This weekend turned up some surprises, the worst being that after a week of stunningly beautiful skies and moderate temps Saturday turned into winter again--overcast, cold and windy. But! Sunday recovered nicely, including a trip to Mrs. I's paternal grandfather's house, also known as The Heaven Where Rummage Sales Go.
You see, Grandpa S. was a collector's collector. He didn't so much collect things as collect collections. He had a collection of most everything, from tools to brass figurines to vases to coins to wildlife-print throw pillows. I kid you not. The best part of it is that his house was packed literally floor to ceiling with this stuff, so that there was a single path through to each room, but every item in the vast plethora of things was placed "just so." It looked like a museum curator's basement, full of the things that may one day go back on display, just not right now. It was all clean and neat and tidy and organized with a gentle obsessiveness that I envy.
The three siblings have been slowly letting the worthwhile items trickle out to family members. The countless and quite valuable coin collections were carefully divided up. Likewise his guns, and of course various mementos mori were given to those who requested them. This last weekend was Round Two, sort of a second visiting to make sure there's nothing that anyone really really wants before the remainder goes into the Mother of All Garage Sales.
Now me, being of an opportunistic bent, wanted to go see just to see. I hate the idea of taking his things, but the family has been literally pushing items to me--a brand new cordless drill set. A thousand piece multi-tool set, also unopened. One of several dozen toolboxes full of household tools and such. I asked for (with great embarrassment) and was given a beautiful old nylon shaving brush that probably dates to the mid 50's and a moustache cup the first visit. I was then given the tools and three LSU polo shirts that still bore their tags.
This trip over I resigned myself to asking for something I'd been thinking about since I first saw them: oscillating fans. Yeah, I'm a freak. Grandpa S., you see, collected those beautiful old oscillating fans in the Art Deco style. You know, the ones made of solid steel, with the barely-protected metal blades and the cannon-shell nacelles over the motors. Those kind. Bakelike control knobs and a certain "you should know better than stick your finger in here you dolt" mentality to safety.
Upon arriving the family had already picked out for me a beautiful little saki serving set--eight tiny thimble-cups, a smallish matching plate to hold the set and the elegant little serving bottle. I asked for and was given three of the thirty pound fans (it seemed they were given over with a look of gratitude, quite frankly) and I stopped, content to wander around the house and just touch the occasional tchotchke. More fun than a church rummage sale since all of this stuff began at one step up from cheap knock-offs.
What genuinely struck me this time was how you could FEEL the love radiating off the items. I could see him carefully picking, pricing, setting each item back on the shelf until it went on sale or until a place was found for it in the collection. I could hear him laugh as he carefully counted just quarters or just dimes into each of dozens of authentic piggy banks, the sort you have to destroy to get your money back. I could almost sense the story behind each little brass animal, each lovely vase filled with silk floral arrangements. Then I saw it. An unmistakable shape, almost hidden in a bookshelf.
A Kodak box camera.
Squat and square, a dull black that shouted "Bakelite plastic!" it sat there watching me with a lens so small a dime could cover it. At first I thought it was fake; even after picking it up I couldn't shake the feeling that it was a toy. A flash was attached to the side, the simple handle held on with a broad-headed screw. With its half-globe aluminum flash shield, the comically huge grey buttons and single round film advance knob in the corner all looked like some cleverly-contrived but inexpensive toy. The astonishingly light heft, the childlike simplicity--it couldn't be real, but sure enough the metal plate at the front stated it clearly enough: "Kodak Brownie Hawkeye Model Flash Camera." I brought it reverently to the back patio and stared straight down into the viewfinder until a perfectly-reproduced upside-down image of the back yard, the fence, and the house behind swam into view. It was real.
I was laughingly given this little prize by the siblings, along with a beautifully cared-for Pentax H2 35mm manual camera with leather wrap-around case and a promise to give me the 'telephoto lens and tripod' that went with it, which were still somewhere hidden in the house. It was for the Brownie, though, that I itched all afternoon for. I couldn't wait to get it home and start disassembling and cleaning and oiling it. A search of the internet tubes turned up millions of hits--apparently a Kodak Brownie box camera was issued to every suburban family in America circa 1950 in the same manner that a copy of "Frampton Comes Alive" would later be issued to every family in North America in the 1970's. You can buy a working one in surprisingly good condition on eBay for a ten spot plus S&H. Buy some C620 film, respool it backwards, thread it into the plastic (and often missing, as mine is) take-up reel and you're ready to go out shooting, 1950's style.
You, that is, and a cadre of several hundred thousand other retro shutterbugs who also shoot with lovingly restored Kodak Brownie cameras. Go figure.
I sat down at the kitchen table with a mound of soft rags, a can of Brasso and a tube of jeweler's rouge and broke out my lens cleaning gear from my camera bag. An easy half hour of rouging the body brought back a lustrous black sheen from the Bakelite and even the badly spotted and corroded aluminum flash shield cleaned up a little bit with the Brasso. (And if you have a sure-fire way to get those black corrosion spots off aluminum PLEASE let me know?) I fondled and fiddled and played, cleaning the vinyl strap on top, working the two pleasantly clunky buttons, peering through the viewfinder, trying to imagine taking a photo with a camera that even with film and a pair of "C" cell batteries in the flash's body might only have weighed a pound.
I tried to envision my parents unwrapping their first Kodak Brownie camera, awed at its state of the art spring-release shutter, marveling at the clarity of its tiny lens and the compact size of the flash. I imagined folks at the beach, at weddings, at picnics happily pointing their little Bakelite black Kodaks at smiling family and friends, exposing negatives measured in inches, not recording shots on flash cards measured in megabytes.
I doubt I'll ever take it out, to be quite honest. The film itself is fairly expensive, as would trying to find someone to develop it. I doubt I'll carefully alter it, as the internet instructions direct, so I can fit it to a standard tripod and a remote shutter release. I don't think I'll drag it out, stare down into its little square viewfinder and peer at any subject, upside down and in living colour, with the intention of making a record of the event. I won't try to fit new batteries in the flash's plastic handle because I don't want to fire the unused flash bulb that nestles there, a glass egg packed tight with a nest of hair-fine filaments.
No, I'll finish cleaning it and set it on my shelf of Good Things, a magpie who has found some special new shiny. What I will do is, on occasion, sit and wonder at it. I'll wonder at its marvelous simplicity and its place in history. Hopefully one day soon I'll take it down and set it up with a fountain pen perhaps, or my fedora, and take some photographs of it with a camera that uses, for all I know, pixie dust and magic to make images appear on my computer instead of simple rolls of chemical-coated celluloid. I'll wonder at its stories, wonder who carried it and why.
I'll also smile over it, probably just like Grandpa S. did when he first clapped eyes on it on a flea market table or at an estate sale lot. I'll smile like he did when he payed a few dollars for so he could set it on HIS bookshelf and smile over it.