By jeanne starmack
He misses it most about home — the stone patio and the fire pit under the old-growth trees behind his parents’ place on the edge of Mill Creek Park.
Their Cherokee Drive house is so much like a part of the park that it’s not easy to find. A walk Saturday afternoon up a dirt driveway through a mixture of trees and yard, mostly trees, finally revealed a group seated at patio tables — family and friends of John Wendle had gathered there for an open house in his honor.
Wendle, 32, came from his current home in Kabul, Afghanistan, to see his parents, Jack and Karen, and to have a beer behind the house near that fire pit under those towering trees.
The trees of home only shelter him for a short while though. He arrived Friday and is leaving today to visit relatives in Indiana and Tucson, Ariz. He’d like to catch the Indianapolis 500. By May 29, however, Time magazine’s Afghanistan correspondent will be back in Kabul.
Since February 2011, he’s had that title, telling Afghanistan’s story to the world in words and pictures. On different legs of his journey from Youngstown to Kabul, he discovered he has a passion for both.
A Denison University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in history, he joined the Peace Corps in 2002. While living on the Caspian Sea in Khazakhstan, he realized he wanted to write.
“I started a monthly newsletter for family and friends, and decided, ‘Well, I really like writing,’” he said Saturday as he nursed his Yuengling Black & Tan.
While in Khazakstan, he also sold a story, about the expansion of a port, to the Caspian Business News across the sea in Azerbaijan.
He came home from the Peace Corps in 2004, then persuaded the Caspian paper to give him a job. He was there a year and a half.
During that part of his journey, there were violent protests against the government. With a $5,000 stipend he’d gotten for his Peace Corps service, he bought a digital camera. He took it into the middle of the action, and realized he wanted to be a photographer.
“History was happening right in front of my eyes,” he said.
Wendle went on to get a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York, graduating in 2007.
He moved to Moscow in October that year and studied Russian with funds from a grant.
He got a job there at the Moscow Times, an independent, English-language newspaper. But he went absent without leave in August 2008 to cover the war between Russia and Georgia in Southern Ossetia for Time. He’d pitched a story on it in an email blast to 100 Columbia alumni. One was the magazine’s editor.
He continued as the Moscow Times crime reporter, but was laid off in December 2008. He came home to no job, but had contacts from Time.
He went back to Moscow as Time’s Russia correspondent until July 2009, when a friend led him to a job as photographer for a nongovernmental organization in Afghanistan. In February 2011, he went back to freelancing there for Time.
He’s had his share of close calls. A sniper’s bullet narrowly missed him once near the Pakistan border.
In December, he was almost blown up. He was 30 feet from a suicide bomber when the bomb detonated, killing 80 people. A series of photos in his laptop tells the story: A bloody woman clutching a bloody child to her body. The mangled dead lying on the ground in a semicircle, the same pattern they’d been in when the explosion cut them down.
He’s not afraid to live in Kabul, he said. “You just up your vigilance.”
He has many friends in his neighborhood, where he rents a house. And, he makes the best hamburger in the city.
He credits his parents and a Montessori School education for his confidence in making his way through the world. He doesn’t see himself coming back to Youngstown — not permanently, anyway, but maybe long enough to tell its story.
“I’d like to get a grant and do a story about Youngstown,” he said. “The city is not lost. There’s a lot of great things going on.”