Contrary to popular thought, gemsbok are not located only on the other side of the world. Quite a few of them roam White Sands Missile Range, too.
I could write more than one blog post about the controversial introduction of the 500-pound animal into the New Mexico desert more than a generation ago, and I may at some point. For now, it might suffice to explain I grew up believing the species had been transplanted to my little corner of the world because it was nearing extinction in the Kalahari. That's what I'd been taught. But that isn't quite the way it happened. And the story doesn't necessarily have a happy ending.
Nevertheless, the gemsbok is a beautiful and exotic animal, and the mere rare sight of it as I carpooled to Las Cruces on Tuesday nights to work on genealogy in the late '70s and early '80s ignited the desire to photograph this animal in a journalistic way. I dreamed of a National Geographic-type history, penned and shot by me. I longed to be the gemsbok guru of the southwest. Although that dream never materialized, I did have a unique gemsbok experience I have been longing to share.
The last few months I lived in New Mexico (literally way back in a different century), I spent quite a bit of time attempting to get THE perfect shot of a gemsbok, also known as an oryx. During the long days of summer (which are much longer down south than in Colorado), I would drive to the missile range after work and drive back and forth along a couple-mile stretch where I'd often seen oryx in the distance.
The highway was subject to scheduled and sometimes unscheduled closings during missile firings. Sometimes I'd get caught on the far end and be forced to wait in line with other motorists until well into the night to return home.
Sometimes I'd see an oryx, and once in a blue moon, a small group, but they'd be so distant, they appeared as miniatures even with the little telephoto lens that was all I had back then.
Sometimes I wouldn't see anything. No wildlife at all. A totally wasted trip and evening.
Persistence paid off, however. Just a short time before I found full-time employment across the border in Colorado, I finally found an oryx close to the highway fence and standing still! I pulled over, stopped the car, watched the animal for a few seconds to make sure I wasn't going to frighten it, then slowly rolled down the window, trying not to rock the car or move too much.
Am I dating myself here? Yes, I manually rolled down the window with arm power, not a button; this was long before electric windows were commonplace, especially in the land of spring sandstorms. Sandstorms likely would have rendered early electronic window systems useless, grinding away like sandpaper in unsealed vehicles.
The oryx, which had its derrière pointed toward me, looked over its shoulder a couple of times but continued to munch on whatever it was eating and did not take a single step in any direction.
After shooting probably an entire roll of film from the front seat of my car, through the window, I decided it would be safe to get a little closer. I slowly got out of the car, keeping my eye on the large animal, fully expecting it to jump the fence and run out into the four-lane highway or flee in the opposite direction to escape this paparazzi.
Instead, the animal continue to chew, standing motionless and refusing to pose for me. This act of defiance, of course, spurred greater courage deep inside me, and I step-by-step got a little bit closer, a little bit closer, a little bit closer... until I could fill the frame with a gorgeous head shot.
Except I still couldn't get this creature to look at me!
Meanwhile, cars zoomed by at the speed limit, which I believe may still have been 55 at the time; I think the 65-mile-per-hour limit was enacted later that year. Some cars would honk. Still, the animal would not look. Some cars would slow down just long enough for someone to hang out a window with an Instamatic camera to snap a photo, then speed off. Still, the animal would not look.
All this caused me to grow braver still. I softly whispered a conversation with the beast. "You're being so snotty! Won't you turn around and smile at me? I'll make you rich and famous..."
So I spoke a little louder.
I whistled. I sang. I burped. I stomped. I jumped. I waved my arms. I decided the oryx was not real, but a stuffed or blow-up animal the military had placed out there to fool photo hunters like me.
I snapped a few more shots of the back of the animal's head, then trudged back to the car, discouraged and frustrated.
I slammed the car door after putting away the camera.
And then that darned oryx turned and looked me straight in the eye!!!
I grabbed the camera as quick as I could and began firing again. He (or she) continued to watch me while chewing, as if chuckling and making snide remarks about the crazy blond fool who couldn't take a hint.
I shot away, one step closer at at time until...
I RAN OUT OF FILM!!! Yes, this was that long ago. Way back before even image stabilization, much less digital. I didn't even have auto focus. I did have a removable motor drive, but I didn't use it often because it went through batteries too fast. And this was before realistic rechargeable batteries.
I crossed my fingers there might be one more roll of film in my camera bag or in my purse or in between the seat cushions of the car or in the glove box... anywhere. Just one more roll of film! PPPLLLEEEAAASSSEEE!!!
I ran back to the car, passenger door still wide open, and began digging like a mad woman, throwing stuff aside in my search. Deep inside my purse, there it was! A roll of gold! More valuable to me than diamonds! One self-rolled canister of black and white film!!!
Quickly I loaded the camera, shaking the whole time, forgetting to keep a watchful eye on the oryx, even advancing the film one extra shot to make sure it didn't get stuck. No way was I going to miss this shot of a lifetime!
To my surprise, the oryx hadn't moved and was still staring at me, now somewhat drop-jawed. As if he knew how frantic I had become. Perhaps he was as frightened of me as I was of him!
One step at a time, I again drew closer and closer until I could fill the frame with just his mug. "Smile pretty!" I told him. "This is the last shot! I rolled only 24. After this, you never have to put up with me again."
His expression didn't change one bit. I fired. I thanked him. I practically skipped back to my car, and I didn't hit any roadblocks on the way back to the darkroom. Forget home! I wanted to see this film NOW!
In the totally dark black darkrooom, I carefully spooled each roll onto metal reels, taking great care not to crimp the film, drag the long tail on the darkroom floor, generate static electricity or allow the curly gray snake to make contact with my clothing or the walls. Carefully I poured in D-76, set the timer and agitated gently every 30 seconds or so. After the rinse, I poured in the fixer slowly, carefully, trying to avoid splashes that mess up the film surface. During the final rinse, I breathed a sigh of relief. I'd reached the point of safe and low-risk film handling. I'd done everything I could to make sure every single shot would turn out. Now I just had to wait patiently for the negatives to dry.
Finally, a full hour later of pacing the floor, I could place the first strip of negatives in the metal negative carrier, insert the carrier into the enlarger and begin printing.
Every single shot turned out! The negatives were crisp, clear, perfectly focused and perfectly exposed, with no darkroom flaws such as reticulation or scratches. I'd done it! I'd finally captured THE shot! I don't think I slept at all that night! I may have stayed in the darkroom printing until the sun came up.
I proudly handed an 8x10 glossy of the best shot to the newspaper editor first thing the next morning. He gasped.
Front page! I knew it! Oh, was I excited! I'd had plenty of front-page photos, many above the fold, and even some breaking news shots. I'd even had two full-color shots grace the front page on holidays.
Once the paper hit the press and then the streets, military friends began calling to remind me I had been shooting on military property and that I could have been apprehended and searched at any time. My camera AND film could have been seized. Shoot, authorities could have confiscated my car! "Please be careful!" my dear friends begged. "Please don't get yourself into trouble over a photo!"
Then came the personal visit from the director of PR at the local air force base.
"Did you know these animals have been known to gore jeeps?" he questioned. "We've even had mothers accidentally impale their nursing calves."
He didn't threaten to take my film. He didn't summon the MPs (Military Police). I didn't get in trouble. I didn't lose my job.
But I did learn my lesson.
I've never approached an oryx since.
Just don't ask my brother about the massive bull moose in Alaska in 1998... (Moose don't have pointy horns when they are in velvet!)