Saturday, October 13, 2012

Guns and Skates

This post is the result of yet another writing exercise for the Writers Society of Jefferson County. The task was to bring a picture, any picture, to the meeting and then write about it. I had forgotten to bring in an actual photo, but I did have thousands of pictures on my netbook. I immediately jumped at this one.
 It all started back in the early 2000's on a holiday trip from our home in Lusby, Maryland to Springfield Mo. . . . 

I found the box in the basement. I found lots of other things too, a full, rich lifetime’s worth. My wife’s maternal grandmother had died earlier in the year at the full, rich age of eighty seven. She was bright, funny and busy up to the very night of her death.
Now we were in her house, alone, during a blizzard. We couldn't even get across town to my in-laws for Christmas dinner. Their house was small so we’d opted to stay at grandma’s.
My own Brownie Hawkeye, on display in the man cave.
The full basement was piled high with arts and crafts. Seashells, pretty rocks, colorful bottles, beads, plastic flowers, a kiln, everything a very busy person needed to stay very busy.
I was drawn to the boxes of old photos.
There was little else to do really, and it allowed me to snoop into my in-laws' past. Angel busied herself looking through other piles of stuff, Adam was at his grandparents' house.
The mysterious treasures in the box were the negatives, hundreds of them. Most had no accompanying print. Most dated back to the 620 and 120 days. That’s a film size most commonly used from the 1930’s through the late 1960’s. If you are old enough or photo-nerdy enough to know what a Kodak Brownie is, you know the film I am talking about. The negatives are much larger than 35mm, the later film favorite, which made enlarging them pretty easy.
The common boxy cameras that exposed the film were not exactly precision instruments. No settings, just look down at the backwards, sometimes upside-down  image in the viewfinder and thumb the big button. Turn the knob on the side till it stopped and you were ready to shoot again.
The exposure was fixed, the lens was tiny and of only mediocre quality. The manufactured, fixed settings were designed for a bright sunny day or a blinding, nuclear-level flashbulb (sold separately).
For decades this was how most American families recorded their lives. Blurred, too-dark and poorly centered prints.
The negative
If you didn't have your own darkroom you took your film to a photo processor and they ran it through a machine that rarely tried to improve the quality. A good darkroom processor could, if motivated, take a low quality negative and crop and dodge and over/underexpose it to draw out a decent photo.
I knew this because I had a darkroom.
I could hardly wait to get back to Maryland and my modest, but capable lab.
I got permission from the in-laws to take the box.
This was my wife’s hometown and family, not mine. Most of the people I did not know. I was looking for art and history, not  genealogy.
One underexposed negative challenged me more than most. Two girls, maybe, wearing short skirts and odd hats, with what appeared to be boots. They were standing next to each other as if in formation, I assumed cheerleaders or majorettes.
The negative was awful. Details were impossible to make out, and my mind had trouble reversing the dark and light to make it recognizable beyond those first vague impressions.
I loaded the fragile negative into the carrier and pushed it carefully into the enlarger. I made a test strip to find the best exposure time, then another. It was pushing the edges of sane exposure times.
Finally finding a good-enough time, I loaded up a fresh sheet of 5X7 photo paper and set the timer.
I dipped it into the developer then the stop-bath  then the fixer. Then rinsed it thoroughly in clean water and hung it to dry.
I was pleased with the print and also taken aback.
Two girls, circa mid-1950’s, in skater skirts and hats, and not boots, but high top roller skates. At their sides, rifles, held at something akin to 'order, arms'. Not real guns I’m sure, just those used by high school drill teams.
Guns and skates. I tried to imagine this drill team, one that seemed completely odd until one recalled the time and place. Back in the fifties in middle America drill teams were quite common, and so were roller skates, so there.
What really made me laugh though was the girl on the right. Dark hair, harshly painted lips, a familiar crooked grin.
I was looking at my mother in law.  Priceless.

Other prints from 'the box'.