Film Photography

Postwar memories on Kodachrome

My wife’s parents are pushing 90, which is apparently the age when you no longer care about the lifetime of stuff you’ve accumulated. When they moved into assisted living they left behind their house and most things in it, and declared no interest in ever going back.

My wife disposed of their unwanted stuff and put the house on the market. While helping her sort I came upon boxes filled with color slides, the vast majority of which are Kodachromes. They showed images of my mother-in-law as a teenager with her family, as a student at the University of Pittsburgh, and as a young wife with my father-in-law. Given her age, and given notes on a very few slides, these images are from about 1946 through the early 1950s.

These would be memories that my wife’s family would value seeing. So I brought them home and scanned all 743 of them, and shared them via Dropbox with the family. I haven’t asked the family’s permission to share with you photos that are obviously of family members. But I think it’s safe to share these photos of places the family visited. Because I think you’ll agree that they’re delightful.

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I have little idea where most of these images were made, or why. As an aside, I realize that some poor eventual grandchild of mine might be similarly puzzled over my photographs, should he or she come upon them. I should document them better.

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But for now just enjoy the great Kodachrome color. And for the camera geeks in this audience, you’ll enjoy knowing that some of these images are on 35mm film with its 36x24mm image, and others are on 828 film with its 40x28mm image. Both films are 35mm wide, but 828 was a traditional roll film with backing paper. I found a Kodak Pony 828 camera with these slides; I wonder if it was used to make any of these images.

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Enjoy the scenery. While the people who made these slides were clearly not accomplished photographers, they captured some lovely scenes.

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This family loved to go. The slides record planes, trains, and ships, and the places they reached on them.

IMG_20180302_0042 TWA Airplane - County Airport - Summer 1947

Here the photographer was about to board a boat to go see the Statue of Liberty. I guess this runs in the family — Margaret and I and two of our kids did much the same thing a couple years ago; see those photos here.

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Our cruise merely passed by Lady Liberty; this cruise stopped on the island.

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The slides include many images of Canada. From my mother-in-law’s stories I gather that they either lived in Vermont or at least had property there, which made Canada an easy place to visit.

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I’d love to know what bridge this is. I did about a half hour of research trying to figure it out with no luck. My whole life Canada’s flag has been the maple leaf, but that certainly wasn’t the case in the late 1940s.

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As I try to piece together story from these slides, I believe the family took at least one extensive trip through eastern Canada. I believe this image to be somewhere along the Ontario-Quebec border.

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The family also traveled domestically. This is Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Check out especially the signs for Routes 501 and 528 in the image, with the Civil Defense logos on them. Apparently in the early 1950s Massachusetts had a set of numbered, marked routes for use in times of national crisis, when main routes might be needed for military use. What a time the early Cold War years must have been.

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Speaking of route markers, here’s a photograph of the T junction of Vermont state highways 111 and 105. A little roadsleuthing helped me find that this is near Derby, in the northeast corner of Vermont. Click this link to see on Google Maps Street View what this looks like today.

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Downstate from Derby is the city of Rutland. 70 years ago, its fair always began on Labor Day. Maybe it still does.

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My mother-in-law may have been a majorette in the marching band while she studied at Pitt — there are several photos of her in such a uniform. There are also several photos of the band on the ball field. This is the best of them.

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I’m betting this is Pittsburgh. I’d love to know exactly where, and whether the buildings are all still there.

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It’s too bad that these slides were stored in random order, and were processed before Kodak started stamping processing dates on the slide mounts. It made it challenging to group these photos into their stories. I made a stab at it for the family and hope some of them can refine the organization more.

I’d better get busy documenting my photos. I just keep them in a folder system organized by date. If I wrote a Readme file in each folder I’d be doing future family a favor — if I’m so fortunate that some photo geek, maybe even yet unborn, stumbles upon them after I’m no longer interested.

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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.

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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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Personal, Stories Told

Why I stay on Facebook even though I don’t enjoy it much

I’ve not enjoyed Facebook much for months and months. Especially since the election of our current President, the place has become so polarized and tribalized. Angry screeds and narrowminded memes. Siding up and tossing ad hominems.

It’s not fun. I keep thinking I should quit. And then something like this photograph happens.

Me in 2nd Grade

Me in second grade, 1974 or 1975

A fellow I knew in elementary school, someone with whom I’ve not spoken for nearly 40 years, shared it on my wall. It’s me at my desk in our second-grade classroom. The fellow’s mom brought cupcakes for his birthday and photographed the class. He came upon the photo his his mother’s things, made a quick mobile-phone snap of it, and posted it.

What a joy to see this photo! I’d forgotten what a mop top I was, and I had no memories of what that classroom looked like.

But what happened next was truly special. Because I’m connected on Facebook with so many of my elementary classmates, many of them commented and reminisced. And we discovered together that we all felt like our elementary school was a truly special place where we felt safe and cared for. We shared memories of our teachers, of walking to school together, of after-school snacks at each others’ homes, and even of summer fun on the playground. We experienced community in our neighborhood through our school, and we agreed that it was wonderful.

This wasn’t just sticky-sweet nostalgia. We Monroe School alums had a joyful shared experience thanks to this photograph. We compared our notes to find that we all privately felt the same way about our long-ago experience. It validated that experience, I think, for all of us.

In this way, Facebook is like an abusive relationship. It’s good just often enough that you don’t leave.

This gorgeous school building underwent a thorough renovation in 2010. See interior and exterior photos here.

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Personal, Stories Told

I miss my father’s voice

I have a great memory of my dad. It was probably the late 1970s and we were waiting in our car for Mom to finish shopping. The radio was on low when the song below came on. It was just the kind of over-the-top song that brought out Dad’s inner showman. He belted it out, smiling at me, singing for me. He sang it better than the artist!

I miss Dad’s voice. It was big, deep, rich. He had excellent control, being able to make it very loud or quite low and tender. Until his last months.

But I’m choosing not to feel guilty that I don’t miss Dad very much otherwise. As I’ve shared before, Dad and I never figured out how to have an adult-to-adult relationship. He needed to be the teacher, the coach, the mentor, well past the point where our relationship needed primarily to be about that. But more than that, Dad was challenging in his last years. He was often in a difficult mood, often blunt and unkind.

I lived in tension, trying to be a good son who honored his father while constantly setting boundaries with him and repeatedly asserting my independence. It is a relief to be free of it.

But there was something about his voice.

Family reunion

Dad, in the pink shirt and in his 60th year, speaking at a 2001 Grey family reunion. I see Doyle and Susie and Ken and Sharon and Tommy and Gail and a couple other people I can’t make out, all Greys whether by blood or by marriage.

When I was three, he picked me up after surgery in the hospital. His low and easy voice erased my fear and filled me with security.

When my brother and I were small, growing up on Rabbit Hill, Dad would open the front door and call. “Jim-may! Rick-ay!” Every family for a mile knew it was time for the Grey boys to go home.

Dad could carry a tune and sang frequently. Especially in the morning — he loved the new day and often met it with a song. (The rest of us were night owls and didn’t appreciate his morning cheerfulness!) He fancied himself Elvis and went after most songs with all the oomph and verve that implies.

When Dad taught, his voice carried the air of authority. He taught young Robyn down the street to play chess. He taught woodworking for several summers to 4-H youth. He taught my sons to sharpen knives. In all ways, his voice carried “I’ve got this and I can show you” in perfect pitch.

And when he was angry, Dad’s voice filled with rage and fury. It was deeply frightening to my brother and me when we were small. I did everything I could to avoid hearing that voice, right up until he died.

After the cancer was found in his liver and his brain late last summer, his voice sounded strained much of the time. I think this was the hardest thing for me to take as he began to fade away. While I felt bad for him that his failing eyesight and fading strength kept him from so much activity, I accepted these things.

But his voice. I always hoped it would come back, just for a minute.

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Stories Told

The sounds of Christmas

This Christmas memory was originally posted in 2009.

The Christmas season begins for my family when we put up our tree shortly after Thanksgiving. But it’s really not trimming the tree itself that does it – it’s that as we string the lights and hang the bulbs, we listen to the traditional Grey family holiday CDs for the first time. So it’s really the music that ushers in the season for us.

And so it was when I was a child. Mom would drag out the big “portable” record player and her short stack of Christmas records and twist the volume knob up high enough that you could hear the music in the front yard. The whole neighborhood knew Christmas had arrived!

Mom favored Christmas music in pop, standards, and jazz styles, and her record stack reflected that. One of her records, Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas, has been part of the family tradition since it was issued in 1945. My mother’s parents bought it as an album of 78-RPM discs, one song per side. Mom had it as a vinyl Lp, and I of course have it as a CD. You can own it today, too, as it is the best-selling Christmas album of all time, even though a few years ago the knuckleheads at the record company renamed it White Christmas.

But of all of Mom’s Christmas records, I liked those by Johnny Mathis the best. Johnny really gets Christmas, from hopeless sinner to joyful child. I just can’t help but sing along! When the boys and I decorate the tree, I play Johnny Mathis first.

Johnny has recorded many Christmas albums over the years but his first two are the best. His first one, also named Merry Christmas, was released in 1958. It featured lush arrangements by Percy Faith and his orchestra. But Johnny’s 1963 Sounds of Christmas is, for me, the benchmark against which I measure all other Christmas music. Johnny moves seamlessly between bright, bouncy numbers that capture the happiness to which we all aspire during this season, and traditional songs that show the full power of his voice.

Sadly, you haven’t been able to buy this album in its entirety since the 1960s. Capitol Records reissued it in the early 1970s on one of its budget labels, deleting two songs in the process, and only that abridged collection has survived. You can buy it on CD today as Christmas with Johnny Mathis. It is better than nothing.

Yet I yearned for the two deleted songs. When I discovered many years ago that Mom still had her heavily worn 1963 pressing, I recorded it on cassette. Then a couple years ago I digitized those songs into my computer, ripped Christmas with Johnny Mathis in as well, arranged the songs in the original order, and burned my own custom Sounds of Christmas CD. I made a copy for Mom, too.

If you have wished for those missing songs, then I offer them to you here in glorious mono, with all the scratches, pops, and distortion you expect from a record that was played until it was almost worn out. First is what I consider to be the definitive version of The Little Drummer Boy.

By far the best track on the album is Have Reindeer Will Travel. As my mom says, it just isn’t Christmas without the doop-doopee-doos! You’ll know what I mean when you hear the song.

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Photography, Stories Told

Memories lost, memories created, memories kept

Photographs restore lost memories and anchor tenuous ones. Through them I catalog my memories and arrange them into timelines. They help me create life narratives in retrospect. But there is a time in my life from which I have few photos. I’m glad, as it is a time I don’t wish to remember.

Which is unfortunate, for my sons were very small then. I have a few memories, snippets and scenes, incomplete: Helping deliver them both. Months of Damion’s colic. His first seizure, a living room full of grave firemen and paramedics caring for him, loading him into an ambulance, me racing in my car to the hospital. A family road trip to San Antonio before his first birthday, miles of gray Interstate highways, getting a speeding ticket in Texarkana, Damion sleeping most of the way. A black depression that fell on me as he turned 1, and how I could find no joy in his day. Baby Garrett climbing the couch with all the steely determination of Chuck Norris chasing the bad guys. His deep misery after a tonsillectomy went wrong, me rocking him for hours while he cried, both of us sleepless. Singing to soothe them both. Making scrambled eggs for their dinner. Reading Dr. Seuss to them, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Bleak days in a deeply broken and destructive marriage, one which I lacked the courage to leave.

I know I can reach more memories of my sons, better ones. But to do that I would necessarily revisit traumatic memories. Good therapy let me work through that awful time. No need to relive it.

My first wife and I hadn’t given up hope yet in 2001. Or was it 2000? I’m guessing. The boys were young, 1 and 3, or 2 and 4. I don’t remember whose idea it was that I get away for a while, that we let raw nerves settle. We agreed it was essential. I booked a week in a cabin in the central Tennessee woods.

I’ve told some of this story before: I wanted to reclaim something of the man I had been, a man who had diminished and finally disappeared. I remembered enjoying shooting my old cameras as a teen. So I got out one I’d never used before, a Kodak Automatic 35F. I didn’t know an f stop from a shortstop, and this camera wasn’t as automatic as its name suggested. So I shot a test roll before I left. I am forever grateful to my then-self that I shot my sons around our yard. My older son, Damion, was very interested in the camera, so I set it and handed it to him. He made two photographs of me with his younger brother, Garrett. They’re terrific candid shots that remind me that there were good times for us.

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Garrett was too little to operate the camera so I have none of Damion and me. But I did make this delightful portrait of him with our next-door neighbor’s house in the background.

Damion 2001 a

Most of the photos I took didn’t turn out well, as I truly didn’t know what I was doing. The best of the remaining shots is this one of them in our minivan. I hated that van, but love this memory.

Damion Garrett 2001 a

Mercifully and to everyone’s emotional health, the marriage ended. The next several years were hard in their own right: a protracted, brutal divorce followed by years of being broke paying the extensive legal bills and sky-high child support.

Desperate for stability and normalcy I set out to build new memories for me and my sons, to start fresh and make our way forward. One way I did that was by taking them on spring break trips every other year, the years the parenting-time guidelines gave them to me.

If you’ve read this blog for a long time you know I’ve shared photos from almost all of these trips, but never showed or wrote about my sons. While they were growing up, I kept their lives private. Instead I wrote stories about the places we visited and my experiences in them. Now, at last, let me share the reasons why these trips happened: my sons.

The first spring break was in 2005. I lived in a one-room apartment and paid the mortgage on a house I’d never live in again. That plus groceries, gas, and the electric bill consumed my paychecks. To scrape together enough money for fun, I skipped lunch and ate hot-dog dinners for weeks. We visited the zoo and the Children’s Museum, ate lunch Downtown, toured the Statehouse, and climbed to the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument to look out over the city. Here are the boys breaking the rules at the monument.

Indianapolis 2005

In 2007 we made an Indiana History Tour, driving all over the state to see scenic and historic sites. Here we visited the site of the Battle of Corydon, the only Civil War battle fought on Indiana soil.

Indiana History Tour 2007

In 2009 we visited Washington, DC, and drove the National Road home. It was probably our greatest trip, generating the happiest memories. Right up until the moment we wrecked our car.

Washington DC 2009

In 2011, we returned to the same woods where I’d retreated alone ten years earlier, this time with my sons to make new, better memories there. Our chief memory is of the afternoon we made a ten-mile hike carrying pint bottles of water. Wow, was that ever not enough water. I swear we each guzzled a gallon after we finally reached our cabin.

Tennessee 2011

In 2013 we drove Route 66 from Joliet, IL to almost the Texas line in Oklahoma. It was a dream trip for me, stopping for all the roadside attractions and staying at vintage motels all along the way. The boys seemed to have a good time, but today their chief memory is that “we spent the whole vacation sitting in the car!” Here the boys are in an old jail in Gardner, IL.

Route 66 2013

In 2015 we drove the old Dixie Highway down to Mammoth Cave. It was the last spring break with Damion, who graduated high school that year.

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And this year Garrett and I did Cincinnati: the American Sign Museum, the zoo, the Taft Museum, the suspension bridge, Findlay Market, Jungle Jim’s.

Cincinnati 2017

There, you’ve watched my sons grow up! And I’ve relived these memories we chose to make together.

I chose not to wallow in the difficult past, but instead to move forward. To make the life I wanted, as much as I could. To be a good father to my sons and to create good memories with them.

Mission accomplished. Garrett graduated high school on Saturday.

I know from experience with my stepchildren that parenting doesn’t really end until around age 25. Our kids all need at least some parental guidance in those early young-adult years.

But it’s a new phase of life for me, of moving forward into life with my new wife. But this time I get to do it with memories intact.


These photos are © 2000-2017 Jim Grey. All rights reserved. I will not grant permission to republish them.

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