In 1964 three attractive Americans in their late twenties wearing fashionable clothing pose for a photograph in a San Francisco bar called The Red Balloon. For roughly thirty years that photograph passes through multiple hands, albums, rooms, apartments and cities until it is placed into a large wooden chest of possessions at the foot of a bed in Shelby, North Carolina. Finally, it is immortalized (being made public) within the nearly infinite cosmos of the internet in 2016. This ongoing search for old, moving photographs of my family as young men and women is a meditative hunt for visual proof of my existence and ammunition for future work.
The photos inspire in me an overly-sentimental longing for the past and (perhaps) a misplaced motivation for an aesthetically pleasing future. It seems like my culture’s infatuation with “corrupting” nostalgia may have something to do with this, but by now I guess that conversation is old hat. We all love what’s lost and gone. We are confronted by the fast times of current living where all times are accessible and fair game. Everything is on the table, including the angle which borrows from past events in order to write good work. It’s been done forever and everywhere. Revisiting familial pasts has probably been used as literary device and inspiration since the dawn of the modern story. Of course doing it well and uniquely is the catch. Whether the impetus stems from artistic desperation or trite romanticism I’m not sure, but I continue to obsess over the legendary tales told by or about the lions of my past.
I have always been interested in the lives of my progenitors. How far back do they go? Like most kids I grew up asking the obvious questions about the details of first meetings and what my parents’ childhoods were like, but I never took the time to document or even properly memorize all the wonderful nuances in these tales. Years of anecdotes lost to the unbeatable and fogging winds of time, etc. If I’d only started writing it down in jr. high school, I would have pages of stories I could then pass on as epics to further generations- not to mention I’d have a hell of a lot more to write about.
The above photograph of (from left to right) my Grandfather Frank, Grandmother Frances and their dear friend Bud Crum at the Red Balloon in San Francisco, 1964 was the inspiration for a short story I wrote years ago called Danceland/1954. Though that fiction is riddled with bad lines and laughable attempts at cool, the actual story Frank told me over coffee or beer on the porch or in the kitchen (can’t accurately recall so I’ll rewrite it) exists in the shared space of our memories and remains legendary in my mind.
-Cooper and big Bud Anderson and the others had come up from Lima, but it was apparent from their clothes that they’d spent time in Dayton or Toledo. Coop had on his new, favorite Prussian-blue suit and both Bud and Coop walked with a confident swagger just ahead of Carmen French and the young Mike Sims who’d never really been “out” on account of him just turning seventeen.
“Now just hold yourself together, Mike,” Coop said looking at his friend. “You just keep an eye on Bud here and watch him do his thing.”
Cooper kept loose cigarettes in the side-pocket of his jacket. He removed one with his smallish hand and motioned Bud for a light. Bud lit his own, then tossed the lighter. They were just near the front door.
The sign buzzed and crackled above them. It read: DANCELAND in big, garish letters.
“Danceland? My mother would have my ass if she knew I…” then young Mike Sims was quiet hearing the screams of pleasure and looking out over the water at the large wooden roller coaster which was adorned with bright yellow bulbs. The line of carts crawled slowly to the highest peak and then dropped down over the beach, lending a dim-yellow glow to the still water of Indian Lake. —
The story goes on to finish at the end of a dock on Indian Lake where the protagonist (Frank) is able to cold-cock a bully off his feet and into the water in order to impress a pretty girl in a green dress. Fiction in the details, but true at the heart of things. One day I’ll have to give it a rewrite. Need to sit down with Grandpa Frank one more time and see what I can’t remember or what has changed in the story, details that have been lost or newly discovered.
Nobody wants their existence to fade, and the death of memories which were the beginnings of the present me are the foundation of things: a seemingly bottomless cache of adventures, jokes, love, death, sex, heartbreak and 2nd, 3rd and 4th hand stories. Tell the stories which save their protagonists and thus separate us further from the fear of dying, giving us the courage to write completely new lives. Nothing groundbreaking but I can’t seem to shake the idea. It gives me peace of mind as well as the hope that I’ll eventually be able to create something decent which might pump figurative blood into the past lives I hold dear.
Grandpa Frank is thirty the above photograph, about the same age I am now. A mapping website tells me that San Francisco is around 5,133 miles away from Tokyo, Japan. In 1964 and 2016 two 30-year-old men of the same blood pose for photographs in metropolitan drinking holes on opposite sides of the planet. In this recognition of timeless similarity, among long gone cocktails and those not yet poured comes a reconstruction of my identity. Must find skinny tie. Must polish shoes. Must locate large, confident friend.
On a warm evening in May a cool character I will never meet named Bud Crum (R.I.P) convinced his best friend (and my grandfather) to pull his car over and flirt with two young girls walking down the street in Lima, Ohio. Bud’s hunch was right on and the girl named Frances responded in spades. Because of Bud and this meeting (among others) I am alive and typing these words which will reinforce my concept of self. Of course whether or not the story becomes something beautiful in its retelling…that’s where the work is, and where I’ll surely fail. Must repeat overused inspirational phrases: Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Bite down on the nail. Keep human. Write the damn story. Save yourself.
For Frank, Fran and Bud