My father died four years ago today. If he were still alive he’d be 68 years old. I thought I’d give a tribute to him, but I didn’t want to simply talk about what sort of person he was, as I imagine that would be boring for you. Instead, I want to focus on one aspect of who he was—the best photographer in the family. Not a professional one…he worked blue collar jobs all his life, tire building mostly. But when you gave him the camera, he often caught those awkward moments you didn’t really want him to catch.
He liked to get you when you weren’t looking, when you were being yourself. My mother used to get onto him about it, “You make everyone look ugly! Why are you taking a picture of that?”
There’s a photo floating around somewhere and I can’t seem to find it. It’s a picture of me on Halloween night wearing nothing but a bat cape and bat ears, tears running down my face, black makeup running down my cheeks as I scream into the camera. I was maybe five years old, but I remember that moment vividly as I was extremely pissed at him for taking pictures of me when I had just been told I couldn’t go trick-or-treating because I was ill. As my anger escalated, he clicked away, laughing hysterically the whole time.
I remember the moment in this picture, oddly enough. I vaguely knew my bathing suit was hideous and looked like a moo moo, but I liked it because I could pull it out and create a fun air bubble. That’s what I was up to here. Of course, being in the fifth grade, I would have been mortified if anyone at school saw me doing this. I didn’t know my father was taking a picture of me, and when I looked up and saw what was happening I ran back into the water for cover.
In the next photo, I’m attempting to water ski.
I had a hard time keeping the skis positioned in the water while they tried again and again to get the boat started. I kept hollering, “Hurry up! I’m tired!” (If you click on the picture, you can actually see me yelling.) And my father, of course, laughed and took pictures of me. By the time the engine kicked on, I was too worn out to even hold on to the handlebars. The boat sped off, leaving me floating in the water, thinking about all the nasty creatures swimming underneath me and how I’d soon die, etc. Later that day, I lost my glasses and walked into a cactus. Good times!
They weren’t all bad, though. I really like this one below where I’m holding hands with my ‘boyfriend’. I know my father took it because my mother would have made me take that thing out of my mouth.
Some of his best photography is from his Vietnam days. A relative at his funeral told me he was a tunnel rat in the war, because he was small and could fit in those tight spaces. I’m not sure I believe it. Or maybe I don’t want to believe it. In any case, he never talked about it. He had PTSD and flashbacks. I remember one flashback, I was 15 and learning how to drive. I was behind the wheel and we were bickering, as usual, when he suddenly started to cry. We were both pretty thick skinned and would rail on each other constantly, so I couldn’t imagine what I had said to make him cry. I nearly wrecked the car to pull over. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing. It’s just the sky. The red. The sky looks just like…”
The sun was setting at the time. And I wonder now, did it look just like this?:
I used to go rifling through his Vietnam photos in some attempt to figure him out, but he didn’t like when I did this. He didn’t want me to come across photos like the following: How do I know these women are prostitutes? My mother inadvertently told me when she caught me looking at them. She explained that all this happened before my father met her and ‘call girls’ were common at the time. She thought I’d be bothered by this, but I never was. I was only sorry that he withheld these things from me, because he was not in that habit. We always spoke to each other candidly, avoiding no topic, especially when I was in high school. He felt no qualms in asking me if I had had any sexual experience, and when I said I hadn’t, he didn’t suspect I was lying, but instead went on to ask if I was a lesbian. Obviously, right? Because all high school girls get laid, even the nerds, unless they’re closet lesbians.
Other conversations might include a battle to the death over whether or not ‘irregardless’ was a word (probably after I had corrected him, as I often did). Dictionary evidence would not suffice for him. I’d give up and then we’d go on to something like this:
“Tina, what drugs have you done?”
“Um. Not much. Why, what drugs did you do?”
“I did________ in Vietnam. Let me tell you about Speedy McGee…”(Here he’d tell me about a guy who always had typewriter ink smeared on his face and who thought he was writing the next Great American Novel. He’d make everyone read his work, but it was incomprehensible. This was the extent of our conversation about Vietnam.) The rest of the story I had to find out on my own from these:
It’s hard to even look at this next picture. I used to suck on his nose as a baby, possibly mistaking it for a nipple. He thought it was hilarious and often told me about it. Every time I see this one I start to cry. I often have a bit of reluctance to open up iPhoto in fear of this popping up.This is exactly the way he looked during all of those candid conversations we had late at night, booze and nicotine nearby, shirt off, laughing.