|Image by Mohylek via WikiMedia|
By Bettyann Moore
Snapshot #1: Ichabod, who begins and ends this story.
It’s the only shot we have of him from that summer. From ever. He’s in the galvanized tub we rigged up as a bathtub, his bony knees drawn up to his chin, one long arm dangling over the side. His hair is wet and water sluices down his face as if he’d just dunked his head. He opened his eyes as I clicked the shutter, his look not quite surprised and not quite angry, even though no one ever touched his camera. Ichabod never got angry. Maybe he should have.
We – Chuda, Honk and I – had picked him up alongside Highway 95. He was walking with the traffic, thumb almost carelessly displayed. His slight limp made him seem vulnerable, safe. His sandal-clad, soil-encrusted feet, his winter growth of beard, the khaki Army backpack he wore slung over one shoulder were badges of his coolness. We took him in. The camera was a bonus; none of us owned one. None of us owned much of anything since we disdained material possessions.
The camera was an expensive one, a Japanese 35mm bought on the cheap at a PX in Vietnam. He’d only been stateside for six months. Before that, he spent 18 months in the killing fields. He never mentioned that and neither did we. It hung from a thick red, white and blue strap around his scrawny neck and made a slap-clunk, slap-clunk sound when he walked. He was always in motion. We called him Ichabod. It was the only name we had for him until after.
I’m not sure why I took the picture, but I’m glad I did. I hadn’t even known he was in the kitchen where we’d set up the tub, even though I should have known since it was a Tuesday and Tuesdays were his bath days. I had Thursdays and being the only female, I made darn certain I wouldn’t be interrupted. The boys didn’t give a damn. The camera and Ichabod’s backpack never left his sight. They were sitting on top of the rickety kitchen table when I walked in. I didn’t even think. I picked up the camera – it was lighter than the ones I’d used in high school – took off the lens cap, focused and snapped. I hadn’t forgotten how.
The look he gave me was more sad than angry and he didn’t stir from the tub. I’m sure I blushed before I set it gently down and backed out of the room. He never mentioned it and it wasn’t until much, much later that I even got to see the photo.
Snapshot #2: Me
In the photo I’m priming the rusty kitchen pump of the tottery saltbox that was our home that summer. Like all of Ichabod’s photos, it’s unposed. They called me Stew, more because of my temperament than any culinary specialty. We couldn’t afford stew, though one of the neighbors, feeling sorry for the bunch of hippies living in the old house brought over a venison roast once. It was dripping blood from its brown paper and looked a lot like it was: a dead thing that used to be alive. We couldn’t eat it, despite the fact that we’d eaten nothing but blueberries, commodity cheese, some eggs and peanut butter for weeks.
So, yeah, despite our disdain for possessions, we had a house of sorts. It was free and a mess. It was built in the late 1700s in that quaint New England way where one building was built upon another building, built upon another so you didn’t have to freeze off your butt going outside. The main house was two stories, then came a one-story kitchen, a garage, a utility shed, then a smaller shed. My mother inherited it, but couldn’t get away from her old man, so she told me to take a bunch of friends out there and fix the place up for the time when she could ditch him. We had good intentions.
The good intentions faded, though, when we finally laid eyes on the place. There was no running water. Okay, we figured, we could deal with that. There was a hand pump in the filthy kitchen and one in the yard that went directly to the well. Who knew from pumps? We were all 18, 19, and had lived in relative luxury in our parents’ homes before that – luxury being running water, heat and bathrooms. There was no bathroom. I take that back, there was a toilet, which sat in the middle of one of the small, strange rooms in the main house. There was no water running to it, of course, and we weren’t quite sure where it emptied (though we suspected under the house), so we had to dump buckets of water down its maw to get rid of the waste. Not pretty. For the most part, we relieved ourselves outside. I used the woods more than the boys did.
We cooked on a wood stove. I mean I cooked; the boys didn’t have a clue, so I made them gather wood. Mostly I burned things at first. We ate a lot of blueberry pancakes using commodity flour and blueberries we picked on the acreage surrounding the house. We had blueberries with everything. It took me 30 years afterward to like them again.
There was electricity, but I think it had been put in when the practice was in its infancy, so there were bare bulbs dangling from ceilings and maybe one non-grounded outlet per room. We found old kerosene lanterns in one of the outbuildings and used those most of the time.
Priming the pump was a pain, but we got good at it. The secret was two buckets, always full. The water was frigid. I once tried to wash my long hair under the pump while Ichabod pumped away on the handle. I didn’t just suffer from brain freeze, it was more like head freeze; I had a headache for hours afterward. From then on, I warmed the water first, either on the old Franklin stove in the living room or on the stove.
Snapshot #3: Ichabod’s backpack in the living room, after we’d stripped off the wallpaper and painted in a bright orange paint we’d found in the garage.
We should have left on the wallpaper since it, plus old newspapers behind it, provided most of the insulation. The room was looking quite cozy, though, so Ichabod snapped a picture of it. The backpack was sitting on the coffee table a neighbor had given us. The backpack wasn’t the subject, of course, but when I look at the photo, that’s all I can see.
Earlier that day, while Chuda and Honk were clowning around with a football one of them had found alongside the road, a wild throw had hit Ichabod’s backpack and sent it flying. It hadn’t been shut tightly, so its contents went flying, too. A panicked “Oh!” escaped Ichabod’s lips as he dropped to his knees and started corralling the things with his long, thin arms. One rolled right to my feet. I bent down to pick it up; it was a roll of film, already shot. There must have been a hundred of them and none had been developed.
I’d taken two years of photography in high school. I thought it would be easy credits, but I ended up loving it. I especially liked working in the darkroom and watching the pictures come to be in the developer. Come fall, when we all headed back to the Midwest for college, I planned on taking as many photography classes as I could. Who the heck would shoot hundreds of rolls of film and never get them developed? And why?
“What the hell, Ichabod?” I said, handing the roll to him. “Aren’t you at least curious?”
He kept scooping and dumping the canisters into the backpack. The boys had made themselves scarce. I got down on my hands and knees and helped.
Finally, after we’d found the last one, which had rolled under the Franklin stove, Ichabod pulled the pack onto his knees and leaned back on the balls of his feet.
“I know what’s on them,” he said. “Besides, it’s expensive.”
“Doesn’t matter, Stew,” he said in a tone I’d never heard him use. “Let it be.” He rocked back to a stand and strode out of the room.
I couldn’t let it be, of course.
Snapshot #4: A newly-painted door with a sign reading “Do Not Disturb” hanging from its doorknob.
Even though it’s artfully shot using Rule of Thirds photography with the light from the window slanting just so across it, I hate this picture, especially the sign. Do Not Disturb has become my mantra.
It was early July and my mother, in preparation for her flight from my step-father, paid for roofing shingles and hired electricians to come in and bring the old place up to code. The plumbing, she wrote, could wait until she got there. A lumber yard dropped off a pallet of shingles on the same day the electricians showed up.
The boys and I stood around the pallet.
“She hire someone to do all this?” Chuda asked.
“We’re it,” I said.
Honk blew his nose onto the ground.
“How we supposed to get up there?” he asked. We all looked at the two-story part of the house.
“Borrow ladders I guess,” I said. The widow woman down the road had taken us under her wing; she said I looked a lot like her sister’s youngest daughter. I left the boys to contemplate the work ahead and trudged down the dirt road.
“Borrow whatever you need,” the widow said. She insisted I call her Aunt Katie. “I put all of John’s tools and such out in the shed. The man had more hobbies and whatnot. I really ought get rid of a lot of it.”
She opened the hinged double doors of the shed and we surveyed its contents.
“Wow,” I said. There were ladders of all lengths, wheelbarrows, tools, car parts, paint cans, a stripped-down motorcycle, its parts strewn on a dirty cloth beneath; and shelves and shelves of things I didn’t recognize, some covered with tarps and old tablecloths.
“Ain’t been out here in two years, since John passed,” Aunt Katie said, sniffing. She picked her way through the mess while I inspected the ladders. They were none too new, but seemed sturdy.
“I’ll send the boys over to get the ladders,” I said. “The wheelbarrow will come in handy, too.”
“Sure, sure,” Aunt Katie said distractedly. She was peering under tarps. “Look at this,” she said, waving me over. “I forgot about the trains.”
I came over and she pulled back a dusty tarp. Underneath were rows of miniature train cars with tracks, signals and little plastic people.
Aunt Katie clicked her tongue. “He did so love his trains for a time.” She walked over to another covering, looked beneath it then pulled it off, sending motes of dust into the air.
My eyes lit up. “He had a darkroom?” I asked, touching the enlarger. It was almost exactly like the one we’d used in school.
“Ayuh, that was one of the last things he did before he passed,” Aunt Katie said. “Shame it’s going to waste.”
I eyed the bottles and packets of chemicals, the trays, masking frame, developing canisters and timers.
“That is a shame,” I said, excited. “I think – if you’re willing to part with it all, that is – that I know someone who could use it.”
“Lordy, take whatever, child,” she said, waving her hands. “John would be pleased to know someone found joy in it.”
I gave her a hug, helped her put the tarp back over the equipment and promised I’d be back for the stuff in a few days. I had preparations to make first.
The last and smallest shed would be perfect, I thought. While the boys ripped off old shingles and sent them sailing into the yard, I tied my hair up into a scarf and set to cleaning up the room. I instructed the electricians to run the wires out to the room, even though my mother said she’d be having someone knock down everything past the garage. What was a few more feet of wire?
It took me three days of cleaning, patching, constructing and painting before it was through. I solved the water source problem with a 10-gallon plastic water jug and spigot (courtesy of Aunt Katie and her late husband’s camping stage). I lugged the equipment over in a wheelbarrow covered with an old flowered sheet. I wanted it to be a surprise. Once it was all set up, I shut the door and turned on the red overhead bulb, making sure there was no light leaking in anywhere. It was perfect. The last thing I did was to make the sign that said Do Not Disturb.
Snapshot #5: Not really a snapshot, but a driver’s license with photo. The name on the license is Kirby Wheaton.
The boys had finally begun nailing shingles onto the roof. None of them had ever done it before and arguments ensued. Ichabod, older and quietly commanding, won out; they would start on the down side and work their way up to the peak. It was hot, hard work in the July heat.
I finished the work on the darkroom on a Friday. Mother had sent a little money so I took Chuda’s old van to town and bought lobsters, steamers, red potatoes, corn and a couple bottles of cheap wine. While I cooked, I sent the boys off to the nearby campground to shower. For a quarter, you got 10 minutes of blissfully hot water.
After a rowdy dinner, I stood a tad unsteadily and surveyed the table full of shells, spilled wine and butter. Honk was still trying to crack open a claw with his teeth.
“I have a surprise,” I announced. The boys looked at me expectantly. “It’s, uh, more for Ichabod,” I added, “but it’ll be great for all of us.”
“So … what is it?” Chuda asked.
“Follow me!” I said and headed out through the garage. I could hear them grumbling behind me, but everyone followed.
“Maybe she put in a pool,” Honk said.
“I’d settle for a working toilet,” Chuda said.
I paused outside the door of the darkroom and turned to the little group.
“Ichabod,” I said, “you should open the door. Be careful, though, the paint might still be wet.”
Puzzled, Ichabod handed his glass of wine to Chuda and turned the knob. He stood stock still in the doorway, blocking the others’ view. I held my breath.
His shoulders sagged and he turned, eyes down.
“Nice work,” he mumbled. “But I won’t be using it.”
He pushed past us and stalked back to the house. While Honk and Chuda looked inside the room, I followed Ichabod.
“What the hell?” I yelled at his back. “I thought you’d be happy.”
He was stacking dishes at the table with shaking hands.
“Well, you thought wrong,” he said, not looking up.
“Jesus, Ichabod,” I yelled some more, “what the hell are you afraid of?”
He slammed a plate down on the table, cracking it in two, and turned to me.
“Don’t you dare talk to be about being afraid!” he shouted. “What the hell do you, a punk girl, know about fear?”
His words were like a blow to the chest. I was trembling, hot blood rising to my head.
“I was raped every single fucking day by my step-father and brother for the last 13 years!” I shouted. “That’s what I know about fear.”
It was the first time I’d ever said it aloud; the first time I’d told anyone.
We glared at each other. My chin quivered, but like I’d done so many times before, I willed myself not to cry. The boys came noisily into the room, breaking the spell. Ichabod lowered his eyes and held a hand out to me.
“Okay,” he said, sighing. He unhooked his backpack from his chair, shouldered it and walked slowly back toward the room.
We barely saw him for two days. Chuda and Honk took the weekend off from roofing and goofed around in the yard, playing Frisbee with old shingles. I made blueberry muffins, Icabod’s favorite, even though baking in the old wood stove was iffy at best. Every once in a while he’d come out of the darkroom, pump water directly down his gullet, grab a muffin and disappear again. We didn’t speak.
On Monday, the other two wearily climbed the ladders again, but there was no sign of Ichabod. Chuda and Honk came in for lunch, hot, sweaty and grumbling. Chuda flung himself into a chair.
“That’s it,” he said. “If he doesn’t have to work, then neither do I.”
“Got that right,” Honk said, grabbing a muffin from the table. “We’re busting our balls and he’s out picking berries.” He said the last part in a high sing-songy voice.
“What do you mean, ‘picking berries’,” I said.
“We saw him a couple of hours ago,” Chuda said.
“Yeah,” Honk cut in, “he was out in the fields, carrying a bucket. Looked like berry-picking time to me. Couldn’t tell though, ‘cause he disappeared behind the trees.”
“Maybe he went to take a crap,” Chuda said, snickering.
I stood up, knocking my chair over and ran to the darkroom. The Do Not Disturb sign still hung on the door. I knocked. I knocked again, harder. Finally, I pushed open the door.
He had rigged up clotheslines that crisscrossed the small room. Negatives and prints curled from clips. Photos covered every surface, spilling onto the floor. They were all black and white, but I could see the blood as if it was the reddest red. It congealed beneath the beheaded bodies of Vietcong soldiers, dripped from the severed hands of mothers, children. He had one set of prints laid out in sequence: a sleeping village, dead dogs at the gate, fire roaring through thatched huts, children running, then fallen to the ground, the backs of their heads blown away.
Bile rose in my throat; I vomited into a tray of developer and backed out of the room.
“We have to find him,” I said, running through the kitchen. “Now, quick!”
I ran across the uneven fields, the boys following far behind. I fell once, twice. On the other side of the stand of trees I saw him.
He’d taken the sturdy strap off the camera, which sat on a stump with the backpack. He used the branch of an old hickory tree, kicking away the upended bucket when he was ready to. I fell to my knees and vomited again just as the boys ran up.
They had to cut him down, I couldn’t bear to help. He and I had swapped pain for pain and pain won. At least his did. I wouldn’t let mine.
While the boys did their sad work, I gently picked up the camera and backpack and headed to Aunt Katie’s to call the police. There was no hurry now, so as I cut through the house, I upended a box of magazines onto the floor and took it to the darkroom. Keeping my eyes averted as much as I could, I stacked all the photos in the box, then added the curling negatives. I put the camera in there, too, then shoved the box into a corner of the garage; I’d retrieve it later.
Finally, I opened the backpack. Just two un-shot rolls of film remained, and there was a thin wallet. I sat on a kitchen chair and as tears dripped down my cheeks, I opened it. There was little more than a couple of dollars, a red guitar pick and a driver’s license. Kirby Wheaton, it read. Born July 10, 1947. Wheaton Gap, Tennessee. He would have been 24 the next day.
Snapshot #6: Me again, hair graying, dressed in a black suit cutting a ribbon at the entrance of a building. Over the doors it reads: Wheaton Trauma Center.
Life has been kind to me. I surprised myself by graduating from college with a major in political science and a minor in photography. I only use one lovingly-maintained camera and it has served me well. I have a gallery smack dab in the middle of Washington, DC and I’ve channeled all its proceeds into building and staffing the center. Its specialty is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
When I’m not there or at the gallery, I lobby members of congress to quit funding wars. The ones who continue to vote for military appropriations – which means virtually all of them – receive a particular packet of photos in the mail, as do members of the Pentagon. The press caught wind of this, but has thus far refused to print any of the pictures.
No matter. On April 30, 2015, my gallery will mark the 40th anniversary of the day the last U.S. Military personnel left Vietnam, with an invitation-only one-man show. I only wish he could be there to see it.