Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Four Links and a Birthday

Step Aboard, 2012
(Mural at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, photographer unknown)

Link #1:
While in Roanoke, Virginia, this past weekend, I went to the Link Museum. O. Winston Link was a commercial photographer based in New York. He was known in the 1930s for his clever PR photography, but became best known for his superb night photographs made during the 1950s of trains—specifically, steam trains operated by the Norfolk & Western Railway. Link’s photographs involved meticulous coordination and complex arrangements of flash units, sometimes dozens of them. His photographs—made in places like Grottoes, Lithia, Luray, Vesuvius, Rural Retreat, Iaeger, Damascus, White Top, Green Cove and Husk—so frequently included both a steam locomotive in the background and some kind of domestic scene in the foreground that it would be easy to call his work formulaic. But the exhibit of images at the Link Museum demonstrates far greater range and artistic talent.
You can see some of Link’s work here and here and here.
By the way, when Link was asked why he made his photographs at night he said shooting in the daytime was too difficult “because the sun is never where you want it.”  How true.
Link #2:
The Link Museum is located in what used to be Roanoke’s passenger rail terminal. I used that station many times as a child when I rode the train back and forth from Norfolk to visit my father. Years later, after passenger service had been discontinued, my father had an office in this building.
Link #3:
The N&W Roanoke terminal was designed by the famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who is perhaps best remembered for designing the Lucky Strike cigarette package, the Studebaker Avanti, and vending machines for Coca Cola. Here’s the irony: Loewy also designed sleek locomotives for the Pennsylvania Railroad, but all the N&W had him do was design this provincial train station.   
Link #4:
One of the places my father lived in Roanoke was at the corner of Blenheim Road. Blenheim Palace, in Oxfordshire, England, is the ancestral home of the Churchill family. When my father moved back to Virginia Beach in the 1970s, he lived on Churchill Court.
A Birthday:
We celebrated my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday with a dinner in the Regency Dining Room of the Hotel Roanoke. The hotel was built and operated by the Norfolk & Western Railway until it was donated to Virginia Tech not too long ago. I can’t say much about the meal. The dining room was competing for attention in the kitchen that night against a large wedding and a convention of Barber Shop Quartets. Nonetheless, the hotel is a grand place for a birthday party. And if I might be allowed a fifth link: my father, whose work in Roanoke consisted mostly of developing and introducing new freight handling technologies, once had an office in the hotel, too, when the railroad’s management thought it best to get the innovators out of the bureaucratic hive of the corporate headquarters across the street.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Driving Lessons

Tower Shopping Center, 2012

There is absolutely no redeeming artistic value to this photograph other than that it is a photographic record of a place where something important in my life took place in 1967.
 This is the back exit out of the Tower Shopping Center in Roanoke, Virginia, and it’s where my father taught me how to handle a manual transmission car on a hill.
Since I’d been old enough to reach the steering wheel my father had been letting me drive his 1960 Ford Starliner around parts of Virginia Beach that were deserted in the winter. The Starliner, by the way, was one sexy bit of design for Ford Motor Company. It was sleek and low and cool and painted baby blue and had the closest thing Ford ever came to having fins.
When I got old enough to get my driver’s permit, Dad felt I needed to know how to drive stick shift. The Starliner, though, had automatic transmission. So whenever I’d go out to Roanoke to visit my father he’d take me out to practice driving in his wife’s 1960 Ford Falcon, which had a manual transmission. The Falcon, by the way, looked like this and was, it goes without saying, the antitheses of cool. But there’d been brief talk of me getting that car at some point. So I thought it best to play along.
I didn’t have any trouble learning to use a clutch and to shift gears. But for anyone learning to drive a manual transmission car, the most intimidating part is learning how to stop on a hill without rolling backwards down the hill.
Dad thought the best place for me to learn to handle a stick shift on a hill was the back exit at the Tower Shopping Center. I’d never left the shopping center that way and didn’t think anything of it when instead of exiting down the hill in front of the shopping center, Dad instead told me to go around and leave using the back exit—the one you can see here—the one that goes uphill.
In my memory this hill had every bit of a forty-five degree angle. But as you can see in this picture, it is not quite that steep. But it is decidedly uphill and it does have a stop sign at the top of the hill and you could pretty much count on there always being a car or two behind you.
As anyone who ever learned to drive stick shift on a hill can tell you, the trick to stopping on a hill without rolling backwards down the hill is pretty simple. I learned my lesson that day in 1967 and remembered it well enough to teach it to my daughter thirty-two years later. I was old-fashioned enough to think that a young girl still needed to know how to drive a stick shift lest she need to make a getaway from a bad date in a car with a manual transmission. I’m certain she thought I was a dinosaur in insisting that she know how to do this. But when she later learned that boys thought a girl who could drive stick shift was cool, she changed her mind. I’m sure my father was looking down from heaven, remembering the day he’d taken me to the Tower Shopping Center.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Oh, to be in England. Just not in the summer.

Punting on the Isis, 1989

It’s been over ten years now since we were last in London. I suppose things could have changed. But for those of you who’ve thought of going to the Olympic I’m still going to put the idea out that summer’s not the time to go there.
Both of the times we’ve been there were in the summer. The first trip was in 1989. We arrived in London early one muggy August morning after an overnight flight and went straight to our hotel. It was a nice place, just across the street from Buckingham Palace and around the corner from Victoria Station.
Because of its convenient location, this hotel does a bustling business with tourists. It was clean and respectable, with rates that accommodated our budget. It would have been perfectly fine, too, had the temperatures not been in the 80s and 90s, with humidity to match.
We staggered in from the Gatwick train around 8:30 a.m., wanting nothing more than to shower and nap before starting our exploration of London. This was all possible. What wasn’t possible was drying off afterward our showers and getting a peaceful nap.
Unbeknownst to us, it took paying more than $400 a night in London in those days to be in a hotel that had air conditioning. We weren’t paying that, even though we weren’t in a “budget” hotel. What’s more, we’d asked for a room away from the busy Buckingham Palace Road. So we had a spacious room that overlooked an airshaft.
We took our showers and then discovered that the British concept of hotel towels was much sparer than American hotels. That means there were two towels and neither was much bigger than an America hand towel. That’s when we discovered that the room had no air conditioning and that the hotel had no portable fans.
Even this would have been bearable had what must have been a planeload of Chinese students also not checked into the hotel. I don’t know if they had any issues with the heat. But I know they’d apparently never had access to telephones before. All through that morning and the subsequent two nights, the phones rang incessantly up and down the airshaft. You’d hear someone answer a phone, mutter a few words of Chinese and then giggle, and then hang up and do it all over again. Ring-ring. He-he. Ring-ring. He-he. All. Night. Long.
Being a resourceful guy, I thought I’d just nick down to the local hardware and buy a fan. But there were no fans to be hand. I even briefly contemplated driving to a city in northern England to stock up on fans that I could sell in London and recover the cost of our trip. But my wife kept me from becoming a fan profiteer.
Twenty-three years later, I can still hear those damned phones. Ring-ring. He-he. Ring-ring. He-he. Ring-ring. He-he.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What you know. Who you are.

Surf 5, 2006

I have spent most of my life within just a few miles of the Atlantic Ocean. It was never further than the end of the block when I was a kid. It’s only about three miles away now. Even during the thirteen years when I didn’t live in this area I never lived more than a hundred miles away from the ocean, and even then never more than a mile from some large body of water.
I once considered a job in a great city on the Mississippi River. It was an exciting job opportunity. But it took standing beside the mighty Mississip’ one humid August morning for me to realize that a river, even a big one, is not the same as an ocean. I realized that enough of my life has been defined by proximity to an ocean that I wouldn’t know what to do in a place that didn’t have one.
There’s hardly anywhere you can live around here and not be within five or ten minutes of a large body of water. These waters are why people settled here originally and are why we’re a major international shipping port and home to a lot of U.S. Navy installations.
It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of people around here place a high priority on the protection of our region’s many waterways. But it still amazes me when I come across people who live in my city who have no desire whatsoever to have anything to do with the water. It isn’t a surprise that there are people here who don’t know how to swim or have never been out on a surfboard or in a boat.  A lot of them were transferred here by the military and didn’t need to know how to swim when they grew up in Iowa or Kansas or Arizona. And if you don’t swim confidently, it’s not likely you’ll be comfortable on a surfboard or a boat.

Under the Pier, 2006

From a young age I learned to take the ocean seriously. The lone siren of a fire truck headed up Atlantic Avenue on a sunny summer afternoon meant that someone had been pulled from the water and needed to be resuscitated. The break of a wave on your back could knock the air right out of your lungs. Storms could push the ocean right into your house. Still, the worst we worried about when we went in the ocean was how in the late summer there could be crabs nipping at your toes and jellyfish. We knew there were other things in the water. But we weren’t traumatized by them.
Then came “Jaws.” People got a lot more scared about sharks. I still encounter people who haven’t gone any further into the ocean than to wet their toes since “Jaws” came out.
Unless one washed ashore, we were also much less conscious of the presence of whales. But now we have boats that go out every day taking people on whale watching tours. Whales have become just another tourist attraction.
Oceans cover much of the earth, and yet I’ve heard scientists say we know less about them than we know about the moon. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know that the water is what I know and is a big part of who I am.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Bluegrass Country Voices

Heritage Farm, 2012

I was at a party the other night where I learned that another guest, someone I’ve known casually for years comes from a prominent “old” Louisville, Kentucky, family. When she learned I’d been in Louisville recently she hastened to my side to hear my impressions of her hometown.  
I had to be tactful. I’ve been to Louisville before, and like last week’s trip that first trip was business-related and didn’t leave much time for walking, sightseeing, museum-going or parsing the social histories of “old” Louisville families. Besides, on last week’s trip I was interviewing groups of men who are, generally speaking, short on teeth and vocabulary and long on accents that can be hard to understand.
One of the pleasures of my work is that I get to travel around the country from time to time listening to people. It disappoints me when I see regional accents and dialects increasingly replaced by a standard American media English. I used to be able to identify which part of Michigan or Indiana people came from. Now they all sound like they come from Cincinnati. (Except for on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where you can stumble across someone from, say, Parksley who still speaks with what is thought to be traces of Elizabethan English, or Baltimore, where a good diner waitress will still call you “Hon.”)
When many Americans think about regional accents, they gravitate first to either “Brooklyn-ese” or some Southern twang. Coming from the coastal Mid-Atlantic region, I’m familiar with both the affected accents of upper class Central Virginians (e.g. people who pronounce “house” as “hoce”) and the gravely drawls of Eastern North Carolina (which I can’t begin to reproduce). I once knew a prominent international businessman from Eastern North Carolina who, when he traveled to Asia, required the services of a fellow Tarheel to translate his North Carolina drawl for fully bi-lingual English-speaking Asians.
Nothing prepared me, though, for some of the guys I met in Louisville. It would be easy to look down my nose and say they’re simply not well educated and have not been exposed to many articulate speakers, and in some cases that wouldn’t be far from the truth. But that would display the kind of arrogance that speaks of difference and disrespect, and what bridge building was ever successful that began with difference and disrespect?
It was my job to ask these guys a few questions, listen intently as they told me about their lives, and then come back to the office and boil hours of tape and piles of notes into some kind of articulate and actionable summary.  
Let me tell you: this isn’t easy when the people you’re listening to don’t leave spaces between spoken words, when vowels and consonants rub up against each other in all kinds of wacky combinations until what the speaker assumes was a clear articulation of a thought instead melds into just one long unintelligible mumble.