Tuesday, June 05, 2012

A Son's African Heritage: Mom's Old Photos -- and a Precious Past Preserved.

Got any old family photos?  Yes?  Do you know where they are? Yes?  Sure?  They didn't get lost in that last move or when a family member passed away?

Or maybe you think those old photos aren't important.  If you do, I would suggest that you think again; that is, if you also think it's important to preserve family history -- which I do.

When I was 19 years old, in the U.S. Army and stationed in L.A., I was a boxer.  I was good enough to get on the Saturday night boxing card at the old Los Angeles Arena.

I had a manager, a trainer, and was on a roll with  victories in my first five fights.   One of the ringside photographers gave me an 8 by 10 black and white print of one knockout win. It showed me standing, gloved arms raised in triumph over my fallen opponent, a big black guy.

For years, I had that photo tucked away in drawers and boxes. I was going to frame it and put it up somewhere but never got around to it.  Though I rarely looked at it -- life was too busy --it was always there in my mind.

That photo was the way I was back then, young, tough, a winner, on my way up as a boxer and in life.  It was  history, visual documentation that I had actually been a boxer out there in L.A.. It felt good knowing the  photo was there.

Then one day, it wasn't.

I looked everywhere.  But it was gone,  probably lost in one of my many moves.  Gone also was a vivid bit of family history.  I don't think my sons, Greg and Jon, ever saw that photograph  and now they never will, nor will my  grand kids.

(By the way, shortly after that triumph, I was matched up with an unknown boxer from Mexico. When I met him in the ring, he ducked, weaved,  danced around me, and  pummeled me with lightning-fast jabs. I could hardly get a glove on him. I managed to stay on my feet to the end but he beat me to a  pulp. My manager and trainers dropped me.  I never fought again.  I  never got a photo of  me as a bloody, thoroughly beaten mess, but now I wish I had -- as a  photographic lesson in real life. )

When Greg and Jon, recently lost their mom, Phyllis, and my former wife, they asked me to look for  photos and help them make sure none was lost. Phyllis and I  had gone off to Africa as newlyweds in 1963 and Greg was born in Kenya on April 10, 1964. We took lots of photos with my Instamatic camera.

In one precious old photo, above,  Phyllis is shown  with Greg as a baby in the swimming pool of the Kisumu Club in Kenya.

In a recent blog, about Phyllis and I starting life off together in Africa, I illustrated it with photos we had taken.   To do so, I had to digitize slides more than a half century old..

For decades, I had lived in fear that those slides would be lost and, with them, the precious photographic story of Greg's beginnings in Africa.

When I finally got  these old photos on CDs , I breathed a sigh of relief. A colorful, adventuresome chapter of family history had been saved.  Now Greg and Jon, the grand kids, and future family members would have photographic evidence of African roots.

I love photos and have been taking them forever.  Although I am a word guy, I think photos can tell stories in themselves and sometimes do so better than words. They imprint  upon  human memory  while written  and spoken words gradually fade.  

That's why, I'm sure, I remember that one boxing photo while most everything else from those days all so long ago are a blur.

Abandoned by a toxic mother, I spent my childhood  in foster homes and  no one took  pictures of me. I  only have two or three grainy, accidental photos from all those childhood  years.

I didn't want that to happen to my kids and grandkids, and it hasn't.

In going through Phyllis's photos, to my surprise, I found several old slides and prints that beautifully illustrated  Greg's African heritage. There were also prints of their mom from college days, when she was young, beautiful, and full of life -- a vivid reminder to Greg and Jon of what their mom was before adulthood, divorce, loneliness, and the poor health of her later years.

First, I took the 50-year-old slides and and even older prints to Walmart's Photo Shop and had them made into CDs.  I had used the Walmart Photo Shop with my own slides and, to my surprise and delight, it had done a good job.

When I picked  up the CD  this time, however, the Photo Shop manager was all apologies. "The slides are old and only so much can be done," he said.  He said the prints "came out okay." He gave me a break on the price.

In my home office, I slid the CD into my computer and quickly saw what the photo manager was talking about. The photos were murky.  They were crooked, with some upside down.

But they were still powerfully evocative of Greg's and his Mom's Africa, as well as of her early years.  I wondered: Could the contrast and focus be fixed?

Using the photo-editing program, Picasa, I went to work on the old photos.  What follows are the results.  We start with a photo of Phyllis at a white-jacket formal at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., where we met.

That's Phyllis, front and center, glancing over her shoulder.  I wasn't at this affair.   I never took Phyllis anywhere.   I was too busy working two jobs, 20 hours a week at a supermarket deli (where I filled my face) and nights as the switchboard operator in the Student Union, plus playing ice hockey for Merrimack (I was on a full-tuition hockey scholarship.)

Phyllis went to this formal with some other guy.  The only reason I know this was a Merrimack formal is that I recognize the people as Merrimack students.  Phyllis and I met when she showed up one night at the Student Union switchboard when I was working and we started talking.

It became a regular thing. Soon I had another food source, Phyllis's meal ticket, and she got a guy who had no family, no money, and no time for her.

Why she kept showing up at the switchboard, and often bringing me food, I have no idea.  Often when we were eating on her meal ticket, she would say, "I'm not hungry.  You eat."

I ate, Phyllis kept hanging out at the switchboard, and we became one.   After we graduated from Merrimack in 1962 and after my year at UMass for a Master's degree, Phyllis  and I got married.  Now, hard to believe all those years that have passed and Phyllis is gone, I have been going through her old photos. I found an old print of the two of us cutting our wedding cake.

Using Picasa photo editing, I was able to crop it and and tone down the lighting -- and  preserve an important event of Greg and Jon's family history.  Though we divorced many years later,  we shared a great three-year adventure in Africa, had kids and grand kids together, and remained lifelong friends.

Phyllis and my wife Barbara were also friends.  In the summer at my sister Ruby's lakeside cottage, Barbara and Phyllis sometimes sat looking out at the beautiful lake and chatting while I went swimming.

When I came out of the water and joined them, I sometimes got the distinct feeling that the two of them would just as soon that I went back in with the fishes. It's never a good idea for a guy to interrupt two women talking.

Immediately after graduate school, I was accepted into the Teachers for East Africa Program (TEA) of Columbia Teacher's College and Phyllis and I went off to Kenya as newlyweds.
We spent two years in  Kenya and a year in Nigeria.  Now here  are some  of the  photos digitized from old slides that I found at Phyllis's  and that I had not seen in years.

Here are Phyllis and Greg in Kenya with two Pokot women  We were driving our 1961 VW bug along a dirt road in Masai country when we saw them. On the spur of the moment, we pulled over. Gesturing with my little Instamatic, I asked in bad Swahili if I could take their picture.

They smiled.  Greg patted the goat without bothering to ask. Truthfully, Phyllis and I both felt safer with African tribal people than with strangers in American cities.  These were the days when Europeans, what all white people were called, were greatly respected.  Now Kenyan cities are as dangerous as American ones.

At left is Greg with our ayah, Philamena, and a little African playmate on the porch of our house at the Kisumu Secondary school where I taught.

And here is a photo of me leaving the school with books under my arm.  I found this photo at Phyllis's. It could have been lost.

And what a teaching experience!  I have never seen such eager students.  You walk into the classroom and the whole class jumps to its feet.

"Morning, Sir!" they shout in unison.

Then they sit.  All eyes are on the mzungu mwalimu (white teacher). With notebooks open and pencils at ready, they are ready and eager to learn.  And you better teach them so they can pass the overseas exam from England -- or else.

I'll never forget the time I was telling a little story about life in America.  A student in the back row, very tall and older than the others, jumped to his feet.

"Sir!" he all but shouted. "I believe you are wasting our time. What you are telling us is not in the syllabus!"

He sat down with pencil at ready to take notes.

"Quite right," I said in my best faux British accent. "So sorry.  Yes, I'll get on with it, thank you."

 I never again strayed from the syllabus.

We'll end with a few pictures of Greg that I found at his Mom's.

Here he is sleeping in the basket that he rode in all over East Africa and which I now have in my home office. This past December 12,  Barbara and I dropped Phyllis off at her Middletown, Ct. home after a funeral (for Greg's wife Kelly's mom). As we were about to leave, Phyllis said, "Don't forget the basket."

She knew how important the basket was to me and she wanted me to have it.

"Oh, the basket," I said, batting my head for forgetting. "No I can't forget that.  That's history."

I went back and got the basket.  It was the last time I saw Phyllis alive. She died on January 3.  The last thing that Phyllis and I talked about was the basket that Greg rode in throughout Africa.

Above is a photo of Greg and me playing on the beach in Mombasa that Phyllis had.  It could have been lost -- forever.

Here is Greg today at his Mom's house, flaunting my New York Times at me.  He knows that I'm a longtime addict of the Times.  I  need it seven days a week or I go nuts.

I have tried to get Greg also hooked on the Times since forever.  He has always resisted.  OK, Greg, you  Child of Africa,  you're now 48 so I guess you have the right not to read the Times.

So, fine, don't.

Wouldn't it be interesting if some day I do see Greg with The New York Times tucked under his arm?

You can bet I'll get a picture of that.

So long and keep moving.

P.S. I gave Greg CDs of his mom's slides and old prints that I had digitized at Walmart and also CDs I burned myself after photo editing with Picasa. They also included many of my own photos from Africa.  I'll be giving the same to Jon this week when we meet at his Mom's place.  Take good care of them guys.  They're history -- and irreplaceable.

 E-Books by George Pollock

 "State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story that literally saves his life;  "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which is about how to live the title every day; and "Unlove Story," Writing anonymously as "Elvis," a husband, dumped after 38 years of marriage, lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.

For the Nook:

 A Beautiful Story
A Long, Happy, Healthy Life
I, Cadaver
State Kid
Unlove Story

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