Monday, October 18, 2010

A Thousand Words


Whether it was the statement in an article written by Fred R. Barnard on December 8, 1921 for the advertising trade journal Printer’s Ink, or any number of other people who have also been attributed with the phrase we have all heard it. I’m a die hard believer in a picture is worth a thousand words. In fact a more truthful phrase or saying has never been spoken in my opinion.

I try to write fictional stories about characters and places and times, stories that depict or describe certain happenings or situations. There are occasions though, when I want to convey something or transfer a feeling, that fiction just doesn’t cut it. Occasions where the written word seems almost inadequate.

I have an old, old photograph to share. It is by far the most treasured picture I own. It might possibly be the most treasured anything I own. The only thing I can add to this picture, to do it justice, is not a story but an account of a conversation from more than 40 years ago. I remember the night well and I’m confident that my recollection of what was said, while not exact, is probably fairly close.


A Thousand Words

Author: Jim Wilsky


***

I’m almost positive it was a Friday night. Every once in awhile we had a little ritual and after supper was over, that time had come again. My father and I would attempt to, as he titled it, ‘clean out the drawer’. It was an always unsuccessful venture to go through his top dresser drawer and get rid of that amazing, priceless and puzzling collection of his.

The top drawer on the right held pure treasure as far as I was concerned and was off limits to me except for nights like these. It was where he kept everything and like all archaeologists know, on the bottom, is the oldest. Some of it was meaningful, some of it forgotten and some of it was a mystery even to him, but all of it was interesting as hell to me.

“Let’s go pal.”

I was sitting on my parent’s bed before he even got to the bedroom. I waited for him patiently to place the treasure chest between us.

As I carefully picked around and through the contents, I would ask him about certain things, things that needed further explanation. As far as curiosity went, I put cats to shame.

“That’s a .45 caliber.”

I nodded and looked carefully at the shell I was holding up. There was a slight green tarnish to it. I placed it carefully back in amongst the collection.

“Daddy, what was this for?”

He looked over the top of his glasses at what I held.

“A campaign ribbon. They gave ‘em to everybody when we were on leave in New Zealand.”

“A campaign?”

“A theatre of war”, he smiled knowing that would be just as confusing.

I shook my head at the words campaign and theatre. All I knew, was he had been a Marine on Guadalcanal and some other islands in the South Pacific, in the Second World War I would be quite a bit older when I saw some other medals and heard some stories that he only shared with me.

I held up a new find. A heavy weighted conical piece of iron.

“There that is. I been looking for that.”

I turned it over in my hand several times, feeling its odd shape and weight, its smooth surface.

“It’s called a plum, son. A plum is used to hang down from a string and show you a level, perfect line. We use it when we’re laying bricks or building something. I’ll show you next time you come with me to help.”

He pulled out an old Dutch Masters cigar box from the bottom. I had never seen the contents but it looked as if I would now.

The rules on something like the cigar box were unspoken but firm. He would decide what I could see and what I couldn’t, so I waited patiently. When I think about it now, I don’t think he always knew what we would find.

From what I could see, there were some small old yellowed envelopes, a watch and some dog tags.

He opened one of the envelopes and took out three black and white photos.

“Well, I’ll be damned. Forgot about these.”

I didn’t say anything as he looked at the first long and hard. He finally handed it over to me and smiled.

“Your mother and I. In San Clemente, California after I shipped home.”

They were standing under picturesque palm trees, my dad in his dress blues and my mom looking like Betty Grable in a pretty yellow dress with a big corsage. They were holding hands with easy smiles, in love and full of life.

I looked at that picture and marveled at how young they were. My mom didn’t look much older than my sister at the time and my dad, well, he was a marine’s marine. I put it down to wait for the next picture and then glanced back at it, picking it up again.

When I looked back at my dad, he wasn’t smiling anymore, his mouth a tight line. He looked up at me and handed over the second picture.

“Some of the men in my company. Picture was taken in Samoa, just before we went to the Canal. Schmitty, old Georgia Gus, Tex, Gunny Harmon, a bunch of others. Good men. Fine men. We were just kids really but we grew up quick.”

He held onto it for a moment while I held it and he looked at me straight in the eye with a stone face. “They were good men.”

The photo had a few creases and a long ago water stain. Teenage boys in various stages of uniform under a tropical sun stared back me. Some smiling, some not, but all with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders.

He would tell me in the coming years that some of them would be dead in a matter of a week after the picture was taken, many later on. He always maintained that some guys knew it was coming, knew their luck was up, and you could see it in their eyes. I’m sure old voices of ‘Semper Fi’ were echoing in his head. I found him with my finger after some searching; Dad was middle row sixth from the right. Funny what you never forget.

I didn’t ask him any questions on that picture, although I had a hundred things I wanted to know. I remember laying it down next to me as softly as I could. I was really too young to fully understand what those boys had meant to him but I think I at least knew enough to leave that one alone for now.

He cleared his throat and then moved onto the third picture.

The room was very quiet. My mom and sister were home but they were a million miles away right now. Right now, it was just me and him.

“Well, well, look at this one. Let’s see ‘31, or maybe it was ’32.”

Holding the picture with both hands and arms outstretched to help him focus, he shook his head slowly.

He was smiling again or trying to as he handed it over to me.

“Who’s that kid daddy?”

“It’s me boy.”

“Nuh-uh. He’s got blonde hair and this is from a long, long time ago. Civil War days probably. Who is it, really?”

“It’s me alright and behind me there was a three room house that my dad built way out on old rural route three. Nothing but open country and a road.”

I looked at him with wide eyes but didn’t say anything.

He pointed at the house in the photograph.

“Made of scrap wood. Three rooms, like I said. A big room that was part kitchen, part sittin’ room and two bedrooms. My folks had one and I shared the other with my little sister. The walls were a bit breezy. In the winter months we had a fire going all the time. Snow would come inside through the cracks. We ate what we shot and grew. Nobody had any money.”

The picture drew me in and I couldn’t stop looking at it. There was something about it then and there still is. As pictures go there wasn’t really anything spectacular about it but that night I first saw it, I was spellbound.

“How old were you?”

“'Bout your age right now, maybe a little younger. It was during the great depression son and times were as tough as they get.”

“Did your mom or dad take this picture?”

He laughed at that and shook his head. “We didn’t own a camera, that’s for certain.”

“Who took it then?”

“Man from town came around one day. Little short fella. The tripod was bigger than he was and he liked to never get it set up. People were doing anything they could think of back then just to sell something, anything. Make some money somehow, or just plain eat.”

He scooted over closer and looked at the old picture over my shoulder.

“It just happened to be my birthday and this old boy came walking up our lane offering to take our picture, ‘bring a little happiness into our lives’ he said. My mother finally convinced my daddy to give the man three fresh eggs for one picture of me. For my birthday.”

“Three eggs? What was that worth?”

“A lot to somebody who hadn’t eaten for awhile. Hell, it meant a lot to anybody. Like I said son, times were tough and I do mean tough.”

There was another long pause as we stared down at the photograph again. We were both smiling now.

“I remember he told me to strike a pose, be dramatic, radiate strength or some such nonsense. I had no earthly idea what he was talking about, I was just playing around. When he finally took the damn picture, he shouted ‘perfect’ which I’m sure he told everybody.”

He laughed then and his eyes got a little watery. He put his big arm around me and gave me a hug, then started to pile everything back into to the drawer.

“Alright then, that’s enough of memory lane for tonight boy.”

***

All I know is this, the photo says a little bit of everything to me. It’s about youth, life, thankfulness, appreciation and striving. It speaks of hard times, good times, where I came from and what kind of stock came before me. And everything else in between. I’m on my way to two thousand words here and haven’t even scratched the surface with what this picture means to me, so I’ll stop here.

Thank goodness they had three eggs that day.


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