Boy in the Bubble

Island Life


I don’t know where he came from and I don’t know where he went when he went home. I do know that he had a German accent and was good with woodworking tools. Whenever my parents had a small job, like a cabinet that needed creating or a formica-topped desk and fluorescent light combo for my grade school homework wrangling station that needed assembling, they called on Mr. Richter to get the job done. He would arrive and then disappear when the project was completed. I do not recall talking with him much, if it all. There are questions that I would ask him now, if given the chance, but chances are he is long gone by this writing.

I am not remembering him so much at this point as I am remembering something he built for us. It appeared when my parents had the basement “improved” with ceiling tiles and knotty pine paneling that covered over the concrete foundation. There was a space on the wall between the door to the laundry and the door to that weird storage space that held canned goods and a little bit of whatever else wound up there. What Mr. Richter built between the doors was a bookshelf and a magazine rack that sat at the bottomjust above floor level. It was an open magazine rack where publications like Time, National Geographic and Life Magazine would recline at about a forty-five degree angle and beg to be picked up and thumbed through. Mostly they would just sit there and then disappear beneath the next deposition layer of bound paper publications.

It must have been sometime in the early sixties- somewhere around the time of the Cuban missile crisis- that the most memorable of magazine covers sat there and burned a place in my just beginning-to-fill banks of memory. The image that is coming back now is that of a man in a plastic suit with an outstretched hand. I was recalling black background and a strange, reflected red light. I was not really trusting my memory, so I just went to the dungeons of the internets and there it was- September 15, 1961- How You Can Survive Fallout. You can buy that edition of Life Magazine now for $80- the newsstand price then was twenty cents. I remember those eyes and that hand reaching out to me every time I walked by that bookshelf. I think I read the article that came with more pictures and, it seems, some kind of timetable about how long after the blast one would have to wear that suit to “safely” get around. It didn’t seem like something you could ride a bike in or walk up the street in  to play a game of backyard football. Forget swimming.

We lived in that house for another ten years. I have no idea how long that magazine remained on that shelf, but it seems like it was there forever. Somewhere around this house here, where I am now, I’m fairly certain I still have the Life Magazine issue that had the big pictorial spread on Woodstock in 1969, but I have no idea where the issue with the guy in the suit wound up. I would suspect that it was long gone before we were ever thinking about moving. I can’t say that I was haunted by the eyes or the reaching hand or even the concept of living in a plastic suit. As it turns out though, in the same year that we moved to upstate New York, a certain David Phillip Vetter was born. I once again had to go to the internets to fill in the blanks that were taunting me as I searched my brain in vain for facts and details of a vague memory of a bubble boy. As it turns out, D.P. Vetter was born with severe combined immune deficiency and became known during his short twelve years on the planet as the Boy in the Bubble. He lived his life in constructed sterile environments because pretty much anything out in the real world of dirt and bugs and stuff could kill him. Apparently, NASA built him an escape suit in which he could leave his container for brief periods, but he only used it six times. At some point it was discovered that a bone marrow transplant could possibly cure him, and he finally got a transplant from his sister who seemed to be a good match, but apparently there was a hidden disease in one of her genes and David succumbed to that in 1984.

There actually was a reason I went on that tangent, and after all that I still can remember what it was. After the Festival parade this past Saturday I wandered southward on the main highway and came upon one of those whiskey tango foxtrot moments that amazingly had nothing to do with the nonsense associated with anything related to the current White House occupant or any of those in political office whose balls he has in a vice, both literally and figuratively. I include members of both parties in this, as it seems even the “resisting” opposition is not doing all it possibly can at the moment to extract the national embarrassment from the golden clown car, or to pry his small stumpy fingers from the ship of state steering wheel that has detached itself from the steering column. No, the WTF moment I am referring to here involved my stumbling upon an inflatable wading pool on said highway which was filled with brownish water that may or may not have assisted at one time in the extraction of Bakken shale oil. Afloat on that brown sea were plastic bubbles containing one child person each, and who were in various stages of standing up or falling down while attempting to maneuver their ball vessels on the brown water in the unwade-able pool. At one time or another, the limited space in the pool allowed the bubble occupants to only spin in place, and even if Alice Larsen had been able to wrangle her Notakit Lotus through the crowds to get here, a reenactment of that crazy, mystery ball scene from the Prisoner would have had only limited possibilities in this situation and under these conditions, at best. Somewhere in all of this there may have also been a round ball on a flat earth, teachable moment which probably would have been lost on all in attendance. All the while, I was imagining a free-at-last regatta of these hamster-kid balls let loose on outer Quartermaster whilst some harried, Holden Caulfield type is circling in a small Zodiac as a catcher in the waves- of sorts. As with all such ideas, insurance and liabilities have the reality check alarm bell violating all local noise ordinances. Instead of carrying that thought further, I busted out my infrared converted camera and snapped a few photos of the curious scene- kids in plastic bubbles on a sea of brown water with no other support system than an airblower to fill each one up- not exactly a sustainable system. What could be a better picture of entropy in action?

As has been discussed here recently, one of my current projects has named itself “Life at the End of the World”, and it involves a series of these infrared photographs that turn otherwise relatively common, everyday scenes into something that might suggest that an apocalyptic occurrence has transpired, or may happen in an imminent but as yet unseen moment. The infrared filter in use here gives almost everything a burnt orange to red-brown cast, while the sky goes darkish and most foliage becomes a whitish-blue. Most of the earlier photos in this growing group do not contain any human life forms, as if we all just stopped being and left this different vision behind. It could be sort of a spin on the tree falling in the forest quandary- if we are not here to see it any more, does the earth still exist? Of course, this can all come around to the question then of why not just take pictures of nothing. This of course then gets into the concept of the ultimate art show where everyone is invited in to wander the gallery and fill a blank canvas or frame with whatever comes into their heads since everyone is an artist. This of course eventually can lead to things like some people believing that anyone can do anything, you know, like become president, which we can all agree has at least one postulated theorem that has proven massively incorrect.

Anyway, I have taken to separating some of the infrared photos into an “interesting” category, and some into the “end of the world” designation. A selection of these then get dumped onto the facebooks and the instagrams and sent out into the tubes and dungeons of the internets. It is a bit like throwing pasta against the wall and seeing what will stick, and in many ways it is nothing like that at all. In the end it makes me think of cave paintings and petroglyphs and the lengths to which their creators had to go to make them, and the effort it must have taken to even show a few people what they had done. It is mostly ironic that in the end as well, given the transitory nature of most modern media, that it is those paintings and rock carvings that may be all that is left as evidence of our being here when we are all gone from this place.