Time Travel

About 20 years ago, I crept into my children’s bedrooms at about 3 a.m. and rousted them from their sleep.

“Come with me. Let’s go outside and watch the meteor showers.”

Tonight, I went out to watch the Perseid meteor shower again. I saw a lot of meteors but it was the memories that came thick and fast.

As a boy, my best friend and I built telescopes from parts we ordered from the Edmund Scientific Catalog. I studied the stars. Traveled to them in my mind. Developed a love for the mysteries of the night sky and the universe. When the city came and installed a street lamp, I shot it out because it cut down dramatically on what I could see in the night sky. It made perfect sense to me but neither my father nor the public works department were amused. Another night my friend’s mother locked up the house and went to bed without knowing that we were on the roof stargazing.

As a young man, I remember walking to the barn to milk before day break and seeing the Milky Way in sharp relief against and deep black sky, unpolluted by street lamps. I could barely make it out tonight from my suburban neighborhood with the bright lights of Nashville castings its glow from the east.

And then that night I woke up William and Marshall and explained to them what was happening as streaks of light coursed across the sky. They still remember that night fondly. They were sleepy and groggy but they turned their faces to the sky and were delighted when they saw the shooting stars. I suspect they will always remember that and, perhaps some future night, they will wake their own children and make new memories. With their faces turned, once again, to the night sky they will begin a story by saying, “Your grandpaw did this one night with us a long time ago.”

Memories, like the stars themselves. Steady.Sometimes harder to see than others. Always there.

One last shot

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It’s late in the day. Tired. Hungry. The equipment is all loaded and the crew is ready to go eat and rest.

Then the light changes. No, you say to yourself. No, it’s just another sunset. You don’t have time.

Then the paint horse begins to walk up the pasture.

Without actually making a decision you begin to walk toward the fence. Quietly. You reach into your pocket for a camera and then for a few glorious moments you are simply lost. You aren’t hungry or tired. There’s just the light and the horse.  The little yellow flowers seems to glow. The horse turns the wrong way and you get some fantastic sunset photos featuring the wrong end of the horse.

Then he turns and begins to graze toward you and the sound of his eating and chewing seems like a sound from another world. A deep crunching noise as he breaks off the sweet grass and chews.

Then something happens. The cosmic tumblers fall into place and you get just a moment where the sun, the sky, the horse and the little yellow flowers feels like they are in just the right place. One frame out of a few hundred. The last shot. One last shot.

It’s a gift. You could have been down the road a few miles but, instead, you happen to be standing there with a camera in your hands when something sweet and memorable happens. It’s a gift you give to yourself. One last shot.

A lot happened today. Hundreds of photos and hours of video. But as I lay dying years and years from now this is the image I am most likely to remember from this day. The last shot. One last shot.

Thunder and Lightning

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I had just finished my chores when I heard the first rumbling. Long and low like the earth clearing its throat. A storm was coming.

The front of our house faced Bays Mountain in the distance. Sometimes, storms would go south of the mountain and we could just see the tops of them. But when the storms came north of the mountain then we were in for a show.

I went into my Mom and Dad’s room and got a quilt one of my grandmother’s had made and went out on the front porch. I sat in one of rocking chairs there and covered myself with the quilt.

The storm had cleared the lower hills and was coming north. When I would see the lightning bolts I would count. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Then, a gentle boom.

Another bolt of lightning. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Then another boom. A little louder.

I would lose myself in the storms and count down the time difference between the lightning and the thunder.

Lighting strike. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Then a nice big round boom of sound. A few raindrops began to fall. I could hear them on the leaves in the woods before I could see them.

Two strokes of lightning. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Then boom … boom. One clap of thunder right after the other.

Then the lightning would be so close there was no need to count. The rain came hard. Huge fat drops of rain that splashed on the concrete of the front porch and mist that blew onto my face.

Lightning would strike and simultaneously there would be a huge crash of thunder. I was in the center of the storm. The trees whipped and thrashed as if trying to flee the violence.

The sunlight was all but gone. Lightning lit up the countryside and there were flashes of light and crashes of sound so close together they couldn’t be distinguished one from the other.

I pulled the quilt around me more tightly. I breathed in the misty air. I leaned into the storm.

My mother came to the screen door.

“Here he is,” I heard he announce to my father. “He’s watching the storm on the front porch.”

“Are you OK?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “Just watching the storm.”

Then it was over. Weak light returned to the hill. Rain dripped from the leaves of the trees in the front yard.

I went back inside and put the quilt back on Mom and Dad’s bed. I always loved those storms.

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

Made

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

Because

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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