Five friends’ celebrated photo taken every five years at the same California lake is out for the world to see despite one man’s recent cancer scare.
They took photo No. 9 on Wednesday, 40 years after they shot the first in 1982 at a prefabricated cabin at Copco Lake along the California-Oregon border. Their tradition went viral 10 years ago – and again in 2017 – when CNN.com published their story and photos.
Some of the guys openly feared it could be a photo of four friends this year instead of the five first pictured as teenagers.
“I was crushed,” said John Dickson, who lives in Santa Barbara where the friends first met. “We worried there would be an empty spot on the bench where we take the picture.”
Dallas Burney, seated in the middle of the series of photos that replicate the poses of the very first shot, told CNN he had a large cancerous tumor removed from his left leg in 2019.
“My cancer – liposarcoma, I knew something was wrong for many months,” said the elementary school teacher.
“I was out of school for five months. I can’t run anymore, but I sure can walk.”
Burney walked with ease around Copco Lake on Tuesday evening with Dickson, Mark Rumer-Cleary, Jon Molony and their host, John “Wedge” Wardlaw.
They had not all been together since the last photo in 2017. Burney’s cancer and the pandemic made reunions difficult.
But first, food
So they gathered the night before the photo was taken for their other five-year tradition – feasting on “Wedge” tacos.
Wardlaw stuffs meat into hard taco shells and pan fries them so hot, he wears a glove and safety glasses to protect against spatter.
The jokes flew.
“Salt is the main ingredient,” laughed Wardlaw.
“We’ll all be drinking water at midnight,” said Molony.
“And #@$! the cardiologist,” quipped Rumer-Cleary.
Two of the friends with a window view rose out of their seats.
“Bald eagle,” they exclaimed.
The majestic bird, with its trademark white head, looped above the cabin, as if to lend the scene pomp and circumstance.
Other animal sightings on Tuesday included a bobcat, deer and cattle.
The friends, often talking in quick bursts over each other, pointed out Oregon was across the lake.
40 years of tradition
By midday Wednesday, it was time for the main event.
They took the latest picture on a 79-degree day worthy of a travel brochure cover. The fivesome dickered over their posture and froze as the photos clicked off on a Nikon D800 camera. They were seated in the same order and in the same poses as they’ve been striking since 1982.
A hat always rests on Rumer-Cleary’s lap or knee. Molony holds up a jar in his right hand. Burney’s right hand rests inside his right knee.
“It’s nice to get back here and know that the cancer was not going to eliminate what we’re doing,” said Burney.
It’s about friendship.
The close bonds exhibited in the last photo, in 2017, once again brought a frenzy of interest to the laid-back quintet.
The five guys told CNN they ended up in a German museum exhibit on friendship. Their photo was displayed in Costco’s magazine.
Once again, their images went viral, spinning around social media sites where their appearance was both mercilessly dissected and praised.
“There are some dumb quotes you can never put in any articles,” said Wardlaw.
“There were responses to (three of us) going shirtless. Some said we looked pretty good, and it was brave after 50.”
Four of the friends are 59 years old. Rumer-Cleary is 58.
Rumer-Cleary called the attention the photos have generated surreal and says at times, strangers will stop him.
“It’s happened to me for a couple reasons,” said the software engineer who founded Occam Networks. “I’m 6-foot-6 and I have facial hair. They won’t pick it out right off the bat. ‘You look familiar, I can’t tell why.’”
Way back in the beginning
The five friends, all graduates of Santa Barbara High School, took the first photo in the now-familiar pose in their late teens with an automatic camera timer in 1982.
Their reunions take place at the Copco Lake cabin built by Wardlaw’s grandfather in 1970.
They’ve fished, hiked, barbecued, picked berries for homemade pies and pranked each other over the years.
Molony described late night knocks on walls, firecrackers tossed into a bedroom in retaliation and relentless teasing.
Dickson confessed he nicknamed Wardlaw “Wedge” because of his definition of the shape of his friend’s head after a haircut.
“I hated the nickname,” Wardlaw said. “So, it stuck.”
Dickson is the only one who still lives in Santa Barbara, where he runs a tourism website SantaBarbara.com.
Molony is a New Orleans-based photographer. Rumer-Cleary is retired and lives in Portland, Oregon. Wardlaw is a filmmaker and photographer who lives in Bend, Oregon.
Burney, an Air Force veteran, enters his 23rd year of teaching in the fall in Northern California.
The cancer survivor does not worry about the future of the photo and his health.
“But I do have trepidation over sitting on that railing,” Burney said.
“As we age, so does the railing. We get a little older, heavier. That bench and railing sits about 30 feet up. I’m worried one day about hearing it crack.”
Such talk led to gallows humor and Burney showing a picture of the tumor pulled from his leg,
“It looks like a tri-tip,” Burney chuckled, referring to the triangular-shaped cut of meat popularized in Santa Barbara County.
The friends all smiled and almost in a chorus said, “Well, it does.”
After four decades of jokes and friendship, it’s only fitting that they made fun of the tumor that almost ruined their photo tradition.