Stories Told

Dad was always there

It’s a steady presence that lets a child feel secure: a father who is there.

My dad had a strong singing voice. Like father, like sons: my brother and I could carry a tune and sing out. Dad encouraged it in us from a very young age. He’d ask us to sing as we rode around in his car, and we’d serenade him and Mom with the day’s popular songs. We also had a pretty good Beatles repertoire. My brother sang John and I sang Paul, our voices blending. Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody!

My parents weren’t surprised when the school’s choir director asked their permission for me to join the choir a year early, in the second grade. She had heard me sing in music class and wanted my voice as soon as she could get it.

I loved being in the choir. I sang my heart out. At our concerts I sang to my dad, who was in the audience without fail.

James Monroe School

Sometimes I’d wait backstage for my turn to walk out as part of some production, but most of the time I stood with the choir on risers at the foot of the stage. From wherever I sang, the first thing I did was scan the audience for my dad’s face. I could seldom see it in the dark. But I knew he was there and it was enough for me.

James Monroe School

I’m fortunate to have these photographs of my elementary school’s auditorium from eight years ago when they held an open house after an extensive renovation. Here’s the view my dad would have had, as he preferred to sit in the balcony.

James Monroe School

Dad was always there. He came home every night and spent his evenings with his family. He attended every school event my brother or I were in. When my brother ran track and cross country, they went not only to every meet, but even to most practices. They’d sit streetside in their car and watch. Here’s a photo of them doing just that in 1984. Mom is prominent in the frame but Dad is there, in the driver’s seat. To the right, out of the photo, is the school practice track and my brother running on it.

MomInRenault

When I did a summer basketball camp, Dad came to watch me play (badly). When I was invited to sing in an opera, Dad came to listen to me practice with the chorus. When I got braces, Dad took me to many of my orthodontic appointments and waited for me. When I flew to Germany the summer after my junior year, Dad wrote me that he wished he could be a butterfly on my shoulder.

When I got my first apartment, Dad came to see it right away. When my sons were born, Dad waited in the hospital, eager to meet his grandbabies. When my marriage began to stumble, and then to crumble, and then to flame out horrifically, Dad had no idea what to say that would help but he took every phone call through the whole mess and let me vent and rage. Those phone calls home kept me from losing my mind.

Dad was there.

If you’ve read the other stories I’ve told about Dad since he died (all here), you know our relationship wasn’t everything I wanted it to be and that he could be difficult and unkind, and that it left me with some stuff to work through.

But none of that obviates one iota that he was in the game with his children every step of the way. That it set his sons up for successful adult lives.

Where I go to church, in an inner-city neighborhood that knows poverty, families are usually significantly broken. Fathers are out of the picture. Kids live with moms and current boyfriends, or with aunts, or even with family friends. They bounce from roof to roof, from bed to bed. They don’t know stability. It shows up in their lives: the trouble they get into, the challenges they have transitioning to adulthood, the deep anger so obvious in them. They got a raw deal, and they know it.

But I have a solid sense of stability and goodness because Dad was there.

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Collecting Cameras, Film Photography, Stories Told

I like cameras

You might think this post’s title is the dumbest I’ve ever written. If you’ve read this blog for more than a week, you know I love cameras! But this post is a rerun from March of 2007, when this blog was just a month old. With it I introduced vintage cameras and film photography to the blog. I’m a better writer now than then, so I edited the heck out of it for this throwback.

My parents were sure I was headed toward a career in engineering — I simply couldn’t keep my fingers off anything with buttons or knobs. I wanted to know what they did!

My great grandmother had a very old TV, and behind a panel right at kid height were about a million knobs. Whenever we visited, if I was left alone with that TV I turned as many of those knobs as I could before being discovered. This almost certainly caused her to utter choice words when she settled in that night to watch Gunsmoke.

My button-pushing and knob-twisting ways were so known to my grandparents that when they got a CB radio — it was the 70s, after all — Grandma took me aside, pointed to the SQUELCH knob, and said, sternly: “Jimmy, now, if you turn that knob, it will explode!” It was several years before I figured out that was a scam.

My parents knew better than to leave me alone with gear of any sort, but they slipped up on one family trip when I was 4. I found Mom’s camera in our hotel room and took about 10 photos — of the doorknob, the corner of the bed, the wall, and so on. I felt so grown up with that camera, but when I was discovered I was on restriction for quite some time.

My camera dreams came true the summer I turned 8. I was with Grandma browsing at a garage sale when I found a little Kodak Brownie Starmite II, a simple fixed-focus camera from the early 1960s that took 127 roll film. I picked it up and turned it over and over, very curious. Grandma aked, “Do you want that?” I was quite embarrassed to have been noticed, and I stammered, “Oh, no, I don’t know, not really.” Grandma noticed the 25-cent price tag and silently handed me a quarter. Now I was both embarrassed and relieved, because I really did want that camera.

Through trial and error I discovered how to open it and how to wind it. I pressed my eye to the open bottom of the camera and pressed the shutter to see light flash into the camera for a fraction of a second. I looked at the camera’s face, pressed the button, and saw the shutter open and close almost imperceptibly. I was fascinated with the camera’s intricacy and with all the thought and work that had gone into designing it.

It took me a long time on my 50-cent allowance to save enough money for film and processing. When I loaded that first roll of Kodacolor II into the Brownie and took it out into the neighborhood, the kids flocked to me. They all wanted to be in a picture! When the prints were back from the drug store I was the center of attention again as all the kids wanted to see themselves. I must have given most of the prints away, because I have only four left. Here’s one print from that first roll of film, from August, 1976.

SummertimeChildrenLancasterDrive

Other cameras found their way into my hands: a Brownie Reflex Synchro Model with flash holder, a cheap Instamatic knockoff, a new Polaroid Super Shooter instant camera for Christmas.

But I didn’t start to deliberately collect cameras until I was a teenager. I’d get on my bike each Saturday morning and ride all over town to garage sales, for something to do. But then one day I came across an Argus A-Four 35mm camera that had more stuff to figure out on it than I’d ever seen — aperture and shutter speed and focus. To help me figure it out, a friend who was taking a photography class in school gave me a roll of film from the school’s stash. It became and remained a favorite camera, reliably taking nice photos.

By the time I was 25, I had accumulated about 100 cameras — a bunch of Brownies, a few movie cameras, a dozen Polaroids, some box cameras, several very old folding cameras, too many crappy Instamatics, and more. I took photos with some of the cameras. Other cameras’ picture-taking days were clearly over.

After I married and had children, my young sons used to ask to look at my cameras. I was reluctant at first, but I eventually relented and found that they treated them well and genuinely enjoyed them. I showed the boys how they worked, all the things that fascinated me as a boy — how to open them, set them so that the shutter would fire, put their eye up to the opening to watch light flash into the camera. Over the years we spent many pleasant hours on the living room floor playing with my cameras. And one time I bought a roll of film for a camera I wanted to try. My sons followed me everywhere, wanting to be in the photo.

As my first marriage crumbled away I found it necessary to sell my entire collection, along with a great deal of my other personal possessions. It was a very sad time in my life. But unexpectedly I have not missed most of what I sold, and only a few of my cameras.

But as the divorce years ended and I turned 40 I decided to start a new collection. I actually have money now and can buy cameras in good mechanical and cosmetic condition. I’ve also put film through every camera I’ve bought for which film remains available. I haven’t kept every camera I’ve tried. I’d say 250 cameras have passed through my hands, and about 100 remain. And now I’m even reducing that number to the 20 or so I’ll use regularly.

That’s not to say I won’t keep buying new-to-me old cameras, though. I’m sure this is one fascination that I’ll never lose.

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Life, Stories Told

On the corner of Erskine and Woodside, 1976-1985

Rerunning my post about the street on which I grew up, Erskine Boulevard in South Bend, Indiana, the other day made me nostalgic. So I looked through my photos for childhood images from the old neighborhood.

Here I am standing on the sidewalk in front of our house shortly after we moved in. It was 1976, and I was nine.

1976a

I had Verichrome Pan in my Kodak Brownie Starmite II, which my grandmother bought me for a quarter at a garage sale. I hadn’t learned to smoothly squeeze the shutter button; shake marred most of the photos. And then I stored the negatives carelessly, allowing them to become scratched. But I’m still very happy to have them today. Especially this one below, of my brother (right) and neighborhood friend Kevin, who passed away unexpectedly in his 20s.

1976c

We played a lot on the sidewalk and even in the street on Woodside, which is the street pictured below. Woodside was only lightly traveled, so it was the better choice for street soccer. That’s my brother there on the left and neighborhood friend Phil crouched on the right. The fire hydrant was painted as a Revolutionary War figure in honor of the Bicentennial the year before, as I shot this in 1977. Hydrants all over the city were so painted. I shot this on Kodacolor II with my truly awful Imperial Magimatic X50 camera, which took 126 cartridge film.

1977a

The shutter button was so stiff on that camera it was virtually impossible to avoid shake. Here I aimed the camera east along Woodside a little. The old Plymouth station wagon there is the only thing that dates this photograph, which is also from 1977.

1979a

The city repaved Erskine in 1982. I’d never seen a street stripped of its asphalt before. I had Kodacolor II in the Kodak Duaflex II I had recently purchased at a garage sale, and photographed some of the equipment in action.

1982a

Soon a fresh, black ribbon of asphalt had been laid on Erskine and cars could again travel our street. From the looks of the above and below photos, I made them while sitting on our front stoop.

1982b

1982 was the year I began to experiment with the growing collection of old cameras I had amassed. I made this photo with an Argus A-Four, probably using Kodacolor II film. I feel fortunate any photos from that roll turned out, as I didn’t know what I was doing with f stops and shutter speeds. My guesses were lucky. This is just another shot of Woodside from our front yard. The house on the left was owned by the Mumford family, who had owned a small grocery near my mom’s childhood neighborhood downtown.

1982c

In 1984 a friend who was in my high school’s photography class gave me some hand-spooled Plus-X for my A-Four. I asked him for advice about exposure and he said, “f/8 and be there.” It worked out well enough. When I made this shot of the street blades on the corner of Erskine and Woodside, I chided myself a little for wasting a frame. But these unique embossed black-and-white blades, which were on every South Bend street corner, were removed during the 2000s in favor of more generic green-and-white blades with stick-on letters. Now I’m glad I have a record of this time gone by. If I had known the city was going to replace these blades, I’d have stolen this one.

1984c

I shot a roll of color film, probably Kodak, probably in my A-Four, as I was about to graduate high school in 1985. I climbed the giant oak tree in our back yard for this view. The van was Dad’s; he used it to haul lumber and finished pieces in his cabinetmaking business. It had, for a few years, been our family car.

1985a

Here’s a quick peek down Erskine, showing its distinctive curve, from that 1985 roll of film. I remember being deeply disappointed when the city replaced our minuteman fire hydrant.

1985b

Here’s one photo looking up toward our house from that 1985 film roll. Erskine was dubbed a boulevard because of its curve and because it was noticeably wider than other streets on the city’s grid. My childhood home is visible, above and to the left of the station wagon rolling up the hill.

1985f

Our house was quite famously green. When we gave directions to our house, all we had to say was “the green one” and people found us with no trouble. We never really liked the color, however.

1985g

I left for college in 1985, and moved out for good in 1989. My parents stayed on until 2014. Somewhere along the way they had the house repainted in light gray. I never got used to it. In my dreams, my childhood home will always be green.

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Photography, Stories Told

My first roll of film

Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime.

When my grandmother gave me a quarter to buy the old Kodak Brownie Starmite II at a garage sale, I don’t think either of us could have predicted that it would spark a lifelong love of cameras, which would lead to a growing interest in photography when I reached middle age.

It was August of 1976. The nation had just turned 200, and I was about to turn nine. I saved my allowance to buy a roll of film. Money in hand, I went to Hook’s Dependable Drugs to buy some Kodacolor II. The instructions said to load the camera in subdued light. Taking it a little too far, I first tried to load the camera in my pitch dark closet, where I couldn’t see a thing. So I moved to the bathroom and loaded the camera by night light. And then I went out to shoot. I wrote about the experience here.

Not long ago I dug out my negatives from that first roll of film and scanned them on my new photo and film scanner. I was eager to see some of these images again for the first time in 36 years, for when I got the prints back from Hook’s later that August, I gave most of them away to the children I photographed.

As you might imagine, my photographic skills were terrible! Among my first subjects was our beagle, George. I still have this print, but poor George is just a dot on it as I stood way too far back. My scanner let me enlarge the image.

George

Neighborhood children were my subjects on most of the roll, however. These little girls are Muffy and Dawn, and they came to my back yard to be photographed.

Meredith and Dawn

I was so mad at my brother Rick for stabbing his rubber knife into the frame just as I clicked the shutter on Darin, who is Dawn’s older brother. This negative shows some signs of age and rough treatment.

Darin

This is another neighborhood Dawn, the younger sister of Mike. My brother and Mike have been friends for 40 years now. Sadly, Dawn passed away several years ago. This photo also features the side of our garage and a little bit of my finger in the bottom right corner.

Dawn

One of the neighborhood girls was eager to try my camera, so I let her shoot me and another girl who I can’t identify. Perhaps if the camera had been held steadier I’d recognize her face!

Unidentified girl and me

Seeing these faces for the first time in 36 years was a delight. I wish I had shot more so I could have images of more of the many children in our neighborhood. Alas, we moved in October, and my next roll of film would be of children in our new neighborhood.

If you’d like to see all the images I scanned from this roll, click here to see the whole gallery.

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Stories Told

Summer’s denouement

Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime. I’ve run this one many times; it’s one of my favorites.

During my 1970s kidhood when schools started after Labor Day as God intended, my mid-August birthday always meant summer was beginning to end. By then, the afternoon sun was at its hottest and most intense, the annual August dry spell began to toughen and dry all that had been green, and the street lights switched on earlier to send everyone inside for long quiet evenings with our families and our TVs.

The dozens of children all up and down Rabbit Hill, as our parents nicknamed our prolific neighborhood, always sensed these changes and we all began to squeeze in as much play as we could before time ran out. One fellow down the street, thinking he was Mickey Rooney in Babes in Armsalways organized and directed an end-of-summer show, an extravaganza that nobody would come and watch because everybody was in it. I would push to reach the new tree-climbing heights my brother and his best friend had mastered weeks before, heightening their schadenfreude when I would inevitably fall, land on my back, have the wind knocked out of me, and make that loud but hilarious sucking noise that only sounds like death is imminent. Somebody would connive their mother into have a big running-through-the-sprinkler get together at which gallons of Kool-Aid were served. Several kids sold lemonade or toys at a family garage sale to raise money for Jerry’s Kids. The chubby fellow who lived where the street curved sang his slightly naughty rhymes more often (“In 1944/My father went to the war/He stepped on the gas/And blew out his ass/In 1944!”) hoping to squeeze out another laugh. And then came the telethon, which was on almost everybody’s TV, and we all knew it was over.

SummertimeChildrenLancasterDrive

Summertime children on Lancaster Drive

On the day after school started, we could still play war in full army gear in the wide easement behind the houses, ride our bikes and Big Wheels up and down the hill making siren sounds as if we were a horde of ambulances and police cars (imagine 20 children doing this on your street!), play endless Red Rover in the freckled girl’s front yard, and watch the four-year-old girl next door eat sand with a spoon (oh, if her mom only knew). But we didn’t, hardly. We lost our enthusiasm. It was time to button ourselves back down and return to school-day routines.

Rabbit Hill conditioned me well; I still recognize and lament the signs of summer’s end. My kids are back in school (since two days before my birthday, what nonsense). The grass hasn’t grown much in weeks because of the annual dry spell. My air conditioner has been off more days than it’s been on; it was even too chilly the other morning to drive to work with the window down. I’ve crammed as much outside time as I can into these days to enjoy their freedom, but the end is in sight. Shorts will soon give way to long pants and short sleeves will give way to long sleeves. I’ll be in a windbreaker with a rake in my hands, collecting my trees’ considerable deposits. The snow will fly and I’ll be hunkered down at home. I still feel restricted, buttoned down, in fall and winter.

Here’s hoping for a long, warm Indian summer first!

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Stories Told

On Rabbit Hill

It’s high time I retold this story that I first told in 2010.

My childhood neighborhood was packed tightly along steep, narrow streets with tiny, thinly built lookalike two- and three-bedroom houses. These weren’t anybody’s dream homes; it was optimistic to call them modest. But they were attractive to working families getting their start.

I was on the way in 1966, and Mom and Dad’s apartment wouldn’t accommodate three. Dad’s wages didn’t stretch far, making it challenging to afford even one of these homes. But a seller needed out badly, and he signed his mortgage over to my parents. With that, they had their first house, in this neighborhood on South Bend’s south side.

A whopping 31 other children were born along our street within a few years of me. With a wink and a smile, the neighbors all came to call our street Rabbit Hill.

SummertimeChildrenLancasterDrive

Summertime children on Lancaster Drive: Darin, Colleen, Christy, David, Mike, and two others partially hidden. Summer, 1976.

Kellie lived next door; when her family moved out, Jimmy’s family moved in. Robyn and Sally lived two doors down. Robyn was only a couple years older than me, but she always seemed so mature — except on the many occasions when she stuck her tongue out at me. Sally was my brother’s age, a flirty girly girl with lots of thick blonde hair. My dad always called her Sweet Sarah Ellen, usually in his deepest voice, just to make her blush. Their sister Mary came much later; to her mom’s embarrassment, she occasionally came to our front door in her birthday suit. Tomboy Angie lived a couple doors down with her dad, and Brian and David lived right across the street from her. Their dad was a cop, a man’s man, but Brian liked to direct neighborhood musical productions.

A few doors up from there, right across the street from us, lived Denise, Sherry, Michelle, and David. The girls liked to come over and color with me on the front stoop, at least until their mother shrieked at them to come home. Danny and Michael lived next door to them. Danny was a lot older and didn’t have much to do with us little kids. Michael was older too, but not by so much that he didn’t come around sometimes. He was cool, and we all looked up to him.

Lancaster72

Walking and Big-Wheeling it up Rabbit Hill, which was freshly slurry sealed: Me, Jimmy, and Sally. Summer 1972.

Darin, Craig, and Dawn lived just up the hill. Darin was about my age and liked to sing slightly naughty rhymes. (“In 1944 / My uncle went to the war / He stepped on the gas / And blew off his ass / In 1944!”) Tammy, Mike, and Dawn lived across the street and a few doors up. Tammy liked to be in charge. So did I, and so we didn’t get along. I regretted it in high school because she turned out to be traffic-stopping gorgeous. Mike and my brother were both four years old when his family moved in. Something clicked between them and they are still best friends more than 40 years later.

Christy lived a few doors down, right next to the Secret Sidewalk, a concrete shortcut through the neighborhood. She organized endless games of Red Rover. Next door were willowy, honey-haired Shannon and her younger sister, Rachel. Skinny, anxious Eric was next door. Once I shut Eric’s family’s garage door on my brother’s hand, shredding the skin to the bone. Between Eric’s house and ours lived Angie, Colleen, and Muffy. Colleen liked to eat dirt with a spoon, but I think she did it just to get a rise out of the rest of us. Ornery Jay lived in the house behind us, which we accessed through a hole in the bushes. He got on my last nerve one day when we were playing ball and so I clobbered him with my plastic Wiffle bat. My dad made me apologize in front of his parents, but Jay didn’t get out of line around me again.

With so many children around, there was almost always something to do and someone to play with. Our yard was popular, especially in the summer. Mom would set up the Slip ‘n Slide and half the neighborhood’s kids would come over. She made gallons of Kool-Aid and popped gobs of popcorn for us all. We also had a lot of old Army gear and some plastic M16 rifles, and we’d play war across several neighbors’ back yards. But our default activity was riding our Big Wheels up and down the hill over and over. The noise used to get to my dad, and he’d take us all out to Dairy Queen for ice cream cones just to have a little quiet.

The adults often gathered to socialize. Robyn’s dad often hosted, as he had built a large family room and bar onto the back of his house. I remember lying in my bed and hearing his big stereo thumping late into the night. Michael’s mom and my mom became best friends. We used to all pile into her big ’68 Chevy and run up to Kroger. My parents grew close to Kellie’s parents, and our families spent lots of time together even after they moved off the Hill. My parents and Kellie’s played Canasta most Saturday nights for 48 years, until my parents retired and moved to Indianapolis.

All was not idyll on Rabbit Hill. I understand that there were factions in the neighborhood, drawn mostly along Catholic and Protestant lines; the two sides barely spoke. The parties sometimes got a little out of hand — for example, there’s a famous story of several of the men injuring themselves as they made a drunken ride down the hill on their kids’ Big Wheels. (My parents, who were extremely straight laced, always left the moment any party looked like it might get raucous.) Alcohol abuse led to marital problems for some couples; there were a few divorces. And a woman at the top of the street made dates with truckers on an illegally boosted CB radio. You could hear her loud and clear if you tuned your TV to channel 3. Her neglected kids ran around in filthy clothes; the youngest was so ignored that he was eight years old before he could speak coherently.

We left in 1976 for a larger home in a quieter neighborhood. We didn’t see our old friends except around school, and in time we drifted apart from most of them. We heard that Robyn and Sally’s parents divorced, and later that their father was found dead unexpectedly in his home, and that much later their mother passed after a long illness. We were saddened by all of this news, but didn’t know how to reach out. Then Michael’s mother died after a long fight with cancer. My mother had remained close to her right up to the end, and we all went to the funeral. Her death was hard on my mother, but of course it was harder on Michael and Danny and their dad. And then bit by bit many of the Rabbit Hill families moved away, sometimes propelled by divorce, sometimes in search of more room for a growing family, and sometimes because fortunes afforded better.

Facebook has reconnected me to several of my old Rabbit Hill friends, including Robyn, Sally, Shannon, Sherrie, Denise, and Michael. It’s been fun catching up.

Robyn’s dad took endless Super 8 home movies, which she had converted to digital files. A few Christmases ago, she mailed me a wonderful DVD full of those movies. When my parents and my brother came for the holiday, we watched together in wonder over how much life was lived in that little spray of houses. It’s hard to imagine any neighborhood could have been more fun for young children than Rabbit Hill.


Summers on Rabbit Hill were the best. Read that story.

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