Friday, January 17, 2014

Old Slides #2 - Learning How to Fly (1957)

Most photos have a “back story” to them; where and when the photo was taken being the least important of the details. What happened just before the shutter clicked can be very revealing in some cases. And that’s what makes the photograph above, which is one of a series taken on Veteran’s day 1957, so unusual. There is none.

As I sift through the old family photos I can find very few where there is not something else that has just occurred which mars the memory a bit. Behind most of the smiling faces there was either a very recent scolding, argument or some other stupid and unnecessary problem. No one is really to blame for that; it’s just the dynamics of an ordinary family living and growing; together or apart.

But, let’s get back to this photograph which was taken over 57 years ago. This one is of me and my Dad. I’m the little guy holding the string. He’s the big guy showing me how to fly the kite. It was one of those big paper kites; bright red and with a tail made of rags. We were at Riis Park; for some reason we were always at Riis Park; winter or summer. I’m not complaining; I loved the place!

Riis Park was named after Jacob Riis, the famous campaigner for decent housing and social reform. His photographs of the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th Century are iconic. He championed airways in the tenements and windows in every room. It was only fitting that a bright, sunny, public beach be named for him.

Once again; back to this photograph. In the years after this was taken; remember I said that every picture has a “back story”? Well, this one really has more of a “front story”, as it was taken less than 2 years before my mother began a long illness, which permeated my entire childhood. I didn't really mind, I just always hoped that she would get better; but she never did.

So, this photo is one of the rare ones in which my Dad is smiling and really means it. Life was good. He had just been through the only job “layoff” he would ever know, and also had pneumonia, one of the only times I had ever seen him ill. The other time was when he gave up smoking in 1962 or ’63 after the Surgeon General’s first warning about cigarettes causing cancer. He didn't even wait until the warning was on the pack. He just stopped. And was very ill; throwing up and bedridden for several days. It was cold turkey, just like heroin withdrawal. He may have lapsed once or twice in the first few years after, but never went back to smoking full time again. Instead he discovered M&M’s.

We would go grocery shopping on Thursday nights when my mother wasn't in the hospital; and my Dad would buy a box of Peanut Chews, or a 1 pound bag of M&M's, which we would eat before getting home.When my Mom was in the hospital, either my brother or I would pick up what was necessary ourselves. We used a pull along type folding “shopping cart” to wheel the groceries home. My brother was not fond of this chore; I think he found it embarrassing for some reason; so I was usually the one “bringing home the bacon.”

So, this is a picture of my father before all the bad times began. It’s also part of a set of 14 photographs taken that day. My Dad’s teaching me how to fly a kite, a skill which I have passed on to my daughter and 2 of my granddaughters. And whenever I look at this photo I remember what it was like to have my parents and my brother, before all the bad times began.

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