Perspectives: Carrying the Dream
Like a spindly thread strewn across the hulking landscape, the Colorado highway lingered longingly over the rugged plateau, undulating ever so slightly into the eternal sky. In the middle with so much ahead and so much behind, we weren’t sure if we were climbing or descending. Impossibly it seemed as if we were rising and falling all at once. Alpine vegetation grew in sparse patches. In the absence of trees they ruled the world. I can’t quite recall how old I was. It must have been late elementary school from my frame of reference of the images burned into my brain. If I close my eyes I feel the old thick seat belt across my shoulder and rubbing against my neck. Slipping in through windows cracked ever so slightly open, the smell of clear mountain air enters the car and swirls around us, tracing its chilly finger across our skin. The sharpness was invigorating but the air was not harsh enough that the coolness burned our lungs. I remember the back of my mom’s head. Judging by the eighties mom-cut I remember her sporting, yup late elementary school. We were on the road, in the thick of a legendary Vaughn family summer adventure, and yet all this was just a prelude to the memory that would move me so deeply a full thirty years later.
Now, our car had been stationary for awhile. Two tires nested snugly in the crushed white mountain stone while the other two were still resting on the black tar-veined asphalt. Mom was beginning to fidget with restlessness. My sister and I were still buckled in our seats as if we were dangerous inmates in transport. Between the inclination of the car, the elevation of my mom’s hair-do, and the restriction of my prison restraints, I couldn’t see what was happening. Dad had been on the ground for awhile. His body contorted and moving erratically. “Mom! What is Dad dooo-ing? I can’t seeeee!”, I asked my mom so annoyingly. She exhaled slowly. Then in thinly veiled sarcasm responded, “He is rolling around in the dirt, that is what he is doing.” I squirmed up as high as I could in my seat, craned my neck to the side, and by pressing my forehead against the glass, I found a narrow viewing angle by which I could bypass my mom’s bangs. There he was, all 6 feet 2 inches and 350 lbs. of him, wallowing around on the dusty Rocky Mountain gravel.
Cars slowed as they passed, assessing the situation. One by one they decelerated to take in the scene, then quickly accelerated after unraveling the mystery. I can only imagine the visual. I bet that it looked like a 3XL man rolling around on the side of a mountain road, having what seems like some sort of terminal medical episode. All the while his family sits nearby safely strapped in their vehicle staring blankly into the horizon, probably wondering what the chances were of them finding a Stuckey’s pecan roll in their immediate future. No, pops wasn’t dying within viewing distance of our apathetic disdain. And, no, this wasn’t his first time doing this…today. The hulking figure that was my Dad was taking a photo…of a tiny delicate flower, in the rocky clefts, on the side of a rural Colorado highway. I remember thinking to myself, “This man has lost his mind. What a dweeb.”
Dad was never the artist. His hands never touched an artist’s brush or a potter’s wheel. He could barely hold a pencil with his aptly nicknamed “penguin hands”. Dad wasn’t “artistic” and he was ok with that. However, it is interesting to note that Dad did fancy himself a singer, mainly Italian opera in the shower, or obscenely obnoxious choruses to get us out of bed, but still he was a singer. (To this day, I am ashamed to say, I have a visceral response of wanting to throat punch someone when I hear the song “Good Morning to You”). Anyways, there was one medium that was an exception to this “I’m not an artist” rule, and that was photography. I believe that he dreamed of being a photographer. There are a few years of this brightness recorded in family albums. For a season we have the wonderful yet sometimes blurry images he captured. They were mostly of flowers and of mom, the two things he thought most beautiful. As the frequency of photos in the albums began diminishing, the dream began to fade. Somewhere in raising a family, being a husband, building a family business from nothing, serving on numerous boards, volunteering faithfully at his church and holding public office, the dream of being a photographer fell by the wayside. Although he received so much life from serving others, there was some part of him that waned along with that dream.
Mom and Dad exploring Alaska with camera in tow.
On the other hand, I had been bitten by the art bug as early as kindergarten. Unprovoked, I asked my mom to enroll me at the Artful Dabber, where my best friend’s mom taught oil painting. Initially, I think I wanted to go because my friend’s mom was hot. After my first art lesson, though, I discovered that creating art was an important part of who I was. Ironically, that manifested itself in numerous different forms and expressions except photography. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago, at the age of 31, that I picked up a camera and recognized it as a tool of expression and not solely for documentation.
My Dad was always the biggest guy in the room. He would laugh, joke, sing and pontificate loudly over family dinners. So much life, so much love, but changes come. It all happened so quick. A little over a year before Dad was Dad. Now across from me I saw my big strapping father trapped in his own body, hooked up to machines, able to understand our words but not able to communicate much back. Looking into my father’s eyes and not seeing him look back, was a hollowing, haunting experience. Then, all too soon, one morning they gently woke my mom from her place at his side to tell her that her life-long love’s flame had been carried away.
The only creative portrait I ever took of my dad.
Some months passed so slowly, and others too quickly. Mom was tired and spread too thin. Everything that had been before was now altered, changed, or obliterated in Dad’s absence. But my Mom soldiered on through the crater his death left behind. She was in the process of going through Dad’s stuff. Mom asked if I wanted anything of his. At first I couldn’t really think of much. Things are things. They weren’t my dad. No possession no matter how valuable wouldn’t bring him back for one more conversation, one more family birthday dinner, or even one more game of dominoes.
Then a wave of urgency came to me, as if from a divine source. This compulsion overcame my mouth before my brain could look up and see what was happening. I just blurted it out.
“Huh?” my mom replied, not fully comprehending what words had just spastically fell from my mouth. “Can I have his camera?” I asked. Mom replied “I don’t even know if he even kept it.” Eerily enough I knew exactly where it was. Five minutes ago, I had no use for or cared one iota for his beat up, nondescript hunk of metal and faux leather. Before it was junk but now…it was Dad. It was a piece of him that I could have back. I walked directly to its resting place for the last several years and recovered it from its tomb. Of course it really wasn’t him or even something that he had used that much. Up until this point I had not associated his camera with any of my thoughts about my Dad. . Yet, it was that memory of being on that country road in the middle of nowhere Colorado that had flooded my mind and compelled me to ask for the camera. This camera was forever supernaturally welded into my memory of him. At the time I did not know why.
Several years prior I had started my journey down the road of creative photography. I took my first macro shot of a flower and have never looked back since. Still my father and I had never shared our passion for photography together. Time had played a cruel trick on us both. He was either too early or I too late. I was too disinterested in his low brow art when he was pursuing it, and he was too far detached from his passion for photography when I began chasing my dream. Never did we go on a shoot together. Nor did we ever talk camera shop. Even though he would have been my biggest fan, he didn’t live long enough to see my work hang in an exhibition. It would seem that fate’s calloused disfigured hand had worked against us.
So many times things are not what they seem, and I am thankful. Instead they are a God send and a gift. The profile of his old Pentax K-1000 feels different than my Canon. That old Pentax beast is purely a film camera, absent of any bells or whistles. There is no instant feedback on the captured image and the shots are limited. Each exposure is like gold, spent only on the worthiest of compositions. . It is a far different experience than the digital camera I have today, where very little is left to chance. When I feel the rigid metal frame of Dad’s Pentax, I feel what he felt. My eye looks through the same prism to frame shots just as he did. In essence when I shoot with his old curmudgeon of a camera, I can feel his dream still alive and beating in my hands. It is a reminder that so much of our relationships are a transfer of energy back and forth. This camera represents the energy we shared. We shared a dream and a passion. Until now our dreams had remained on different tracks separated by a little more than arms length that seemed like an unsurpassed gulf between us. Now when I needed it most they converge, bringing us back together in a unique way. To me it is a strange foreshadowing of what is to come.
Now it is my wife who sits in the car patiently, while I wallow in the dirt on the side of the road, like a damned fool. I cannot explain the connection I feel with my dad when I dig out that old tank of a camera and shoot with it. I am enveloped with a feeling of hope and a connection to my father. A feeling that the dream is not dead for him, but is just delayed a bit. I carry the dream now. I wish I could have helped him carry this dream while he was alive, but then I had so much more than the dream, I had him. I carry it for both of us. I carry it because of us. Most importantly, I carry it to give it back to him one day.
Dad’s camera – Pentax K1000