Photo Friday: Trains of Yesteryear

Before he died, my dad asked me if I wanted to have his camera when he was gone. I gave him a curt "no," partly because, at the time, I was a bit cheesed at him because he was being a bit of a putz by telling me he was diagnosed with prostate cancer but wasn't going to try to have it treated, and that he really wanted me to come to a Brown family reunion because he was going to show up and he didn't know if he would ever be gathered with his siblings and children again.

He didn't make an appearance at the previous Brown reunion, when I was there. I gave him a "no" to the upcoming reunion with the same bluntness as I had about the camera.

"Prostate cancer, at your early stage, is easily treatable," I had told him. "If you really cared to see people at future gatherings, you'd take care of yourself." I didn't go to the reunion. He died the following year, but not as a result of the cancer. His heart broke, instead.

I didn't get the camera, but I really didn't want it. He had owned it since the 50s or 60s: I think it was a Leica rangefinder camera, but I had never paid much attention to it, had maybe only held it once or twice. I had learned to shoot with an SLR, and when he asked me if I wanted it, I already had my trusty Minolta X-700, which had travelled around Canada, the United States, Europe, Mexico, and Southeast Asia.

I use cameras, I had told him: I don't collect them.

When he died, my sister and I cleaned out his apartment but we never came across the camera. Apparently, he had found someone else to take it, and he had already given it away. We found very few photos, and those we had found went into a pile to share with other relatives, or to throw out. I think my sister kept the few photos that we found of his children. Looking through those few images, I saw very little that told me about the life he lived, away from me and my sisters.

As we finished sorting the major items in his small apartment and had finally moved to his storage closet, we found a plastic bag that contained boxes of processed slides and one roll of negatives. The bag had been stashed with other odds and ends, as though they were parts of his life that he wanted to hold onto but didn't have a place in which to include with his everyday possessions.

In the dim apartment light, we didn't want to squint to see what images the slides held. I had a slide projector at home, and so I agreed to take the bag home with me, where I would look at each slide and deem whether any of them were worth keeping, perhaps even printable. I would share photos of people with the subjects, if I could identify or find them. Only one box had a date and that was 1971, when I was six, so I thought that it might be difficult to find everybody (assuming that there was anyone in the photos).

When I got the bag home, I didn't look at them right away because I would have had to dig out my slide projector (I used to shoot slide film too, but when I became a dad myself, I started using C-41—colour print—film), and I had other priorities. And so, the bag sat for weeks, was moved to the basement, and eventually, forgotten.

Cleaning out my basement over the past couple of weeks, I realized that I had accumulated a lot of junk in the ensuing 14 years. When I came across the long-forgotten bag, I took it to my bedroom and placed it with my camera gear and my digital scanner. I promised myself that I would start looking at the slides, would see what my dad thought was worth hanging onto.

My dad loved trains, would sit near crossings and stations, checking timetables and identifying engine models. As a kid, on weekends when he would visit us, he would drive us to the crossing in Bells Corners (it no longer exists: the rail line has been diverted), promising to buy us a treat at the Dairy Queen if we behaved ourselves until the train came. For a "special" trip, he would drive to the train station in Smiths Falls, where he never told us there was a Hershey Chocolate factory.

The first box of slides that I opened contained images of trains. My dad would have been standing close to the track. Many of the engines were slightly blurred, as though the camera shutter couldn't handle the speed of the locomotive or my dad shook as he pressed the shutter release. I quickly glanced at the slides and returned them to their case.

The same was found in the next box, and the box after that. In a couple, I pulled shots that were taken from a train, my dad shooting out the window as he rolled along. These images seemed somewhat artistic, and so I put them aside. I saw a slide of my old home, on Bowhill Avenue: it must have been taken shortly after we moved in—the neighbourhood seemed new.

The trains seemed to be what my dad wanted to preserve, were the only images that he held onto, even if he had no prints of them, didn't put them in any place of honour.

There are perhaps 400 to 500 images in those slide cases. This week, I may have looked at 50 of them. Three of them, I posted for Wordless Wednesday. Maybe, as I continue looking, I'll find some hidden gems. But for now, I'll take a moment to remember the man who loved trains.



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