Saturday, June 23, 2012

"No Reservations: Lake Ray Roberts"

A dam stretches high above the edge of Lake Ray Roberts toward Isle du Bois state park, where I began my assignment photographing the lake for UNT's summer magazine, On The Record. 

The perfectly straight roadway promised any "Top Gear" fan like myself the urge to throw down the accelerator and push the ol' 77 Porsche to its top speed of 125mph - an urge quickly subdued as the beauty of one of Texas' major lakes (29,350 acres) arrested my eyes. I only wanted to pull over and watch the sun set. 

As if this sight wasn't relieving enough, I still worried about how to best sum up an enormous composition of nature, campers and fishermen, in a few photographs. A healthy fear keeps one's senses in check, and the dam-adrenaline-rush pushed me to make the most on an evening of sweat and sand between the cheeks, but with many pleasant surprises. 

I wasn't even in the water and I already reeked of wet dog - a pungent pooch greeting every visitor to the marina welcome center had his paws all over me, rubbing and drooling against my legs if I neglected to massage. Coupled with the dripping sweat, I needed relief, fast. 

Isle du Bois has a "beach," which is more like an enormous sand box for kids. I figured it a great way to show something unique - still not as impressive as the dam, but I remained optimistic. 

Jye Pechacek, 5, plays in the waterway he built at the beach off Lake Ray Roberts.

I approached a couple parents to affirm relationship to the children I was about to freak out - two retired couples: one family on their first RV trip, and the second who got them into the Forest Surveyor after a fascinating, awkwardly spiritual turn of events. More on that later.

So I simply talked with them about their kids, their time at the lake, and shared with them about myself and what I was hoping to accomplish there. This kind of no-agenda-conversation is a great way to really enjoy my job, instead of feeling like an imposition or letting the job, a.k.a. the beast, enjoy me.

I remember browsing through thank you cards one day to find one with a funny photo of a brown bear helping two countrymen push their truck to the road, quoting British cartoonist and author Ashleigh Brilliant:

"The best thing about needing help is that it's a good way to meet people."

This piece of wisdom has rung true many times for me, even and especially on my photo assignments. Photojournalists are hoping to make intimate pictures, to gain trust and solicit many a soul's song. At times, this can be difficult, but I've learned through much error that I cannot predetermine how people should allow me in. I should only be honest and upfront with my subjects, explaining the task at hand not in the way of "you need to tell me everything about your life," but rather "I need your help, to learn and share what is important to you, if that helps you." That's what you're there for. You're not there to try and be best friends with them (although if that happens naturally, cool), to waste their time in any way or treat them like they are your subjects, on your timeline. In those moments, however brief or long, you are serving them in some way, just as they are helping you.

But I digress.

Randomly, the family asked me if I wanted to join them for a spaghetti dinner at their RV camp. I immediately regretted the massive What-A-Burger I shoved down my carcass an hour before, and still worried about getting enough pictures as the evening waned. I declined, but mom insisted that "just in case, we're at lot #80. I make the best homemade spaghetti." Tempting.

Why I declined the first time, I don't know, but I doubt it mattered. Maybe mom would't have to anticipate a guest and rush to clean up the RV, and I wouldn't greatly influence the situation. Twenty minutes later, realizing what moments could be had from this opportunity, I rushed over to the campsite.

I arrived to find two RVs along the camping trail, the girls playing on the street and cooing at passing boys - "He was like, so smoking," said ten-year-old Ali Humphreys - a picnic table lined with red plaid as clothes hung from the hammock.

Sydnee Gailey, 13, rides her electric scooter as Ali Humphreys, 10, watches June 22 at Isle du Bois park at Lake Ray Roberts.

I chatted alone with mom, Donna Keith, inside the RV as she stirred spaghetti sauce. About her first time doing the RV-thing with her family, she said, "I was raised in Washington D.C. - everything was just so. It's different, but this is Texas, everything is different here." I couldn't tell a difference. She appeared a true, laid-back native.

Outside, under the awning strung with globe lights, poppa Doug Keith told me he grew up a "country boy on the farm," piloted two tours in Vietnam from age 19, and saw a good deal of the world to see the value in traveling where "there are still chores," things to learn and responsibilities to earn.

Donna Keith serves spaghetti in the RV at Isle du Bois. The family woke up at 7:30 a.m. after only a few hours of sleep to begin their first RV trip.

Ali Humphreys plays with her spaghetti. 

Matthew Magana, 2, eats with Jye Pechacek, 5, and Selena Mayana, 6.
Okay, so here's where things get crazy. The two couples are something like best friends, the Pettys
convincing the Keiths to get in the RV "community." How they became so close and were together on that evening to visit with me, however, is not as simple. Talking after a delicious meal of spaghetti - this is not your Italian grandmother's pasta, to be sure - with a slight taste of ketchup for kick, they shared their story like the cast of a dirty soap opera.

It all started a long time ago with their friend Jesse. "He was a womanizer," they quickly dispelled. Jesse left Helen Petty for Donna's best friend, who was not friends with Helen at the time. Helen's next husband Bill, who later died of cardiac arrest, was good friends with Doug Keith and they visited frequently in his final years.

Doug's wife, who was "very prophetic with dates," left him 30-some years the date they got married. Doug wasn't looking for a wife, but Donna knew her first husband the moment she saw him - at Bill's funeral. "Who is that handsome man," she recalls asking Helen at the time. "My uncle?!" This was getting interesting.

One evening, Helen, Doug and Donna were out shopping at the Garden Center to begin redecorate Doug's home. At the front of the store, goofing around, were Doug and Donna. "We were like two fifteen-year-olds," she said. Doug asked her, "Hey, let's get out of here," and the when he grabbed her hand, "it clicked." Donna knew all along, professing that God told her at the funeral, "this is your husband."

Around that time, Tony had been struggling to find a partner. "I did the eHarmony,, everything - nothing worked. I was fed up." One night, he was going down the contacts on his phone, deleting every female who wouldn't work, and landed on Helen. Since he was best friends with Jesse and cared for Helen, he called her up and they ended up chatting for hours. One night out to get a drink at the bar, and they knew.

"If we could think of a time in our life when we wanted to be happiest, it was toward the end," Tony said. "We are a blessing to each other. One piece of advice I have is to know when you know, when you know. Let God make the decision for you."

Donna and Doug agreed, noting that although their beliefs differed at the time, Doug came to have a true relationship with Christ through his wife of five years. "He smoked and drank...I prayed for him," she said. "When you allow God to work his way in you, you become all those things that you were supposed to be all along," Doug said.

This was "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" stuff for me - writer-chef travels without reservations, sharing meals with locals while a TV-film crew makes beautiful and honest visuals to accompany Bourdain's philosophical narration. I always wondered if I could do something like that. It struck me later that night that I did - naturally, unscripted - and I had a blast.

No event is coincidence, I am convinced, as that night spent with them - talking about life lessons, enthralled by their stories and sharing a meal together - was truly communion with fellow believers, brought together by the Spirit which Christ promised would "guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come." (John 16:13)

Jared Ivie hopes to catch some bass, below.

Kelsie Reynolds, 7, watches her dad Sawyer attach an earthworm to a hook

Sawyer Reynolds fishes with a headlamp as the moon sets.
A boat zooms across Lake Ray Roberts as the moon sets.

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