Hot Apple Cider
Just north of Merced, off Highway 99, lies the little town of Atwater, home to Castle Airport-formerly known as Castle Air Force Base, now, decommissioned. It is currently the home of Castle Air Museum. Since I would be visiting the area in a couple of weeks hence, it seemed worthwhile to call the airport, and ask about the possible existence of a bone yard, (the aircraft equivalent of a junk yard), somewhere on the airport environs. Having had no luck with the airport manager, and generally not taking “no” for an answer (like a kid) I interpret the answer, “no”, as, “I don’t know”. There’s still hope. Next, I tried the air museum receptionist. Still no luck. But she said “you should talk to the guys over in the restoration hanger, they know more about such things!” Try again I did, and before long I’m asking the same question of Dave Prince, one of the volunteers in the restoration facility. “ No, we got no bone yard, but we do have a couple aircraft in the process of being restored.” That seemed promising enough. Over the next few minutes of conversation, with me explaining what I’d like to do, and how it works ( painting with light at night and multiple exposures, etc.) all followed up with the inevitable question, “Do you guys think it would be OK if I shot at your facility some evening, in a couple weeks from now?“ Dave took all of 10 seconds to ponder the proposition, and announced ”Sure! That sounds like it should be no problem. We just need to clear it with our new CEO and find a volunteer who’ll be willing to stay late some evening and help while you shoot.” ( This kind of spontaneity always delights and amazes me. As is so often the case down here in Los Angeles, that access is excruciatingly slow in coming. I’m still currently in on-going discussions with another entity going on two months now.) We arranged to talk again in a couple of days. He gave me a list of current aircraft projects undergoing restoration, and I agreed to e-mail samples of my art shots, in addition to, ultimately, sending prints of the finished photograph to all the volunteer staff as payment for access and usage of the facility.
One aircraft in particular stood out as a good candidate for a night shoot, the F-102 Delta Dagger. For one thing, it was fully assembled, wings, tail, etc. Plus, it had such a beautifully aggressive look about it. (Didn’t you just love the cold war,-with equal parts national paranoia, and unlimited funding, we produced some truly spectacular aircraft). Two days later, Dave and I spoke again. He informed me that a guy had volunteered. Russ Schaff would be helping me for the up-coming photo shoot.
When I finally arrived up in Atwater, I gave Russ a call, introduced myself, thanked him for the favor, and agreed upon a meeting time at the restoration hanger, Saturday 12:00 noon. There was an unusual quality about Russ that I couldn’t quite place. Definitely not rude, not even curt, but maybe a reluctance to talk too much over the phone. Maybe he’s more of a doer than a talker, I thought. He’s certainly going out of his way to help me with this evening’s photo shoot. Thinking to myself, “What the hell. Don’t try to figure it out. I’ll take it.”
Meeting Russ around noon at the hanger, we exchanged pleasantries in the vestibule office. He seemed like a nice enough guy, around 70 years old, ex-military, with a lifetime of experience in electronics and aircraft instrumentation. As soon as he led me through the access door leading into the hanger, I was blown away at the sight of their F-102. WOW! What a big beautiful son-of-a- bitch. 68 feet long, 15 ton mach 1.2 jet interceptor from the mid- nineteen fifties. A big hunk of airplane. Larger than anything I’ve “painted” before. She was regal in repose and now, mostly covered by smaller scaffoldings, individual work stations, masked off surfaces and the like. Doing a walk around together, Russ described the process of restoring this aircraft, explaining that each system had been rebuilt with volunteer labor. Pneumatics, mechanical, electronics, bomb bay, flaps, landing gear, plus the paint had been stripped down to the bare metal skin. All very low key. Next came the cockpit area, Russ’s assignment and specialty, for this aircraft. Climbing another scaffolding, we gained access to the cockpit. I could see it was gutted. This was obviously a massive project. The amount of cables and wiring exposed in this small area alone seemed overwhelming. All together, their endeavor involved 13 people working part time, and 5 full time people. This particular restoration process has spanned 3 years, so far. The whole while, I could not detect an ounce of boastful pride in his voice, more business-as- usual, and, of course, very courteous. I understood better, now, that this gentleman was offering his time so freely, to share his passion with others.
Finally, the new CEO, Joe Pruzzo approached us. Introductions all around and heartfelt thanks from my side, and that was about it. With no other formalities or wasted time, Joe gave me the green light to get started with set-up of tonight’s upcoming photo shoot, including full access to the jet, all hanger floor space and any large equipment necessary to move anything.
To make a really great shot of this very big aircraft, I had to do two things: First, build a very tall structure that would hold my camera about 20 feet off the floor. Since the jet was so massive, I needed to be higher than usual, so as to look down slightly upon the fuselage. This will help the observer have a subtle sense of looking at a sort of “stage play scene.” Second, remove all the extraneous scaffoldings, individual work stations, and large pieces of equipment from around the aircraft.
Pulling away several masking taped areas and work stations, I did feel bad, (not bad enough not to do it, but still..). All these individuals who were working on these separate sub-systems around the aircraft would have to put it all back before they could even begin to work further. All together, about three quarters of all this loose equipment was pulled away as the jet was exposed further. Another volunteer drove the very large cherry picker rig out of frame.
A couple of the extraneous lower scaffoldings were used by me to make a platform; several lengths of chain and clamps joined these two individual units into a single, stable, 6 foot tall structure. Atop this, my very tall tripod was attached. The addition of a massive sledge hammer, hung from a tripod leg, created a solid, massive shooting platform that, I hoped, would not wobble during the long exposures coming later tonight. Next to this structure, I placed an 18 foot tall metal ladder with hand rails attached. It was now possible to look into the camera without having to touch the tripod. Not comfortable, but possible.
With all the preliminary work completed, Russ and I agreed to meet back there at 5:00. We should begin shooting about 6:00 near sunset.
Arriving back at the hanger, I was surprised to discover Russ still there. Not wanting to drive home just to return again 3 hours later, he chose to stay, work, and wait for my return. ( As I so often have discovered during the course of these “ night, art shootings”, people are so very generous with their time and properties. They are so giving, and I’m always the one taking).
I quickly set up camera systems and did last minute tweaking of the scene with the last few rays of daylight. I did ask Russ, and he did accept my request to manually open and close the camera’s shutter via a 3 foot long electric cable release. This, unfortunately, required him to sit atop the 18 foot tall metal ladder, on the very top rung. At six o’clock sharp, we started shooting. Because this was a very large subject, we both calculated the process might take some time to expose all the individual frames I had discussed earlier. The shooting went well. On my commands, Russ would open and close the shutter-like clock work, bang, bang, bang, bang. Being late winter up in central California, and right in the middle of a cold-front that was passing through the area, the hanger got cold as soon as the sun went down. Being my usual self, totally focused on the daunting task at hand, and expending a large amount of energy by running around with heavy battery packs and a million candle power flood light, I was totally unaware of how really cold this cavernous metal hanger had become. The old hanger doors didn’t shut cleanly, so there was the intrusion of a biting, cold breeze swirling all around us. I finally realized, it must be about 40 degrees in there. We had been shooting for about 2 hours, maybe it was time for a break.
Beckoning Russ down from his high metal perch to enjoy some hot apple cider and hot cocoa my wife had prepared for us, I noticed that his hands were visibly shaking. “Russ, Wow! I’m so sorry. Lets’ have something hot to drink.” Russ explained that sitting atop the metal grating of the top wrung, with no insulation, not moving and not much of a jacket, it got a little “nippy.” ( Once again, the character of this man amazed me. Who am I to impose so much.) In his usual fashion, Russ downplayed the whole thing, but if I had to measure the hospitability shown towards a guest, the results would have pegged off the scale. We talked a bit more. I inquired whether he wanted to continue further. This could have been wrapped up pretty quick, if it had been more comfortable. “Should you be getting back home to your wife?” He explained that he lost his wife seven years ago. “No, we can stay and finish it right! Do what you have to do” ( for more times than I can count, putting the needs and wants of his guest before his welfare and comfort were, it seemed, the only criteria for tonight’s cold photo shoot.) After another forty-five minutes of hard shooting we took another little break, Russ really liked the hot apple cider from one of the two Thermos. Back to shooting. By this time, it was getting uncomfortably cold, damn cold! Thirty minutes into our last crack at capturing this grand aircraft, I did detect a little trembling on Russ’ hands. Calling out, “Hey Russ….Lets have a little more of that delicious hot apple cider.” There was a slight pause, then Russ said in a softer than usual trailing voice, “Oh, …… Gee, Eric…....I think I drank the last of the hot apple cider. I’m sorry.”
I couldn’t help it, for the briefest of moments, a little girl’s giggle came bubbling up from under my breath. Trying hard not to lose the respect of what was by any measure, a real man, I stifled the chuckle. Taking a few moments to frame the thoughts in my mind, (I wanted to respond precisely to Russ’ announcement of remorse for drinking all of the hot apple cider.) “Ah!… Well Russ….Let me see, you guys gave me total access to your hanger, lent me a rare and valuable vintage aircraft, you personally have been sitting atop an 18 foot tall metal ladder in 40 degree temperatures for over 3 hours now.”…. “Hmmm, I guess it’s OK you drank the last of the hot apple cider.” We both had a good laugh.
That night we shot the hell out of that aircraft. Over the course of three and a half hours, almost 200 frames were exposed. Forty of which found their way into the finished and final image. Having been a professional photographer for about 25 years now, I would have to say that this is one of the best photographs I have ever taken. And, as I discover over and over again, it’s all due to the kindness and generosity of people toward a total stranger.