photo galatea

A woman's eyes, seen through time.

It's happened twice now. I scan in an old photograph at a high resolution so that I can retouch it for a friend, and as I work over the photo, smoothing imperfections in ancient brown emulsion layers and cloning out years of embedded dust and tiny hairs, I find a woman's eyes. I can skim over to a badly scratched Victorian table or a stain on a painted woodland backdrop, but I end up back at those eyes. If I zoom out so the entire photograph fits on screen, she's making discrete eye contact and I can't stop looking.

Was she staring, absent minded, at a lens that took too long to gather light? Am I reading emotional depth into the woman's boredom? I can come up with lots of explanations, but somehow I feel her looking back at me. She is beautiful; and I'm in love.

This most recent image has me zoomed in, looking closely at the tones in a dark spot on the woman's cheek. It appears to follow the shape of the cheek, and not the ripples in the emulsion layer. Either it's a beauty mark or a spot so old as to have significance. A beauty mark, of course; and it's on her cheek. Beneath one of her gorgeous blue eyes. We share a brief moment, and I skim to the photo's edge to repair a small tear. It takes some work, and when I zoom out to check the over all effect, she's looking into my eyes again. Somehow I feel that I miss her, and my affections linger after I close the image. What an odd longing.

Now that there are two of them, things could get complicated.

memorial day 2011

My old draft card and hunter safety card.

My dad had been the course instructor or, at the age of ten I might not have been allowed in. It was called the NRA Hunter Safety Course but what excited me was described as the safe handling of firearms and archery equipment. I didn't want to go hunting; I didn't think it was much of a sport. Even at ten, I knew some ignorant, nasty people who carried it off successfully with no trouble at all. I didn't want to associate with them. They laughed about the way the animals behaved in their last moments and they thought it was funny if they appeared to suffer. I thought having the skills to handle the equipment could be important. That seemed to be a strange mix of attitudes for a kid. As I got older, I wanted to join the Marine corps because the marines seemed capable, focused, selfless and honor bound. They were there when needed. Semper Fidelis. But I wanted to join the Peace Corps, too; for almost the exact same reasons. It was relatively new, sounded amazing, and I sent away for information on signing up.

Stupid mixed up kid. In junior high a guidance counselor told me their analysis of my preference test answers couldn't be accurate: I was interested in far too many divergent things, was far too inconsistent.

I objected to war, too; the Vietnam war very strongly. I went to a peace rally in Philadelphia and met a small group of guys in uniform who were with the Veterans Against the War. We talked at length, and I realized that the guy I was speaking with showed no signs of ethical motivation or even moral integrity. He was terrified of being hurt. I left the group in disgust. I realized that a good many of the people at the rally were there for drugs, or sex, or music and few were there to learn or to exercise their political right to protest.

Stupid mixed up kid. My sign painting dad painted a dozen signs and hung them in our kitchen the day I was heading to the moratorium. He thought the rally was ill conceived and misdirected. That's what his signs said. Funny guy.

Finding like minded people with this contrary mix seems to be out of the question. Instead of getting along with everybody I seem to offend them all. I think there should be strong gun controls, long periods of waiting for permits, mandatory gun locks in homes with kids—but I would put a gun in the glove box of my car and within arms reach of my bed if I felt a need. War is not a political tool. War is not an economic solution. It's vile. It's evil. A last resort that should be avoided if there is any alternative. But—

But if war ever becomes inevitable, we reach a point where every alternative is exhausted, we should enter the war resolutely, killing the enemy and everything they hold dear with self righteous abandon and without mercy. There can be no rules of war other than win at all cost; rules of war are a fabrication for people who need to excuse the horror and somehow accept its utility. Not too many Quakers stick around when I talk like that.

I just watched Hurt Locker for memorial day. My daughter's fiancé said that it was a fairly realistic depiction, based on his own experience. I watched it to understand and appreciate. When I went to my daughter's graduation at Fort Jackson, I was amazed at the behavior of the soldiers. They seemed capable. Focused. Respectful. As they stepped into a building, they snapped their hats off, then snapped them back on when they stepped outside. They called me sir and responded respectfully to every question. It would be unforgivable to learn in twenty years, that after all of our losses, we'd gone to Iraq with a hidden political agenda. I would never forgive those who made the decision to go; they should be tried for their crimes.

To the soldiers who have done what they believe in, who fight for a country and for principles they hold dear: you have my unwavering, unconditional support and my deep admiration.

Summer 85

I wasn't there when my dad died. Half a state away, my phone rang in the early morning and my brother's voice said, "Dad's dead." It wasn't a big surprise. Dad had bypass surgery when he was in his fifties and had been on medication for years. Pills for his heart, pills for his blood pressure. This last one depressed him; he claimed it limited the effectiveness of his erections. That was dad.

Early in the night dad got out of bed, put on his blue terrycloth bathrobe, and walked downstairs. Mom woke at some point and noticed dad wasn't with her. She called, and he didn't answer. She got up, walked downstairs, and found dad in the kitchen. He was laying on his back on a small hooked rug by the sink, lit only by the light from the aquarium. His robe was arranged neatly, his eyes closed, and his hands crossed on his chest. Mom called my brother. He drove across town and sat with mom and dad on the kitchen floor till morning, then he called my sister and me. I don't know who was called then. Someone official, I guess; someone to agree that dad was dead and cart the body away.

A few days later, we got his ashes. We put them in a walnut jewelry box that my brother made in high school. It was an elegant container that I always thought looked like a casket and it served perfectly to sit in the front of the church for dad's memorial service. The mason's came in and had their little gathering, the minister spoke a few words and everybody filed out. My brother and I saw the crowd at the door so we picked up dad's box and went down the back stairs to the parking lot. We stood by the car, smoked a cigarette, and mom didn't show up.

I left the box on the hood of the car and walked around to the front of the church. Mom was barely visible in the overwhelming crowd of well intentioned well-wishers. I pushed through to her and could see the look of panic on her face. There were too many people, all of them talking, all with too much to say. I took mom's elbow.

"Hey mom. Dad's waiting at the car. He's getting really pissed."

Mom looked at me and smiled. She slid her arm back and took my hand. "We better get out of here, then. You know he doesn't like to wait."

winter, 2011

In the winter, when Nick slept alone, he slept in a bright orange knit hunting cap. The cap helped to keep his head warm, and helped to keep his ear plugs in place. The ear plugs, necessary since August, kept the thumping from apartment K's bass reflex speaker from making Nick buy a gun to put holes in the wall. He needed this warm, quiet, peaceful cocoon to get any rest at all. He woke every hour or so to urinate and needed to keep the world out and sleep from drifting away.

The night was bitter cold and windy enough to move the old army blanket Nick had tacked over his window. The air in the bedroom was a bit crisp. He had pulled the hat down tight, till it just reached his eyes, and pulled the stack of blankets up over his chest till they covered his chin. In the warmth of all the covers, just a small slice of face showing, it was easy to disappear into a deep sleep.

When Nick woke with a start he wasn't sure exactly what woke him. The room was dark, there was a small light shining in his face and two large figures had opened the bedroom door. Was there a fire? Was he supposed to get out? He wasn't wearing pajamas. He could barely see without glasses and that always seemed to reduce his ability to hear, too. There was a voice though, not a fireman but police. The police were in the room. Somewhere far off a voice identified its self as police, and someone had called about his open door. What?

"What? …Who?" Nick said as he rolled up onto his right elbow. The voices were muffled and made no sense. He couldn't see faces, just dark uniforms.

Again the voice spoke, "We're the police. Your neighbor called and said your door was open."

Okay, not a fire just an open door. Not in danger, these are good guys? Nick was confused, his mind jumbled from sleep but he was putting facts together quickly.

"We're police, sir. We think the wind maybe blew your door open. We're police, sir. A neighbor called; not sure which one." He seemed young, this police. A bit uncomfortable and just a little jumpy. A smaller one had ducked back down the hall.

Nick started to realize that he was in his bedroom and the police had come in checking to see if everything was okay. Why wouldn't it be? The door had blown open? Must've not pushed it all the way closed after coming in with groceries. Nick reached up under his hat and pulled out his ear plugs. The police had to be almost yelling at him to be heard at all. Earplugs. Damn. The second smaller guy poked his head back in and the first stammered a bit, turning back and forth in one place. He was anxious, like he had to pee.

Then very clearly Nick heard, "Sir we're with the police. A neighbor called and said your door had been open. They were concerned and we needed to check it out."

"Okay," Nick offered. "I can… I can get you some ID?" The police usually ask for ID; Nick couldn't think of anything else to say. There were no chairs, he couldn't ask them to sit down.

"Yes. That would be good, sure." The spinning officer was slowing down. Getting ID was a familiar process, maybe; something solid to hold on to. The smaller guy ducked back into the hall again.

Nick started to feel like he was awake and in his own apartment. "If you reach over and hit the light, I'll grab that robe."

The officer found the wall switch with the beam from his flashlight. He'd taken it off of Nick and had been aiming it upwards so the room was illuminated. The sudden bright light was like ice water. Nick was sitting up in bed in his disordered bedroom, boxes piled against the wall and clothes piled on the floor. He reached across for his robe, which was also in a heap on the floor. He had to hold the blankets and support himself as he reached. Both officers stepped out into the hall as Nick slipped his arms into the robe. The three of them were heading out into the darkened apartment and Nick reached over and turned on the hall light. One of the officers found the light in the front room. Without his glasses, Nick wasn't really sure which officer it was.

The wind must've blown your door open. They said it a few times to fill the quiet. Nick glanced at the drawing table under the chandelier for his wallet and remembered it wasn't there. Without thinking he reached for his hip.

"Your wallet's over here on the floor," the first officer said and he turned from the wallet as if he was embarrassed to look at it.

"That's it; thanks." Nick picked up the wallet and pulled out a handful of cards. "A… okay, here. Here's a driver's license."

The second officer had taken out a small black notebook, took the license from Nick and started writing down information. The other officer was sill moving about. The one writing was smiling. He handed Nick the driver's license. "Were you in the service?"

Nick paused, then realized the guy had seen the photos on the wall of his daughter's graduation at Fort Jackson. "No; that's my daughter."

"The wind must've blown your door open. Do you lock it at night?" The officers seemed to be finished with what ever it was they had to do and were heading for the stairs. The apartment was on the second floor, but the door was on the first, at the bottom of a long steep stairway.

"Not usually," Nick mumbled, then noticed everyone was near the stairs. "I'll go down with you and make sure it shuts."

"That sounds great. The wind must've blown it open." Both officers were down the stairs and out the door. "Have a good night."

"Thanks." The stairway was cold and his robe blew around him. Nick closed the door behind the police and turned the lock. Not much point, but he felt that it was expected. As Nick climbed barefoot back up the stairs, he realized that he wasn't wearing glasses and was still wearing the bright orange knit hunting cap pulled down almost to his eyes. He was back in bed, and back to sleep in less than a minute.

The next morning, Nick woke, took off his hat and tossed it on the bed as he stepped into the bathroom to get his glasses. As he walked down the hall, he noticed that the door to what had been his daughter's bedroom had come open. It was just piled with her junk, now; the mattress propped up in the hall. For a moment, Nick thought that maybe the wind had blown the bedroom door open. Then he thought he remembered the police coming in the bedroom during the night.

1970 and 1994

Photo from the Pottstown Mercury.After my mother died, my brother and I had to find time to clean out the house we grew up in; an old three story, full-basement brick almost victorian home in Pottstown. We'd each take several days off to drive back to Pottstown hoping to clear out the junk, then, seeing each other in the old house, in the rooms we used to play in, we'd reminisce over everything we picked up: An old SORRY! game piece, a boy scout shoulder patch, a toy soldier. The drawers full of old junk made it a longer process than it needed to be. Mom had been 75, and she recorded our history with stacks of newspaper clippings mixed with letters, drawings, postcards and coupons on any available surface. If a stack got too large, it would go into a Chock-full-o-nuts coffee can before being placed back on the counter, or radiator ("convector" as my dad would insist), or refrigerator top.

My brother sat going through stacks on my dad's dresser, and I was sorting through things on my mom's. There I found this photo of my latin class banquet; Mom must have clipped it from the local newspaper. The long hair had been real. The sandals, too, were the style, but the toga was just for the occasion. I remembered being at the Latin banquet. It was in the basement of the First Federal Bank building and I'd walked to it in my toga with Neil. I even remembered a few of the mistakes I'd made in the prepared ceremony, but I didn't remember ever seeing the photo. As I held it for the first time I was taken with how pretty Martha was and how young I looked- I was just old enough to register for the draft. I turned the small piece of newspaper over to see what sort of old advertisement might be on the back and I knew why I had never noticed the photo that Mom clipped.

The caption under a photo segment is partially missing. What's there reads,...WOUNDED- Kent State University students...the aid of a wounded youth. Ohio, on campus because of disturbances the...days, fired into a crowd of students Monday, killing four students and wounding 11 others...

Life after the Kent State shootings went on as usual for most, but the news report had stunned me. Of all the events that shaped my generation, this one, happening four hundred miles away, helped create who I am.

It was suddenly real; no longer just rhetoric. The government whose opinions and policies we verbally opposed had armed itself against us. The world was listening. That summer I did hear the drumming, and it has never stopped. Though I may forget the names of Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder, their deaths will always be a part of my life.

summer rain, 1972

Barry was a runner. He stood in the half light by the back door of the cottage, his eyes almost closed. He rocked gently as he shifted his weight from left foot to right foot and back. He was tall and thin; so thin that I could see the bones of his elbows and, under the circumstances, his hips and kneecaps. He was wearing a stained and stretched cotton tee shirt, and nothing else. Each time the door opened Barry showed little perceptable change, just a subtle softening of his rhythmic murmur. He was watching for an opportunity. Someone would turn their key then turn to talk to another resident before locking the door; a work boy from another cottage would leave the door open to toss out wet laundry and take their eyes away for just a moment; any opportunity and Barry would be gone.

This story doesn't start with Barry, though. It starts with the summer's constant rain. I'd arrived at work early in the morning of the day before, driving a bug-eye Sprite that suffered badly in wet weather. It had sputtered to a stop in the gravel before it was completely in its parking space and I couldn't get it to turn over again. The Sprite sat so low to the ground, even a normal puddle would soak my crankcase. The puddles that morning were over my axels. I had to open the door and lean against the window strut to push it the rest of the way into the space. I was lucky to have made it to the parking lot.

Over the roar of the rain on the car roofs I could hear voices from the upstairs windows. I was 19 and worked at the state hospital, in cottage C-2—a ward of 65 profoundly retarded adult men. The ones who could talk called me Pop, and they were the ones at the screened windows calling me, telling me it was raining and asking for cigarettes.

Most of the morning I was distracted, thinking about my car and the trip home. I hoped for just a short break in the rain so I could run out and dry my distributer. Over five hours the rain didn't even slow down. Then I realized that the gas tank, too, probably had water in it. At lunch time we heard rumors that Agnes—which had been a hurricane, then was just a storm, then was a hurricane again—had made landfall less than 100 miles away. I'm not sure how true it was; we could see the rain seeping under the back door and collecting in pools where we'd never seen rain before. Then we started to hear radio reports that the Schuylkill River was over its banks and route 724, the highway past the hospital, was flooded in several places. By 3pm, the end of our shift, we heard second shift couldn't make it in. Parts of south Pottstown were flooded, Spring City, too. Most of the people who worked at the State Hospital lived in one of the two towns, and now they wouldn't be able to get across the river. They were on the north banks of the Schuylkill and we were on the south. I wouldn't need to worry about the Sprite; we were all spending the night right here.

An area in an empty cottage was set up with beds and clean linen for stranded staff, but I was more comfortable on my own cottage. I enjoyed seeing the changes in behavior as the guys were bathed and given pajamas. I saw sides of them that I never got to see on day shift. There was joking and good natured bickering almost like we were a big family. We had no idea how things usually went in the evening, so our confusion helped create a holiday like atmosphere. I was made fun of for giving someone's favorite pajamas to the wrong guy. I opened a few boxes of Keebler cookies even though they were for special occasions. I sat on one of the large wooden benches in the day room and nodded in and out of sleep. At some point the television was turned off and the only sound I could hear was rain.

In the morning I woke as the guys wandered into the dayroom. Somebody stood on a chair and turned on the TV, filling the dayroom with weather reports. I started my regular routine without the usual drive to get things finished. Giving out meds happened quick enough, but tooth brushing lasted most of the morning. Even the workboys, who would usually be finished changing and remaking 70 beds by noon, were still at it into the afternoon. Most appointments were canceled and the only reason to be off cottage was for meals. We were lucky to have our cafeteria in the basement of our building so some residents stayed in their pajamas through out the day.

Late in the afternoon, Joe, a workboy in his late 50s, shouted "Pop" and turned an invisible key in the air. He needed my key so he could open the backdoor and toss out several large bundles of dirty sheets. I tossed Joe my ring of keys knowing he could pick the right one. Then I must have sat back on a bench and dozed off because I jumped when I heard Joe shout "Pop" again. I looked around for him, and he was by the hallway to the backdoor wildly waving me over, then he ran down the hall.

I followed him to the door at the end of the hall. Joe had left it standing wide open. He took a step through and again pointed, stabbing with his finger furiously.

"He! He!" Joe yelled at me.

I looked and only saw the laundry tied in big bundles in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. It was soaking up some of the water that ran under the door. "It's okay, Joe. The water won't hurt..."

"No! No! He, pop, he!" Joe was frantic.

Somebody must have escaped. Barry wasn't in sight, and I knew if he was still here, he'd still be close to this open door. I ran down the stairs and stepped outside. There was no one in sight outside, either. Visibility was limited in the rain, and though I could barely see the tree line behind the fields by our building, I could see that Barry was gone. Damn. In a tee shirt. In the rain. And I didn't know if he was wearing shoes. Barry's lack of pants wouldn't be a problem unless he rolled on the ground. Without shoes, though, he could get a bad cut along these roads and fields.

I ran back up the stairs and locked the door with the keys that were still in the lock and ran to the office. I glanced quickly around the day room, then shouted through one of the glassless windows that covered the office, "Barry took off! I'm going to go look for him; he might be barefoot."

Janice, older and in charge, sat at a desk in the tiny office. "I'll call it in," she said calmly, then added, "you're gonna get wet."

At the bottom of the stairs I had no idea which way to go. There were fields across the road and woods beyond that. I thought I'd do well to cover areas that couldn't be searched by someone sitting in a car. The fields were deep in mud. If Barry had crossed them I'd see visible prints or him struggling to get free of the mud. There were no prints, so I headed down an unused gravel road toward the hospital farm.

The State School and Hospital had once been completely self sufficient. Higher functioning residents once worked the farm. A few made reed fishing creels that were sold. There was a dairy farm, chicken coops, meat and vegetable processing areas, all completely abandoned once social services realized these people could live independently in the community. Empty barns, empty coops and cribs, empty warehouses. There would be broken glass, sharp metal, maybe even rats. I kicked up sharp cinders as I walked and stepped on broken glass and bits of binding wire. Why hadn't I thought to bring shoes for Barry? A first aid kit? If I find him and he's hurt, how do I get him back?

The gravel road turned toward the woods and sloped steeply downward. I noticed as I walked through the trees that the constant sound of the rain changed very noticeably. It was getting deeper and seemed a bit more distant. There was no sign of Barry, and I wondered if I'd be able to hear him over the rain if he was hurt and crying. I stopped and listened. Barry never spoke, but the one thing he could say was a loud, gleeful, "Indaburber!" followed by a crazy, inhaled laugh. There was nothing but the roar of the rain.

The road kept heading downward as it approached the Schuylkill. As I rounded a gentle curve I saw that the way to the farm was blocked by a high silver wall. I thought for a moment that someone might have used insulation board to secure a construction site; maybe the farm was being repaired or even torn down. Then, through the rain, I heard the roar. What I thought was a wall was really the Schuylkill River. It was way over it's banks, over the farm buildings, and was now roaring through the trees. I was stunned. The river. The roar and the river. And the rain was so heavy that I couldn't see the other shore. Oh god, I thought: Let Barry be barefoot, just don't let him be anywhere near the river.

In the river? Indaburber! Barry's gleeful shout was always so random I never knew, no one seemed to know, what it meant. What if he's saying, In the river! None of us knew what history he might have. Oh my god my god my god. I needed to tell someone, tell Janice. I was exhausted from too little sleep, dazed, and half blind in the rain. I'd traveled well over a mile looking for Barry and hadn't noticed the distance slip by. Now, in a hurry, I turned back and felt every step in my soaked sneakers and socks.

I got back to C-2, ran up the back stairs and unlocked the door just as the door at the other end of the cottage opened. The cottage was laid out like a big cross with the office and dayroom at the center. Through the day room and down the opposite hall I saw a wet policeman step through the door. Right behind him was Barry with another officer holding his elbow.

Barry was in a wet tee shirt with no pants. He laughed and shouted "Indaburber!", then laughed some more. The police had found him out walking by the main highway. On his feet was a pair of unlaced state shoes, two sizes too big for him. He had thought to put on shoes before he left!

After the water levels dropped and I was able to dry out the car and get home, I volunteered with cleanup crews working in south Pottstown. Most of the homes suffered a complete loss of all goods still on the first floor. People were throwing soggy piles of paper, wallboard, and furniture into the street along with what had washed there from the river. Pennsylvania sustained over $2B in damages from Agnes and 48 of its citizens lost their lives.

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