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Documentary Short: Monica

Monday, March 8th, 2010
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In early February 2009, I received an email about a woman who had contacted my church asking for help. She had lived in the same apartment for 24 years (might have been more), and was suddenly forced to move because the landlord wanted to remodel the home and put it up for sale.

Monica was still recovering from a back injury sustained when one of the rotten floor boards of the porch gave out under her, and basically lived on her own, so she needed a lot of help. Not to mention she had two greyhounds, some cats, 40+ rescued pigeons upstairs, and 24 years worth of accumulation.

It looked like World War II. Piles and piles of stuff everywhere. It was impossible to distinguish garbage from non-garbage. She was completely overwhelmed. I would have been too if it weren’t for the fact that Monica was an incredibly interesting woman.

Whenever I had the chance, I asked her about her past. She was always glad to share and told me about her catering business in the ’80s, how she got to hang out with tons of bands and entertainers, which included her touring with Heart for several years.

Toward the end of the day, Monica took my friend Alex and I upstairs where we met her 40+ pigeons and doves that she had rescued over the years. A bell went off in my head and I asked her if she minded if I ran home to get my camera. She didn’t mind at all.

This is a portrait of Monica and her birds at the time of her move.  I hope you experience it.

Tom DesLongchamp is an artist and animator based in Seattle. His work can be seen at tomthinks.com.

The land of my ancestors and what I found there

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009


My cabin companions–Kirill and Maria–spoke minimal English. Both were from Saratov and had come to Moscow for business. They had many questions for me–where was I from; what the United States was like; what I was doing taking a train, by myself, without knowing anything beyond basic Russian, 450 miles into the countryside.

“I’m going to Norka, where my great-grandfather was born,” I told them.

“Norka?” Kirill asked. “Where is Norka?”

I told him it was a village near Saratov. The people I had contacted at the American Historical Society before leaving had given me information and advice about traveling to the Volga River Valley, but they forgot to tell me an important detail–the village was no longer called Norka.

My companions spoke amongst themselves for a moment before Kirill called his brother in Saratov and asked him to look up Norka on the internet. I then discovered that the name was changed to Nekrasovo following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, named after the poet Nikolay Nekrasov who was famous for championing peasant life. When the lights went off in the train, I crawled up to my bunk and slept to the sound of the wheels clicking over the tracks.

We arrived in Saratov in the late morning. The city is on bank of the Volga and was once the home of the Volga Germans. In the late 18th century, the German empress Catherine the Great took the throne of Russia and published manifestos inviting Europeans to immigrate to Russia to farm, all the while maintaining their culture. Many of them came to Saratov (and to Engels, which is across the river) and the city flourished, growing to its present population of more than 800,000.

I checked in to the Hotel Slovakia on the bank of the Volga. Failing to register my visa since getting on the train in Irkutsk, I was forced to pay a penalty and then fill out a form at the Saratov police station apologizing for my lack of respect for Russian law. Upon completing that unnerving experience, I ate a dinner of salmon, potatoes and Sibersky Korona beer at a restaurant as the sun went down over the river. It was summer and the young people were drinking and dancing on the party barges out on the water.

In the morning, I woke and took a van from the Saratov station 40 miles to Krasnoarmeysk. The van drove us through green wheat fields and pasture land. It was almost noon when I reached the bus station and there was only one bus to Nekrasovo that day at 3 p.m, but it returned to Krasnoarmeysk immediately after it dropped off. I knew there would be no other buses out of Nekrasovo–the map I consulted in the bus station showed the road from Krasnoarmeysk was the only road going into or out of Nekrasovo.

Then I saw a man standing in the lot outside of the bus station calling out “Saratov, Saratov.” I approached him and told him, using Traveler’s Charades and limited Russian, that I would pay him to drive me to Nekrasovo, stop for an hour so I could look around, and then on to Saratov. We negotiated the fee by scratching numbers into the dirt with our fingers, found a suitable price, and then I got into his old Lada 110 sedan and we were off.

The driver, who went by Sasha, spoke to me in Russian, which I understood almost none of, nearly the entire trip. I was able to communicate to him that my great-grandfather, Conrad Schaneman Sr., was a German born near Nekrasovo. He confirmed his understanding by telling me his family was also from Germany and that he came to Russia from Azerbaijan.

What I couldn’t tell him was all the details of my great-grandfather’s struggle to leave Russia for a better life. How he left the Volga River Valley once for the United States in 1910 and after two homesick years went back to Russia. Finding Russia changed from when he left, and German men being drafted into the military, he left again for Winnipeg, Canada. After getting married in Stoughton, Saskatchewan, he and his wife moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin before moving to the Platte Valley of Nebraska to work in the sugar beet industry and having 13 kids. Instead, I held on to the handle of the door as we dodged car-sized holes in the road.

We passed one car and a man on a horse pulling a cart of lumber in those 20 miles. The road took us through a small settlement that maintained and operated a bread factory. Then a little farther we came upon the village of Nekrasovo. Sasha drove us into the center and I got out.

The population estimates available on-line put the village and the surrounding seven kilometers at 795 people but that seems quite generous. As I walked around for 45 minutes on that eerie, silent Sunday afternoon, I saw ten people: one boy on a bicycle that whispered something as he drove past; two men cutting down a tree in a yard that stopped working when they saw me; two men playing cards under a makeshift lean-to that halted their playing to watch me walk past; and four people sitting in front of a storefront. The town was overgrown and ghostly–as many abandoned buildings as buildings that looked as though people lived in them. It was green–weeds, grass, and trees grew everywhere–yet it felt as though the life had left the place many years ago.

It didn’t take me long to walk the perimeter of the village–past the abandoned school, past the pond, past the tractor repair shop. And as I walked back to the car, my curiosity satisfied, one of the four in the front of the shop began to run at me, yelling.

From a distance, I could see that the person coming toward me was a young man, and as he drew nearer I saw he was carrying a small, black and white dog in his arms. He dropped the dog as he approached, holding out his hand and talking in a loud voice.

“Ya iz Ruskie?” he asked me.

“Nyet,” I said. “Ya iz Amerikan.”

He introduced himself as Vitali. He smelled of chemicals and of not having bathed recently. Spittle had dried in corners of his mouth. He appeared to be in his early-20s and spoke to me in Russian as I walked back to the car. When we made it back to Sasha and the Lada, Vitali found a horse tied to a stake near a house, grabbed it around the neck and asked me to take his picture. Sasha explained to him that I was only there to visit the town of my ancestors.

He didn’t tell him that the point of the trip out there was to see what my life would or could have been like had my great-grandfather never made that second trip to the other side of the world. We got in the car and drove back to Saratov, Sasha telling jokes the whole way.

Bart Schaneman is an American writer. He writes about his travels and about Nebraska. Read more of his writing at http://bartschaneman.wordpress.com and http://rainfollowstheplow.wordpress.com.

S.O.S. (Twilight Variation)

Friday, May 8th, 2009
Flickr Video Jonathan Dueck now lives in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada. The home that he shares with his wife Heather and the wonderful Pritchard family is on a large hill from which he can see a Super Wal-Mart. Try to find him at www.intransitcentre.info


Friday, April 10th, 2009

lavaFor days before, the mountain had groaned and heaved.  You could see it expanding and contracting, sending tremors through the earth.  When it finally erupted Jonathan already had his donkey packed.  As disaster filled the sky he turned his back on it and started to safety.  But something stopped him in his tracks.  Even above the sounds of the earth tearing apart he could hear the desperate cry of a baby.  Jonathan hopped off of his donkey and ran straight towards the sound.  The baby was naked and tangled within the branches of a fallen tree branch.  Jonathan cut the baby free and scooped it up in his arms. With a river of fire approaching, and his vision and breathing clouded with stinging sulfuric smoke he stumbled back to his frightened donkey and quickly rode to the safety of a large granite outcropping.

Jonathan soaked two handkerchiefs with water from his canteen and covered the baby’s face with one and his own with the other.  He shielded his eyes from the heat and turned to look back at the mountain that had made him a father.  His life had changed forever.

Jonathan Dueck now lives in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada. The home that he shares with his wife Heather and the wonderful Pritchard family is on a large hill from which he can see a Super Wal-Mart. Try to find him at www.intransitcentre.info


Thursday, March 26th, 2009


From the ridge on this stormy, snow-filled eve their camp looked so insignificant.  When Jonathan left camp three weeks ago he knew that his team doubted his courage, skill, and sanity.  True to his word, however, he returned with exactly what they were looking for.

Before Jonathan began the difficult final descent, his mind flashed back to the event that led to him acquiring such a valuable item.  the shudder through his being was not from the cold, but from his soul trying to purge the terrifying memory that he swore never to share.

Jonathan Dueck now lives in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada. The home that he shares with his wife Heather and the wonderful Pritchard family is on a large hill from which he can see a Super Wal-Mart. Try to find him at www.intransitcentre.info


Friday, March 20th, 2009


Jonathan and his friend Jerome started a small fishing operation out of his hometown near Perth, Australia.  Bored one day Jerome and Jonathan attached a plank to the side of their boat so that they could try harpooning sharks by hand in shallow water.  Jerome proved to have terrible aim and missed hitting three separate sharks. Jonathan, anxious to try, grabbed the harpoon and traded places with Jerome.  The pair spotted another target not far from shore so Jonathan readied his spear.  Just as the shark arrived within striking distance the cable supporting the plank snapped under Jonathan’s weight.

At first all Jerome could see was a violent swirl of limbs, fins, and water.  Within an instant the splashing stopped and Jerome watched helplessly as the submerged silhouette of his friend and the shark darted towards shore.  It seemed like an eternity before Jonathan shot out of the water, gasping for air.  He collapsed on the body of the shark with his hand firmly gripped around the knife that was still embedded in the belly of this once dangerous animal.  Jerome quickly steered the boat towards his friend.  As he came closer he could see that Jonathan was smiling:  “She always called me a risk-taker.”

Jonathan Dueck now lives in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada. The home that he shares with his wife Heather and the wonderful Pritchard family is on a large hill from which he can see a Super Wal-Mart. Try to find him at www.intransitcentre.info


Friday, March 6th, 2009



Jonathan’s skills as a diver had been wasted for years.  Hank Hogan had hired him to supervise his crew of divers in his cultured pearl operation nine years ago.  Everyday Jonathan would spend hours submerged in the murky Mississippi groping for oyster shells.  The water was so thick with mud that he couldn’t see his fingers in front of him.  Jonathan knew that pearls are the oldest and most universal of all precious gems.  They symbolized feminine purity and chastity and were supremely valuable possessions.  A pair of matching pearls worn by Cleopatra are said to have been worth 1,875,000 ounces of silver during her reign.  Hank’s semi-manufactured products are nothing like that.  Featuring a thin veil of pearl around a implanted mould, Hank’s pearls, though plentiful, are a disgrace to that tradition.

That is how Jonathan found himself off the coast of Haiti.  “Natural pearl divers are extinct for a reason!” Hank bullied when Jonathan told him his plans. “You’re wasting your time.” But Hank couldn’t know that deep in the clear Polynesian waters Jonathan would be holding the most beautiful specimen he had ever laid eyes on.  Genevieve could never say no to this one.

Jonathan Dueck now lives in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada. The home that he shares with his wife Heather and the wonderful Pritchard family is on a large hill from which he can see a Super Wal-Mart. Try to find him at www.intransitcentre.info