Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Charity of Night....Cashing in on the Friday Night Lights

Just after the sun went down tonight, and as the sky quickly darkened I caught a glimpse of the moon out an upstairs window. It was only a sliver of silvery light and it was fast sinking to the horizon. By the time we were on our walk, it was gone, but a million stars were lighting the night sky. There is a charity of night; a stillness where, with less sounds to contend with, each sound that does venture into the darkness finds it's rightful place without having to clamor for attention. A dog barks a few times in the distance. Another one, a mile in the other direction, responds, and then the "stage" of the night is ready for it's next willing player to step from the wings. Sometimes none come.

As I mentioned a couple weeks back, my older brother Alan was the young entreprenuer. When I was about 11 he took me into his confidence in sharing a lucrative weekly cache of coin during the fall months when the lights of the nearby high school stadium made our Friday night front yard glow, and the sounds of the band and a cheering crowd echoed down the street. We were close enough that we could hear the scores announced if we sat on the front porch.

If I decided to go to the game, it usually wasn't through the front gate. It was magnanimously more exciting to sneak in. During the days we would occasionally make a circumspect inspection of the very large cyclone fence that enclosed the track and field. By doing so, we had a pretty good idea where we could slip under, hidden by the tall pines lining the fence; a little bit dirty, or going through a "tear" in the fence; sometimes snagging. If we were terribly adventurous in the manner of Steve McQueen, we would climb over, but this was showboating, and a little more dangerous. The sound of the fence ringing could alert a watchman, or worse, some ruddy-faced sophmore who, now that he had left the rank of freshman far behind, was bent on taking a little revenge on an underclassmen.

After a successful "invasion" we stayed long enough to see who won, play on the monkey bars a bit, and oogle the cheerleaders from a safe distance.

The next morning was when we would return to the scene of the crime make our haul.

We would get up early, before dark, before anybody in the world, as far as we could tell, was up. With the possible exception of the man driving the streetsweeper, the boulevard was usually clear, but we were cautious none-the-less. This was a mission. A pair of car lights rounding a corner and we became mere shadows slipping behind a tree or a parked car for safe concealment. When we got to the school we'd have to slip our slender bodies through the gap in a gate, or use the same hole we'd manuevered under the night before. We went early to beat the Saturday morning janitors who too knew what treasures awaited them. With "D" battery flashlights in hand we'd make a beeline for the home bleechers first, closest to the school. This was the first place the janitor would go, so it was mandatory we beat him to it before heading across the field.

Under the stands we would carefully go, square by square, careful not to bump our heads on the metal cross-bars, and kick through the sand, eyes peeled for the glint of coin....lost treasure, adolescent bounty. And we would find it; coins, Cracker Jack prizes, unopened candy bars, assorted items that could easily slip from a pocket during an idle time in the game's action.

Time was of the essence for in our silent work we always kept our ears peeled for the sound of a big ring of keys clanking against a parking lot gate. When we heard that, we'd make a scramble across the field, keeping low in the faint morning light, to start our scavenge again on the far side un-beknownst to the janitor raking the same sandy dirt we'd already scoured.

By the time the sun was starting to filter through the pines, and our pockets were hopefully much heavier, we'd take our leave, satisfied we'd done our best. A good haul would merit a swing by the beacon of light that was the local Winchell's donut shop. A warm chocolate glazed and a cup of hot cocoa at a table by the window, the sun would come up and fill the little white room with light, the smell of fresh donuts intoxicating, as we counted our coins. When all was finished and our bodies buzzed with sugar and burned adrenaline, we'd walk bleary-eyed home and sleep for a few precious hours while the rest of the town began it's day.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Safe in Loving Arms

This day would not be complete were I not to mention my dear mom. This is the first Mother's Day since her passing last August. That doesn't make me sad, as one might think, for I know that her joy today is far greater than any sadness of missing her. My mom succumbed to Alzheimer's over ten years ago. Once that disease had taken hold, it kept her. It's like a prison cell; you can see the person through the bars, but the cell gets darker with each passing day, week, month, and sadly on into the years. Unlike a prison cell, where a good prisoner may one day be released, Alzheimer's takes it's prisoners for good. There is no release until the final, and brilliant release. Because my father, who looked after her until his own passing, was very protective of Mom and her condition, I did not see her illness coming until it was too late.

Too late to talk with her in a conversation that both of us understood. Too late to ask her questions about her childhood, motherhood, losing children....the kind of questions I didn't think to ask earlier for the simple reason that I myself wasn't mature enough to ask them. As I have gotten older, the answers to those questions became something I desired. I may not have known how to ask some of them before, maybe still don't now.

As a small child I would wake suddenly from nightmarish dreams. I don't recall any of the dreams now, but I do remember my mother's remedy. There was an old rocking chair in the front corner of our living room. It was one of those chairs that if an unknowing guest sat in it and leaned back, they were in for a thrill. It would tilt back so far you were sure you were going over backwards. It never would of course. To that chair my mother would take me in the sad early morning hours when I had returned grimly from another world. No matter how far the dragon had dragged me, no matter how high I'd had to climb to escape the fiercest lion, no matter how deep the water into which I'd plunged, my mother could pull me free. Once she had me, she wasn't letting go. In her arms, hearing her softly singing, and hearing the wooden creak of the rocker as it neared it's furthest tilt, I would be restored. Slowly, lovingly, tenderly, unconditionally.

In the morning I would awaken rested and free from the lingering distress of the previous night's journeys in the dreamworld. Mom never spoke of them either, it wasn't necessary. She was doing what a mother would do without thinking.

Now I wonder about what journeys she had to take, not only the fears of the night, but the real-life trauma of the day. She lost my brother, only a year old, just a year before I was born. Two years later, she lost my baby sister. My youngest sister, who came along healthy and strong four years later, once told me "No wonder Mom held onto you so tight; she was so afraid she might lose you too." I don't know, but maybe she's right, we can't ask Mom about it now.

This I know for certain Mom; you sang in the church choir almost every Sunday and the hymns I heard told of a heavenly place far greater than anything we could behold here on earth. (for me that's like saying it's even more beautiful than Yosemite, and I believe it) Those hymns told of a loving God who pulled us from the deepest depths to the highest glory, because He loves us so. Like the rocking chair where you let me fall gently back to sleep; where I felt safe and secure, I know you are safely held now by a great and wonderful God, secure in the promises He gave us in His word. You are in a real place, not just something conceived by the human mind. I am thankful for that now on this Mother's Day, and so happy for you Mom, for you have been granted a brilliant release.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Charity of Night....Part 3

There is, as singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn put it in song, a "Charity of Night". As if after all the misgivings, loud alarms, and abrasions we might incur in a given day, the night shares a forgiveness; a letting go, a respite from the cares of the day, and of course, eventually sleep.

As a young boy, there was a different sort of charity I was after. I learned it from my older brother Alan; bestowed with an uncanny ability to get something for nothing, a character that still resides in him to this day, although not gainfully.
Alan was always after the freebie; the search for the little loophole. Like the time he devised a way to get free Hot Rod posters from Pontiac that sold them at a promotional price of something like $3.00. Three dollars that a young teenager didn't always have. Alan filled out the order form and put it in the envelope. He addressed it and sealed it, then tore it open again, crumpled it a little bit and dropped it in the mailbox as is. He figured some kind lady at the redemption company would look at that torn envelope and fear the worst; that this poor young man had put his hard-earned money in there, and somewhere along the way, it was lost. Sure enough, Alan got the posters he hadn't paid for. (they were awesome, by the way)

Alan also devised a way to get in free to the local high school football games; in order to save himself a dollar or two. At some point he had acquired a large roll of white numbered tickets like you'd see at a raffle. As people were beginning to enter the gates at the football field, Alan would lurk inconspicuously near the ticket booth to catch a glance at what color the entrance ticket was that night. He'd come the couple blocks home, and with a little food coloring, he'd devise the correct color of ticket and return to the game. No one was ever the wiser.

I will tell you how we made pocket money "cleaning up" after the game in another post.

The moon tonight was full. The crisp sky air clear of anything but a scattering of stars. The landscape was transformed from a night-scape that is usually grays and blacks, to a beautiful blue-toned world with distinct shadows and bright highlights in the meadow, and twinkling water in the creek under watchful, silent, overhanging trees. The llamas followed us curiously along the fenceline, more interested in my four-legged friend than me. As we walked through an open space on the road I looked down into a field on my left. I could see my shadow briefly passing under a perfect cross made by the moonlight playing on a telephone pole across the road. There is a charity of night; a cleansing, a renewal, a glorious but calming time before the business of another day.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Wondering Why I Like the Night, Part Two

I would like to say that photography was always my dream job, and that as a young boy I was driven to seek work as a photojournalist for the San Francisco Chronicle, or the then-fledgling (and mind you, anti-capitalist) Rolling Stone. But instead, my first job, although with a newspaper, was of somewhat lower aspirations. I was a paperboy for the smallest daily paper in the county; The Times Green Sheet. It was six days a week I got up before the crack of dawn, and sadly, after years of that routine, I can't tell you which day I actually had off.

My morning routine: I'd first walk to the front door to check the porch to see that my 80-plus papers had indeed arrived at some point in the middle of the night. A quick glance in the dim light at the girth of the two twine-tied stacks would tell me how hard my job would be that day. A light day I could get all the folded papers into my front and back "saddle bag"; a heavy canvas set of pouches worn on the shoulders. A bigger paper meant I may have to make two trips, coming back to the porch for a refill, two streets at a time.

Once I had a visual, I'd go back to the kitchen for a bowl of cold cereal dowsed with a couple spoonfuls of white sugar, and a glass of orange juice. If there was leftover Chocolate-Sundae Pudding in the oven, a good sugar rush was in order. I'd then throw on some clothes and head to the front porch for folding, the morning light just beginning to come over the roof of the house and filter through the mulberry trees.

If it was a summer day, the cool porch felt good, and I'd sit and fold each paper, a cat or two lounging nearby. Small papers could be held together with the right inserted fold. Bigger issues required a rubber band from the quart-size bag I'd buy from Mrs. Huntsman, my "agent".

On colder winter days when the concrete front porch was inhospitable, I'd haul the bundles of papers into the living room and set up shop in front of the T.V. set. Wherever I was, I had to be quiet; the rest of the family would still be asleep.

Getting the saddlebag over my shoulders was not always an easy endeavor. I was but a lad of around 90 lbs. soaking wet. Often, it seemed like a bag full of papers weighed more than me. With a big Wednesday, or giant Sunday double issue, there was only one way to get the bag onto my small shoulders. That was to carefully prop it on the porch with the papers standing upright, and then lay down on the ground and slide my body under the shoulder sections, popping my head up through the hole. A little wiggling and onto my knees I would be able to stand up and wobble to my trusty chrome sting-ray coaster-brake bike. Once on my bike I was ready to roll. You know, I honestly don't know if a photograph actually exists of me prepared like this for my route. I hope that your imagination does it's job.

On the streets I was in familiar territory. I knew the houses where the pretty girls lived. I knew the houses whose owners never paid (it was voluntary back then) and I delivered the paper anyway. I knew the house where a dog would bark when the paper landed on the porch; those got a soft touch. I knew the house where a dog might be lurking in the bushes; those were approached with caution. I still remember the morning that dog came bounding out and gripped my front tire in it's unrelenting jaws. I was so afraid he would pop my tire that I was in tears before the owner came out to free me. I knew the house where the family always tipped me, and at Christmas would even give me a little gift. Their paper was always perfectly placed on the doormat, headline up, fold-end toward the door so that I could almost picture the man of the house picking it up and smiling each day; his beautiful wife waiting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and lightly tossled hair, their two sweet kids asleep; the clothes they would wear to school that day already laid out on the beds. That was one of the first families I ever thought "there's something wonderfully unique about them..."

After years of doing the same route; 52 weeks a year, 6 days a week, I could probably ride it now and recall all the houses. By the time the sun was full in the sky, I was rounding the last corner with my own house just a few doors away...but wait, I haven't told you the scary part.

About every two weeks, usually on a Sunday, the monster would show up. It was always before dawn, and thankfully I could hear it coming before I saw it, or it saw me. The lights were the first tip-off as their orange flash was reflected on a wall of the Safeway store. My feet would pedal faster. Soon the sound would inevitably get louder; a whirring, swishing sound like hard brushes against a harder immovable surface. No matter how fast I rode, how low I stayed on my sting-ray, or how quickly I would toss the papers, my ink-stained hands still making sure none strayed into a hedge or bushes, I knew the monster would eventually round a corner, it's orange lights would sweep my trembling frame and it's emotionless eyes would direct their full gaze on my fearful face. It never did devour me, but the regular visits of the city street-sweeper made a quiet Sunday morning a lot more exciting.

Note: the photo at the top of this post is of my oldest brother Bob, and oldest sister Barb making a "photo-op delivery" to our own front porch. Not sure who the tall blonde is, maybe our cousin Jan?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Wondering Why I like the Night...Part One

I sometimes wonder why I like the night. No, actually the very early morning. I know that when I mention to friends that I take my Labrador for a walk most nights after 1:00 a.m. I get curious looks from people, even those who know me well.

As a photographer, it is light that concerns me most. Light consumes most of my working hours; I study it, watch for it's changes, anticipate it, modify it when I can, and let it be when it's just the way I want it. Light is one of the the foundations of photography; without light, photography would not exist.

Maybe after being "held" by light most of my day, interacting with it and it's relationship to my subject, often minute to minute, night becomes another solace; an escape or abandon of some sort. But even on the darkest, moonless night, walking without a flashlight, light finds it way in. Subtle, but it is there nonetheless. The shape of the treeline, a faint recognition of a skunk crossing the road ahead, a soft light in the kitchen of a nearby farmhouse, and the shine of the fur on my dog's back as she treads on fearlessly into the dark. Her feet are sure, making mine more confident.

But there are also feelings associated with night; some from very long ago. There's a memory of a family trip to Nevada, a yearly adventure to my aunt and uncle's home in Elko. As customary, my dad loved to make an early start; typically between 4 and 5 a.m. We were all pretty well packed the night before. My suitcase (sometimes only a paper grocery bag or two) contained all the essentials of a nine-year-old: a handful of plastic Army men, a flashlight and spare batteries, an AM transistor radio with a broken antenna, at least one walkie-talkie (not sure where it's mate was), a gun or two (preferably a cap-gun or B-B gun in case of wild animals) and if Mom had her way; some clothes. Dad usually had the Chevy station wagon started when I stumbled out the front door of the house, into the cool quiet air of morning. I could hear it's low purr as I crossed the dark patio. Being the next-to-youngest of six kids, I would invariably climb in the back door, over the back seat, and into the "wayback". My little sister between my parents on the front bench seat, she'd be still asleep with her head on Mom's lap. If everyone was going, the back seat would be full, leaving me and Alan to fight for space among the blankets and luggage in the cargo area. Seat belts weren't necessary. (we probably only had 4 anyway)

I can remember clearly the sounds and smells of that old '56 Chevy. The creaking of the back seat and the soft music and voices on the car radio and I too was back to sleep. But this particular morning, about two hours down the road, I recall hearing the muffled voices of my parents talking softly. I could hear a light hissing of water and the smell of something fresh that made me lift my head up to peer out the back windows. We were passing through the middle of Sacramento. Not sure why we were off the highway; maybe my dad was looking for a Chevron filling station open early. We were very near the capitol, I could see it glowing in the early morning light through the windshield, it was surrounded by perfect lawns. It seemed like there were a thousand warm streetlights, and everywhere there were sprinklers darting left and right and around in circles, each one catching the light as it passed through it's path and refracting it in new directions. The streets were wet and there was no one around. It was one of the most beautiful scenes I can ever remember; it felt like the Emerald City in L.Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz.

It was only a matter of minutes and we had passed through this wonderland, but it is still vivid in my memory. We would drive on into the brightness of the day. We had mountains to climb and beyond that the warm, heavy air of desert Nevada. But as clear as a photograph I still possess that shimmering Sacramento morning.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Trouble with the Empty Tomb

You didn't hear it from me. Got that? Deal is, we did not fall asleep on our watch. Yeah, that's what you heard, but I'm telling you it didn't, and never would, happen. They made us say that. Who? The Jews; the high priests from the Sanhedrin to be more specific. No, they didn't tell us, but Pilate did after they came cryin' to him. I'll tell you what it was...come closer...yeah, it was a cover-up. See, had we really fallen asleep, we would have all lost our heads. We kinda made a deal to keep it quiet if they were able to say what they did.

What was the big deal? The guy was stone cold dead and there was no arguin' that. I was comin' up the hill when one of our men put a spear in his side to make sure it was final. When I see blood and water come out I know it's a done deal. Still, they, the Jews again, demanded that Pilate put a guard by that tomb. Seems they were afraid that if they stole his body away...Who? His followers. Oh, you mean who's body; that Jesus who they crucified a couple days back. They were afraid that if they stole his body they could claim he did rise from the dead after all, like he said he would. I don't think anyone's ever said they'd rise from the dead, then go ahead and do it too. No, I'm sure of that. Just as sure as I know he was dead when they put him in there. Just as sure as we all rolled that stone in front of the tomb, then placed the Roman seal on it. They'd have to get past the twelve of us, then that scrawny bunch of his followers would have to move that stone too. Trouble is, those followers of his all pretty much scattered once he was in our possession.

So, where's the body now? Good question. All I know is this; we were all around the fire, it was late and there was nothing going on. The dawn was close and the air was quiet till that earthquake, or whatever it was, hit us. We were all knocked flat about the same time as a flash of light. A flash like the brightest lightning. Except there was no thunder, and the night sky was cool and clear. First thing we notice is that stone; it's moved. The tomb is wide open and none of us wanted to, but we had to look inside. Nothin'. Nothin' except those white grave clothes he was wrapped in before. They were still there. They were right there, but not torn up or nothin'. They just looked like whatever was in them, well he just wasn't in 'em anymore. They were layin' there just as nice as my mother's own linens.

Well, none of wanted to stay there after that, and we all figured there was no reason to; what we were supposed to be guardin' was no longer in need of our protection. We headed back to the city, each of us quiet; wondering in our heads what we were going to say when we got there.
The morning sky was starting to lighten. Coming our way I could see three dark figures, each one small, heads covered. I knew by their walk they were women and as the first one came closer a glint of light told me the jars they were carrying were traditional spices; stuff they anoint bodies with for burial. They gave us a wide berth, but it wasn't necessary; we weren't concerned. Each one passed without a word. I was at the back of my regiment. The last one slowed her pace and glanced up, catching my eye. Her own eyes were red and swollen, like she'd been crying a long time. A sadness I could not try to describe, but it touched my heart. Without thinking I stopped and said softly; "He's not there." In the quiet of the dawn I could hear a tiny gasp of breath, and at the same time a happiness spread across her face that almost made me smile in return. She barely touched my hand and then began running to catch the others. As I returned to my march I could hear over my shoulder cries of joy and a laughter that warmed my cold heart.
Even now, as I tell you this I wonder; could I ever know that joy?

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Centurion's Regret

I can't tell you how many of these I've done before. We're damn good at it. Our Roman system of justice has to be one of the best. Fastest for sure. You commit the crime and we'll have you hung out to dry before the sun goes down tomorrow. You'd think it would slow down, but we still have a few of these every week. I've become pretty calloused to the whole thing really; it's my job. But this one gave me a real uneasy feeling.

I came in late; they had me across town in the early hours. By the time I got to the yard this guy was hardly recognizable. I had to look twice to be sure it was a man. They'd been givin' him the works. One of the guys made a crown out of some thorny rose bramble and they jammed it on his already bloody head. When they loaded that rough wooden beam onto his shoulder he collapsed under the weight and it was then I saw his back was raw; not a bit of clean skin was visible. Even though they were laughing it up, I overheard the men saying how little fun it had been. Not like usual; this one didn't put up a fight. They said that when they looked him in the eye, even spittin' in his face, he didn't look mad at them. He looked sorry for them. Like he didn't blame them at all. I tried to find out what it was he'd done, but none of them really knew; something about saying he was king? King of the Jews? I don't know.

Well I didn't have to do much. They got him out of town to the usual spot, and he gathered quite a crowd. People of all kinds; even the Jews; some of the important ones from the synagogue, with all the robes and hats, and women crying. Lots of women. I saw what they meant when they put the nails in his hands and feet. He let 'em do it without a bit of struggle; like he wanted to be there. Or if he didn't want it, he knew it had to be done.

My job was to keep a watch in case anything happened. Like what, he's gonna come down off that cross? Not likely. We make sure of that, but we also make sure they last as long as possible.

Couple other guys were up there too; a couple common criminals, spoutin' off like filthy punks. I could put a spear through 'em myself if I knew I wouldn't hear about it later. I just minded my own business and listened to as little as possible. One of those wretched punks was yellin' somethin' at him; "If you are the Christ, then save yourself and us!" and all of a sudden the other punk changed his tune. " You idiot! Don't you get it? Have you no fear of God? You and I deserve what we're gettin'! This guy did nothin'. He's innocent, ya hear? Leave him alone!"

They both got quiet and that second one said in a real serious tone "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

I stopped walking just a few feet away 'cause that guy they called Christ looked up. I wanted to hear what he said. I had to step closer; his voice was thin but calm; "Assuredly I say to you...." He's lookin' right at that punk! "Today you will be with me in Paradise."

A chill ran down my spine as he finished those words. Something in my heart felt like he'd ripped a piece right out, leaving it exposed to the wind that just kicked up, putting dust in my face.

What was going on here?

Look, I wanna be clear; there were other people around that heard and saw what I saw. It was the middle of the day and had been a pretty nice one up until then; that's when the sky turned as black as if night was falling. Like the sun itself didn't want anything to do with what was happening out there. I couldn't hear a single bird, not even a crow. No dogs barking. No music, nothin'. Just that miserable wind; where did it come from? Nothing felt steady under my feet. Was it my legs, or was the earth trembling. I had lost my focus and wasn't paying attention until I heard him speak again. He lifted his head up like he was talking to the dark clouds above him and cried out like it was the saddest, most painful thing he'd ever done. "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." And then, the life went out of him.

The women who'd remained behind were weeping liked they'd lost their best friend. Or their only child. I couldn't help myself. Tears streamed down my dust-covered face and I wiped my arm across my eyes so nobody'd see. I had to turn the other way. I felt ashamed. I was a part of something terrible here. All I wanted to do was run home and hold my wife, hold my children, hide somewhere dark where the light would never find me. Where my shame and sadness would never be known. Nobody could hear me say it under my breath, but I knew it with all my heart; "Certainly this was a righteous man."
(A.McDavid, interpreted from the gospels)