Personal, Stories Told

We can learn what love is even from the imperfect people in our lives

My grandparents retired in about 1970 to an acre on a small lake in rural southwestern Michigan. Grandpa liked to watch the sun rise over the lake while he sipped his coffee. They wheeled a mobile home onto their lot and angled it so he could do just that from his breakfast table.

But this isn’t about my grandpa, it’s about my grandma. She was just the kind of woman to make sure Grandpa’s home was placed perfectly for Michigan lake sunrises. She bought his cars. She chose his clothes and laid them out every night so next morning he need only put them on. No matter how hung over Grandpa was she made sure he was up, fed, shaved, dressed, and to work on time.

She adored that man. She would have moved a mountain for him had she thought he might want it. If he were then to wrinkle up his face and say, “What did you do that for?” she’d move it right back.

I’m lucky to have made a few photos of her when I was young. I can thank my dad for it. The summer I turned 10 we went to visit and on the way we stopped at K-Mart for something. Dad dashed in and we waited in the car. It was very unlike my extremely frugal father, but he came back out with gifts for my brother and for me: an inexpensive 126 camera kit, one for each of us, complete with film and flash cubes.

Here’s a profile I made of Grandma that day. We were down by the shore, sitting around and talking. Yes, Grandma smoked. All of the adults in the family did.

My grandparents smoked too much. They also drank too much and swore too much. They were codependent with their youngest son, who was lost to alcoholism and drug abuse. In part because they kept paying to fix the messes that son made, they constantly robbed Peter to pay Paul to keep up with their bills. They vocally didn’t like Mexicans or African-Americans, although those would not have been the names they used for them.

But our time at the lake set the standard for me on how to be with your family, and how good simple family times can be. We often sat at the shore and talked for hours, we kids drinking pop and running around, and the adults drinking beer and wine.

They bought a pontoon boat so we could putter around the lake doing much the same, except with our fishing poles along, lines cast lazily into the water. The lake was full of bluegill and sunfish, easy to catch by the dozen.

In the evenings Grandma would make a big pot of something and we’d eat as we were hungry. We’d all squeeze in around their big dining room table and play penny-ante poker or Kismet, which is a dice game similar to Yahtzee. When the whole extended family was over we’d have ten or twelve people in each game, with other family members waiting for someone to be dealt out so they could be dealt in.

Grandma was up a lot filling everybody’s drinks. Some evenings she’d get out the hard liquor and make screwdrivers or Harvey Wallbangers. If she was really feeling it she’d get out the blender and make minty Grasshoppers. We kids would stick to pop, of course.

Then Grandma would be up with the sun to fillet the fish we caught and fry them all up for our breakfast. She always fried some potatoes too, and made toast, and served applesauce. We’d all sit around the table and eat until we were stuffed. To this day I sometimes crave fried fish for breakfast.

From about the time I made this photograph my brother and I spent a week or two at the lake each summer, just us with our grandparents. Grandpa had gone back to work as a draftsman for a small company in the nearest town. We’d all pile into their Bronco in the morning to drop Grandpa off, and then we’d go running around. We mostly did mundane things like shop for groceries or pick up mail at the post office, but Grandma liked the back roads and the long ways and these errands often filled our days. We usually stopped at some out-of-the-way tavern for lunch. Grandma knew all the taverns with good cheeseburgers in five counties.

After we picked Grandpa up we’d go back to the lake and Grandma would make dinner. As we sat around the table, Grandma and Grandpa would tell their stories of days gone by, often late into the evening. They told the same stories over and over again, sometimes adding new details of the 1950s when Grandpa was building his career and they were raising their family, and of tough times during the Great Depression. They lived in great fear of another depression, and were resolute that if another one came they would figure out how the whole family, all the sons and daughters and grandchildren, could live together on their acre at the lake and make it through.

My grandparents were far from perfect. But I felt deeply connected to my family through them. I belonged with them, I belonged at the lake. It created a foundational security in me that continues to serve me well.

Eventually childhood passed, I went off to college, and I saw my grandparents infrequently. Grandma wrote me from time to time and always slipped five or ten dollars into the envelope. Whenever I felt a little lost or lonely I’d call her. Long distance was expensive so we didn’t talk for more than a few minutes, but she was always so happy to hear from me and spoke to me as if nothing I wanted was beyond my grasp. It was like taking a long drink from a deep well.

I didn’t make it through college before both of my grandparents died, both in 1987, both aged just 71. Grandpa passed in January after a long illness and Grandma died suddenly in December. I still miss them both, but I especially miss Grandma.

When I had my own family, I tried to create good family times in the same ways my grandmother did: over food and conversation and simple shared experiences. As much as I could, I had my sons’ grandparents and their uncle over. We had no lake, no smoking, and far less alcohol — but, I hope, the same firm foundation of belonging and love and connection for my children.

I wrote a remembrance of my grandfather here.

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Film Photography

Argus A-Four photographs through the years

Argus A-Four

The shots I shared with you on Monday from my Argus A-Four, a bakelite-and-aluminum 35mm viewfinder camera made from 1953-56, led me to look at photos I’ve taken with this camera in the past.

The A-Four and I go way back — to 1982, as that’s when I shot my first roll of film in one. I was 14. I’ll share some shots from that roll later, but first, let’s look at what this camera can do.

I was surprised and disappointed that the shots I shared with you on Monday were so grainy and lacked sharpness and detail. This photo of a 1967 Ford LTD tail light, which I took in 2010, is creamy smooth with rich blacks and solid sharpness and detail. This is what this simple camera can do.

67 Ford LTD

Maybe I got better results because I was shooting Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros, a modern tabular-grain film. The Arista Premium 400 I used for the shots I shared on Monday is an old-style cubic-grain film. Perhaps the modern films make the A-Four sing. Here’s an Avanti II from that 2010 roll, which I shot at that year’s Mecum muscle-car auction.


Just one more old car, a 1972 MGB GT, just because these results are so good. I used the Sunny 16 rule to take all of these car photos.


I also took the A-Four along on my tour of Putnam County’s old bridges in 2010. (Trip report part 1 here and part 2 here.) This is the Hibbs Ford Bridge. As you can see, the lens is subject to flare when shooting toward the sun.

Putnam County bridges

I forget which bridge this is, but its massive truss is taller than my car.

Putnam County bridges

When I toured US 50 in 2010, I found this curious (formerly) neon sign in Seymour.

Paris Style

Now let’s step into the Wayback Machine and look at a couple photos from 1984, from the only roll of film I’ve ever developed myself. This is the elementary school I attended in South Bend, shot on probably Kodak Plus-X.

James Monroe School

I shot the A-Four wide open from my childhood bedroom door. That’s my brother’s room there, and the round mirror was rescued from the Oliver Hotel in South Bend before it was demolished in the late 1960s.

Hallway at home

And now, the promised photos from 1982. I’d picked up my first A-Four at a yard sale a year or two earlier, and finally loaded some Kodacolor II into it. This is Missy, the Labrador retriever we had then, relaxing in our side yard. I was deeply attached to this dog! I had an 8×10 made of this image then, and my dad made a frame for it. It still hangs in my home.


Here’s my brother in midair at my grandparents’ palatial retirement estate in southwest Michigan. He would probably kill me if he knew I published this, so let’s not tell him, OK?


I opened the A-Four wide to get this indoors shot of my grandfather. I took few photos of him (and my grandmother, for that matter), and I regret it. My favorite photo of him is this one of him holding me as a baby.


Finally, here’s me leaning on our family car at the time, a big old cargo van my dad bought for the cabinetmaking business he started. I shared this photo once before with a little more story behind it. (I took my first driving lesson in this beast; story here.) Hey, there’s a little more of that into-the-sun flare.

Me, Van, July, 1982

By the way, I scanned these 1980s shots with my cheap, plastic Wolverine Super F2D, which did a good enough job.

As you can see, the Argus A-Four is a fairly capable lump of plastic.

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Old Cars, Stories Told

1972 Chevrolet K/5 Blazer CST: Don’t mess with Grandma!

I mentioned my grandmother’s big orange Chevy Blazer in a recent post. It reminded me of this post I wrote for Curbside Classic a couple years ago, about a pretty close replica of her Blazer that I found at an auction.

You didn’t mess with my grandma. She was barely 5 feet tall, but she swore like a sailor and drank like a fish. And she always drove 4-wheel-drive trucks. One of them was an orange 1972 Chevrolet K/5 Blazer CST very much like this one.

1972 Chevrolet Blazer d

Grandma was so short she had to grab the steering wheel and pull herself up into the cab. That had to really work her biceps! I’ll bet it gave her a mean right cross. But had she ever needed to defend herself, she would have instead reached for the .22 pistol she always kept in her purse.

1972 Chevrolet Blazer b

My favorite place to ride was the front passenger seat, and I called shotgun as often as I could. Even though SUVs weren’t common in the 1970s like they are today  — we didn’t even have the term “SUV” then — riding around in that seat didn’t exactly give me the rooftop view of traffic that you might think. Grandma lived in rural southwest Michigan, where serious winter snow and unplowed side roads meant almost everyone owned four-wheel-drive trucks. I was used to looking at tailgates ahead as we rolled down the road.

1972 Chevrolet Blazer f

Grandma preferred the lightly traveled gravel back roads to the highways, though, and so I got to take in a lot of Michigan’s beauty while riding with her. Even when I had to ride in the high and upright back seat, I had a good view. That seat also sat a good distance back from the front seats, giving unbelievable legroom. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but now I think GM should have moved that seat a foot or so forward to give more aft cargo space. It was pretty tight back there.

1972 Chevrolet Blazer c

Grandma and Grandpa had been a one-truck family (a 1972 Dodge Power Wagon, orange over white) until the grandkids started coming to visit for extended stays every summer. Riding four abreast in Grandpa’s truck worked while we were all very little, but as we grew the cab became too cramped and so Grandma bought the Blazer. We ran around all over southwest Michigan together running errands and visiting various taverns for lunch or dinner and, for Grandma and Grandpa, always a beer. I knew then that back home in Indiana I wasn’t allowed in taverns. Maybe Michigan’s laws were different. Or maybe it helped a lot that Grandma and Grandpa seemed to know every law-enforcement officer in six or seven counties. Perhaps Grandma’s smile, nod, and words of greeting to any deputy who stopped in were enough to secure us. We were certainly less uptight about such things forty years ago.

1972 Chevrolet Blazer a

After Grandpa finally retired, they sold both trucks and bought a top-trim 1978 Bronco in gold with a white top. The CST package meant Grandma’s Blazer was top-trim too. This is what passed for luxury in an SUV in 1972. Today, these big body-on-frame SUVs are all but gone out here in rust country.

Music, Stories Told

Driving and singing: Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Singing is cathartic for me. I can’t imagine not singing. I do most of my singing while driving, listening to my favorite songs on my car stereo.

Grandma and Grandpa retired to a small lake, or rather a big pond, among the cornfields and hog farms in southwest Michigan. It was my favorite place in the world to go. Sitting in the gazebo overlooking the lake, staying up too late listening to stories of the Great Depression, and just running around here and there in Grandma’s big Chevy Blazer; it was a relaxed life. When we were out, we inevitably ended up at a bar for lunch. I guess in 1970s Michigan it wasn’t any big deal for children to go into bars, because I surely spent a lot of time in them.

We usually visited The Inn Between, a little joint on the highway at the end of their gravel road, “in between” two villages that highway linked. It was dim inside, with square tables with laminate woodgrain tops, brown padded stackable chairs, a wooden bar with a handful of stools, PBR and Budweiser signs on the walls, a jukebox in the corner. There was a menu, there was beer, there was probably whiskey but I didn’t know much about such things when I was that young.

Everybody at the Inn Between knew my grandparents. They’d walk up to say hello as we sat, calling them George and Kath-ern, which apparently is how Kathryn is pronounced in Michigan farm country. A fellow who must have run the place always came over to chat and take our order. My brother and I would order cheeseburgers, and I always got orange Crush, which in my earliest memories still had real orange pulp in it. The fellow would tease my brother and I a little, asking us if we’d like to try the frog legs instead. Our chorus of “ick, ew!” always made the fellow smile, at least until Grandma finally said, “You should try them. They’re delicious.” So we did, and they were, and we ate them often.

The Inn Between was on the same lake my grandparents lived on, so sometimes we’d motor over there for dinner on their little pontoon boat. We’d linger. Grandma and Grandpa would chat with the other customers, mostly neighbors, all friends. Grandma made sure our red plastic tumblers were always full of icy Coke, and fed us quarters for the jukebox.

In those days, country music was crossing over to the pop charts, and the jukebox was loaded with those songs. It’s where I first heard Olivia Newton-John and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. I played them all, but I liked Glen Campbell the best. I played “Galveston” and “Country Boy” but leaned extra heavy on “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Everybody drinking their beer at the Inn Between must have been glad when we left so they didn’t have to hear it again.


But really, I have always favored the sad songs, and so my favorite Glen Campbell song is “Wichita Lineman.” And I have a bonus memory of my dad around this song. I couldn’t have been 10 yet. We sat in dad’s white Matador in the shopping-center parking lot waiting for Mom to come out of the store. The AM radio played the local music station. This song came on, and Dad sang the chorus low, mostly to himself. Dad can carry a tune. And I sing this song when my iPhone serves it up in my car, too, doing my best to channel Glenn Campbell. But I belt it right out, because it feels so good.

Click Play to listen to “Wichita Lineman.”

Vintage Television

Vintage TV: The CBS Late Movie

I mentioned this post recently here and decided it’s high time to rerun it. It’s an oldie, originally published in August, 2008.

Starting in the late ’70s, my brother and I got sent to Camp Grandma in southwestern Michigan for a couple weeks every summer. The rules were extremely relaxed at Camp Grandma. Pepsi and Vernors and root beer flowed freely, and Grandma always bought Pringles and Lucky Charms and Slim Jims and all sorts of other junk food we got very little of at home.

Me at Camp Grandma, 1977

We’d sit up late with our grandparents every night, playing penny-ante poker or Kismet and listening to their stories of the Depression and the fabulous 1950s until Grandma’s Gallo wine (from the gallon jug with the screw cap) and Grandpa’s Pabst Blue Ribbon got the better of them. Then my brother and I would roll out sleeping bags in front of the TV and watch until all the stations had signed off. Those were great days.

The late-night-TV pickings were slim then. The networks gave it up at 12:30 or 1 a.m. and most of their stations just signed off. WKZO, Channel 3 in Kalamazoo, sometimes ran a late show. If skies were clear and Grandpa’s antenna rotator was working, we’d try to bring in independent WUHQ, Channel 41 from Battle Creek; they almost always had a late show. Weather and antenna usually determined our bedtime, actually! Once or twice we were still watching TV when Grandpa made his way to the coffee pot at 5:30.

We always looked forward to the CBS Late Movie, which started right after the news. It ran lots of B movies in the mid 70s, including monster movies on Friday nights. But by the late 70s, the CBS Late Movie showed more and more crime-drama reruns, which were sped up by 10 percent and crammed so full of commercials that the shows ran 70 minutes instead of 60. We preferred the movies, but could be happy with good action and suspense in Hawaii Five-O, Quincy, M.E., or Kolchak: the Night Stalker.

What made the CBS Late Movie so cool was its open and bumpers. The opening theme’s vigorous horns triggered anticipation of gritty drama to come. The colors in the star and spinning wheel popped against the black background, and there was nothing like it in prime time. Here’s how the program opened one night late in August, 1982.

Because this bumper was transferred from the 35 mm masters, you can see how colorful these elements were. This particular bumper was used in and out of commercials, and the announcer would say either “We will return to” or “We now return to” followed by the movie name and its stars. The music sounded lonesome, which seemed appropriate for watching in the dark in the middle of nowhere, as we did.

The CBS Late Movie theme is called So Old, So Young, composed by Morton Stevens, who wrote lots of television music in his time. Here it is, from my collection.

In the summer of 1985, the CBS Late Movie ditched these elements for CBS’s then-current prime-time movie look and theme. The program was also renamed to CBS Late Night. David Letterman, filled with mock indignation over the slight to his program, then on NBC and also named Late Night, called CBS during his program one night, demanding to know why they were infringing on his territory. I saw that bit back then, and it made me laugh. That almost made up for losing that classic theme and graphics. At least until YouTube brought them back.


Potawatomi dancers at the pow wow

Potawatomi dancers

I’ve known for most of my life that I have Potawatomi and Cherokee Indian ancestors. I’ve always felt more connected to my German roots, but I’ve been curious about my Indian side just the same. So when the opportunity came up to see a Potawatomi pow wow, I took it.

The Pokagon band of Potawatomi Indians (or, as they say, Pokégnek Bodéwadmik), has this pow wow every Labor Day weekend on its land near Dowagiac, Michigan. Potawatomi from all over gather to dance and sing and celebrate their heritage. It’s also an opportunity for many tribes, not just Potawatomi, to sell handmade goods. Of course we checked out the booths, and I even bought a colorful piece of pottery. But the dancing was where it was at.

This young lady’s feet barely left the ground as she danced. It is supposed to symbolize her connection to mother Earth.

Potawatomi dancers

In contrast, this flamboyant fellow really twisted and twirled, his fringe always flying.

Potawatomi dancers

Wait, what? A blonde-haired Potawatomi dancer?

Potawatomi dancers

I soon figured out that the more elaborate the regalia, the more active the dancing.

Potawatomi dancers

I’ve always thought my Potawatomi ancestors came from my mother’s mother’s family, but I’ve been mistaken. Talking about it in the car on the way home, Mom said that her mother’s family had Cherokee ancestors, but Grandpa’s grandmother was full Potawatomi. That made Grandpa a quarter Potawatomi, but you never would have guessed it as he looked like he came straight off the boat from Germany. Even though I’m just one sixteenth Potawatomi (and probably an equal measure Cherokee), I look far more Indian than my grandfather ever did.

Last year about this time I attended the rededication of a monument to Potawatomi chief Menominee. Check it out.