The Bookmaker

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My father was a bookmaker.

He worked for the Kingsport Press. During a 30-year career he worked in every part of the making of books. Bindery. Stamping. Gathering. Printing. The plant where he worked starting in the 1960’s was one of the few in the world were a manuscript came in the front door and a book got shipped out the back.

I will always remember how he would pick up a book and examine it. He would remove the dust jacket and set it aside. He would run his thick hands over the covers and down the spine. He would look to see if the end paper was nice and square on the inside cover. He would check he headband to see that it was properly applied … or shake his head if the book didn’t have a headband … a sure sign of a shoddy book.

He would sometimes speak to us as he examined a book, incanting words and phrases in an almost prayerful contemplation. Saddle stitching, perfect binding, Smyth sewn, spot varnish, watermarks, die cuts, blind stamping, galleys, gatefolds, gutters. Heaven forefend that someone would open a book and crack the spine so it would lay flat. If a perfect stranger did that in his presence they would get a lecture.

My father was a bookmaker. He could not abide a shoddy book with thin paper, bad printing or imprecise gutters.

These days I mostly read books on a variety of electronic devices or as audio books. I have never lost the appreciation of a well-made book. My wife and I have a small but well tended library. I sometimes go in there to write letters or read or think. There is something permanent about a book. Something noble. Something hopeful. A book is civilization saying, “This is important. This will last. Read this.”

Sixteen Days

A woman in Hong Kong

Buys a lemon

Her hair is straight

And unperfumed

Held around her face

By a cheap plastic beret


In Hong Kong

A source of pride

She also buys

A mango

Some rice

And a small bottle

Of rice wine

But it is

This lemon

That’s important

For the first day she will simply

Enjoy the smell of this lemon

And then

She will cut it

Into paper thin slices

For her tea

And collect the juice

For her hair and body


The smell of this lemon

Will last

For days

And her husband

Likes the smell of lemon

In Amsterdam

Her daughter

Will sit

In a smoky bar

Her Mandarin cheekbones

Framed by fake blonde hair

And men from around the world

Will come and watch her

And when she goes home

Early in the morning

The only thing that will

Cut through the smell

Of smoke and whiskey

Will be

The juice of a lemon

She bought in town

Because it reminded her

Of her mother

To whom she has not spoken

In three years

Four months

And sixteen days

One man

Will see the young woman

And through mystical connections

Forgotten in the modern world

Be made to understand

The connections

And he will walk out

Into the clean air

For he cannot bear to

Watch these women

And the drunken fools braying at them

He will write it all down

And these images

Will haunt him for many days

And he will try to explain it

To those whom he loves

And some will understand

And others will not

But all of them

Will marvel

At this

And no one will ever

See a lemon

The same way again

Bill Fletcher / 2007 / Amsterdam

Speed Graphic

Fletch with Speed Graphic by Jim Will

My friend Jim Will shot this photo of me last night while I was demonstrating the “sports viewfinder” on my Speed Graphic. This camera was in wide use by photographers from the early 1900’s until the 1970’s. It used 4 x 5 inch sheet film. A wonderful camera. I have actually used this camera to make large format photographs.

My Friend Steve’s Gumbo

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My friend Steve Davison is an interesting man. A cinematographer, producer, and director. A furniture maker. Quick with a joke and dead serious in the next instant.

On shoots, at about three o’clock in the afternoon, he gets a little testy. It can be alarming to someone who doesn’t know him. Those who do know him treat his moods like afternoon rain storms in the summer … to be briefly endured and fondly remembered.

A few years ago, he shared his gumbo recipe. My favorite line in it is “drink beer and watch football during this part.”

A couple of times a year I make Steve’s gumbo and I recall the many good times we’ve had together. Our many adventures and shared friends and those no longer with us. Tonight, after I made the most beautiful roux I have ever made, I wished Steve had been here to see it. It was lovely. The color of a rusty nail. Creamy, rich and fragrant. Ruby and I will enjoy this gumbo for many days and perhaps share it with others. Steve will enjoy it as well although he won’t be having a bowl unless he jumps a plane to Nashville for that purpose.

Steve is my friend for many reasons but perhaps this is the most important one. Steve takes his gumbo very, very seriously. I like that in a man.

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The Frozen Pig

16-Painting the dog house-1967

We used to raise pigs on our small farm in East Tennessee. When the mother pigs had babies they were called a “litter.” There would be anywhere from 10 to 12 pigs in a litter.  But sometimes, there could be more.

One cold spring night, one of the mother pigs gave birth to 21 baby pigs. When baby pigs are born they come around to the mother’s belly looking for something to eat.  This mother didn’t have enough nipples for all her babies. So, the little pigs started walking around in the pig barn looking for something to eat.

When I came to the barn the next morning I opened the door and, to my surprise, there were little pigs everywhere. And they were hungry. I ran up the hill to our house to tell my brother and sister to come and help me catch all the pigs. We went back to the barn, caught all the little pigs and put them in the pen with their mother.  We helped each pig get something to eat and we thought everything was fine. We counted all the little pigs and we found that there were 20.

It was very cold on this morning and there was frost on the grass. I had to walk over to another barn to feed some calves we had there. One my way to the barn I saw something in the frosty grass. It was a little pig. It had gotten out of the barn in the middle of the night while it was looking for something to eat. I picked the little pig up.  It was stiff as a board. I thought it had frozen to death. I pulled off my gloves and held the pig in both hands. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. As I thought about what to do I thought I felt something in my fingers. I stood very still and I held the little pig close to my body and held my own breath. I felt it again. It was a heartbeat.

I took off running back to the house with the little pig. I went into the house with that little pink pig and told my mother what had happened. She took the pig from me and said, “This poor thing. Let’s see what we can do.” She got a big fluffy towel and wrapped the pig in it. Then she surprised me by opening up the door of the oven and putting the pig inside. She left the door of the oven open and turned on the heat very, very low.

We waited. We could feel the heat from the oven coming out into the kitchen. I could not take my eyes off the little pink pig, wrapped in a towel and lying on a rack in the oven. All I could see was the tip of the pig’s nose.

First, I thought I saw the pig move under the towel. Then I saw the nose move.  Then I heard a little muffled grunt coming out of the towel.  My mother reached into the oven and picked up the pig and it grunted and squealed and began to squirm in her arms. The pig was alive.

We became very attached to that little pig. We kept it in a small building near the house for a few days. We fed it milk from a bottle like a baby. We kept it in a cardboard box with a towel in it. After it got a little bigger, we kept it in a dog pen in the side yard. When the pig was big enough to eat solid food, we took it down to the pen to be with the rest of the pigs.

I thought that pig would be happy to be reunited with its mother, brothers and sisters. But that pig was so mad that we put it in that pen. I think that pig believed it was a human being or, at least, that it belonged at the house and not in that pig pen.  It stood at the gate of that pen and squealed to be let out.

That pig never did act like a regular pig. It wouldn’t eat with the other pigs. It wouldn’t pile up in the shade and sleep with the other pigs. That pig was a loner who acted like he was too good to be with the other pigs. Even up until the day we took the pig to market to sell, it never acted like the rest of the pigs. I also suspect it never forgave us for making it stay in the pig pen.

I’ve often thought how lucky that pig was that I took that particular path through the field that day and I’ve never forgotten how my mother’s country common sense saved that pig’s life.

Losing A Thing

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Generally speaking, I am not attached to things.

I dropped the watch on a tile floor. I landed face down and made a terrible, flat cracking sound. I knew it was broken before I picked it up.

I took it to a watch repair shop where it had been repaired once before. After a long moment, the proprietor explained he could fix it but that it would probably not keep time properly. He shook it gently and I could hear bits of glass rattling inside. Little bits of glass had gotten down into the works of the watch.

Generally speaking, I am not attached to things. I started to just throw it away but, instead, I wrapped it carefully in a plastic bag and took it with me.

Generally speaking, I am not attached to things.

This particular thing I bought from the duty free cart on an airplane as I was flying to Australia and then on to China. I liked the inner ring that allowed me to quickly calculate what time is was in various time zones. It became the watch I wore on shoots because he had a silent, mechanical stop watch. It’s the watch I wore on vacations. The watch I wore on weekends.

It’s not the watch I will miss. It’s a thing and, generally speaking, I am not attached to things.

What I will miss are the memories connected to the watch. The trips, the shoots, the people. The smooth, silent click of the stopwatch. The rings that named all the time zones. That’s why I just placed it gently in a drawer along with some other things.

Generally speaking, I am not attached to things. But some things take on the freight of memories to be cherished. That’s why I will miss this watch and that’s why I cannot throw it away.