Friday, May 31, 2013
Once upon a time I announced to my parents that I'd like to be a photographer. How I came by them I'm not sure, but when I was a kid I had a photo enlarger, all the chemicals, and an array of cheap Kodaks; and I found the whole business so interesting and creative that I thought, naively, it was something I'd like to do with my life. I was in high school, actively shopping for a profession, something to pursue when I went off to college.
My father nixed the idea, shaking his head. Being a photographer wasn't really "a kingdom calling," he said, not something divinely shaped for those who wanted to serve "the covenant community." He had a language for such decisions--we all did. I knew exactly what he meant.
He was thinking more specifically about the ministry for me, or maybe missions, or, if all else failed, Christian education. I'm quite sure he thought a photographer was someone who did senior portraits come spring and weddings on weekends.
When he came home from World War II, he took a job in the office of a factory in the town where he'd gone to high school. He grew up in Michigan, but married an Oostburg girl who just about then lost her only sister in a car accident. A few years later he was offered a job in Michigan, in the business end of a national organization of Christian schools, a job he would have loved, I'm sure, but turned down when his father-in-law cried at the mere thought of his only daughter moving away.
Maybe that event was a part of his disapproval of photography--I don't know.
I shot this picture clandestinely when I spotted the ancient cement mixer in a field just behind an old Wisconsin tavern on Sauk Trail Road. I may be the only human being on the face of the earth who finds the portrait somehow moving. There that cement mixer sits, all by its lonesome, a museum piece in armor in the weeds.
It's what he made in that Oostburg factory--cement mixers. Think of the market for such things when all those GIs came back from Europe or the South Pacific, all the building that had to be done, all the dream homes. My father was a salesmen at a time when some entrepreneur likely figured that someday absolutely everybody was going to own their own personal cement mixer, just like they'd all have garden tillers and power lawn mowers. At the foundry where he worked, men in blue shirts and leather aprons poured the steel that became the drums, then assembled them right there, and he sold 'em. During noon hour, they tossed horseshoes together--labor and management.
Maybe he wanted me to be a preacher because like millions of other GIs, millions of other parents in the American tradition, he wanted something more for his kid, for his only boy, and for the community that boy would serve, more than horseshoes and cement mixers.
So here it sits--just one of those ancient Gilson mixers, rusting and resting in the long grass behind an all-American tavern. The truth is, I took several shots. I tried to frame it in a lateral branch of an old maple in the foreground. I didn't just plop it in the middle of the image, but kept it off to the side to feature that grassy background, an open field, nary a driveway in sight. It's retired now, belly-deep in the long grass of a wet year on the lakeshore. I took this picture because I liked that image the moment I spotted it out there alone, pastured though it is.
There it sits--not so formidable, but still somehow claiming its own rusty dignity. It's a portrait, a symbol: it's what it is, and to me at least, much, much more. It tells a story, my father's story, or part of it. And mine too.
Daily I watch our new house slowly taking shape by way of the handiwork of men with skills I wish I had. My father built his house, our home. In fact, I have no doubt he used one of these.
But when our builder poured basement, he did it with a huge crane and a hose and a half-dozen trucks full of cement, the kind of truck that basically killed off whatever market ever existed for the personal cement mixer.
And I retired after 40 years within the kingdom calling of teaching--maybe third tier, but still up there in my father's hierarchy. But I can't build a house. I don't have the skills.
Still, if you ask me, I'd tell you this much: it may not be your cup of tea, but the portrait up on top the page is what this weekend photographer calls something close to art, and therefore something of a treasure. That ancient mixer in the weeds still tells a story.
Who knows? Maybe that portrait will have a place on the wall of my study in that new house of ours going up just down the road.
Were he still here, my father would smile at that shot and everything his amateur photographer/son just said.
But I doubt he'd reconsider.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:00 AM