The Photograph—Updated, with an Additional Photo
This past Christmas, thanks to a photograph I received from out of the blue, I was able to turn to my wife and sons and say, “There’s my childhood.” And to tell myself: even though it was nearly a half-century ago, it was real. Update 1/20/11: Per the request of the readers, another photo referenced in the article has been added at end of the piece.
January 16, 2011 - 10:39 am
I’ve just been re-introduced to my childhood self after a separation of nearly a half-century.
While I was living a busy, but tightly circumscribed, life in California going to junior high school, playing Little League baseball, and camping with the Boy Scouts, my self — or more precisely, my image — joined that of my childhood best friend and traveled the world. It was even viewed by millions during one of the iconic events of the 20th century.
And then, as I grew into adulthood and began my own explorations into the bigger world, my image retreated to the hermetic world of an envelope in a desk drawer … only to emerge decades later, almost magically, at the very moment I lost my final connection to our shared childhood.
My mother died last July after a long and remarkable life. I gave her eulogy to a large crowd at the museum that had been my late father’s dream, and for which my mother had been both a volunteer and the largest benefactor. I turned that eulogy into this column, which was picked up by across the Web and carried by blogs around the world. I also sent copies with the announcement to my mother’s long list of friends and family.
One of those notes went to Scott Christopher, the noted photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Scott and I had been best friends as boys in Falls Church, Virginia, and my mom had been like a second mother to Scott. In the intervening decades, she had done a much better of job than me of keeping in touch with Scott — so I knew that the news would affect him deeply.
I wasn’t surprised when, a few weeks later, Scott sent a touching note offering his condolences. But I was surprised — indeed, stunned speechless — by the image on the other side of the note: It was a photograph of Scott and me, deep in conversation, sitting on a fence at what appeared to be a farm. We looked to be about age eight.
This was no weekend snapshot taken with the family Instamatic. This was a professional photograph, with beautifully saturated colors, tonal balancing only a darkroom could achieve, and a composition that bore the mark of a master photographer. The instant I saw the image, I knew who took it: Frank Christopher, Scott’s dad.
Frank Christopher — “Cheetah,” we later called him — was the most eccentric, and intriguing, figure in my neighborhood. The housing development was called “Pine Springs,” and we arrived in 1957 after my father’s Air Force intelligence career had taken us from Germany (where I was born) to Spokane, Washington, and finally to an old government office building located where the Air & Space Museum now stands. Pine Springs was a new development of modest homes with interesting modernist architecture that stood on the edge of a seemingly endless forest stretching north and west to Tysons Corner (then just a gas station and road house) and beyond.
Scott and I played and explored in that forest. We caught turtles and crayfish, built forts, and brought home jars of tadpoles that would inevitably surprise us by turning into a chaos of tiny frogs in the garage and house. When we weren’t being Tom and Huck, Scott and I played in pick-up football and baseball games, or just took off on journeys by ourselves that no 21st century suburban child would ever be allowed to do. When Scott wasn’t at my house, I was at his, and when we were apart we still found a way to connect — including a tin can phone with a 300 foot string.
It was, as Scott has written, “truly magical.” It began the moment the school bell rang and continued until we were ordered inside from the growing darkness — and often not even then.
Into this self-contained little world, where an entire day could be spent looking for four-leaf clovers or attacking a huge wasp’s nest or damming a rain-choked street gutter, adults only made brief … and mostly unwelcome … appearances. My father, like most of the other dads, awoke to a cough and the click of a Zippo lighter, a quick breakfast, then was off in our ’48 Jeepster or big-finned ’57 Chrysler in his brown suit and skinny tie to the “office” — only to return in the early evening, pour himself a cocktail, and, after dinner, fall asleep in the Eames chair while watching Huntley and Brinkley.
But Scott’s dad was different. I would sometimes see Frank Christopher, still lying in bed in the afternoon, watching movies on a black & white TV with a busted vertical hold. Or he was off playing golf in the middle of the day. But then, other times, he would disappear for several weeks at a time, his departure a flurry of activity. I knew that he carried a camera with him, but I don’t remember him ever taking a photograph. And when I did see one of his prints — “Strike Three,” a 1959 photo of Scott in oversized hand-me-downs taking a mighty hack which was one of the most honored images ever taken of childhood sports — I completely missed the artistry and laughed at the fact that Scott had missed the ball.