GUILTY TREASURES

Published August 19, 2012

          BY GREG WILLIAMS

  It wasn’t the sort of painting that belonged above a sofa.

  Putting it in the kids’ room wouldn’t have been a good answer, either — particularly at bedtime.

  Now and then, I made half-hearted suggestions to display it elsewhere in our house, but my wife had other ideas. (Most of her other ideas involved a Dumpster.)

  So the painting sat, out of sight, just taking up space.

  Why did I keep it?

  I knew it wasn’t some long-lost masterpiece by one of the world’s great painters. It likely was worth even less than when I’d spotted it decades earlier in the window of a thrift shop in Dubuque, Iowa. An atypical thrift store find, this tortured depiction of human anguish was worlds away from paint-by-number kittens and windmills. It was Vincent van Gogh meets Vincent Price. It was Norman Rockwell meets Norman Bates.

  I had to own it.

  Checking the back for a price tag, I was astounded to learn that the artist was someone I actually had known: my previous boss, a soft-spoken family man named Sid.

  I really had to own it.

  The best thing about the painting was its title: “HEY WORLD, LOOK AT ME.” (It seems that Sid may have had some issues.)

  As much as I appreciated the irony of its origins, I had no good reason to keep the painting. I lost touch with Sid long ago, and it seemed unlikely that I’d ever find a suitable place to display his handiwork; Very few homes have dungeons these days. I thought about tracking Sid down, to return the painting to him. But, knowing he’d managed to rid himself of it once already, I presumed he might not be thrilled to see it again after so many years.

  Which raised a serious question: If Sid could get rid of the painting, why couldn’t I?

  It’s easy to understand why we hang onto old photographs and love letters. They often evoke warm memories of good times. Our reasons for clinging to dusty fondue sets and gum wrapper chains are a bit more obscure.

  When possessions become obsessions, it’s time to face the situation squarely — which is what I did with Sid’s painting.

  I wrote about it for the newspaper, as the central focus of a story about completely useless possessions. “Guilty Treasures,” we called them. At the end of the story, we invited readers to submit stories and photos of their own worthless junk. “If your item is the weirdest of the weird,” I wrote, “Sid’s painting will be yours.”

  I promised to personally deliver Sid’s painting to the lucky winner’s doorstep, with a single stipulation: “Just promise me you’ll keep it away from the Dumpster.”

  A number of people wrote in to describe their most dubious belongings. One guy talked about his hobby of collecting chunks of roadside debris — car parts, bolts and other pieces of heavy metal — which he then recycled into paperweights. One of his favorite pieces was the logo plate from the front of a discarded Gibson Frost Clear refrigerator.

  Another reader told us about a collection of artifacts from her days as an employee at Heritage USA, a defunct North Carolina tourist site started by TV evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker: tapes, books, pins, dolls, puppets, and a Tammy Faye Cosmetics emery board imprinted with her signature.

  We also heard from a teacher who had snagged a somewhat unusual memento during a 1973 trip to Moscow — her first time out of the United States: “the strip that they put around a toilet seat to let you know that it was cleaned.” The paper strip was from the Hotel Rossiya, just steps from the Kremlin, Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral.

  “They didn’t have a lot of souvenirs over there.”

  Our prize-winning submission came from a young woman named Lucie, who confessed her abiding fondness for ’80s New Wave pop star Adam Ant.

  “I was in love with him when I was 13,” Lucie told us. “Everything about him. The look, the music, the pirate uniform …”

  Lucie collected anything she could find that pertained to the British singer who had given us the song “Goody Two Shoes.” His albums adorned her walls, and his music played from home-recorded CD compilations. Although Lucie’s husband, Barry, wasn’t much of an Adam Ant fan, he never tried too hard to contain his wife’s Ant-thusiasm. “He lets me have my little crushes,” Lucie said with a laugh.

  What was it, exactly, that put Lucie’s Adam Ant collection at the top of our “Guilty Treasures” heap? How did her Ant pile enter the guilt-ridden realm of utter uselessness?

  “I have a bunch of movies he made,” Lucie told us, “but I have never been able to make myself watch them.”

  At the time, the Internet Movie Database listed dozens of Adam Ant’s movie roles and “notable TV appearances.” Lucie faithfully collected the videos, but hadn’t yet found the nerve to watch one — fearing her idol might be a horrible actor. “I’m scared that I’ll feel less for him, that I’ll be real unimpressed.”

  Which brings to mind Lucie’s then-five-year-old son, Michael, another fan of Adam Ant. Lucie told us that Michael would dance around the house whenever he heard old ’80s music.

  His favorite song? “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

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THE ZAPRUDER FILMS

Published October 9, 2011

  When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in downtown Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Abraham Zapruder was filming the scene from atop a concrete abutment overlooking the motorcade’s route. As many as eight other onlookers took home-movie footage or still photographs of the shooting, but Zapruder’s is the only film known to exist that captured the entire event. “The Zapruder Film” has been studied and debated for decades, inspiring scientific researchers and conspiracy theorists alike.

In a newly-stabilized version of Zapruder’s footage, two men clap
as President Kennedy’s limousine passes “The Umbrella Man”
and another man, who waves in the foreground.

  Recently, through the use of computers, it has become possible to produce stabilized versions of the film — minimizing the distracting “home-movie jitter” of the original footage and smoothly tracking the movement of the President’s limousine, HERE. (WARNING: Graphic content)

  By stabilizing the original footage in an entirely different manner, I have been able to shift the emphasis to the onlookers instead of the motorcade — eliminating the left-to-right panning motion of the camera and, essentially, presenting the footage in the form of seven separate and stationary “Zapruder Films.”

  For the first time, we can clearly observe people clapping and waving, or calmly watching, as the motorcade moves past them. A young boy steps from between two adults to get a better view of the President’s limousine. A woman who has been walking toward the roadway makes a sudden turn away, just as the fatal bullet strikes the President. One man dives to the ground, while other onlookers begin to back away.


A young boy steps to the side to get
a better view of the limousine.


The woman on the right prepares
to photograph the President’s vehicle.


A woman turns away suddenly as the President is fatally wounded.


One man dives to the ground as Mrs. Kennedy
starts to climb onto the limousine’s trunk.


Another group watches as a Secret Service agent
climbs onto the back of the limousine.


A man and woman watch as the limousine starts to speed away.

HOLLYWOOD’S LEADING MEN, PAST AND PRESENT

To illustrate a movie-themed Valentine’s Day story about
romantic actors, I produced this series of photo collages –
casting today’s stars in iconic roles from Hollywood’s past:

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THE SERIOUS CHEERLEADER

Published December 7, 2009

  It was drizzling, but just barely, when I left the house.

  The back of my skull was pounding, and I’ve learned that a long walk often helps to tame that sort of headache.

  I was half a mile from home when the rain and wind started to pick up. Since I was wet already — and sure to get wetter, regardless of my route — I forged on: past the recently-abandoned car dealership and the seemingly forgotten citrus grove. As I neared a large public storage building, I noticed a snapshot lying in the grass between the sidewalk and the road:

  The Serious Cheerleader.

  Despite my headache and the stinging rain, I had to smile; It was a wonderfully unconventional image, catching a tiny moment of — let’s call it “less-than-rah-rah-rah” emotion — in the life of a total stranger.

  As I picked it up, I spotted another photo a few feet away. Then another, and another. Did the photos belong to someone who was similarly caught by the wind and rain, while attempting to warehouse treasured belongings? I gathered up all the photos I could find and headed home.

  Most of the rescued images were flecked with dirt, and several were badly damaged. I cleaned them off as well as I could and began to examine them for clues.

  The Serious Cheerleader showed up in several other photos. In a sepia-toned souvenir portrait, she appeared to be posing frontier-style with her twin. (She was the one on the left, my wife and I guessed.) There also were a handful of early-Sixties snapshots of a mother and child, a Polaroid of a young girl at the beach, and two Olan Mills photos of a pleasant-looking man wearing white pants and sporting a pinkish-red tie, with a nearly-matching jacket slung over his shoulder. The Serious Cheerleader’s father, perhaps?

  Although some first names had been penciled onto the back of a few photos, the only last name belonged to the man with the pinkish-red tie. With that information and little else, I turned to the Web — and found, on my very first search, a reference to a Life Group leader at a church less than three miles from my home.

  It was mid-morning on a Sunday, so I took a chance and drove to the church to find out whether anyone there might be able to identify the mother with the baby, or the young girl at the beach, or the man in the pinkish-red tie, or The Serious Cheerleader.

  The worship service had just started. Before I had a chance to talk with the handful of parishioners who were chatting quietly in the main entry, I noticed a wall plaque that included photographs of the church elders — and immediately recognized a somewhat older version of the man in the pinkish-red tie.

  Within seconds, he came through the doors of the chapel, and — after catching a glimpse of the rescued photos — gently touched my arm and told me his prayers had been answered.

  A few days earlier, he and his wife had driven to a nearby town for a family gathering. They loaded up a plastic tub with photo albums, baby books and other mementos, in order to share them with relatives. Upon returning home, they somehow forgot to remove the tub from the back of their pickup — inadvertently leaving the tailgate down, as well.

  After a later trip to Wal-mart, they realized that the tub was missing. They found the lid near the turn lane into the store, but not the tub itself. No baby books, no albums, not a single photograph.

  The spot where The Serious Cheerleader caught my eye was about a block away from the entrance to Wal-mart, and on the opposite side of the road. I returned to the scene and, before the Sunday service had ended, tracked down several dozen additional photos and family records.

  Even though most of the tub’s contents haven’t been recovered, the family considers it a blessing that anything at all was returned to them.

  I never would refer to my actions as “the answer to a prayer.” But that’s how the church elder and his wife see things — along with their granddaughter, who was photographed as a young girl at the beach. And her mother, The Serious Cheerleader.

  And that’s fine with me.

MY GLENN BECK/JOHN PRINE ROAD TRIP

Published November 22, 2009

  When I learned (via Twitter) that radio and TV talk host Glenn Beck had scheduled a rally and book signing in The Villages — a sprawling “golf car community” in central Florida — my journalistic goal was immediately clear: I would join forces with my friend Bill, an ardent conservative, to attend the rally and collaboratively dissect its social significance.  Bill considers me to be a liberal;  I consider myself to be independent.

  Unfortunately, the demands of Bill’s work wouldn’t allow him to break away for a full afternoon.  With the loss of this clever journalistic peg, my enthusiasm for a 90-minute Glenn Beck road trip began to wane — until I remembered the John Prine CD anthology that I had been itching to crank up. (Yes, I still listen to CDs.)

  The soundtrack for my drive was a bit of a stylistic mismatch, I suppose.  “Illegal Smile” and “Sam Stone” don’t strike precisely the same tone as “God Bless the U.S.A.”  However, it did occur to me that both Prine and Beck have produced works titled “Common Sense.”  Coincidence?

  As I made my way into “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown,” the number of vehicles displaying full-size American flags increased dramatically.  I also noticed quite a few gun-related bumper stickers — although, to be fair, this IS Florida. You might spot just as many in the parking lots at Walt Disney World.

  “Is this the Nancy Pelosi convention?”

  The question came from a fellow rally-goer, as we walked toward the town square where Beck’s mid-afternoon rally was taking shape.  This genial-yet-pointed jab turned out to be a good predictor of the crowd’s overall demeanor.  You’ve never seen such an easygoing “angry mob” (as Beck would later describe them, jokingly).

  The excitement level notched up when Beck’s tour bus pulled into sight.  A roar of fond appreciation filled the loosely-packed square as he took to the stage — acknowledging the rock-star welcome with a self-deprecating poke at the president: “Man! This is how desperate people are for a leader right now!”

  I’m pretty familiar with Beck, having listened to him frequently during the first incarnation of his talk-radio show on a local AM station in Tampa. Although I enjoyed his “earlier, funny” persona, I’ll admit that I’ve had some concerns about his recent forays into fear-stoked emotionalism and his somewhat convoluted chalkboard talks.

  What Beck delivered in The Villages, however, was mostly a measured and clear-eyed vision of how the American people can effectively engage with their government and, in the process, save their country.

  “This isn’t about health care,” he explained. “It’s about money.”

  Characterizing our mounting national debt as “a global catastrophe on the horizon,” Beck drew comparisons to the Titanic’s deadly run-in with an iceberg: “It’s the Constitution that matters! Get in the lifeboats!”

  He also spoke frankly about personal responsibility.

  “We can’t decry hatred or violence if we are not peaceful people,” he told us. “We can’t complain about debt if we are IN debt.”  He even urged the crowd to adopt a healthier lifestyle — by occasionally “putting down the pie fork.”

  There were other topics, of course, such as his development of a 100-year plan for the U.S., his announcement of a series of regional “education conventions” and — oh, by the way — he has no plans to run for political office.

  Is it possible that Beck’s toned-down approach will mark a turning point in his career, toward a more constructive public dialogue?  I guess we’ll find out soon enough.  His crowd in The Villages seemed pleased with what they had heard.  “Great speaker!” said one man.  “He’s found his niche,” said another.

  On my way out of town, as I passed a bright blue COUNTRY FIRST billboard left over from Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid, I turned to John Prine’s music again — with the hope that he might provide a relevant bit of perspective.  And Mr. Prine did not disappoint;  I must have replayed the chorus of his song “Bruised Orange” three or four times:

“You can gaze out the window, get mad and get madder,
  Throw your hands in the air, say ‘what does it matter?’
  But it don’t do no good to get angry,
  So help me, I know.

“For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter.
  You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
  Wrapped up in a trap of your very own
  Chain of sorrow.”

EROSION: A consideration of the natural course of things

Published June 18, 2000

  No one could recall having seen the photo before.

  None of my father’s family was able to tell me precisely where the photo was taken, although the lay of the land and the grouping of trees seemed faintly familiar to some.

  Few of the people who studied the photo would have known my father at the time it was taken, and no one was able to say with certainty who the photographer had been.

  I couldn’t tell you exactly how the photo passed into my hands or how long I’d had it.

  I couldn’t tell you what sort of trees my father was standing in front of or what crop was planted in the farm field just beyond them.

  And I couldn’t tell my son, Ethan, much of anything about the small black rock he picked up outside a Red Lobster restaurant in the Wisconsin town where my father was hospitalized in early May.

  Not surprisingly, my father could tell us plenty about Ethan’s small black rock.

  He held it the same way I’d seen him hold hundreds of similarly nondescript rocks through the years. He touched a trembling fingertip to his tongue, then rubbed it along a recessed ridge of the rounded stone. He explained, in terms a 7-year-old might understand, the process of erosion — how the softer layers of certain river rocks were worn away more easily by the water that flowed around them.

  As he placed the small black rock back into my son’s hand and slowly pulled his sheet to his chin again, my father was not just another weakened old soul in a hospital bed. For me, he had regained the stature of an earlier decade, when we had climbed together on rock piles dredged from the nearby Mississippi in search of smoothed chunks of banded quartz known as agates.

  Out of the thousands of dull gray stones beneath our feet, my father would bend down again and again to claim his dusty treasures. With a wet fingertip, he would unleash looping stripes of orange, yellow, brown and white, then drop them into a rapidly filling Folger’s coffee can.

  Not long after visiting my father in the hospital, I walked alone through my hometown to the weedy spot where his favorite rock piles had been. I hadn’t expected to find myself there; I wasn’t even toting a coffee can.

  I can’t tell you whether the sculpted stone that fits so well in the palm of my hand is an agate. And I still can’t tell you much of anything about the photo of my father that we took to his funeral.

  There are just some questions that can’t be answered.