I See Dead People

Island Life


You may be thinking that the title here is a bit old and dated and derivative, and you may be right. The thing is, I had been thinking about this general idea for the next verbal wandering for this column before the editor dropped his usual query about whether I had anything for this latest edition. I was wavering, even though I really didn’t have any other avenues for expression and thought provocation. And then it happened. I opened up my connection to the facebooks and started to scroll down when one of those selector bars with individual boxes containing photos and names appeared that suggests suggestions for “friends” connections, and there, as a first offering, was Rex Morris, who as some may know passed away a while back.

I thought this was odd, but not totally. It wasn’t too long ago that I got a reminder that I should wish someone a Happy Birthday, which again I thought was odd since I also knew that that person had passed away a number of years before as well. As a rule, I do not respond to these solicitations of birthday greetings for anyone, especially dead people. I don’t have a good reason- I just don’t. Along those lines, I have removed my birthday from sight in my information there as well because I don’t want anyone having to feel obligated to congratulate me for surviving yet another year in this madhouse. I would just rather do as I do there in terms of daily online existence- grab a handful of rose petals and cast them upon the waters of the internets and see where they go and what response they might garner. I look back in now and again to see if there are responses and try to answer what comes at me, but for the most part I try not to spend much time there. I would much rather spend time making things, mostly photographs, that might contribute to the flow out there instead of spending a lot of time taking in the sights of cyberspace, which at times gets testy and disturbing and unreconcilable, and seems like a pointless waste of time to me.

I do find information of interest there, such as the recent CDC directive that appears to make bandanas an unacceptable means of preventive the in- or outflow of virus bearing droplets. I know that they have been listed fairly low on the list of transmission spreading effectiveness, but mine have worked for me so far. But since they seem to now fall amongst the lowest of the low, it seemed like it was time to use the internets to purchase a protective covering that would allow me to pass amongst the general public as something more than a health directive pariah. And so it was that I did a number of searches and read a number of sometimes less than informative product descriptions and wound up ordering a couple types of masks to see how they would perform. And so it was also that soon after my queries had been sent out into the dungeons of the interwebs, the algorithms kicked in and in many of those ad blocks that populate the edges of my web spaces there appeared multiple offerings for all sorts of facial coverings, most of which I have chosen to ignore until I see how the ones I’ve ordered happen to perform.

As it also is, I have recently ramped up my participation and attention to duties that I signed on for with regard to the upcoming “celebration” of my fiftieth high school reunion. I have been having the zoom meeting thing with a classmate and a person from the school over the past couple of months. Along with other things, we recently were given the list of fellow classmates who have passed away, and in looking it over I noticed that there was someone’s name that was missing. In truth, the passing of that person had been in question. There had been no formal notice from the school, and in searching around a bit I had found no evidence of an obituary in his hometown paper. It has only been in the last couple years that I have been in contact with anything other than a handful of my classmates. I will admit that it has been through my intermittent residence on that social network thing that I have slowly been reconnecting with a number of classmates. I think may have to go beyond both my hands to my toes so that I might be able to indicate my current school friend count. I had been occasionally conversing with the missing classmate in question, and then, radio silence. There was speculation amongst the class as to where he had gone. There had been the whole political going off the rails thing that had caused some of us to step away from some of his rants. It was then his daughter that had referenced him in the past tense, but when questioned, details were still sketchy.

And then the recent in memoriam list arrived without Dave on there, and so I decided to head back to the facebooks to see what I could find. His son had since put out a general notice that he could “fill in the details” if one messaged him, so I did. In my role as yearbook photo editor way back when, one of my tasks was to shoot informal senior portraits to go on the same page as one’s formal, studio portrait. It was one of those snipe hunt type assignments where you had to go find the person and then either shoot something right when you found them, or schedule a time and a place to get it done with whatever props and gear they had in mind. I knew I had at least one photo of Dave, because i knew I had takenhis informal, so I told his son in that introductory email that he could have scans of anything I might find with Dave in it. I heard back from him the next morning.

Zach, his son, was willing to submit something in the way of looking back on Dave’s life, but was uncertain as to what we wanted. I wasn’t really totally sure what we did want, but I wanted to assure him that I was going to get him some photos as a part of the deal, and so I began going through what I have. As it is, I had already begun to shuffle through this “filing system”, but this is basically the first time I have seen many of these negatives in nearly fifty years. And what the system consists of is a couple shoe boxes filled with folded paper towels from the school darkroom with strips of five or six photos each, six or so strips stacked inside each paper towel- not exactly archival preservation methods. A few of the paper towels had something written on them in black marker, but for the most part there was no indication what was in each towel. I had started to go through some of these negatives early last spring, but when George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement ramped up, it seemed like the fifty year old goings on of a bunch of mostly white, mostly rich kids at a toney New England prep school were kind of irrelevant to the pages of the facebooks where I had been posting them, or anywhere else for that matter, so I stopped. It wasn’t until six or so months after that that I became involved with the reunion yearbook thing, so while I had planned to eventually go through all the negatives and catalog and archivally clean and file everything, I had of course put a lot of that off until the deadline has now drawn perilously, but not threateningly close. I have been ordering archival negative sheets, a special film cleaner, archival storage boxes, a couple of external storage drives for digital safekeeping and some cotton gloves, the last of which arrived today.

Having gone through a number of envelopes late into that evening, I did find one shot with Dave in one corner of a single frame of a bunch of students engaged in some sort of meeting whose purpose seems to be totally lost to time. There were a variety of expressions on those who were visible, as well as a number of free floating balloons, which made no sense at all.  I have posted it to the FB to see if any classmates might remember, but nothing has surfaced in the way of any recognized activity. I picked up one more envelope at 2am with the intention of stopping after I looked at this batch, and then, there they were- Dave’s informal shots. I swabbed them with some cleaner, blew them with the canned air and ran them through the scanner. There was still some random dust spots that I removed in Photoshop, did a little contrast and sharpness adjustment and then sent them on to Zach with a note in an email. When I checked the next morning he had responded and was stoked to get them. He and his sister were going to work on an obit. With that,  I would have said that my job, that part of it anyway, was done, but I noticed that parts of the negatives needed more cleaning, so I got out the cotton swabs and special sauce and had at the emulsion once more. The first swipe across yielded more black residue. How dirt gets inside a tightly folded paper towel inside a stack of towels inside a closed shoebox, I will never know. It does appear though that my work is more cut out for me than I was expecting.

As it is, I am finding that I still have some of the images I am finding in my head. There are other images, like the one mentioned above, that draw complete blanks. There are the dead people that come to life and emerge from the black and white negative as if it were just yesterday. I have found two separate image groups of Emmet, who was the first in our class to pass on, and by his own hand. It was at our fifth reunion, after he was gone, that his dad sought out our class, and in a somewhat drunken ramble went on about how he was sorry that Emmet had “let us down”. It was awkward, to say the least. I found an image of Chuck stretching his leg way out to capture a soccer ball on his way down the field. After graduation and college, he had gone to a Pan American Games somewhere in South America, I do not recall where, and had bought some food at a vendor and had gone into anaphylactic shock from the peanut oil no one had said was in there, and died. But there he was again, making the play on the ball in his sweatpants and sleeveless jersey. There was another Dave, smiling and hanging from a tree in his climbing gear. They are ghosts, but they are there, and probably will be till the end.