A DMZ Christmas 50 Years Ago

 Back in the early 1960s, in the wake of Sputnik and such fanciful terms as “the Space Race,” the “Missile Gap,” and Pupnik (Sputnik 2 carried a little Russian terrier named Laika), and, in the words of one of the old geezers (gee, he must have been at least 50!) at Jack’s Barber Shop on Highland Drive, “if they can put a dog in space, they surely can send a missile over here.” When you’re 12, and sitting on the wood board the barbers used to elevate children in the big (and mechanically quite amazing) ‘barber’s chair’, words like that from the geezer seemed to carry a lot of weight. Like all the men in that room, he had unquestionably served 15 years before in World War II, and may have even been a witness to the sound, light, and destruction show known as Stalin’s Organ. ( A multiple tubed rocket launcher which fired, depending on design, up to 4 dozen rockets all at once, a blizzard of terrifyingly howling explosions and noise). Post Sputnik, when the US briefly expressed regret that the Soviets hadn’t waited until early 1958 to celebrate IGY (the International Geophysical Year, a period of joint exploration and research) but had just gone ahead and launched their first satellites without waiting, wanting to let the world in general, and the US in particular, know that their science was as good as our science. It led to a remarkably nimble jump in American education: all of a sudden the late 50s and early 60s were producing one advanced science or math program after the next. I was pretty good at math, not bad in science, and from ’58 onwards thought I would be spending my life building rockets for the US space program. The new programs were innovative (I remember the 8th grade Math workbook, created by U/I Champaign Campus) and we students felt pretty juiced. I even knew what integrals and derivatives were, long before those words became popular in the rest of society. (And today, I know they exist, but remain incapable of even describing them.) I was in AP Math the whole of high school, and Mr Barton, the much beloved math teacher at Olympus High School, was our leader. He’d flown helicopters in Korea, and applied many of the little things he learned to math in general, and life in particular. He once described the subtle talent needed to fly a chopper. “You can’t,” he said, “actually MOVE a control on a helicopter.” That would be too much. Over correction. You just have to THINK about it, and that will be about the right amount of pressure.” Stuff like that, uttered in a flurry of theorems, has stayed with me for these 55+ years. Most of all, he implored us to slow down, and to “think clearly.” For years, on the back of my Nikons, in the 70s, with the arrival of the Dymo label maker, I had the words “Think Clearly” sitting just below the viewfinder of my F and F2s. Our little home room Math class was full of geniuses: Don, Diana, Randy. We were only about a dozen in the class, but we knew we were lucky to be there. My senior year, I placed 11th in the State Math Contest. Not bad, you say, and I would have to agree. But in fact I was only 4th in my Home Room. Yea, it was that kind of crowd.

I probably would have gone on to build rockets ( which no one really did, but you might have the chance to design the buffer valve on a LOX tanking connector for a Saturn V F-1 rocket engine) but my sophomore year Calc professor mumbled as he tried to explain the dark secrets of advanced math, and I fled in a panic to Poli Sci, which became my major, and left me free to pursue photojournalism, my other great interest, which grew from working on the high school yearbook Junior and Senior years. I had a great break in the winter of my Senior year of high school. The little local weekly paper for whom I’d been shooting the odd assignment, and getting paid a whopping $3… or was it $5? was purchased by new owners. (Was it $3 or $5? … either way, it was enough to keep me interested.) The ‘break’ part of that was that the two guys who bought the paper were my mom’s cousins. And when they enquired about the source for pictures in the paper, the young woman who assigned me, and took delivery of the pictures, told them it was a neighborhood kid, Dave Burnett. What a frolic of serendipity. They needed someone to shoot pictures, and I needed someone to publish them. I worked all spring and into the summer of my Senior year (yes, 17 year olds DO think they know everything!) and it was a wonderful, engaging, exciting thing to see my pictures run each week. The one sucky job was the day-long traverse of the city to shoot pictures of houses for the real estate page. The ads apparently made a fair amount of dough, and offering to photograph the house for the display ad was a marketing plus. It was still an era of minimalism, and if I had 16 houses to shoot, I would start in North Salt Lake, and work my way south over the next few hours, with a book of maps in hand (news flash: there was no Google Maps in 1964!) For 16 to 18 houses, I could shoot two frames of each place and end up with one roll of film. It was a lot of driving, very little shooting, but I had the order right on my poop sheet, and the right houses’ picture always seemed to accompany the correct write-up. The one time I freaked out was due to a darkroom error which could have gone horribly wrong. I spooled the film onto a Nikkor reel, dropped it in the tank, covered the tank and put the lights on, only to discover I had put it in the Fixer. Holy Shit, John Wayne, what do I do now? Lights out, cover off, pull reel… rinse in water, put in D-76. Incredibly, it actually worked, and I was saved from having to drive the 16 house circuit yet one more time. For any photographer of my era, if you didn’t put the film directly in the fixer, with the lights out, at least once, well, hell , you’re not really a photographer.
It was a fun time, and I only wish I had been a little better on captioning. Lack of precise information, which at the time didn’t seem like such a big deal, is something which has followed me for decades. I still admire the wire service and daily paper photogs who knew that no picture of theirs would ever be seen if it didn’t have a proper caption. Working, as I ended up doing for six decades, for magazines – weekly and monthlies, it never seemed THAT important. Pictures in magazines seem to fill a slightly different role, and the necessity of detail was not as demanding as the daily press was. For that I remain somewhat sorrowful, as the stories behind the pictures, those little picayune details, eventually offer greater illumination than the image alone can provide. The arrival of the online world of photography has provided a few very positive moments for me. About five years ago, I had a message to call a guy in Illinois, who had called the Contact office in New York, looking to speak with me. When I called him back, we spoke a long while, and he told me how, forty-odd years after his time as a grunt in Vietnam (1970-71) he would often start to think of his friends, especially those who didn’t come back, and that around Christmas, those moments came with greater frequency. He had been stationed on the old ConThien base on the DMZ, and had won a lottery his Sgt. had held for two guys from that base – out of a couple hundred – to get flown south to Phu Bai, and attend a Bob Hope Xmas Show. He described how, a few nights earlier, being unable to sleep, he hopped on his computer late that evening, and typing in “Bob Hope Phu Bai 1970.”
A cool picture popped up of a bunch of GIs in a large crowd, watching the show. The picture wasn’t Bob Hope or Johnny Bench or Joie Heatherton. It was the soldiers. The audience. A very energized audience. And as he looked at the picture, and blew it up, he realized he was IN the picture. Our conversation went on quite a while, became very emotional as we spoke of those long ago days. I told him that I’d had to leave the Bob Hope show early to catch a chopper back to Alpha-4/Con Thien, the same base where he had been stationed. I got there in the early afternoon of Christmas Eve, wandered around a good bit, spent some time in the TOC (the Tactical Operations Center) before getting a bit of sleep. UPI had sent one of their guys, Barney Siebert, to do a feature on the DMZ at Christmas, and we all spent much of the evening trying to make sense of it all. I recall that they flew in turkey dinners for the troops, yet it was anything but a White Christmas. Early the next morning, the first chopper in brought a crusty old Naval officer who hopped off the bird, and within minutes was cutting up with some of the enlisted guys, the ones who looked like they might have been staying up on guard duty all night. The Admiral, whose craggy face and puckish smile I still remember, was named John McCain. He was CINCPAC (commander of the Pacific forces), and as he hoisted a breakfast beer, and joked around with those enlisted guys, his son, another John McCain was a prisoner in Hanoi, a few hundred miles to the North. In 2008, I shared this story, and picture with Senator McCain, and he was grateful to have this photograph on the wall of his office.
Admiral McCain (CINCPAC) Christmas 1970
The young soldier who found himself in my picture, Terry Knox, also gave me a gift, 45 years later. We spoke of all those things: being a grunt, Con Thien, the unlikelihood of being chosen to attend the show, his great surprise years later at realizing he was IN the photograph I’d shot. When I had a job in Illinois a couple of years ago, he drove down, and we had a coffee, a catch up, and a very big hug. Sometimes those hugs are really the grist of what we come to appreciate in this life.
I am constantly amazed at the reach which the internet has created, even for those of us who were really lousy caption writers. One of the assignments I did for the weekly paper – The Rocky Moutnain Review – in Salt Lake in the summer of 1966 was to spend a part of an afternoon at Ballet West, a company of talented dancers under the direction of William Christensen (even 54 years on, I remember his name without having to look it up!) During that afternoon session, a couple of rolls of Tri-x (in the era when there wasn’t a story you couldn’t DO with a couple of rolls of Tri-x!) I photographed a young dancer at rest, at the barre, on point, and looking like a cocked slingshot, ready to be fired at a passing mailbox. We never spoke (yea, that’s a whole other essay) but I found her visually charming, adorable, and eminently photogenic. I got her name, we ran a picture – or maybe a couple, I don’t remember, a week later, and I felt like I had actually come up with a cool picture just by being there, and looking around. Looking around is the key. My old pal Joe Cantrell, who had Cherokee blood in his background, had taken a name which I have always felt perfectly summed up our mission. In those moments, he would call himself “Walks Slowly, Looking.” It is what we do, when things go right.

Suki Smith / Ballet West 1966
photograph ©2020 David Burnett/Contact
So my picture of young dancer Suki Smith ran “not quite as big as I would have liked” in the Rocky Mountain Review, and for 54 years that was pretty much that. Then a couple of months ago my brother in law, Larry Cofer, newly armed with an Ancestry account, tracing his own families’ story as well as ours, took a minute to look for my dancer. It became a long and not uncomplicated process, but at one point I found what looked like a connection to her, and wrote a note on FB. (I always look for the first names that are the least common. That gives you a chance, at least.) And tonight I received this message:
“Oh my goodness, this is amazing! Suki is my mother & was still dancing up until a few years ago. Thank you so much for sharing this with me.”
Photographers view the world slightly differently than most. We see, we stop and look, we notice, and above all, we try to take that wonderment of what we see, and preserve it, to give it a fuller, extra life, one which we hope can be shared. Pictures tell their own stories, and when they give you a chance to cross the chasm of time, in this case, 54 years, it’s like a gift. Photography is…. Memory.