Wheels up, David


NPR photojournalist David Gilkey

NPR photojournalist David Gilkey sticks out his tongue and strikes a pose as he prepares to leave from Pittsburgh International Airport at 5:48 a.m. on Sunday, March 6, 2016. Gilkey was the opening night speaker at the Welcome a Stranger Journalism Conference and Multimedia Workshop at Allegheny College March 3-4 2016. Gilkey died on assignment in Helmand Province, Afghanistan on June 5, 2016. Photo by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2016, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch. Copyright 2016

Wheels up.

My friend David Gilkey sent me a text as he left Washington, D.C. last March. He’d already posted a photo of sunrise from his plane window as he sat at the gate waiting to taxi to takeoff.

David spoke and wrote in short, efficient phrases. Understood. Roger that. He’d covered the military for years and the precision and cadence stuck.

When I’d written him months earlier to invite him to speak at Allegheny College, he responded, “I’m in.”

David did not give many public lectures. He came because I asked him. He came because he’s my friend. He came because he said he would, despite the fact that he’d only just returned from three weeks on assignment for National Public Radio in scorched, ravaged South Sudan.

David was the keynote speaker on March 4, 2016, at our “Welcome the Stranger” journalism conference and multimedia workshop.

Three months later, on June 5, 2016, the Taliban killed David and his Afghan translator and friend, Zabihullah Tamanna, near Marjah in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

David and I had known each other since college. We both worked on our student daily newspaper. We both wanted to be photojournalists.

After college, I went overseas first. I went into conflict first—the civil war in Liberia. David followed and then, over the years, surpassed me. We worked in some of the same places—Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan. But we were never in the same place at the same time.

And when I eventually opted out of covering conflict, David hit his stride. In his youth, his anger, in part, drove him. As he matured, it was his indignation and resolve to witness; and, through his photographs, show the world the entire spectrum of what he’d witnessed. Depravity. Death. Joy. Resilience. Love.

David first visited Allegheny College via Skype. He was the subject of the news writing students’ interview for their final exam in December 2014. While he was talking with the students, he asked for a moment to take a call. He returned and finished the interview. He remained available for the students’ questions throughout the three-hour exam.

I had a question. Gilkey, what was the call? It was a notification: our friend and fellow photojournalist, Michel duCille, had died of a heart attack on assignment covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

David was the first person I called when I started planning my trip to Liberia, scheduled for later that December. He’d already been one of the first journalists on the ground in Liberia and he’d traveled to Sierra Leone and Guinea to cover the epidemic. I asked for his advice.

Rubber boots, David said. Take rubber boots. And don’t get close, Cheryl. It can kill you.

David knew the risks of his work. He accepted them and mitigated them to the best of his ability. He wasn’t reckless by nature though he did love a good shot of adrenaline: downhill skiing, scuba diving. And covering conflict and natural disasters.

In March, we had four hours before we’d return to the airport to collect Carrie Kahn, another speaker and NPR correspondent in Mexico City. We headed to Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. David’s idea. He knew more about the city than I did and I’d be in Pennsylvania nearly four years. We ate the classic sandwich with fries wedged between the slices of bread. At David’s memorial service in July in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, his friends told stories of his love of food, from “street meat” to fine dining in pricey, celebrated restaurants.

That was David. He enjoyed the fine things in life: a pair of hand-stitched leather boots and first-class travel. And he could live in the most grim and challenging conditions. He could sleep in the dirt and cold and go for weeks without a shower.

When David and I met, we wouldn’t share war stories. On our last visit, we talked about our aging parents and our concern and love for them. We talked about our Humpty-Dumpty hearts, each shattered by a beloved. A sanctuary and sacred trust violated. For both of us, the betrayal marked a profound wounding and trauma that pierced us to our core and persisted.

David spoke about his work and legacy. He had a keen desire to see the bulk and span of his work in Afghanistan edited, collected, shared and preserved. David had traveled to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He humped through the country with Marines and soldiers at least once a year, often more, throughout the entire 14-year war, the longest in American history. He was committed to the story. And he died covering it, long after the gaze of the public and media had turned away.

He showed me photographs on his phone of his new home in D.C. It was a beautiful space, a photographer’s home, full of windows and light. My house is your house, Cheryl. You’re welcome any time, even if I’m not there. I told him I’d come see him as soon as he got back.

I was home sick and wide-awake the night of June 3, 2016. It would have been June 4 already in Afghanistan. On an impulse, I sent David a text, must have been the fever. I had no idea if it’d reach him. He responded immediately.

I was still in bed the next day when Carrie Kahn called me, sobbing. David’s dead.

Later, I checked my phone to see if I’d written “I love you” in that last text. I hadn’t.

I know I said it at the airport three months earlier. Since David’s death, I make a point to say I love you to friends and family, when I finish a phone call or part company. Some were uncomfortable with it at first. “It’s my tribute to David,” I would offer and they would understand.

Last March, we needed to leave Meadville at 3:30 a.m. for his 7 a.m. flight. You don’t need to take me, Cheryl. Get some hung-over student to drive me there. No way. I insisted.

We arrived bleary-eyed and laughing at 5:45 a.m. It wasn’t a long good-bye. David grabbed his bags. I grabbed a selfie. We hugged. I told him I’d see him in D.C.

With my phone, I snapped a couple frames of David in the dim light in front of the departure terminal. He kicked up his leg, stuck out his tongue. And left.

Wheels up, David.


Fast Forward: A Weekend at the Anchorage Film Festival

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Alice and I were talking on the phone ten days ago when I realized she wouldn’t make it to Fairbanks before she returned to Oregon. She’d arrived in Alaska from Maine in June and spent the summer scanning Cook Inlet for beluga whales as part of a research project. She remained in Anchorage for fall semester, participating in an exchange program, The Eco League, between her college, College of the Atlantic, and Alaska Pacific University.

I arrived in Fairbanks in late August and Alice planned to visit University of Alaska Fairbanks with some of her classmates. She had challenging classes and two jobs and soon the semester was nearly finished and she hadn’t made it to Fairbanks.

During our conversation, she mentioned the Anchorage Film Festival, which runs Dec. 3-16.  I remembered Alaska Air was offering special fares from Fairbanks to Anchorage. In no time, we had a plan for and I had a ticket.

After I arrived in Anchorage, I rented a car and headed to meet Alice at her dorm. I followed her impeccable instructions, except the big log with the name of her university was buried in snow and the name of her dorm was not visible for the road. I drove right past her dorm. Driving past our destination and circling back to find it became a theme of the weekend.

We met her college friend, Katija, and her mother, Naomi, for hearty laughs and brunch at the Snow City Cafe.

Alice, right, and Katija, pose outside Snow City Cafe, in Anchorage on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010.

In the evening, we headed to the Out North Theater, and drove past it twice before we called for directions.

We watched the documentary, “The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi,” It’s a fine film about a remarkable jazz legend. I learned about his ground-breaking song “Cast your Fate to the Wind” and his ongoing commitment to musical experimentation, social justice and civil rights. He created the totally hip and memorable scores for the Charlie Brown cartoons, whose melodies run like a leitmotif through my childhood. The last piece of footage hit a sour note with both Alice and me. Unnecessary. Inappropriate. Inexplicable.

After the film we joined Anne Raup, a friend I hadn’t seen in more than a decade and the assistant photo editor at The Anchorage Daily News. We agreed to meet at the Bear Tooth Theatre Pub. Alice guided us to the Moose Tooth, a sister restaurant, so we called Anne for directions. We found the place, where people where queueing for a film fest movie and for food in the main restaurant. We opted for a booth in the diner. Right choice. We lingered for nearly three hours, over pizza, fish tacos, a halibut burrito. We laughed out loud and a lot.

On Sunday, we joined Charles Fedullo for coffee and conversation. He’s now the director of public relations for NANA Development Corporation; he is also a member of the Snedden committee that selected me for the Snedden Endowed Chair this year. We met at Europa Cafe. Alice and I both indulged and chose pain au chocolat to accompany our mochas.

More stories. More laughter. Alice was fascinated by his tales from his short-lived stint for former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Sunday afternoon Alice was keen to see the short animation offerings.  At COA, Alice produced an animation based on John Steinbeck’s journey in the Sea of Cortes. We both liked “The Arctic Circle,” with its puppets and moral on the implications of greed. Short, sweet, too the point. We both were moved by “The Lighthouse,” an eight-minute animation from Taiwan by Po Chou Chi. It was like an Asian animated version of Cat Steven’s “Cats in the Cradle.” At least, that’s the hidden soundtrack I had playing in my head as the narrative unfolded. Truly lyrical and sweet story and gorgeous artistic rendering.

Sadly, the sound on some animations was off and it bugged Alice.

“Sound really matters,” Alice said.

She sounded off about “Ping,” a nine-minutes animation from the United States by Jason Oshman. I didn’t enjoy the CGI piece either and thought it would have been the right nine minutes to take a bathroom break.

Alice did like the opening piece, “The Adjustable Cosmos.” Everything was well-executed–the drawings, the narrative, the sound. I also liked the whimsical “Flew the Coop,” a four-minute animation by Alex Luko (USA.)

We made the mistake of sticking around for the foreign shorts that followed the animations.

Dark. Dark. Dark.

Incest. Violence. Suicide. Incest. Sex trafficking. A suicide bomber. Murder. We were wiped out and demoralized when we left the theater. We both remarked that we had wanted to walk out during the two hours of nearly unrelenting darkness and despair. Moral of that story: Follow your instinct. We both would have been happier.

Right about now this blog post is feeling as long as those two hours of foreign film shorts, so I’ll wrap it up.

On Monday morning, Alice ran a few errands while we had wheels then we had a quick breakfast at the Middle Way Cafe, which gave us both a reminder and a taste of Oregon, before I dropped her at her dorm. I wanted to snap a few photos and she humored me, briefly.

Alice poses outside her dorm at Alaska Pacific University on Monday, Dec. 6, 2010 in Anchorage.

Alice returned to data analysis on one of her final project. I headed to the airport.

I drove right past it and had to stop and ask for directions. Of course.