Old family photos

Robert Sterling Carson, about 1944.

Did you ever find a photo that changed an important story in your life? Most of us have had that experience, I believe. It doesn’t have to be a photo; it can be an overheard phone conversation, an uncle’s casual remark, or a letter that somebody did NOT intend for you to see.

Sometimes, if you’re really lucky or the universe has decided you’re ready for a double whammy, it’s not just your private story that changes, but a public story as well — the nest that held your private history gets blown apart or retwigged. (Another made-up word. Sorry, Mom!) The story I want to tell is not dramatic (for which I’m grateful) but it does have to do with both my private family history and my understanding of a larger cultural history.

After all this buildup I’m going to tell you that this is about college boys dressing up as girls.

As a girl myself, though a bit of a bent one, I have to admit that I’ve never understood how interesting it is to men to dress as women. I don’t mean just the guys who really need to do that. I mean all the guys. We know that the drag shows that entertained the troops during World War II were REALLY drag shows — these were guys who were used to cross-dressing, for the most part. But in addition, guys at least in the “olden days” just thought it was a lark to dress up and camp it up. Here’s one of the photos I found:

ImageIf my father is in this photo (and I have to tell you I’m not sure if he is), he’s the one in the boobs.  But this is from a collection of photos I found in a box I finally opened a few years after he died. Though we kids begged periodically for slide shows, and became very familiar with early family photos taken with Kodachrome, these were black and white prints.Because Dad is in some of the photos, I can’t say for sure who the photographer was for most of the pictures in that collection. Here I do think he’s behind the camera rather than behind the bra.

The collection comes from the years after Pearl Harbor when my father and thousands of other kids joined the military training programs designed for college men. My dad and his brother chose V-12, for naval trainees. It had to feel like chaos — not like college. The guys were shipped all over the place. My father started college at Williams and ended up spending some time at Cornell. After V-J Day he finished at Amherst, persuaded to transfer by his hometown girlfriend, my mother to be, a Smith girl.

He was alive. He never shipped out. He had specialized training that he never used. I look back and know that he was a lucky as well as a privileged fellow. After he was rushed through his undergraduate program, so that American universities could accommodate as many veterans as possible,  he went on to medical school.

But I think of the shy guy I knew as I grew up his daughter: the diffident man who rarely made any claims for himself, and talked about his feelings, his hopes, and his disappointments only at odd moments, generally after a couple of drinks, right out of the blue. And I think of what those years must have done to him, and what he missed that might have been pretty cool for him. This is nothing compared to what boys went through who shipped out, who landed on D-Day, who survived the Pacific war, or did not. This is nothing. But this is the man I knew and loved, so I have some insight and concern.

Not my mother.

What I see in this oh so poignant roll or two of surviving college pictures is a guy who had friends, or at least companions, who hung out with guys who put stuffing in bras in order to make their friends laugh, and who had some peaceful moments of study in a dormitory or fraternity (I don’t even know which). I THINK I see a guy who was as interested in photography then as he was all his life, even though he clearly didn’t take all these photos and I can only assume he took most of them. For the ones he’s in, he probably just handed the camera to a friend. There are also pictures of his and Uncle Dave’s commissioning, probably taken by their mom or dad or maybe my aunt Susan. Here is one:

My father is on the right. He was the younger brother. He had curly blond hair and his ears stuck out. In this photo he looks plenty worried, and he had good reason, but thank God, he dodged the bullet. As for the rest of life — well, it was good enough. More later.

But back to college…these photos just knocked me out. Look at this next one. Look at the lighting, and the cropping, and the — I don’t know, the subject’s utter willingness to sit there scrutinized by a friend with a camera.

What was different for me after I saw these photos?

First, I was able to tell myself that my father did OK in college, despite the war’s upheaval. That is, every so often he got to hang around in his residence hall/dormitory/fraternity and cross-dress with forty of his closest friends.

Second, I could see that taking photos mattered to him. Although I didn’t take the opportunity to ask him when he started taking pictures or why he took pictures (it was OH so hard to get him to answer questions about himself), I can see here pretty clearly that he had that drive to make images that I share today.

In a totally unfair way, because he’s so long gone and I have nobody to answer to, I have often joked that he was not a very good photographer despite his obsession with equipment ads in the photo magazines. After I found these pictures, I decided that my remarks were not only kind of mean, and unaccountably so, but also inaccurate.

The last photo I attach here is of a college campus on a winter night. I think this is Walker Hall at Amherst College — a lovely building no longer standing, razed in 1963 to make way, ironically, for the Robert Frost Library. ANYWAY, I really want to say two things about this photo. One, I think it is good. But even if its subject is the thing that is “good,” and it’s just a snapshot record of an evocative moment, what is most important to me as Dad’s daughter is that he was moved to take this photo. He thought it was a lovely scene, with the bare tree branches and the nineteenth-century building and the lights glowing over the snow.

And I love that idea of this young man trying to capture that moment. To end where I began, discovering Dad’s pals wearing bras and reading books was a sweet story-changer for me; but more important is that the existence of this sheaf of photos reinforces, rather than changes, my story of my father. Shy, awkward, unconfident, “silent Bob” had things he really, really wanted to say about things he found beautiful. He was a witness, he paid attention, and he left a record of that. And behind all the awkwardness and the things left unsaid between us, that’s the man I  hoped I knew.

Is this Walker Hall at Amherst? — about 1946.

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One thought on “Old family photos

  1. Pingback: Historian/archivist creates astonishing photographic memorials to World War II combatants « The historian's lens

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