A Silent Bond


Can you imagine not speaking to your spouse…the one you live with…for a week? Well, OK…how about a month? Or decades…OR EVER?

Through their courtship and through four decades of marriage that produced three children, Teddy and Nora Welch never spoke a word to each other.

Nora and Teddy Welch. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Nora and Teddy Welch. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Oh, they communicated alright and when the did, it was often very animated and impassioned. That’s what fascinated me enough to seek them out and convince them to let me do a photo story about them.

Teddy and Nora were both 100 percent deaf, unable to speak and Teddy had been blind since childhood. They met some forty years earlier at a school for the deaf and blind and the rest is history as they say. Except their history included raising three children who were sighted and not hearing impaired in a world geared for the sighted and hearing.

They were now senior citizens coping with that same world determined to manage on their own with each other for support.

I first met Teddy and Nora when they walked into my portrait studio I owned for a few years. After a quick hand wave that was her “hello”, Nora began making writing gestures in the palm of her hand indicating she wanted something to write on. After that first meeting to our last one years later, I always made sure I had a pen and writing pad. That was how they communicated with the rest of the world they lived in.

They wanted a portrait of them to send to their children who lived some distance away. We made an appointment for another day and when the day arrived, so did they and a portrait was done. When I showed the prints to them, Nora would look at each one and then describe it to Teddy by holding up her hand and “signing” the letters that make up the words that make up the sentences that express the thoughts in her head.

Teddy reads Nora's hand signing by feeling the signs in his hand. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Teddy reads Nora’s hand signing by feeling the signs in his hand. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Teddy "speaks" to Nora by signing in the air. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.COM)

Teddy “speaks” to Nora by signing in the air. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.COM)

Since Teddy was blind and could not see her hand, he would cup his hands over hers and feel the letters as they formed words and sentences and conveyed thoughts. Two or three times when I would push another of the proofs in front of her to examine, Nora would sit back, glance up at me, back down at the photo, and back up at me without the expression of approval I had seen. I took this to be a sort of “thumbs down” on that particular pose and slid it to the side of the table. Teddy was none the wiser.

I liked that about them. It was too much of an effort to beat around the bush so I always knew quickly what they wanted and didn’t want. I had the feeling that’s the way they were with each other. Direct. No time for the guessing game so many couples engage in. You could see it when they were walking on the street together. When they wanted to say something to the other one, they stopped on the sidewalk, faced each other and began signing. Teddy in the air so Nora could see and Nora in his cupped hand so he could feel. Then sometimes there would be an audible gasp of disagreement from Teddy followed by a firm pressing of Nora’s hand in his forming more words as if to say, “This is the way we’re doing it so get over it.”

One blazing hot July afternoon, I happened to see them walking on the street I assumed heading for home. I pulled up to the curb and motioned to Nora to get in. She didn’t hesitate and without any explanation to Teddy, guided him into the car. She seemed greatly relieved to be in air conditioning but a very confused and questioning Teddy began signing furiously as if to ask, “Where in the hell are we?” Nora formed the words in his hand that turned his face of despair to glee as he reached up to the driver’s seat and patted my head and shoulders as if to say, “Thanks.”

In time, I moved away from that little town but kept thinking what a remarkable story they are. So, on a return visit I decided to drop by their house and present the idea of allowing me to spend a day with them and do a photo story. They of course have no phone and I had taken them home once so I did know where they lived. “Drop by” was really the only option since I wouldn’t be in town long enough to exchange letters.

Grocery shopping can include some very animated discussions. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Grocery shopping can include some very animated discussions. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

They were happy to see me and after several pages of conversation on a legal pad, they agree that it would be OK for me to do a story about them. Their two biggest questions were, “How much will it cost us?” and “Why would anybody want to read a story about us?”. I assured them there was no cost and would in return, give them photos and copies of the publication after it was published.

Teddy handles the household finances including having the grocery store cashier use her finger to write the total in his hand. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Teddy handles the household finances including having the grocery store cashier use her finger to write the total in his hand. (Copyright by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

I sold the story to a metro paper in a neighboring town and presented copies of the story and photos to Teddy and Nora. She was awestruck at seeing their new found but short lived celebrity displayed over a full page in the metro Sunday edition. Teddy ran one hand over the page as Nora signed into his other describing the photos on the page.

As our visit came to an end, Nora wrote a request at the bottom of a notepad filled with our conversation scribbles back and forth. She wrote, “Please learn to sign. It is so exhausting to write.” That seems like a reasonable request from someone who asks very little in a sighted and hearing enabled world.

A few years after their story was published, Nora passed away and Teddy followed less than two years later. They drew their strength from each other.

John S. Stewart


“Wasteland” in the Ozarks

"Wasteland" in the Ozarks, PHOTO STORIES, THE OZARKS

The 2010 Oscar nominated documentary film, “Wasteland” profiles a few of the estimated 250,000 people in Brazil who make their living reusing and recycling the trash the rest of the population generates.

The Ozarks has its own 1976 version of “Wasteland”.

I lay in bed listening to the nearby early summer nighttime chirping of crickets and tree frogs. The more distant sounds of highway traffic and dogs barking completed the nocturnal ambient noise drifting through the open windows of my new non air conditioned abode in Salem, Missouri.
So much for nostalgic sensory memories.

Humans and animals pick through pick through garbage at an open burn waste dump in the rural Ozarks-1976.

An old woman and a dog look for something usable or edible in an open burn waste dump in the rural Ozarks in 1976. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

What really got my attention this night was the smell drifting through the window screens; a burning smell. This smell wasn’t the sweet smell of wood smoke on autumn days but the acrid smell of stuff burning that will burn but wasn’t made with the intention to burn it. Things like household products and the stuff we need or think we need to live each day.

The next afternoon on my way home from work, I made it a mission to follow my nose to the source of the offending odors. I found it at the end of a gravel road across the highway from where I lived.

At the end of the road the terrain dropped off to a sloping hillside until it reached flat ground again 30 or 40 feet below. At the top of the hill garbage trucks, pickup trucks and even cars would back up and empty their contents down the side of the hill.

An Ozarks' Version of "Wasteland"

Two boys pick through refuse at an open burn waste dump in the Ozarks-1976. (Copyright John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES.com)

Within a few minutes, three or four or a half-dozen people would gather around the fresh drop and begin picking through it. Men, women, children and the old all made up the group of people who gathered daily to find something they needed or could use that others didn’t need or couldn’t use.

I photographed some of the pickers and approached a few but found none anxious to talk. Most turned and walked away when they saw my camera. Whether the shame of such pursuit is self-imposed or handed down from society, it is there regardless.

An attendant told me most of the pickers came late in the afternoon when most of the trash was dumped. Then in the early evening he would set fire to what would burn reducing the volume on the hillside.

The resulting piece was offered to the editor as a photo page with little copy since I wasn’t able to really talk to the subjects. If I remember correctly, I likened the experience to walking into Dante’s Inferno and presented it as a window the people of the town could look through and see a part of their town most of them had never seen.

I’m not sure if it was really appreciated but I had found the source of my sleepless nights; the nocturnal smells drifting past my open bedroom window and now visions of people picking through garbage.

  John S. Stewart

A Biker’s Funeral


“Well, you sure have some pretty rough, scruffy lookin’ friends”, the office secretary shot across her desk as I came through the door of the small Missouri town newspaper where I worked in 1978.

Booger Red's friends escort him to his final resting place.

Friends of “Booger Red” line up for the funeral procession that will take him to his final resting place. “Hagen” is at right in the German helmet. (Photo copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES)

Twenty minutes earlier, the office was full of a dozen or so leather jacketed tattooed (tattoos weren’t so mainstream then) motorcycle gang members wanting to see me. Their friend and fellow gang member, “Booger Red” had been ‘murdered’ and now they were going to bury him with a proper biker’s funeral.

Some weeks earlier I had taken a photo of a local teenaged boy being airlifted to a Shriners’ Burn Hospital after he ignited himself  with gasoline while filling up his motorcycle. His father, “Hagen” was the gang’s leader and wanted me to photograph their friend’s funeral. I was to go to his house where the gang had gathered and we would talk about it. O…K….sure why not?

Motorcycle gang member "Booger Red" at the funeral home the night before the biker's funeral.

Motorcycle gang member “Booger Red” at the funeral home the night before his biker funeral. (Photo Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES)

Booger Red got his name from his flaming red hair and by his friends’ own description, he was a “booger”…mean. He was killed by a single gunshot to his chest through a screen door after he threatened the person inside with an ax during a drug deal gone bad. I was not going to argue with his friends whether he was “murdered” or killed in self-defense.

I arrived at Hagen’s house and was greeted in a quiet way like anyone arriving at a wake. The group, dressed in leathers accented with chains and images of skulls and fire was somber.

Years later while visiting an Amish household I would remember the

Mounted on their hogs, friends of Booger Red line up outside the funeral home.

Mounted on their hogs, friends of Booger Red line up outside the funeral home. (Photo Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES)

similarities in the two experiences. None of the men, except the leader, would talk to me. When I made eye contact with the female members of the group, they would look away.

Hagen and I sat a table and he thanked me for coming and then outlined the next day’s funeral activities. There would be a traditional funeral at the local funeral home for “Booger’s” immediate family. Yes, Booger actually had a mother and siblings. After that, it was the gang’s show. There would be a motorcycle escort the fifteen miles to the grave site out in the country and graveside services.

Hagen went on to explain that after that at most biker funerals,  everyone stands around and drinks beer and puts their empties into the casket. Charming. That would not happen for Booger Red. The celebration would wait until that evening when there would be dancing and drinking ON his grave. There would also be a couple of vans parked there with a girl in each …there for the taking. Thanks but no thanks.

At this point a whirl wind of journalist ethics, morals and questions began spinning in my head. Do I even continue pursuing this story? It was unusual to have been granted such access without a great deal of rapport but was my presence as a journalist guiding the behavior of the subjects?

The day of the funeral was cold, rainy with a little sleet and snow mixed in. The procession would be stopped several times as biker after biker

Mourners at fellow motorcycle gang member, Booger Red's funeral.

Mourners at fellow motorcycle gang member, Booger Red’s funeral. (Photo Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/LEFTeyeSTORIES)

slid out on the slick pavement ending up on the ground in front of the hearse.

I didn’t go to the evening activities after the graveside services. Instead, I developed film, printed photos and worked on a full-page layout to present to the editor the next day. He went for it and it would run in that afternoon’s paper. Before the presses started to roll, one of the pressmen asked me, “How many extra copies do you want to run?” “Extras?” I replied. “That’s not my decision but I don’t think we’ll need any.” He assured me there would be a need and by six o’clock that evening he was pulling early run rejects (those first copies that come off the press before they have the ink adjusted correctly) out of the trash to put out in the now sold out boxes on the street.

The next morning the office secretary that had remarked about my rough-looking friends locked her eyes on me as I came in and said, “Do you know how many phone messages I have listened to this morning about your biker funeral story and I’m not even to the end of the tape?”

The break was about 50-50. Half  the readers loved it and half hated it

but everybody wanted to read about it. Some saw it as glorifying a seedy element of society and others were interested in getting a glimpse of a side they ordinarily would never see.

To me, that is why you do stories like this one.

John S. Stewart

MANHUNT…but without the Hollywood ending

MANHUNT...but without the Hollywood ending, PHOTO STORIES, THE OZARKS

At first glance the photos seem to depict a classic manhunt in the rural mid-20th century South (except in this case the Ozarks) where the racist white lawmen and their dogs hunt down a young African-American man, shoot him and then stand around smoking cigarettes patting themselves on the back.

This was not the case here. I know. I was there. This is where real words have to fill in the blanks of those 1000 word essays that photos are suppose to deliver.

Minutes after firing a single rifle shot that ended the flight of fugitive Willie Joe Taylor, the sharpshooter kneels at his side.

Minutes after firing a single rifle shot that ended the 3-day flight of fugitive Willie Joe Taylor, the sharpshooter kneels at his side. (Copyright John S. Stewart)

In October of 1977, Oklahoma fugitive Willie Joe Taylor  eluded capture after killing a Oklahoma Highway Patrolman and fleeing in a stolen car up I-44 into Missouri where he was captured by a Missouri Highway Patrolman in Pulaski County.

Following standard procedure, the patrolman removed Taylor’s shoes and was attempting to handcuff him when a struggle ensued. Taylor, an ex-marine, wrested the patrolman’s service revolver from him, put it to the patrolman’s head and pulled the trigger.

Only by the grace of God and a bullet that misfired did the patrolman escape unharmed.  But Taylor escaped on foot beginning a three-day manhunt through rugged Ozarks hills.

Sightings of  Taylor by residents of the hill country were many. Doors were locked and guns kept close by as lawmen pursued but always  just one step behind. A few close encounters reported that Taylor would “growl” and flee but not speak when confronted by residents checking outbuildings.

On the third day, I got word through an informed source that “today could be the day they get him.” The focus of the manhunt was now one county away in Camden County Missouri. I drove down the rural road where the command center was  located and found a string of 12-15 law enforcement vehicles from several county and state agencies parked beside the road. Amazingly, there were only two TV crews and one radio station there. I was the only still photographer.

Dogs track fugitive Willie Joe Taylor over the rugged Ozarks' terrain in south central Missouri.

Dogs track fugitive Willie Joe Taylor over the rugged Ozarks' terrain in south central Missouri. (Copyright John S. Stewart)

Events like this were a lot less formal in 1977 than they are today. Maps were spread out across the trunk of a patrol car and if you weren’t too intrusive you could listen in on the discussion. Today those conversations are locked inside a mobile command unit van and media updates are issued periodically.

On this day law enforcement officers even shared their hot coffee in Styrofoam cups to fend off the cold drizzle that made everyone all the more hopeful for a quick end to the manhunt. Within 30 minutes of my arrival that hope came in the form of several more vehicles loaded with police tracking dogs from Indiana that were training at a police K-9 school 70 miles away in Strafford, Missouri.

Until now one or maybe two privately owned “bloodhounds” had been used without  success. Their primary “day jobs” were  running raccoons up trees during those fabled Ozarks coon hunts and keeping their owners warm on cold winter nights. They were being asked to do something that was a little out of their league. Plus, the cold drizzle was making any scent left by Taylor that much harder to follow.

Within 30 minutes after the newly arrived Indiana dogs were let out of their cars, handlers briefed at the back of a squad car and then disappearing over a nearby ridge, we began hearing the rapid chorus of barks that seemed to say, “we’re on to him.”

No one spoke. We couldn’t see what was happening on the other side of the ridge other than what was conjured up in our minds. The sound of the dogs’ excitement moved across the vista in front of us as everyone’s head panned right to left.

And then, muffled by the damp terrain of the ridge, boom…boom, boom, boom, boom…………………….boom.

Still no one spoke. Coffee cups dropped to the ground and a rush to the cars followed. Lawmen and media drove a short distance up the road until we came to a drive with a closed gate where we left the cars to continue on foot. We ran past a house whose occupants stood watching wide-eyed and mouths hanging open as we scrambled over their barbed wire fence and continued up the hill.

A 3-day manhunt for fugitive Willie Joe Taylor ended with Taylor lying on the ground shot and his shooter kneeling beside him surrounded by a dozen or more lawmen.

A 3-day manhunt for fugitive Willie Joe Taylor ended with Taylor lying on the ground shot and his shooter kneeling beside him surrounded by a dozen or more lawmen. (Copyright John S. Stewart)

At the top of the hill I stopped to click off a few shots of what I saw in the field in front of  me. A dozen or more lawmen surrounded a figure lying on the ground with another figure kneeling beside him. We learned later the first shots we heard were gunshots fired into the air trying to get Taylor to stop after the dogs had flushed him out of the woods. The dogs were never let off their leads like you see in the movies. When he didn’t stop the last shot was fired by a young Missouri Water Patrol officer sharpshooter who took time to get into a sitting position on the ground to improve his aim. The single shot shattered Taylor’s femur dropping him to ground and rendering him unconscious.

The Missouri Water Patrol sharpshooter (center) kneels at a fugitive's side minutes after felling him with a single shot from across a field.

A Missouri Water Patrol sharpshooter (center) kneels at the fugitive's side minutes after felling him with a single shot in his leg. Taylor's torn socks are a testament to the three days he spent running shoeless in the Ozarks' woods. (Copyright John S. Stewart)

I ran up to the scene and dropped to my knees a few yards from Taylor’s feet. I remember seeing the scene in front of me but being so out of breath I worried I wouldn’t be able to hold the camera still enough to record it on film.

Taylor’s socks were in shreds from running without shoes for three days in the woods through two counties. Kneeling beside him was the Missouri Water Patrol officer who shot him. This was the non-Hollywood ending. He was obviously emotionally drained if not distraught. Other officers, older and

Lawmen catch a ride from the field where Willie Joe Taylor fell.

Lawmen catch a ride from the field where Willie Joe Taylor fell. (Copyright John S. Stewart)

more experienced, put their hands on his shoulder as if to comfort rather than congratulate. The atmosphere was somber as they waited for paramedics to arrive. Few if any of them had felt what he was feeling now.

Even though Taylor would survive, the emotional trauma the officer felt ran deep. No amount of  hunting squirrels and deer that honed his skills to be able to do what he had done could prepare him for shooting another human no matter what that human  had done. That’s the part you don’t get in the movies.

John S. Stewart