Tom's Story: Early Life and Cranes
My journey takes me from the Platte River in Nebraska, I grew up on the prairies in a little town near Grand Island, Central Nebraska along the Platte River. And it all started in a mud puddle. (audience laughs) Grand Island was a town of about 25,000 people. My grandparents lived there, My parents lived there, I grew up there. And, we always had cats and dogs and I was always fascinated with animals from the smallest, as two years old. Always kept cats and dogs around the house. And my dad was a real avid sportsman, he lived to fish and to hunt. And those bigger catfish are the ones I caught. (audience laughs) And my older brother, Billy, he was two years older than I am. He was, well, my mom never figured out why, I mean I never figured why my mom didn't put a vest on him too, but I guess he was older. Bill was you know, all our siblings are different always, I mean, not always, but usually we do different things. Bill was like, age 12, he was subscribing to The Wall Street Journal. ...
And at age 13, he started a company called Midwest Trading, where he was buying and selling, importing and exporting, and his goal was by the time he turned 30 years old, he would be a millionaire. And actually, we kind of diverged after that, but my dad had a little cabin, one-room schoolhouse on the Platte River. And that's where I spent my summers and a lot of time and it didn't have electricity or running water. We had a hand pump and took baths in the river. And the Platte, every summer, it would go dry. And this is my brother Billy in front and me back there, with my canteen. And, it was a big lesson for me in the earlier days, thinking back on how it became kind of a conservation or something. The Platte River was being diverted for irrigation mostly, for corn in Nebraska, all the way from Colorado. The South Platte comes out of the mountains in Colorado, and the North Platte comes out of the mountains in Wyoming, and they join at North Platte and Western Nebraska, and they form the Platte River. After that, I also spent a couple years in Ogallala, on the South Platte when I was about this age. And those are probably my most formative years, running around that river. Both my parents were working, and my dad had a dime store, five-and-dime, if any of you remember that, a department store kind of thing, and I was too young to be really working, so they had worked really hard to keep it going, so I spent all my days on the river. And with my buddies and my brothers, and just footloose and fancy-free. And that's the Platte, in the fall, then, the water would come back. We actually, when the first water came down, it must had been totally dry for two months in the summertime. Not only was irrigation water but there was a lot of water from places like Denver, that needed water for keep the green grass growing, and they took a lot of water. So by the time we got to Grand Island, it was dry. We would dig down in the summertime, see how far we would, had to dig for water. And then, when the water came back in the fall, we would get a call from our friends up West at North Platte and they said, "The water is coming, the water is coming." And we'd run out and wait for it, you know. (crowd laughs) It was like manna from heaven, you know? So we would go out and make decoys. My dad was, I'd said, have a goose under, mostly a duck under him. And we made all our own decoys, we learned how to call ducks and geese. And I, as a freshman in college, I won the World's Goose Calling Championship. (audience laughs) Yeah, when I was a junior, I won it again. And that, the envelope sticking out of my pocket was actually a thousand dollar U.S. Savings Bond, which was what I won, the prize, which may not seem like a whole big deal, but that took me to Europe for a month. $5 a day to Europe, you know how it used to be? Europe and $5 a day bed and breakfast and all that. And I squeaked out at least, 12 weeks in the summer of traveling around Europe I'd never seen the ocean before, and obviously, Europe was a long way from Nebraska. So that was very formative, in my early experience of, "Wow, there is another world out there." And that, it's probably really winning that goose calling thing. Everybody laughs, it's a funny kind of thing, but actually it gave me that thousand dollars, I cashed it in, it was $668, $137 on Icelandic gear to get to Europe et cetera, so it changed my life. But my early years on the Platte just watching animals, I took a few classes in high school and college, art history, that sort of thing but basic composition and gesture, texture and all that, but I never thought about ever being a photographer, or being a painter, but I was like, "Someone should be here to paint this. "Somebody, why aren't they here?" So it took me until I graduated from college, undergraduate. My dad wanted me to stay in the family business, it was called Harold W. Mangelsen & Sons, and he had four sons, and he meant we would, he thought we were always going to stay in the business. And the three brothers did, except me. I was the black sheep, and I left. And I went off to college, I was a first Mangelsen to go to college, and actually, stayed in college 'til I graduated. And my dad said, "Well, I will send you to college, "if you take Business Administration, "'cause that will somehow help you in the dime store." And I said, "Well, okay." And in my second year, I transferred my major to biology. And when I graduated with a degree in biology and my dad was in the audience, he said, "What the hell you take biology for? "I thought you're taking Business Administration." Well, I forgot to tell him. (audience laughs) So then, I went on to graduate school, and I met a guy, actually read about a man named Paul Johnsgard. He was a world's authority in waterfowl, ducks, geese, and swans. In those years, he was writing a book on "Waterfowl of North America" and I'd read an article in Omaha World about this book, and I called him, and I said, "If I don't end up going to Vietnam," it was 1969, the height of the war, and most everybody was, you get a four-year deferment, and then, most of the people that were warm-bodied, you would go to Vietnam. That was sort of the way it went. So I called Paul and said, "If I don't get, if I get a deferment "or a high number in a lottery at the time," basically was what happened, "would you take me under your wing "and could I be one of your graduate students?" And he's, "Well, come on down, we'll talk, "bring your transcripts." And so I went down and he said, "Boy," he looked at my transcripts, and they're basically C-plus, B-minus, he says, "Please, you don't really cut the mustard on the grades, "'cause usually, I just take five students "and they're straight-A students." And I said, "Well, I won "the World's Goose Calling Championship twice. (audience laughs) "And I have a cabin on the Platte River." And he says, "Well, we do make exceptions." (audience laughs) So he went to the Board of the Dean of Students and said, "Hey, I think this kid has promise." Totally BS-ing them but we became great friends, we're great friends today. We email almost every day, we just did a book on "Yellowstone Wildlife" last summer. We're working on a book on "Cranes of the World", which I'll do the photographs, he'll do some pen and ink drawings, and this will be his 58th book. And they're all major, major books. So we've had this really pretty much lifelong friendship. He's now in his 80s. And he's trying to dream up what other species, he's written about every group of birds in the world. But anyway, he is the one who taught me how to take pictures. When I wanted to leave Nebraska, I did a semester, two semesters with him. He said, "I want to go to the mountains." I always want to go the mountains, my uncle lived in Estes Park in the Rocky Mountains, and I wanted to move out of Nebraska. I didn't want to stay in the store. And he said, "Well, I'll devise a course for you, "that you can count ducks, different species of ducks "and do a sex ratio study." It was important in those days to, you could, if there are more males than females, you could shoot. If there are nine males, one female, you could shoot eight males, and it counted 10 points. And so I spent the whole semester at the cabin, sitting in duck blind. This is one of our blinds down here, you see the decoys sitting there, and this is the kind of site I'd have most days and I would count pin, these are mostly pintails and mallards, and there's teal, and. And this would look like in, from basically February, March and April, and I would just sit there and identify, well, I was kinda bored and started taking pictures. So this is one of my first pictures ever of, and I'd get really interested in flying birds. I had gone with Paul to help him as an assistant to work on his new book. We went to, obviously, to the Platte and then, to some great famous refuges, Malheur in Oregon, and we came to the coast out here to Vancouver, shooting sea ducks, et cetera. But and ahead of dark rooms, I made my own prints and did my own developmental film and things. Sporadically, became fascinated with birds of flight, and Paul taught me two things. Focus in the eye, everything was manual then, all the exposures, obviously, no auto-focus and he said, "You can buy, "basically, buy a 400-millimeter camera, "and a Pentax Spotmatic," which was the SLR of the day, and a 300, and a 105, and that was my kit, costed me about $500. I had a friend from Vietnam who came back, went to Guam, PX bought whole kit, so. That was a lot of money in those days, of course, but that was my whole entire kit for about five years. I saw this scene sort of developing this much quote, first environmental photograph of a scene with animals and the landscape. And I saw the deer coming across the river from the cabin window, ran down about a quarter mile, got set up, and waited for the deer to cross the you know, this little river, obviously, it's pretty deteriorated, it's pretty crappy picture but that was, it made me think this is what I do today. So I had a penchant for animals and the environment, and we will talk about that a lot in the later sessions. But first, I realized black and white didn't work very well for colorful birds like wood ducks, and mallards, and teal, and in general, I love black and white, but for wildlife, color was a better choice, I thought. And of course, you saw thousands of, there's about 19 to 20 million ducks, geese, and another 500,000 cranes come to the Platte River during these three months. So it was a fascinating place. If you haven't gone there, make sure you go there anytime from mid February to mid April. The prairies were a huge influence on me, of course, and I shot every things that I knew. And I would recommend to any of you, shoot what you know, first, and then, you can branch out, and go to a place like Africa if you want to, or India, or Patagonia. All these exotic places which I've happened to look out and go to over the years, but I started with what I knew.