He’s standing on a dilapidated dock that barely reaches into a mostly frozen lake surrounded by forest. His hands are deep in the pockets of baggy trousers. He wears a light, checkered jacket over a white, button-down shirt and a stylish fedora cocked slightly to the side.
He also wears a bit of a villainous grin that belies the fact that he probably just eluded the authorities by crossing the Canadian border and is now safely beyond the reach of the law in Detroit, who may have been pursuing him for any number of crimes ranging from bootlegging to solicitation to failure to appear to unpaid restitution to delinquency of child support.
The photograph is affecting. The location feels surreptitious and Fargo-like. The dock, so shoddy that it would not likely hold his weight were it not for the frozen lake surrounding it.
The mysterious grin.
The man in the photo has many names.
William Myrl Estel Postlewait-Gapen, born September 29, 1902 in Iola, Kansas. My grandfather.
I wish there was somebody still around who could either confirm or deny the myriad stories I’ve been told about his escapades. My dad and all of my aunts and uncles are gone and they took their secrets of Myrl with them.
He died a young man, it’s unknown when but before I was born, almost certainly in a plane crash that he was piloting. That disappearance may or may not have happened in the Bermuda Triangle while flying a couple to the Bahamas or maybe it happened over Lake Huron or Lake St. Claire while enroute to rendezvous with a Canadian bootlegging partner or a favorite prostitute.
Very little is known about Myrl in my family. There are some stories but despite having at least 7 children that we know of, nobody ever wanted to talk about him. My aunt Elsie, his third known child, just said, “He wasn’t a very nice person.”
My father Glenn, Myrl’s 4th known child, worshipped him, even changing his name from Postlewait to Gapen when Myrl decided to do that for unknown reasons in 1942. None of us knows where the name Gapen comes from but the story I remember is that it was from a favorite hooker in Oklahoma.
Perhaps this photograph was taken by my wide-eyed, 17-year-old dad while visiting Myrl at his home on Harsens Island near the St. Clair river that separates Michigan from Canada before heading out for a perch dinner and Carling’s Black Labels at Snoopy’s Dog House on M-29 in Algonac.
Maybe it was taken by Lillian Martin, my grandmother, who he married in Perth, Ontario at age 19 and with whom he had all those previously mentioned kids.
More likely, the photographer was an under-age Canadian runaway standing on a suitcase full of cash that Myrl managed to take receipt of after an exchange of a pickup truck load of Canadian whiskey or Russian mink pelts or African ivory or Mexican children. I think he liked to think of himself as being in the import-export business.
When I look at this photograph, I see a man I never met — that is me.
I discovered this picture while digging through dozens of boxes of prints I have in the rafters of my garage. I’ve been carrying this stuff around for a few decades. Over the years I’ve occasionally rooted through the outtakes of 10 years of working in a tiny black and white newspaper darkroom in downtown Oxnard. But recently someone posted something on Facebook that prompted me to get up on a ladder in search of a specific picture that I knew was buried in there.
But this time, within a few minutes I was distracted by boxes of photographs that were once carried around for decades by my parents.
Of course I’d been through these boxes before but somehow, I was seeing these images from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s in a different light, as if I was dreaming. I was dreaming that I stumbled on a collection of priceless art by Vivian Maier or Mary Ellen Mark or Dorthea Lange at a garage sale or swap meet. I was moved by every print. I was looking at photos made by a range of cheap cameras available at the time but a fair amount was exposed on 120 film with simple box cameras like a Kodak Brownie Flash Six-20 or maybe a Kodak Duraflex. There was something about the square format, the scalloped edges of the little black and white prints, the faces of post-WWII Americans, recovering from the war, building their lives and their families. Deer hunting. Ice fishing. Picnics.
It was like looking through spacial or temporal boundaries, a worm hole, and it slammed me back to the distant promise of the American dream, now almost out of sight in our rear view mirrors.
Staring into these images I’m transported back to a time when my parents were half the age I am now. Back to the house on Fairground Street that my mother’s father bequeathed to her, that I spent my earliest years in, playing in the basement coal bin, peaking through the polished, maple bannister staircase at the twinkling Christmas tree at 4 a.m., sitting on the front porch spitting watermelon seeds in the dead of summer.
The house my mother sold in 1966 for $15K.
I can smell the lilacs in the yard. Taste the iced tea and Swiss steak and rhubarb. I can hear the Tiger game coming from the car radio and feel the bitter, biting winter wind that numbs your fingers and ears and freezes the mucus in your sinuses.
Or, maybe it’s this.
Sitting at a dime store Dell computer in La Cañada, CA last week, running 11-year-old Windows 7 for drinks and tips, a colleague asked me, as part of regular office banter, “… Well you and I are probably around the same age huh?” Probing me, the old man who’s the new guy in the room, “I’m 58,” he said.
Obviously, that question was really asking, “Just how the fuck old are you, anyway?” Which commands a response, and that moment — with the 25-year-old, asian, genius girl behind me but just 6 feet from either of us — was for a split second, the first time in my life that I thought about lying about my age. Ridiculous.
“I’m 64,” I said, emphasizing the I’m part in an effort to sound boastful about how startlingly well-preserved and virile and talented and valuable and, relevant I am.
And after having stated, so publicly and with such a healthy amount of hubris, my pronounced advantage of having successfully completed 64 trips around the sun and as such acquired the infinite wisdom that only decades of experience affords us, genius girl said, “Well, you both look great.”
Paul McCartney wrote the song “When I’m 64” when he was 19. Despite being a prodigious Beatles fan this thematically unconnected song, included for some reason on the 1967 album Sgt. Peppers, was never a favorite. For me, ragtime doesn’t mix well with psychedelia.
Still, the iconic album kept the otherwise unmemorable song from sinking into blank unconsciousness. In fact the song has itself become a milestone that pronounces if someone is still bringing you a bottle of wine on your birthday, then “Who could ask for more?”
This past June Paul turned 78. I turned 64 and nobody brought me a bottle of wine.
However, I did receive no less than 5 liters of assorted Irish whiskey. I feel like that transcends the requisite payoff.
So no, I couldn’t ask for more. Most of the people that I knew when I was growing up on Fairground Street did not make it to 64. Many didn’t make it to 24.
I knew it was time to let a large amount of this stuff go. Did I need thousands of prints of seagulls and beaches and mountains and zoo animals? If I don’t care about this stuff, who ever would?
Sitting in my garage, in 90+ degrees, surrounded by boxes of photographs and negatives from my past, my parents past and even their parents past, and creating a pile that is bound for the landfill there had been a reckoning of sorts.
Coming to terms with a range of emotions, liberation, as I’ll be traveling lighter for all further rotations, and nostalgia. But also, grief, regret, melancholy as well as exhilaration, contentedness, euphoria.
Among the boxes that belonged to my parents, and sprinkled among photos of my grandparents with a huge sheet cake and pictures of my mom and dad giggling in the dining room of our house on Fairground Street, and images of me and my two brothers lying on the floor in front of a giant, wooden cabinet that housed a 12-inch black and white television, there were photographs that my mother had saved through her life. A lot of them were prints of seagulls, beaches, mountains and zoo animals.
Mortality is a funny thing to contemplate. We occupy this planet for such a blip. All the sheet cake moments and zoo animal memories are buried beneath 4.5 billion years worth of cosmic dust spinning around in infinite blackness … while the moon keeps a watchful eye.
I love the final scene in Blade Runner when Rutger Hauer, who plays the replicant Roy Batty, delivers what critic Mark Rowlands described as “Possibly the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history,’
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”