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[This is the first chapter from Dream the Dawn]

The Fogher Cliffs, Valentia Island, Ireland

It’s all trying to throw me off the cliff, steep squirrelly slate slipping under my boots. I focus on keeping my camera gear, and myself, from plummeting into the heaving Atlantic below. Stay balanced so I won’t miss anything. And for God’s sake, stay out of the way of the girl from Killarney, on the opposite side of the small sea cove from where I’m perched. We’re photographing a California showboat rock climber, Ric Conroy, an outdoor adventure celebrity. His specialty is bizarre, quick, even elegant rock climbing, and it’s the first time he has climbed in his grandparents’ homeland. It’s about 4 p.m. We’ve been shooting all day at several cliff faces on the island. Out of nowhere, a monstrous swell careens beneath me, and with the sound of a jet engine, blows across the shallow bay where there’s no place for it to go but up. Slamming into the cliff, roaring up the face like a writhing tongue, it smacks Conroy off the first pitch. I have him framed with a 300mm lens as he falls backwards into an explosive column of white foam that plummets back down the wall into churning green-white water. Gone. As the waves thunder blasts my ears, I barely hear his publicist scream behind me, probably for us to leap in to save him, ignoring that we’re above fang-like rocks. But that was my first instinct, to shed my gear and dive into the water thirty feet or so below. She keeps screaming into a muscular wind snuffing her words into little staccato shrieks. I feel like screaming too. Across the cove Glennie, the photographer from Killarney, cell phone to ear, shouts in earnest, staring down into the mouth of the sea. The continuous roar of the rogue wave’s retreating surf erases her words. My search for Conroy in the swells is futile. The sea has swallowed him. Distressed by thinking that I could have tried to save him, I scramble up the cliff edge to meet up with Glennie. I shout above the sea’s roar. “This looks serious. What…what do we do?” Ignoring me, she yells into the phone; I hear the words Knightstown Sea Rescue. It’s clear she knows her stuff, all the years shooting for the main Kerry newspapers and


2 stringing for every other publication of note. A lot happens in the Kingdom of Kerry. And Glennie McDonald, I’ve been told, is always on top of it. Her spikey black hair blown sideways by the wind, she looks past me at the aftermath of the rogue wave. “You bet it’s serious. No sign of him. We stay here and watch. When the S&R lads arrive, we’ll point to where he was.” “Sorta hard to describe…this whole part of the coast is nothing but cliffs.” Stating the obvious shows how astute I am. She glances at me through squinted eyes, as if I’m not supposed to be here, thumbs another number. Then she speaks out of the corner of her mouth. “Watch for him.” She jabs a commanding finger downward towards the green-marbled sea. The tiny publicist reaches our little rock shelf out of breath and speechless. I try to calm her. “Glennie’s called the Coast Guard and the sea rescue guys are on their way now. By boat.” Seems fitting to add that little detail. I’m not sure any of it registers. She’s hyperventilating and her eyes have a faraway unfocused look. She strikes me as a silkscarved Junior Leaguer from La Jolla, with color coordinated clothes, everything teal blue– scarf, slacks, shoes, like Queen Elizabeth. “C’mon, let’s keep watching for him.” It isn’t funny seeing a world-class free-climber like Ric surprised and taken by a rogue wave. I keep thinking, that coulda been me. I take her arm in mine—she feels cornstalk thin—and hold it as we scan the wild water below. Ric Conroy wore bright colors when climbing. He knew they stood out in photos … or as he said, a dramatic promotional image, especially since this was a muchpublicized exhibition climb. That alone would help us spot him, bright yellow shirt, French blue climbing pants, and red climbing shoes. A producer of adventure films, he was a keen marketer who knew how to make a living doing impossible free climbs and speed climbs. No protection, no belays, no help other than sticky climbing shoes, rosin bag, huge talent and strength. It was he and the rock face and a knack for picking dramatic routes that others had struggled on. He would race up these needles, sheer faces with huge overhangs, smooth basalt monoliths, on any continent, and he’d summit before noon. Bracing myself into a good watching position, I scan back through the last twenty or so images on my camera screen. Near the end Ric was laughing and holding his arms out, as if he’d hit a bases-loaded home run. Then he began rocketing up a complex face of overhangs, small chimneys, and thin diagonal cracks. The last frame is a chaos of crashing


3 wave

and a piece of Ric ’s French blue climbing pants being snatched under. I shut the camera off, my fingers stiff. Damp wind roars up the cliff and bleeds

through my navy-blue EMS parka. The afternoon grayness waters my eyes as I search for any good sign——perhaps some color in the waves below. The publicist behind me jabs at her phone, cries and shouts, then makes more calls. I feel bad for her, bad for Ric Conroy, bad for his family. Its noon in New York and 9 a.m. in L.A. I can see Glennie above me, walking along the cliff edge with feline delicacy, a cat placing her paws. She looks calm but watches the sea like a huntress. When she returns to hearing distance, I ask her what I can do to help. She leans in close to me. “Keep her calm. And keep watching. If he’s not out of that water in another thirty, forty minutes, he’s a goner. Hypothermia will take him if the ocean hasn’t.”

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Five orange-and-black Zodiacs trailing long V-shaped wakes appear on the ocean surface to our right. At the same time two Gardai policemen arrive by land, having taken their Land Rover as far as they could up a slate-strewn track behind us. Powerful flashlights and communication gear in tow, they interface with Knightstown Sea Rescue. A fastmoving orange-and-blue Coast Guard launch roars in behind the smaller boats. I begin to feel a little less agitated that I hadn’t leaped in to save Ric. The pros have arrived and are now in charge. If anyone can find Ric it will be the S&R men. Glennie and I answer questions and describe what we saw, deploying our digital cameras to show the two Guards the images of the rogue wave and Ric’s disappearance. They cluck their tongues and shake their heads. “Jaysus, will ya look at that now?” One of them looks down prayerfully at the slate beneath his feet, shakes his head. “Aye. Doesn’t look good.” A shiver chills my spine, as if a cold hand lay there. My recently deceased lover’s hand, Carlyle’s cold, lifeless hand. Yeah. That could have been me. There could’ve been two lost souls, not one. The Coast Guard launch beams searchlights and scuba divers tip backwards off the sides of the boats into swells that roll in and explode against the cliff face. I wonder how they can swim in such perturbed, powerful water.


4 In hindsight it seems foolhardy to do what Conroy did, so close to water that turned dangerous, becoming a killer wave. I jam my hands into my jacket pockets and remember a favorite art director’s deadpan delivery of a Universal Truth in Advertising Photography: “When you’re least expecting it, it’ll rise up and bite you in the butt.” And “it” was anything in the job that you had ignored, sidestepped or not considered. Sea wind blows in the night. We’ve been walking back and forth across the top edge of this cliff, looking down into a darkening sea, punctuated here and there with zipping Zodiacs lit occasionally by marine spotlights. I should get the publicist to our cars and on to her comfortable hotel or B&B. She looks pale in her teal jacket, her teary eyes stunned and shaken—as we all are—having seen her most colorful client disappear as she watched. I want to retreat to my own warm, dry single bed at Carrig a Leathe B&B. My agent Spiro admonished me to be polite and slightly subservient to the girl from Killarney, who after all was hired directly by Ric Conroy. My being here only has to do with Outside Magazine, and eventually Getty Images. I approach Glennie, who is chatting with the Gardai. As she turns away from the two officers, she tilts her head towards me, raises an eyebrow and spears me with startling blue eyes. “Anything more I can do to help?” Transfixed by the blue depth of her eyes, I continue. “Maybe I should get her back to her hotel so she can eat, call Ric’s wife if she hasn’t already?” She nods thoughtfully and I continue. “This is probably now a search-andrescue story, huh? It’s all different, and I don’t want to get in your way.” Glennie somehow looks older, but softer. Maybe the fatigue and stress makes her look more approachable. Whatever makeup she had is gone, but her beauty is palpable, reminiscent of the actress Jennifer Connolly in the movie "Blood Diamonds." “You’re not in my way at all. But yeah,” she sighs and glances seaward. “It’s now a search-and-rescue story. Awful, isn’t it?” “Sure, terrible.” I watch the teetering publicist afraid she might trip in such steep terrain. She alternately dabs at her eyes with a tissue and taps her phone. “Look,” says Glennie, leaning close to me and nodding towards the publicist. “Get her off the mountain, back to the hotel.” She lays a hand on my arm. “Same for you. Call me later and we’ll talk about tomorrow. Too dark to shoot and we can’t get on the rescue craft till morning anyway. But be prepared to meet at the station early if you’d like to go out on the Zodiacs. Mind you, these lads are iron men. Never sleep, never eat, never get cold.” Chilled fingers fumbling my pen, I write her numbers along with the contacts for the


5 Knightstown rescue station. I give her my new cell number as well as the B&B’s. “Okay,” I say. “You’ll find out what the call is at Knightstown then let me know?” “Ta Cinte.” “Pardon?” “It’s Irish for ‘You bet.’” She throws me a warm smile along with the explanation, her eyes crinkled at the corners, her finely edged lips widened but closed. I take one last scan out to sea, a desperate attempt at spotting Ric’s colors, yellow, blue, and red.

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How in hell did I get involved with all this? I get the heat going in our Ford Focus and drive the publicist down the backside of the high cliffs towards a warm room and food. This isn’t the cream puff shoot my rep, Spiro, sold me. “For you, a veteran New York photographer, it’ll be easy,” he said, “in the land of your forefathers. Perfect to help you get over two deaths and two funerals in less than two weeks,” he’d said. I needed to get out of New York into some serious fresh air. “What better place to do that?” Spiro had pressed his pitch; hands splayed out like a TV evangelist. “In the West of Ireland, make some pretty landscapes with this maniac blond guy doing daredevil shit for Outdoor Magazine, maybe even European Geo. So it pays peanuts? Magazines don’t pay crap and never have, so who gives a shit, Channey? You’ve already done better’n about any other photographer. Go have some fun.”

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Madame Publicist booked several rooms for her and Ric at a hoity-toity spa-type inn overlooking the harbor town of Portmagee. Built of dark gray stone and perched on a rise above the harbor, finding it in the dark proves tricky. It’s the kind of inn that avoids mention in the run-of-the-mill B&B listings for County Kerry. She’s no help, thumbing her glowing cell phone and sniffling, probably working up some way to blame me for her discomfort. I’m used to this. We photographers are down there in the pecking order; we get blamed for the craziest, most irrational things. I drop her off at her spa-inn with a hug, tell her how sorry I am, then leave. My B&B


6 is the first one after crossing the Valentia Island Bridge. A sweet owner, Mrs. O’Sullivan, spotless room, robust breakfast, killer view of Portmagee and the jaw-dropping green mountain looming behind the town. The best pub is, according to Mrs. O’Sullivan, the Bridge Bar, so that’s where I head. Having been in country only two full days, I’m cold, tired, still jet-lagged, and anxious of crashing head-on into an Irish driver on the proper Irish side of the road. In the one-street town of Portmagee, I park one set of wheels on the sidewalk next to the harbor wall. Then I follow my nose to the tan-with-brown-trim Bridge Bar. The bar is packed, cigarette smoke slewing like fog across the low ceiling. I find a tiny table near a drafty part of the front window beside the entrance. I order a Bulmers cider and seafood chowder, something to warm me gullet, as my mother used to say in her own mother’s North of Ireland accent. The chowder comes with two slabs of brown bread and heavenly sweet butter. Above me photos yellowed with age of fishing boats and huge fish are lined up across the wall. Spiro’s last instructions were something you might say to a rookie photographer, and he knew it. His eyebrows dipped low in the center. “Look, all’s you gotta do is shoot and don’t pull any of that I’m a big-time New York asshole photographer stuff that big-time New York asshole photographers always do. Always! There’s this girly shooter, local, who’s covering it for the publicist. You’re doing the tree-hugger magazine work, so stay out of her way as best you can.” His eyebrows bucked and reared high. So that’s what I’m doing, none of that “I’m from New York” shit, as Spiro put it. The chowder, thick with crab and fish and laced with cream, butter, and sherry, goes down smooth and warm, so I order another. The thin waiter, sporting earrings and a couple of Celtic Goth tattoos around his wrists, grins and nods. “Bulmer’s too?” I’m too damn tired to try Ta cinte. I’ll screw it up, so say, “Yes please.” I’ll ask Glennie how to say it. The guys at the next table are swilling pints and talking about Ric Conroy being eaten by the Atlantic. Some feckin’ Yank doing some crazy shit. I take a big spoonful of chowder, thankful I’m not flailing and dying in fifty-degree or colder water. How could Ric or anyone survive in that frigid sea? Anyway, how do these guys at the next table know about this so soon? I have a full day’s shoot on two 128-gigabyte compact flash drives, a number of cover-quality images, some two-page spreads, all the coverage a layout editor loves to have in Adobe InDesign. They love you when you give them lots of options. You can bet that


7 your favorites won’t see the light of day, except in your own portfolio. With the unfortunate loss of the main feature, I doubt the article will ever run. But if I shoot some of the rescue, that might interest Outdoor. After all, Ric Conroy is a big outdoors celebrity known for historic and dramatic climbs. As I’m scraping my second bowl of chowder, wishing I had the kind of tongue a good Lab has, Glennie McDonald leans through the door that opens to a blast of chilled air, bumping into the edge of my little round table. “Glennie!” I blurt out, so glad to see her. Her head tilts to the left, black hair swirling the cigarette smoke, lips pursed into a question. “How’d you find yourself here?” “Mrs. O’Sullivan at the B&B. Any news of Ric?” “None.” She closes the door, removes her parka, and drapes it over the chair back. I feel a tingle in my chest as she slips off her fingerless gloves, sinks into the chair opposite and with a long day’s fatigue, drops an arm on the edge of the table. She glides the other hand through her hair. “I need to sit awhile. This okay?” “Of course.” I arm-wave as best a New Yorker can do in a busy bar on the farthest western edge of Europe. Tattoo Earring swerves over and Glennie tells him what she wants, the salmon special, then she turns to me and lifts her chin. I notice the wedding ring, and feel that sinking feeling of being single and very much alone. “Half-four at the station,” she says. “Go as far as you can down the hill in Knightstown. Follow the ferry signs to the harbor, bear left when you get to the boats, put on brakes or you’ll crash into the station. Wear as warm as you…emm, you have wellies, rain gear?” “No, but I have this parka, fleece sweaters, hiking boots. All that I have on now.” I’m stunned by the early call. The S&R lads will be out all night, then we’ll join the morning shift. They search twenty-four hours nonstop. “Okay, ask Mrs. O’Sullivan for anything to wear for a Zodiac. She’ll know. I think one of her sons is on the search.” She wags a finger at me, and smiles. “Don’t want you to freeze out there.” Now how does she know Mrs. O’Sullivan or her son? It’s subtle, but Glennie seems friendlier. She likely expected a Yank amateur who’d trip and fall, talk too loud, say things really … well, inane. I’d better watch myself. Her dinner arrives, a fragrant plate of pink salmon, red potatoes and brilliant


8 green broccoli. “I didn’t pack marine gear and from what I saw of those Zodiacs tossing around down there, I’ll be soaked before we get out of the harbor.” “Not to worry, iron men will have tossed you overboard before we hit the big swells.” She squeezes a tiny grin from her tired face as she eats. I feel my face pale at the thought of gut-wrenching seasickness, frozen fingers, and saltwater-drenched cameras. I’ve never been keen on tossing and rolling boats. “Slaggin’, Channey.” Her Kerry accent softens, her voice lower. “Iron men have stuff for you to wear, Coast Guard duds. Be nice to ’em.” She artfully forks a small potato through her lips. “I’m telling you, I’m the damn nicest guy from New York you’ll ever see. Thanks for the heads-up.” She nods and rests her chin on her fork-holding hand, her eyes locked on mine. I wonder what this inquisitive look means…and what about the wedding ring? With the other hand she picks up the pint glass and sinks her top lip into the creamy head of Guinness. “God, this is too much, isn’t it?” I think she means the Guinness, but her tone is too dark. “Sure is. I’ve never photographed someone … taken like that.” I have to stop. I’d dealt with so much death in the past several weeks. In a way, I should be back at my mom’s house right now trying to handle the aftermath of my father’s sudden death. But two highly contentious brothers make that prospect unappetizing, so I let Spiro sell me on this “cream puff “photo shoot. I ask Glennie about shooting for the newspapers. She raises her eyebrows, purses her lips in a where-the-hell-should-I-begin look. “Too late in the day to go into that. I need sleep, but thank you for asking about that, Channey. After all, you’re the international globetrotting photographer, not me.” I begin to interrupt but she raises a hand to stop me. “And thanks very much for the Guinness and salmon special. It was perfect.” She stands, shoves hands into gloves, arms into her parka, and grabs the door leaving me to wonder about her—how strong and alive she is—and flag down Tattoo Earring and pay.

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9

I get to the third step going upstairs before Mrs. O’Sullivan pops out of the kitchen to ask about socks. “Have wool socks, do ye?” “Got those but no wellies.” She has waited up for me, knowing I had seen the last of Ric Conroy. News travels fast on small islands. “You must be famished, so?” “I availed myself of your best suggestion: the Bridge Bar and it was wonderful. But I’m to ask you about boots.” “I think Billie has some extras out back, but the Knightstown lads will have much better kit for you.” “I’m supposed to be at the rescue station at four-thirty.” “You’ll have a box of food to take with you, whatever I’ve got I’ll pack and leave here on the bottom step. It’ll be a long day, so it will.” In my room I go over my gear and wonder how I can beat out cold sloshing seawater, going in every direction. At least my Tamrac Extreme camera pack is reasonably rainproof, padded with closed-cell foam, storm flaps over the zippers. The bad news is that I have to get my cameras out and use them, water or no. Stuffed between the main compartment and the shoulder straps are plastic bags, 30-gallon size, a few tall kitchen ones and a dozen Zip-Lok bags, anything to keep the cameras dry and working. Plus I have some bubble wrap for that just-in-case stuff. I plug the batteries into chargers, clip the flash drives into their USB connectors, and download both cards. While I shower the files burn to DVDs on my beat-up Mac. Now I can sleep, or toss and turn, with a vivid recollection of that huge swell rising thirty feet above the tide line, then with nowhere else to go, climbing the cliff face like a herd of crazy white stallions as I photographed the last of Ric Conroy. Glennie’s fatigued smile, the way that she looked at me, was somehow reassuring. I thought she considered me a pain-in-the-ass interloper, but maybe not. Her face is remarkable, strong yet fine-featured, and lips worth writing home about. This is somehow important. I try to go to sleep and I keep seeing her face … those piercing blue eyes.

Dream The Dawn by Jon Michael Riley  

This is the 1st Chapter - you won't be able to put it down!