Woody Packard

Words + Pictures

M, Monoxide

The Tallest in His Class
A call from Gulnar this afternoon, to say that one of her classmates—one of my students from Khovd—had died. I was not sure I heard her correctly, hoped that I had not heard her correctly, but eventually came to understand that my former student, his brother, and their father had become victims of burning too much coal with too little ventilation. In Mongolia one does not say the name of the dead, so this is a notebook about someone who might otherwise remain anonymous, except in the memories of his friends and relatives.

Brutally cold winters here are a time when people do their best to keep cold air out and fires burning hot inside, most often with coal fired stoves. That combination creates a very hazardous situation. I don't know the details in M's case, but in talking to someone in Khovd, carbon monoxide poisoning is not uncommon, and several people die from it each year there. One rough estimate places the number of carbon monoxide poisoning victims in Mongolia at 1100 per year, yet carbon monoxide detectors are almost unheard of.

M was one of my most promising students, but not for the reasons that his English Teaching major would suggest. Although his English was good, he was promising because he had confidence in himself and because he set high standards for himself and for others—perhaps too high to be a teacher, but high enough that other students looked up to him. He was a leader in his class, a spokesman when there was a misunderstanding between me and my students, or when a lower level student needed someone to present their case to me. We did not always see eye to eye, but that was another point I took to be in his favor.

Sukhbaatar Square, November, 2014
I last saw M in November. He was working in Ulaanbaatar for a company that distributed rice, and gave him the title of sales manager. Day to day he drove a truck and loaded and unloaded bags of rice. Many years ago I was told the same story, working for a building supplies company, taking care of customers, unloading trucks, and working sixty hours a week for very little money. I lived with my parents. M lived with his aunt in Ulaanbaatar, neither of us able to afford life on our own just yet. After the three longest months of my life, I quit and looked for another job while I waited for my first semester of photography classes at RIT. After three months, M quit and returned to Khovd. Over the phone he told me that he would wait until spring, when the job situation was better. By then seasonal jobs would have taken the pressure away from the entry level positions in the job market, or the Oyu Tolgoi mine disagreement might be settled and the economic slump of the past two years might be resolved. Things would look better in the spring. For me, things did get better. M will not know, for he is, as our Mongolian friend once explained, listening to the earth.

M was a careful dresser, and conscious of how he would be seen in photographs, making my job of photographing him more difficult. This photograph is from the group he asked me to take the last time I saw him, and because I have so many images of him with this solemn face, I believe it is how he wanted to be seen. That is not how I remember him though, and luckily he was not always so guarded. The photograph of him that is missing is the one from my memory, of him every morning when he greeted me. Grinning from ear to ear, and bowing his head slightly, he would ask, "How are you today, Woody?" I would be much better if he were still here.

Close Story—Back to Pictures

M, Monoxide

Click below to page through enlarged images or read the story.


With Class of 2014, Khovd Center

Guy Picture, English Class

With a Friend in Senior Class

Wrestling, Buyant River

Wrestling, With Aarda

Making Pizza

Moving Tsagana's Ger

Tall Work

Ger Team

With Erdenbat and Shinee

With Shinee, Sukhbaatar Square

Lunch, With His Cousin, and Shinee

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