That was Bill Swindaman on the last day I saw him: June 2nd of this year, at a gathering of friends from the best community I’ve ever known: a real one, of friends living in a place. The place was called Oxbow, and it was a collection of mismatched houses on a short dirt road that skirted a pond off Mt. Sinai Road, north of Chapel Hill, in North Carolina. I lived or hung out there, and with friends who called themselves Oxbovines, from 1974 until I moved to Silicon Valley in 1985. After that, we got together once a year at a beach house until the early ’90s. One thing that kept me coming back was a letter Bill wrote called “Where the hell is Searls?”
Since then we’ve all stayed good friends and in touch. And sometimes rogue planets in our little solar system, such as I, would come through town and we’d get together. That’s what happened in June. It was great to see everybody, but there was bummage in the house, because we all knew Bill had ALS: an awful and fatal disease, diagnosed six months earlier. It was a disease that had claimed David Hodskins, my business partner and a friend for nearly as long, just three months earlier. (I remember David, and some of our business adventures, here.)
At Oxbow, Bill and I would often play one-on-one basketball (he was bigger and better), and shoot the shit about everything. I remember one story he told about his dad, a family doctor in Toledo, Ohio. When his car caught fire on the road for no obvious reason, Doctor Swindaman calmly pulled over to the side, got out, lit a cigarette, and calmly watched the thing burn down. Bill too was known for his calm and love of irony. On one of his long cross-country trips alone, Bill sent me a postcard from Tijuana. All he wrote was “Where the liquor flowed, and the dice were hot.” (Those less elderly that Bill and I might not know the reference.)
As I recall, Bill went to Wittenberg College and got his masters in (I thought it was urban planning, but have heard it was something else) at UNC Chapel Hill. After that, he had a series of jobs that he used to accumulate savings for funding long trips. His last job, as I recall, was working for UNC doing something or other that doesn’t matter as much as the other vocation he took up in recent decades: nature photography. You can see his work at BillSwindamanPhotography.com. Here he is, on the job:
I recognize so many places when I look through his photographs—Death Valley, Comb Ridge, Monument Valley, Arches, Canyonlands—less because I’ve been there than because I’ve shot them from commercial flights zooming by overhead. I envied Bill’s ability to get out and explore these places, while I was too committed to other things. I also respected the quality of Bill’s work. It was, and remains, primo.
We did talk for a while about his maybe coming up to New York, from which we could go out to tidelands and photograph wildlife and other outdoor scenes. I lacked gear and skills to equal Bill’s, but it would have been fun. Alas, as John Lennon said, life is what happens when you’re busy making plans.
When I saw Bill in June, I asked if he was still in shape to keep shooting. He said no, and that he had already sold off all his gear. Yet he was still in good humor, considering the obvious fact that he was done with pretty much everything other than persisting at being his good self.
This morning came an email I hadn’t expected this soon. It was from Jackie Strouble, the wild dear with whom he hooked up back in our Oxbow days. With her permission, I’ll later add here what she wrote. Meantime I hope she doesn’t mind my sharing the photo above, which came with her letter.
And I just hope Bill’s memory for us Oxbovines will be a blessing to the rest of the world.