Recently, my wife, Alane, bought me some photos from a thrift store. She knows my fascination with by found images. By found, I mean anything purchased in bunches, or individually, at thrift stores or antique shops or garage sales, or found.
I don’t get it. Why do people dump their old photographs? Why not just erase part of your family history while you’re at it? These things are memory triggers, .even if nobody is around to have their memories triggered. They meant something to them. They represented something. They still do.
You may not recognize the people in your grandparent’s collection of photographs, but … On second thought, never mind. If you don’t know who they are, don’t ask around. Don’t post them, or spread them across the table of a nursing home or your own kitchen table. Don’t try to figure it out. It’s not worth it. Nobody has time for that. Donate or sell them. I’ll give new life to the characters. I’ll claim them.
I said a photograph was a memory trigger, but it is more than that. An image from the past doesn’t just dust off an old memory. It generates new ones. Somehow the new honors the old.
I don’t know if cameras really capture souls, but I believe that photographs store energy. In that way, a found image, or the fictitious story that it inspires, can become as authentic as the original subject was to the photographer.
Most of the photographs Alane bought are from a United States Air Force serviceman’s time in Korea in the late 1950s. Here’s a quick story about one of the them. The story is fictitious, but the photograph is real. She’s real. I don’t know who she is, or was, but someone did. She will remain real, long after my memory is mush.
Fictitious doesn’t always mean fake. It can mean reality discovered through a different path.
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Hello, I’m Willie Boyd, and I’m from Ohio.
I served in the United States Air Force’s 1955th Airborne Air Control Squadron, only we just called it the 1955th AACS. I was stationed in the Pacific in the late 1950s. I can’t tell you exactly when, and I can’t tell you exactly where. it’s not that my memory is that far gone. It’s because our mission there was hush-hush then, and it’s just as much of a secret now.
All I will say is, the very first successful launch of my country’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM for short, was in 1958. And all I can say is that somebody had to control it. And that somebody had to… Let’s just agree to say no more about the subject.
Because of the sensitive nature of our work, we weren’t allowed to have cameras on base. Did I tell you where we were? I hope not. They wouldn’t let us carry around a camera, even off-duty. We could own a camera. We just couldn’t use it, or be seen using it. I’m not joking. If they saw you with a camera or even a roll of 35mm film in those days, poof. It’s gone. No questions asked; no answers given. Gone just like that. Doesn’t matter how many paychecks it took to buy it, you’re not getting it back.
That’s why I have no photos of my buddies, or of our girls, but I remember. Let me tell you, I remember. I remember those people. All of them. I remember Staff Sergeant Rodney P. Brady. Lord have mercy, I remember him. I remember Airman, 2nd class, Stieglitz. We called him Stieg. He liked that. It sounded strong. I remember some guy in our squadron who went by — it was a color. Sort of a strange name for a color if you ask me. Give me a minute.
Veridian. That’s it. Veridian. We called him green for short, but he said that green was an oversimplification of his personality. He said he was a complex color. We mostly laughed at him when he did that.
Veridian loved to start fights at the bar, maybe because we laughed at him. Or maybe that’s why he named himself a color like Veridian, because sooner or later, he knew somebody would pick on him for it, and that would be excuse enough to start swinging. Veridian could fight, I give you that. One night between shifts, Stieg beat the crap out of him right on top of the bar. Veridian changed colors for a few weeks. I remember that.
Did I tell you that we tracked Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles? We called them ICBMs for short. We also relayed ground target coordinates to friendly aircraft. Well, they were friendly to us, maybe not so much to the enemy. I probably shouldn’t say much more about that. Let’s see, who else do I remember?
I sure wish I had a shoe box of photos to back up my stories. They would help me remember, but they wouldn’t let us have a camera. I mean, we could have one, and most of us did, but it would be gone in a hurry if they ever saw you snapping pictures. Even at the bar, they’d yank it. They didn’t care if the strap broke. Poof, gone.
And there was what’s-his-name, Frank something, Frank, Frank… Frank Pellegrini. He was Italian. I think he was a Staff Sergeant, but I could be wrong. I think he was a Marine assigned with us. We worked together a lot back then. We didn’t care what uniform you had on. If we fought on the same side, we treated you like one of us.
He was from New York, I think, or New Jersey, Frank was. From up that way somewhere. This is Pellegrini I’m talking about now. We called him Sangria because he was Italian. Tell you the truth, we had no idea what country Sangria came from, but the nickname fit, and he didn’t mind.
Let’s see, what else can I tell you? Like I say, we had cameras, in fact, most of us bought them while we were in Korea. They were cheaper there. I didn’t lose mine, if you wonder. I could have though. One night, okay you may want to sit down for this one. I’ll make it quick, but it’s a good memory. I like to tell people that none of us had picture of each other or of our girls, but that’s a lie. I have one of mine.
One night, we were at the bar where Veridian got a color change, thanks Stieg. Anyway, we were there getting sloshed, and I saw the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life. I mean she was heaven in the flesh. Heaven. That’s what I called her. She sat directly across from me. I had my camera with me that night. We felt like rebels when we carried them, but we never pulled them out. They’d take them. I had it tucked under my arm, like a small loaf of bread.
Now, you’ve got to understand that our mission was so secretive, that the United States Air Force had people whose only job in the world was to confiscate cameras. That’s how hush-hush it was. I wish I could tell you more, but I can’t. Anyway, sometimes things are worth the risk, right? I worked hard to pay for that thing. I mean hard. And my girl was worth the risk.
She and I flirted off and on, and she was shy as shy could be. And just at the right time, just when my buddies were laughing it up, and none of the guys around me seemed like the camera-taking type.
I guessed the distance between me and my girl, between me and Heaven, then I pretended to drop something. Under the bar, I set the focus. That’s what I named her. Heaven. I stood up, slid my camera from under my arm, pointed it at her, pressed the shutter, and tucked it away, all in one motion. I couldn’t use a flash, because I would have exposed myself to the enemy, the camera-takers.
Back then was not like today, when you can just run out to the local drug store and get film developed and come back with it. But I will tell you this, as soon as I got back that night, I got a buddy to sneak my film into the 1955th AACS’s darkroom and develop it on the spot. At first we thought it was blank, because we didn’t see anything on the strip, but then I realized that I only had the one picture on the whole roll. Just the one of her. I helped him print it. I shook the trays.
So here’s my one and only photo of Heaven. The years have given it a yellowish tone, but I don’t care. I still love it.
I know it’s dark and faded and out of focus, but it’s her. It’s not of her face, but it’s her. It’s my Heaven. Did I mention how shy she was? This shows it, doesn’t it? She looked away as soon as she saw me raise the camera. She was quick. Heaven knew what kind of trouble I could be in, still she’s grinning. You can tell. That’s her too. The grin. All her.
I wish I knew what we did with the negative. My buddy might have kept it for all I know. I wish I could remember his name. Maybe we left it in the enlarger, or it might be in Korea hidden in some desk drawer. Maybe they took it. I was just so excited that I ran out with the print. It was still wet. I don’t think I ever thanked him.
Over the years, I’ve made better quality images with that old camera, but I’ve never made a better photograph. You want to know the weirdest thing? I sat at that same bar stool in that same bar on that same night every week for the rest of the time I was stationed in Korea, and I never saw Heaven again.
I wish I could tell you where she is and how she’s doing, or if she’s still alive. Heck, I wish I could look next to me and ask her myself. All I know is, she’s right here with me in the only way she can be, just as shy and grinning and alive as I remember.
I just wish I could have captured her face. I wish you could see how she looked at me. I remember, but not like I want to remember. I can see her in my mind, but I want to see her in my hands. I want to hold her smile. Does that make sense?
That’s the power of photography, isn’t it? It has the power to give a priceless memory, to preserve a moment. Photography gives my memory of Heaven a pulse. It’s a memory trigger.
Photography has the power to give me so much, but it also has the power to remind me what’s missing. When I look at her image, photography keeps me wishing for something more than a broken heart.
I wish I could tell you more about my girl, but this is all I’ve got, all I’ve been allowed to have. But I’ve got this, right? And that’s everything. Sometimes I think one photo is better than an entire collection. And you know what? They didn’t take it away from me then, and they sure aren’t getting her back now.
I’m sorry, but I don’t remember much of anything else about my time in Korea in the 1950s. I’ve told you about all I can say, even if I did.
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