It's cold this morning, friends, as I sit in my almost hundred year old house in the pre-dawn darkness. How does cold RISE through the floors? Heat rises, cold sinks. This old house was not insulated, though, and so the floors are cold. The walls are mostly windows, too. I've replace many of the old windows with new double glass with gas Pella windows, but not enough. It is not quite freezing here in my own hometown, but it is close enough.
But wait! Wasn't I supposed to be 100 miles away, to the north, in my old university town?
Yea, yea, yea. I've already been chided as a disappointment. But it is not all that. Let me explain.
I cut my morning routine short on Saturday, hurriedly packed some clothes, grabbed the camera things I needed, and got on the road. And the road north is quicker than it used to be when I was in school so long ago. New toll roads--why in the fuck is everything a toll road now?--kept me off some of the overcrowded county roads I used to be required to take. Saturday morning traffic was fairly light, and I was able to set the cruise control most of the time. Fast. Real fast. Traffic, by and large, was moving well.
I had to make some stops along the way, however. Coffee. I drank a bunch before I left the house. I was drinking it while I drove. At one point, I thought I wouldn't find bathroom before I wet myself, then I spied an exit. It was a darn good one, too, home of the International Drag Racing Museum. There were signs for a big citrus store that was selling baby alligator heads. My god. . . I wanted one of those. Another sign said they sold baby alligators, too. That seemed curious. That was certainly some old south shit. Who buys a baby alligator? And why? I pictured shaved heads and neck tattoos and jacked up pickup truck driving white nationalists.
"We built a goddamned moat around our mobile home and filled it with alligators. I dare anyone to try to come on our property now."
But, of course, you know how it goes. The closer I got to the exit, the slower the traffic went and the more I had to pee. I was bumping up and down in my seat singing songs at the top of my lungs. And, of course, as always-- and you all know the drill-- I barely made it.
When I got back to the car, the citrus/gator place was on the other side of a road under serious construction. The gator head would have to wait. So would the Drag Racing Museum. But, I promised myself, I'd be coming back.
Smart as a whip, I kept drinking coffee. Wash, rinse, spin, repeat.
Still, I made good time and was soon driving across the giant prairie that was once a lake on which steamships carried goods during the Civil War. It is dry now, or mostly, and is a protected, rich habitat for amphibians and reptiles and birds. And it is spectacular, I think. While getting my zoology degree, I spent plenty of time collecting species there, and my girlfriend and I used to pick blackberries that grew along the fence line separating the prairie from the road.
But I was passing up the college town and going half an hour beyond to a small town where the Liberator's maker lived. Off the interstate and down some country roads, past a small rural Main Street that had not changed much at all, I carried on to his house.
John's a special guy. He once owned a major photography studio in NYC making magazine ads for huge corporations. But the life was stressful and he fell into the bottle, as they say. Then he had a breakdown, closed up shop, and joined A.A. By the time I met him, he was building cameras in the office of a broken down motel in Asheville, N.C. The place was a wreck. The motel was now cheap housing for the underclass, so to speak. John's place was a workspace and a bed. His cat walked over everything. This was 2012. John and I talked about the camera. He had to show me everything, and I had to make aesthetic choices. Then he wanted to show me around town. We ate lunch and went by the big photo store and developing lab there. John was known. By the time we got back to his place, it was dusk.
"You want to see something cool?"
Because he was in the old motel office, he could switch on what was left of the old neon sign. Half the lights were out and the rest of them flickered. It seems I took a picture of it in the dusk, but I wouldn't have a clue where it might be right now.
Eventually, John moved to my own home state where he rented a space in a garage. I never went there, but from what he tells me, it was just that. He didn't have a shower and so he went to the springs to bathe. In the last year, however, his sister's wealthy-ish husband died, and she offered to buy him a house. It is hers, but he lives in it, and when he dies, it will go to her daughter. When I pulled up, I saw a block house with a metal roof sitting on a big chunk of land. The place was not well kept, needing fresh paint and much yard work. John opened the door. I hadn't seen him since that day in Asheville.
When I walked in, I knew this would not be quick. The house was cold. He doesn't have real heat. The a.c. unit doesn't have a heat pump, he said, just some electric coils over which the cold air passes. My first house had such a thing. You cannot heat the house on a cold day, and this day was cold. The house was a low-grade fridge. I wasn't tempted to remove my hoodie.
We made small talk for about half an hour, catching up, sort of, before he showed me around. The house was unadorned. The living room had some metal chairs and something that almost passed for a couch. He showed me his bedroom where it was obvious he spent most of his time. He showed me the room where I could stay if I chose to, but I had already decided that was out. One bath, and a small kitchen. John was not tidy. He is a genius at taking things apart and putting them back together, but he is neither domestic nor a clean freak. He took me to his workshop in the garage. There were camera parts everywhere. He showed me my Liberator. Oh, my. . . it looked like new. He had taken it all apart and given it an update/upgrade. There was a new handle replacing the broken one. He had put in new metal and drilled it out so that I could put the camera on a tripod. All the dials and cranks now turned with ease. And best of all, he had put in a bright new focussing screen. This thing was ten times brighter than the old one. I was thrilled. No wonder I was always having trouble focusing the camera before. Then he showed me other things he was working on. My Black Cat Liberator was number 13, of course. He is now making #98. He showed me what he was going to make for himself when he reached 100. He had an AeroEktar lens that was number #0000.
"This is the lens that won World War II,' he said. I didn't say anything. I simply nodded. I knew what he meant. Then he showed me the camera body he would mount it on. It was a special addition of the old Graflex cameras called "The German Model." Some of the configuration of the knobs was different from the others. He didn't know why, but he had decided to make it his own. Then he showed me some old WWII gunny sack material in that old army green. He was going to cover the camera in that, he thought. As he looked around, though, he had to dig through pies of things lying about on his many worktables and through his many drawers to find things.
"I am organizing everything right now," he said.
The place would look exactly the same next year, I was sure.
"Do you want to make a picture?" he asked me.
It was obvious he meant he wanted me to make his portrait.
"Oh, man. . . you bet."
"I need to get a chair."
We walked inside. He picked up a lightweight metal chair and explained that this had been one commissioned by the navy. They wanted lightweight metal chairs that wouldn't break. They were selling now for $1,500. He had paid $200 for it, he said.
We were headed for the backyard when his phone rang. It was his sister. I heard him say "Happy New Year." He had not talked to her since December. She had been on a cruise somewhere. Then he handed me the phone.
"She wants to talk to you."
I was confused. "Just put it on speaker," I said.
She introduced herself, then she asked me what was my area of study in literature. I was surprised. I guess John has talked to her about me before. Though I don't see him, I keep in touch by phone and texts, and I guess he counts me as one of his friends.
"Modern and Contemporary American and British," I said. She started asking me questions about "Moby Dick: The Whale." But first, she wanted to opine. It had been many years since I had taught the novel to seniors at a private university, so I was digging deep and quick trying to pull up something that sounded academic. I talked about Melville's friendship with Hawthorne and their disdain for Puritanism and tied that in quickly to some of the novel's major themes, but this was Cliff's Notes stuff. She was getting ready for another cruise through the Panama Canal, and said she would be reading something else (I can't remember) while she travelled. She was very pleasant and sweet and she seemed to be happy to keep conversing, but I made the "well, have a great trip" move and we ended the conversation.
"Sue was a high school English teacher," John explained. Ahh. So that was it.
John's backyard was a huge, empty yard with a few oaks and pines. John put the chair down.
"No, not there," I said glancing up at the clear blue sky and the cold, brilliant sun. I measured the direction of the shadows. "Move the chair into the light in front of the tree."
He put it in the shade.
"No, man. . . c'mon now," I said and walked over and sat it in the puddle of light. I set it about 30 degrees off center with the sun. "There," I said, "that should give nice features. There might be a little shadow under your nose, but we'd need a reflector to fix that."
He sat with another Liberator in his lap. He was going to take my portrait, too. I looked through the viewfinder, bright and sharp, then put in a film holder. John had the light meter.
"What's the reading?"
I moved the camera settings, pulled the dark slide, and snapped.
"That should be good," I said as I turned the holder around to the second sheet of film. He loaded his. We were going to take photos of each other making a photo. But when I hit the shutter release, nothing happened.
"John. . . ."
He took a look at the camera.
"Hmm. Let's go into the shop."
He took the camera partially apart and did some investigating. The mirror was sticking, he said, and he showed me how it worked as he explained. He got some exotic powder and began swabbing the mirror and the rubber gaskets. John uses all kinds of chemicals. He told me he had been getting terrible headaches. He went to a doctor and they did brain scans. I didn't say anything. If I did, I would have said that he needed to be more careful working with all the compounds he was breathing. But I let it lay.
John doesn't have a television, and the garage/workshop was silent.
"Do you play music while you are working?"
"No," he said. "Why. . . do you want some music?"
"Oh, no, I was just wondering."
John's life is a silent one, a lone man living in a rural community in a cold, barren but messy house. He's a little crazy. He is terribly dyslexic, so he doesn't read. When her writes me, his spelling is terribly funny. He still goes to AA meetings after all these years, and I would guess it is for the fellowship. His 2003 Corolla was in the shop. It seemed a life that conspired toward madness.
"Let's try it," he said after firing the shutter a bunch of times. We went back outside. We tried again. Success.
I had been there about two hours at that point.
"Well, John, I want to get out into this brilliant light and make some pictures, so I'm going to bolt."
He wanted to show me a few more things as we said farewell. He had made some beautiful wooden canoes that were truly remarkable. We made our way to my car. I could see the lonesomeness in his eyes, but I was ready to see my old hometown.
When I pulled out of his driveway, I did what I inevitably do and got turned around. I was driving down a country road that I didn't remember, but it was beautiful, so I sped along looking for anything. The road was empty for miles and miles, then suddenly I came upon some flashing lights. Jesus Christ, it was a terrible three car accident. One car had apparently rolled and rolled because just about every panel was crushed. Another car was severely torn up from behind. A third car had its side panels busted up. How in the hell did this happen on such a lonely open road? I slowed down and pulled into dirt road leading to some houses, apparently, as the street was lined with a few mailboxes. I needed to Google Map my way back to town. I know I was lost. Indeed, I was driving in the opposite direction. I let Google take me back.
And it was a great drive down trafficless county highways, eventually leading to some businesses on the outskirts, then more. I kind of remembered where I was, but not enough to turn off Google. Then, after a couple of turns, I was downtown. O.K. The university was not a mile away. I could take it from here.
Jesus. . . this has gotten long. I'm going to stop here and continue on a different post. I will put a warning at the top of the page not to read this but to skip ahead to the next one which will explain how I ended up back home .