A Fortress Penetrated

Saturday was a day dominated by song lyrics and emotions I can’t explain.

When I became a newspaper photographer, I was sure my press pass was bulletproof and I thought my camera lens was a magic shield that protected me from the things that my camera was recording. It was only years later, that I discovered that the lens wasn’t a shield, it was a magnifying glass that etched a movie deep into my memories, a movie that often plays when most normal folks are asleep.

Most of the time I’m the guy Paul Simon sings about in I Am A Rock.

 I’ve built walls

 I’ve built walls,

A fortress deep and mighty,

That none may penetrate…

I touch no one and no one touches me.

I am a rock. I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;

And an island never cries.

 An auction caused a crack in the wall

Friend Shari Stiver and I were headed up to Tower Rock in Perry County when we stumbled across a yard sale. The folks there said we might like to stop at a home auction going on about a block up the road. I’m not going to mention where it was, because it’s not important and I don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy. They said the owners were a well-regarded elderly couple getting on in age who decided to sell their home and possessions to move into a smaller place.

The auctioneer was moving rapidly through small lots of odds and ends, having to work hard to get a $5 or $6 bid. When he finished, he invited everyone to step inside the modest little house to look at the furniture before he moved on to the farm equipment. The man was noted for restoring antique tractors, we were told.

Childish artwork struck me

There wasn’t much to look at inside. I was going to suggest to Shari that we get back on the road when we walked into a bedroom and I saw these scrawled pieces of art probably done by a grandchild. I made three half-hearted exposures. The light was lousy and the color balance was funky. It didn’t feel like a situation that was going to make a picture good enough to work any harder.

For the record, I love shooting old, abandoned buildings. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I can feel vibrations from the folks who have passed through those places.

THIS building wasn’t abandoned enough for my taste. I felt something looking at those pictures on the wall that caused me to suddenly tell Shari I had to get out of there.

When Shari and I walked back to the car, I didn’t tell her how those scrawled pictures hit me. All I told her was that John Cougar Mellancamp’s Rain On The Scarecrow, the story of a family farm being auctioned off, was playing in my head:

” When you take away a man’s dignity”

And Grandma’s on the front porch swing with a Bible in her hand;

Sometimes I hear her singing, “Take Me to the Promised Land.”

When you take away a man’s dignity and he can’t work his land and cows,

There’ll be blood on the scarecrow, blood on the plow.

Maybe the end is closer than the beginning

Over some fine Italian dishes that evening at Mario’s Pasta House, Shari volunteered that maybe we’re getting to the point in our lives where we’re starting to see the end more clearly than the beginning (my paraphrase). Maybe I saw those photos on the old couple’s wall and flashed on Grandson Malcolm’s scrawled artwork for his grandmother on OUR refrigerator.

Should I write about it?

Tonight I pulled up the 500+ frames I shot today and tried to decide what I was going to put in the blog for Sunday. All of the other photos neatly filed away under geographical categories: Tower Rock; Cemetery near Dutchtown; old barn near Egypt Mills…

When I got down to the three frames from the auction, I almost deleted them, something I hardly ever do. I pulled them up on the screen and felt a wave of emotion sweep over me. I called Wife Lila back in Florida and said, “I’ve got a photo that I think I’m going to run, but I don’t know if I should.” I tried to give her the 25-word-or-less version, but found my voice cracking. Finally, she said, “If it touches you, maybe it’ll touch someone else.”

So, here it is. We’ll be back in the fortress tomorrow and all will be well again.

27 Replies to “A Fortress Penetrated”

  1. I don’t think you are the only one with these types of feeling, all of us have them at one time or other. They will pass and return as we grow older.

  2. A beautiful piece, Ken, thank you for sharing. This is especially touching to me because I am about to embark on this disassembling of my life. But the memories will live in my heart forever.

  3. Delete never! Ken, you have a rare gift of sharing your work. Sometimes you look at your photos with a critical eye and comment about lighting etc or subject. The rest of us are seeing and experiencing thru your photo-Journalism another time in the past or a current event. For example, today’s photo of the gentleman and his two dogs got to me. I could write a long time about my feelings about that photo. Your comments with the photos are always appropriate. In a “throw-away” society you pull us all together and allow us to share our thoughts with others. You are probably amazed at the responses you receive. I for one, enjoy the responses of others to your posting each morning. Sometimes I remember them or their brother or sister and sometimes I don’t know them but we all seem to have the same hometown memories. Who said “You can’t go home again!”. Thanks Ken for your efforts.

    1. Sorry to be late to this party. I’m still shaking off last weekend’s Halloween snow storm. Bill’s right! “Who said “You can’t go home again!”. Here is link to a Bon Jovi / Sugarland (in the person of Jennifer Nettles) song of pretty much that title. It’s collaboration between Jersey boys and a southern country band. The song is for all of us who are proud of where we came from and have the fondest memories of that time. Maybe it should be the blog’s theme song?

      Who says you can’t go home?

  4. Wow. I think the pic of the man struck me the hardest. Interesting thought that the lens of your camera protected you from the subjects of you photos. Would that this could be true. I can empathize with being the age where we are now realizing we too are going to be joining those we have considered to be ‘old’ all of our lives! Thanks for this piece.

  5. I have another fb friend, a photographer also, you capture in pictures, emotions I can’t put in words. Thanks and keep doing it.

  6. Thank you. -JJ, C.H.S class of 1978

    May God bless and keep you always
    May your wishes all come true
    May you always do for others
    And let others do for you
    May you build a ladder to the stars
    And climb on every rung
    May you stay forever young
    Forever young, forever young
    May you stay forever young.
    (Forever Young by Bob Dylan)

    1. Nice rejoinder.

      I sent an email to Wife Lila last night saying, “They’re going to think I was drunk when I wrote this.”

      I hope my ladder doesn’t have any rotten rungs.

  7. Thanks again. Your photos are remarkable, on all sorts of levels. I loved the photo of the child’s drawings. There is such depth there. I don’t know any of the people or the history here, but I am learning. I have only lived in Cape since ’86, but it is my home. It’s kind of like sitting with the family and hearing stories of the relatives. Something so important for cultural history. I treasure these posts.

  8. This article touched my sensitive spot also. I have very similar artwork on my refrigerator right now. I appreciate reality and honesty. It is the kind of thing that would make my father, a ruff and tough John Wayne figure, weep. Without that tenderness, what a horrible world this would be. Thank you, Ken, for showing your sensitivity.

  9. Wow. Ken you need to explore this. Write about it. Think about it, but let us know your thoughts. You have a way of bringing us into your world, where we all reside, in one way or another. Nostalgia, sorrow, fear, joy, and family are all tied up in one big emotional bag. Thanks for this. Keep it up.

  10. I think this one touched all of us who have rounded the three-quarter pole. I think what touches us in your photos – beyond the artistry of the photos themselves – is how a still image can, in addition to bringing back memories of all sorts, hammer home the reality that “$h*t happens” or “things change”. Sometimes that realization doesn’t touch us in a positive way, even as we marvel at your images and words. Like Joe (and Bob) said, “Stay forever young…” Thanks again and again for your contribution in enriching our lives.

  11. Personally, I don’t think being a rock is the way we’re meant to go through life. I don’t mean to criticize; that’s just my slant on our earthly journey.
    Which is to say, I am really glad to see you step outside that bubble and experience what it is to be touched in a way you don’t completely understand by something so unexpected.
    The love and innocence of those sweet photos, juxtaposed with the loss of a couple’s no-doubt treasured home, would have touched any heart. I’m very glad that when it touched yours, you shared it with all of us.

    1. No offense taken of your criticism. You had the luxury of working on the feature side of newspapers most of your career, so our perspectives are a little different.

      When I was covering the Cuban Boatlift in 1980, I met a photographer who was from a paper on the fringe of our circulation area, so he wasn’t actually a competitor. We hit it off almost immediately.

      The first time I had an opening, I offered him a job. He was a dream employee: a solid shooter, older than most of the staff, respected by everybody who came in contact with him.

      One afternoon, I sent him out on a traffic fatality. When he came back, I asked, “What’d you get?”

      “Garbage truck vs. little kid. When I got there, the truck’s back tires were still sitting on top of him.”

      He processed his film and turned in a photo that was story-telling, but sensitive enough that our readers could still look at it over their morning coffee.

      After a bit, I noticed that he wasn’t around. I went looking and saw him sitting on the floor of the print darkroom with his back against the wall and his legs pulled up to his chest. Just sitting there in the semi-dark, lit only by the glow of the orangish safelights.

      We talked about – mostly around – what he had recorded that afternoon, and I sent him home early.

      Over the next few months, his work slipped uncharacteristically and he quit probably six months later, ostensibly to work on a scenic photo book in another state. I never heard if he finished the book or if he even stayed with photography.

      I’m not going to say that single incident changed his life, but it was a good example of how you either learn how to become a rock or you get washed away by the tide.

      Even rocks get eroded over time, though.

  12. The first time I died I was a fetus, into the world I came and lived a life that was mine. I wonder if I was filled with dread before what my parents called that blessed event. Now I reach for courage as I start the process of dismantling what I have built preparing for my next birth. We can only pray that our faith is well placed but have to wait for our own getting up morning to experience truth.
    Those pictures of one generation expressing their feelings for another become meaningful when you have lived long enough to gain the perspective that comes from a full life.
    We have all lived full lives; we are children of the 60s. We made our mark and we will do so again.
    Thanks Ken, Piece:)

  13. Ken, You know I rarely put out the effort it takes to
    wade through to Facebook (I am technilogically challenged) but I am glad I did today. Your view of the abandoned house was touching. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Ken: When I look at the photos that you post and the stories you talk about it takes me back to a time that I don’t get a 2nd chance to see very often. I grew up on the 800 block of South Ellis so Good Hope and Morgan Oak are very vivid memories that I have and progress has changed the face of that end of town and just as you referenced a song by Paul Simon, I think of a song by Seals & Croft “We may never pass this way again”. When I see what you put into your newsletter I get a chance to “Pass this way again”.
    WE all owe you a BIG THANK YOU for the memories we get to see that are forever gone except in our minds. So my hat is off to you for all your work and thanks again for giving me and others a chance to “Pass this way again” and to relive and remember the “way things used to be”
    Thank You!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Lyndel Revelle

    1. Thank you, Miz Pam. This has been a trip for connecting with folks.

      I crashed the Class of 1961’s 50th reunion, spent a couple days roaming the area with classmate Shari Stiver, am planning lunch with Ernie Chiles and Terry Hopkins Monday, and a honk ‘n’ wave with my old debate partner Pat Sommers in the afternoon.

      I’m supposed to hook up with Bill Hopkins this week, too.

      Do you have any message for Ernie when I see him? I’m sure I won’t be able to deliver it as effectively as you would.

  15. Ken,
    If you weren’t occasionally overwhelmed by these kinds of feelings, you’d be at a level of denial that would only sabotage you at a time when you’d be least prepared to process it.
    Memories are far more than just buildings and topography. My major connections to my home town are all severed now, with the passing of immediate family, but your photos and insights help me keep cherished sensations and forgotten sense memories vivid and alive. All these things have helped to make me who I am, and am grateful for every single piece of the puzzle.
    Steve Carosello

  16. Ken, when I first read “A Fortress Penetrated” and the first line, “Saturday was a day dominated by song lyrics and emotions I can’t explain”, I first thought of a hymn that is near to my heart and most probably yours; A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Yesterday was, for us Lutherans, Reformation Sunday and that hymn by Martin Luther provides comfort when one encounters the sensations you, (and we) had/have from time to time later in life. To me, the article just seemed to focus me even more on the story the hymn tells versus the story your wonderful pictures suggest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *