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"Lighthouse Photographer Recalls Life"

Mackinaw Today - Newspaper, issue: Summer 2000

 

     The foundation for life is laid in our youth. As maturity provides further insight and reflection on my personal experiences, I realize my life was molded by those many formative activities and events which occurred at an early age.
     Michigan Lighthouses, An Aerial Photographic Perspective, was a late-life endeavor, the origin of which goes back to the age of six or seven. I had received for Christmas a cardboard mockup of an airplane cockpit—quite primitive by today’s toy standards. This apparatus was set up in the basement in front of the furnace where I would go sit and practice my bombing runs over Nazi Germany. In about 1945, at age 10, I had my first airplane ride, 
in a Ryan Navion, from a local doctor friend.
     
At the age of 12 or so, my father gave me my second flight at the Benton Harbor Airport for a birthday present—and the aviation seed was planted.
     
Throughout those years there was always a camera at hand, both still and movie, recording family events. I was occasionally the second cameraman when my father was in the pictures. On a later occasion we borrowed my uncle Joe’s enlarger, and that provided my first experience in developing film and enlarging photographs.

     I developed an entrepreneurial spirit at an early age. One of my first jobs was working for a nearby farmer, Irv Stuck, who maintained a herd of 75 or so Hereford beef cattle. I would help Irv shovel out his barns and load the spreader. I would then proudly ride the tractor, spreading manure to and fro—upwind and downwind. My mother would meet and undress me at the back door and immediately usher me to the bathtub. All for 50 cents a day.
     Spending childhood summer vacations on a lake at my grandfather’s cottage and growing up as a teenager along the shores of Lake Michigan developed a fondness for water activities. The revenue from selling Christmas cards door to door, baby sitting, mowing lawns, weeding gardens and selling ceramics on the front porch from our family basement “pot shop” went towards purchasing swim fins, mask and snorkel so I could explore the bottom of Lake Michigan.
     One’s youthful years of unfettered imagination allow for the creation of ideas and objects that are difficult under the constraints we develop in later life.

 My next door neighbor, a petroleum engineer, introduced me to basic physics. He asked how I was going to breathe, while walking on the bottom of the lake in a diving helmet I had built. “Through a hose connected to the surface attached to an inner tube,” I replied. I learned that air had weight but that water had more. (At least I had designed a check valve into the system—fairly smart for thirteen). I then designed a double-action hand pump consisting of two bicycle tire pumps mounted to a frame and linked together with a single handle. In response to my mother’s question of who was going to man the pump, I identified my stalwart friend, Ken, who was generally regarded as the most unreliable kid on the block. That ended my ventures in hard hat diving. Nonetheless, I poured over catalogues of W.W.II surplus diving equipment, read novels on diving, and fantasized attending the Coastal School of Diving in Oakland, California.
     
I developed an appreciation of art, history and science during those years. My mother taught ceramics at St. Mary’s College in South Bend. She took lessons at the Art Institute in Chicago, and when I was “in-tow,” we often visited the Field Museum and the Hall of Science and Industry. I was captivated by Surrat’s pointillism and the massive painting, Sunday Afternoon In the Park at the Art Institute.
     
My interest in water eventually led to competitive swimming and a foray into the early days of self-contained diving. In later years I sold diving equipment out of my room at the fraternity house and the back of my Chevrolet station wagon. The Research Division of the Alaskan Bureau of Commercial Fisheries desired to expand their research into underwater exploration, and they established a job position with the requisite requirements. College work in limnology (the study of fresh water) and ichthyology (the study of fish), the knowledge and selling of diving equipment, led to my filling that position. While conducting research in Red Salmon investigations, the advantages of documenting the observations photographically became apparent to us. Scrounging far and wide for materials, I designed and built an underwater camera case “in the bush”—quite crude by the equipment available today.

     Another formative event occurred while in college in 1957. One late October weekend, a fraternity brother invited me to accompany him and visit Western Michigan University’s flight training program and meet the program director and chief pilot, Lester Zinser. On February 3, 1958, I began flying at the Plainwell Municipal Airport. Completing a flight training program in one semester in Michigan, beginning in February, was a challenge, requiring courageous ingenuity on behalf of the instructor. My very first flight, and perhaps the next 20, was in ski-equipped, 90 horsepower, Piper J-5s. The snow-covered turf runway was rolled instead of plowed. Flight training continued even when weather conditions were often less than ideal. Training in adverse conditions such as turbulence and crosswinds, often low ceilings and visibilities, honed skills and confidence which average flight training programs seldom developed. All our airplanes had to be hand “propped” to start—a technique that salvaged many flights and airplanes in later years. I would guess that few of today’s “new” private pilots have learned how to prop an airplane. Say what you may about teaching procedures, getting rapped on the back of the head from the rear seat with a folded map, or getting the control stick whacked from your hand when you’ve done something wrong, leaves a lasting impression. I have often proclaimed, aviation is the survival of the trial and error learning process. That is why the pilot’s logbook is one of aviation’s basic credentials—recording one’s experience. 
     
An occasional excursion as a student pilot along the east shoreline of Lake Michigan combined the love of the lakes with the skills of flying. Even though I flew by the lighthouses of St. Joseph and South Haven, I failed to recognize their significance and beauty. I occasionally took photographs, but not nearly enough. If I had started the lighthouse series in 1958, how much more complete that historical record would have been. On June 20, 1958, I completed the flight check for the private pilot’s license. Afterwards, Eloise Smith, the flight examiner, remarked, “I’ve had better rides.” Two days later I departed for Brooks Lake, Alaska.
     
While in Alaska, I had occasion to fly with a number of interesting persons and sometimes pilot unusual airplanes. These included bush pilot, Jay Hammond, later governor of Alaska, in his Piper PA-14, flying into and photographing the “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes” in the Katmai National Monument on the Alaskan Peninsula. I also flew with
John Walatka, President of Northern Consolidated Airlines in the UC-78, “Bamboo Bomber.” Both the PA-14 and UC-78 were on floats. And, I flew in the Fish and Wildlife’s Grumman Goose, a twin-engine, eight place amphibian, with Emmett Soldine. I once spent three hours with Emmett sitting in the Goose on the shoreline of Karluck Lake on Kodiak Island in howling, hurricane force winds up to 90 MPH. For lack of tie-downs to secure the airplane, we were keeping the Goose “pinned on the ground” with ailerons and elevator, occasionally starting the Pratt & Whitney R-985 engines and turning into the wind—while he contemplated his pending divorce.

     I started flying seaplanes in Juneau and was cautioned by my instructor Ray Landingham, of a local phenomenon known as the Taku. The Taku is a wind resulting from cold night air being heated by the day’s sun. This rapidly expanding air mass would then spew out of the valley or an outlet to a mountain range with terrific velocity, catching an unsuspecting passing aviator with potentially serious consequences. Robert Garvin, the FAA Examiner, required two, left and right, 720 degree “moosehead” turns for the floatplane check ride. An ill-fated moosehead turn occurs when a hunter in an airplane becomes fixated on a moose and circles overhead into a descending spiral turn—and goes boom! I completed a seaplane rating in Juneau, Alaska on November 18, 1959.
     
I recognized that I would need a Ph.D. to continue with fisheries research. It’s easier to teach a Ph.D. to be a diver than a diver to be a Ph.D. Therefore, I took one of life’s many “forks in the road” and ventured into the aviation industry. During one of several interim jobs, while aspiring to a career in aviation, I sold door to door, Great Books of The Western World, a grueling but “educational” activity. Often, while traveling around the Midwest with Great Books, I would visit the local airport, thinking “This is what I really want to do.” I nudged my way into the aviation industry. I spent eight years in “FBO” operations, first selling charter flights, later airplanes, and then three years of flying charter, both people and freight, and corporate contract work. In 1972, I joined the State of Michigan’s Bureau of Aeronautics and recently I retired after 25 years of service.
     
In 1974, I acquired a 1968 Cessna 172 airplane and developed an avocation of aerial photography, filming real estate developments, occasional farms and a variety of assignments. Once while flying and photographing along the west side of the state, I landed in Holland to spend a Saturday evening with an old fraternity brother. We viewed and critiqued the photographs his wife, Jan, had taken over the years of Holland Harbor Lighthouse. On departure, I flew by the lighthouse and took some shots. On the occasion of our next meeting we compared the photos taken on the ground with those from the air and concluded the aerials offered a different and unusual perspective. The aerials showed how the lighthouse was situated in relationship to the surrounding terrain, the geological formations, both above and below the surface, and the regions and waters it protects.    

John L. Wagner, author

     Assessing a variety of comments, I decided to publish a book of my lighthouse photographs. People seem to fall into two categories, either specialists or generalists—I being the latter. As one weaves his way through life, collecting various skills and interests, unconsciously these experiences enable one to handle diverse projects. Having reviewed publishers’ contracts, I was convinced I could publish my own book. So, I set out to learn everything I could about the publishing business. With my graphic designer friend, Bill Spagnuolo, we conceptualized the book and I started writing text. We began choosing images and designing pages; we interviewed printers; selected papers; contracted with a bindery and I financed the project. Perhaps, for the first time in my life, my proclivity for detail had come to fruition. All these experiences resulted in a book that has sold over 10,000 copies.

     The mosaic is made up of many small parts. Little did I know when I was wandering about the Midwest, selling Great Books and visiting airports, that 35 years later I would again be peddling books, this time my own—an aerial photographic perspective of Michigan’s lighthouses. It is, hopefully, a legacy to future generations documenting the condition and evolution of many of our country’s historic landmarks. This book is the fulfillment of a lifetime of energies, sometimes wasted—ideas, many times irrelevant—and aspirations, often unrealized. “But, it has been a great trip and an extraordinary flight.”


 

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