This is probably my favorite photograph of all time. Meet my grandfather, who is holding me shortly after my birth in 1967.
Grandpa was an engineer, and he and Grandma were living temporarily in Seattle while he worked on a project. They flew back to South Bend just in time for my birth. Shortly after Mom came home from the hospital, her entire family came to the house to meet me. A great uncle took this photograph.
That’s the short of it. The long of it is more interesting.
Years later, Grandpa admitted that they went to Seattle because he had been invited to work on the space program. He wouldn’t elaborate, but Grandma whispered to me that he had designed the landing mechanism for the Apollo 11 moon unit. Grandma was proud of Grandpa and tended to inflate his accomplishments a little bit. She used to say that half the trains in America stopped on his brakes, and half the airplanes around the world landed on his landing gears. So all I really know is that Grandpa played some part in the space program. But that’s exciting enough!
My great uncle was a photographer for the Chicago Tribune. He brought his enormous press camera with him that afternoon and aimed it at us for a couple of shots. Some time later, a giant manila envelope arrived in the mail. It bore the Tribune’s logo and address; it carried prints and negatives. One oversized print is framed and hangs in my home. This scan is from a smaller print, one that fit my scanner. The scan packs plenty of resolution – if you click the image to see it much, much larger, you’ll be able to read my grandpa’s watch. (It was 2:25 in the afternoon.)
I cling to this image because my grandfather was a hard man to know. He made up for it by doing lots of things with me while I was a boy. He taught me to bait a hook and cast a line; I spent many happy hours silently fishing alongside him. He’d take me along when he’d “run up to Phil and Ann’s,” which was a little general store out in the sticks where he and Grandma had retired. There he’d always buy me a balsa-wood airplane or a pack of mints. With Grandma, he even took my brother and I on a long vacation up the eastern Lake Michigan shore, all four of us riding abreast in his pickup truck.
After I went away to college, Grandpa fell ill and went in and out of the hospital. I was too far away to come home except on breaks, at which times somehow he was always home and well. The summer I turned 20, Grandma told me that Grandpa wanted my brother and I to come spend a week, like we had so often when we were kids. My brother and I were both working, so the best we could do was come up for a weekend. We did the things we always did there – a little fishing, a little running around, a lot of staying up late listening to Grandma tell stories about the old days. Sunday night came too soon and we had to go. We said our goodbyes, and as we walked out the door he hung out of it and said, “I love you guys.”
It was the first and last time I heard him say it. When I saw him next, at Christmas, he was unconscious in ICU, slipping away. He died just after the new year.
As hard as I cling to this photograph, I cling even harder to his last words to me.