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Tommy Dix in the 1943 movie version of "Best Foot Forward"

Tommy Dix in the 1943 movie version of "Best Foot Forward"

I’ve always been fascinated by chance encounters that permanently influence the mind, the heart, or the course of one’s life. The development of relationships with neighbors, at school or in the workplace is one thing. These tend to unfold through the natural course of daily events and are therefore expected and maybe even routine. But the random intersection of lives that results in an enduring human connection is truly providential. Serendipitously meeting a kindred spirit is much like picking the correct number on the roulette wheel. It’s a rare occurrence, but over a lifespan it’s bound to happen from time to time.

Since entering the art fair business I’ve been fortunate to experience such a convergence on more than one occasion. At one of my earliest shows an older gentleman entered my exhibit looking for elephant photos. He was short in stature, but larger than life in every other way. His booming baritone voice, kindly manner and outsized personality instantly marked him as an extraordinary person. He purchased an elephant shot, but requested a mat color that I didn’t have in my print bin. Since the gentleman – one Mr. Tommy Dix – lived locally, I offered to deliver the photo directly to his doorstep.

Entering Mr. Dix’s home was, in many ways, like walking into my own. His love for African wildlife was an obvious common interest, and the book titles in his extensive library closely matched those on my shelves. But there were differences. His hallway was lined with 1940s vintage show business memorabilia … all of which featured a youthful, fresh-faced Tommy Dix.

Tommy, originally from New York City, had been a singer since adolescence. While still a youngster, he’d even written a tune to support the newly created March of Dimes charity initiative … and his composition was eventually adopted by the campaign as a sort of unofficial theme song.  Through his own perseverance and a series of fortuitous events, Tommy actually sang his creation for President Roosevelt in the early 1930s. In the opening years of the 1940s he landed a singing role in a Broadway musical entitled “Best Foot Forward.” His performance in that role, and particularly his inspired rendition of the tune “Buckle Down Winsocki,” earned him a lead role in the 1943 Hollywood movie version, which also featured Lucille Ball, Harry James and future luminaries like June Allyson and Nancy Walker. Before his show business career progressed further, he was drafted into the Army and was severely injured in a stateside training accident. This misfortune may ultimately have saved his life, because the unit to which he was assigned was later decimated in the Battle of the Bulge.

Although he’s a few decades older than yours truly, Tommy Dix and I never run out of subjects for discussion. Our interests in politics, poetry, history and literature are very much in parallel. A few days ago, he presented me with my own copy of his favorite book, Will and Ariel Durant’s “Lessons of History.” The personal, heartfelt inscription is as valuable to me as all the lessons described by the Durants. It says …

“To my friend, Billy Dodson …

It is often said that we ignore the past at our peril.

Since there could be truth in those words, this little book may be an interesting and useful intellectual companion and a valuable beacon to the searching mind in the poorly charted seas that lie ahead.

It is a condensed microcosm of the hard lessons gathered during their lifetimes by two historians whose skills, dedication, objectivity and scholarship are seldom equaled – and it is a companion to the Durant series already in your personal collection.

I will occasionally revisit it to reset the anchors of my human perspective and to recalibrate my values.

In the years ahead, long after I shall have departed this veil of wrath and tears, your passing glance may fall upon this book. Hopefully, in that second or two, you may be prompted to remember your old friend, Tommy, and the civilized thoughts we once exchanged.

With respect and affection,
Tommy Dix”

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There is a particularly lovely spot just below a wide bend in the Kafue River in central Zambia where the hippos number in the dozens and the elephants roam with complete freedom.  Its western bank is an intermittently wooded grassland with an occasional low hillock … dotted with impala, waterbuck and puku.   It is classic bush country … and it sees far less human traffic than my usual haunts in Kenya and Tanzania.  It’s also home to McBride’s Camp … one of my favorite places to stay in all of Africa.

McBride’s is unique in many ways.  Its lodgings are secure but open to the fresh air, taking full advantage of the temperate year round weather and offering guests the best possible view of their surroundings.  The food is wonderful and the dinners are candlelit, with all the sounds of the African night well within earshot.  During the day, a fruit basket placed by the central dining hut attracts a wide variety of birds, including the lovely and colorful Heuglin’s Robin.  The camp structures, made almost entirely from thatch and indigenous materials, are as perfectly integrated into the surroundings and environment as anything manufactured by human hands can possibly be.   One of the area’s most reticent species, the bushbuck, is sufficiently comfortable with the camp to stop by and sit quietly on the grounds on a near daily basis. 

Africa seems to abound with adventurous characters and interesting people.  The camp proprietors, Chris and Charlotte McBride, certainly fall within both of these categories.  They are two of the most fascinating people I’ve met in my many visits to the continent.  Chris has spent much of his life in the bush and has authored a couple of books on lion behavior.  Soft spoken, kind-hearted, personable and intelligent, his dinner conversation alone is reason enough to visit the camp.  He is blessed with a keen mind and a dry sense of humor … he is a supremely gifted storyteller who willingly and generously shares his thoughts and memories with his guests.  Charlotte is a remarkable woman in many ways.  Within minutes of meeting her I was overwhelmed by her enthusiasm and passion for the bush.  Despite having lived on the Kafue for many years, her excitement at any wildlife sighting – be it a lion pride, reed cormorant or a barred owl –is heartfelt and infectious.  She generally serves as the armed escort on the walking forays into the bush.  Her rifle is half again as big as she is … but she wields it with maximum effect.  Those who know her best describe her marksmanship as “deadly.” 

I expect to visit the McBrides again in the not too distant future.  The peace and quiet that comes with the remoteness of the camp, the near proximity of the wildlife, and the quality of the companionship make this one of wild Africa’s most unique and wonderful locations.

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I exhibit my photographs in art shows about six times a year to generate the money to subsidize my travel. I make it a point to put on the blinders when I stray from my booth because I don’t want to see anyone else’s stuff, particularly the work of those who draw, paint or sculpt. That’s because it’s embarrassing to be placed in company with people who not only possess genuine artistic ability … they also seem to pour heart and soul into their work. I just press a shutter button and upload a file to print. Artists create … I record.

In Virginia Beach back in June, the art show traffic gods placed me in a spot that took me directly past the exhibit of Anne London. This time it was impossible to avoid looking … in fact, I couldn’t stop. Anne does charcoal, watercolor and engravings of endangered wildlife. Her work is extraordinary … and like most things beautiful, its magic defies description. I was immediately struck by the incomparable way she creates movement and body language … be it a lioness in low stalk, a social group of zebras or a family of elephants wading through the Okavango marsh. Her technique is unique and sublimely beautiful. She punctuates her subjects with an unusual mix of wide strokes or even paint drips that somehow combine to personalize her images and make them even more powerful. Admiring her work brought to mind Leo Tolstoy’s tribute to his literary contemporary, Anthony Trollope … “he shames me with his excellence.”

I spoke with her at a show in Kentucky not long ago. It was my intention to ask her to describe what happens in her mind as she creates her remarkable art. But I ultimately deferred the question … because it seemed that anything this gorgeous must flow so naturally from the heart that words could never do it justice. She does indeed “shame me,” as our old friend Tolstoy might say … but I spend a lot of time at her website anyway. Here it is:

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