Danny Little Bear, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound pro wrestler, was bench-pressing me eight feet above the canvas at the Municipal Auditorium ring in Topeka, Kan.
A minute earlier, the American Indian had asked me, "You look like a purdy big boy -- you know how to get out of a headlock?" No, Mr. Little Bear, I said. He ordered me to put my arm around his head and squeeze. Staring at my colleague, photographer Brian Lanker, I did just that.
Suddenly, Danny whipped out of my grip, placed one paw under my neck, another under my lower back, raised me as if my 175 pounds were a feather pillow and started spinning me over his head, around the ring. Lanker dervishly whirled, his Nikon clicking image after image.
Luckily, none of 'em made it into the Topeka Daily Capital. The ones that did, however, later won several photojournalistic prizes. My story accompanied Brian's pictures. He had asked me to come with him and write the words.
That was only one of the hundreds of fun and funny times I've enjoyed with one of America's best photojournalists. We put together another one last weekend in Vegas.
Last year, he published a lovely coffee table book, "Shall We Dance," with a foreword by his friend Maya Angelou, the poet. I wrote captions for many of the photographs about dance across America. It took several of my evenings, but I declined any payment from my friend.
So Vegas was payback.
We go back 40 years. We've met in many states, as well as in Japan. He took the pictures of one of my weddings. (We got the beautiful album just before we split up.) He's been to our family reunions. Our funerals. My mom loved him and called him "a rotten crud." I was with him the night his father died. I profiled him on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, an assignment that led to me playing H-O-R-S-E with Wilt Chamberlain, the subject of Brian's cover shot for Sports Illustrated on The Dipper's 50th birthday.
His photographs and books hang all over my house and sit on my shelves. We'd do 'bout anything for each other -- and have.
I worked last Christmas Day and wrote a story about what it's like to be on duty in jail on that holiday. That was inspired by another Lanker story he asked me to come with him to write -- what it's like to spend Christmas in the pen. We went to the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kan., where the warden ordered him to "sit up straight" and "quit chewing your fingernails." But we got to hang out for much of the day listening to inmates. His essay won more photography awards for him and the Topeka newspaper.
He lives in Eugene, Ore., and decades ago became fast friends with Ken Kesey, the Merry Prankster who was subject of Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Lanker and Kesey went to China together to do a story for National Geographic. Through Brian I met the Kezer myself in the mid-'80s and profiled him for a national newspaper. Kesey later told Brian it was his favorite story of all those done on him -- and it happened because Kesey trusted me because I was Brian's buddy.
Lanker won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for feature photography for an essay he did on a woman giving birth using the Lamaze method, a relatively rare deal back then. His book, "I Dream a World" -- portraits of both famous and unknown black women -- became a Smithsonian traveling exhibition. His documentary, "They Drew Fire," about World War II combat artists, was lauded on PBS. (His wife Lynda is famous in her own right as an artist; her book on paintings of cowgirls will soon be published.)