter’s wife was holding a small red felt triangular pennant with her husband’s name on it.   I saw that image of the three of them as I walked away, out through the door, camera in hand but not to my eye. I was young, not a very good or at least experienced  photojournalist then and too Minnesotan to think I could intrude upon such an intimate moment.  So I didn’t make the picture.  I left.

Along with many other images I’ve seen over the years but for some reason or other didn’t make, that picture, framed then in my eye for just a moment, still lives in my memory.  I wrote about this picture in an epilogue called Pictures We Don’t Take, at the end of my last book:  WILLIAM ALBERT ALLARD: Five Decades.  I think that picture in that cold and drab dressing room would have been worthy, something of value, something to stand the test of time in recording not just a sporting event but the human condition as we find it in so many different ways.  We experience triumph and we suffer defeats, all of us. When the enthusiasm that supports and encourages the combat of ferocious, brutally fierce athletes is brought to an end, when the fights are over, what we  have  is the  ultimate frailty of man.  Maybe that’s a bit much, I don’t know.  But I’ll always remember that picture.  I think it would have been comparable to a Neil Leifer effort and that’s setting the bar pretty high. Which is what I’ve always tried to do.  Otherwise, it’s just a job.

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