When I was six I had a fascination with Formula 1 racing. All I could think about was getting a go cart to start building my career. I dreamed of the kind with an engine that hummed, bright shiny wheels and a sleek red paint job. Mine would have the number six painted on the side of it, for my age of course. I talked about it for months begging my mother to get me one. Knowing we could never afford something like that, she sent me to talk with my grandfather about it. “He used to race cars you know. He’ll help you put something nice together. He knows all about that kind of thing”
My grandfather was so ecstatic about the idea of building me a Formula 1 go cart that his excitement overshadowed my obvious disappointment in the concept while we drove around for an entire weekend rummaging through scrap metal bins and junkyards looking for parts. We must have hit every yard and garage sale in the city that weekend, too. By the end I had something that looked more like a lobster crate nailed to a skateboard rather than a slick Italian sports car. We didn’t have any paint so he borrowed the number six from the mailbox out front and nailed it to the side of the cart. I was so embarrassed. I didn’t even want to sit in it, but he insisted on spending all afternoon rolling me down the street, teaching me how to “lean into the corners” and use my “whole body to balance.” He was an incredibly patient man and kept up his enthusiasm even though I didn’t.
“The lighting is just for the details but the angle, that’s where it’s at. If you don’t get it from the right angle, you could miss the opportunity for a great picture.” He carried an old shoebox from the closet and sat back down in his chair. He tipped off the cover and a small plume of dust sparkled in a beam of sunlight that came through the window. The musty smell of the cardboard filled my nose as he handed me the box. Inside were stacks of photographs clearly much older than me. Great, here we go I thought sarcastically; Grandpa’s going to give me his expert advice on photography.
I shuffled through the first stack as if I were checking out the hand I was just dealt in a game of poker: a picture of a key, a picture of a broken rowboat, another of a pair of dirty gloves. They looked like some failed attempt at art deco. I was reminded of fifth grade art class when we had to draw a bowl of fruit on a table and it ended up looking like red and orange balls with curved yellow lines. Some of the real artsy kids included green dots for the grapes.
“Oh, you see that one?” He interrupted me as I shuffled carelessly. “That’s a good one right there.” He pointed to the faded black and white photo of a pair of filthy, old gloves with holes worn through them. Right, great picture I thought. I was hoping to see a soldier throwing a grenade, a dragon parade in China, or a woman posing in a bikini on the beaches of France. “Those gloves belonged to your great grandfather. He wore those everyday when he went off to work on the railroad. He swung a hammer sometimes sixteen hour a day you know? Sometimes his hands would swell so bad he couldn’t get the gloves off and would have to leave them on all night. But you bet the next day he’d still be heading off to work, doing whatever it took to care for the family” The story more than intrigued me and humbled my assumptions of the photo. I had just learned more about my great grandfather in the last thirty seconds than I had in my whole life.
“There’s another one I love.” His shaking finger pointed to another picture in the stack: a single silver key on a key chain. “That’s a beauty.” He said. That key started the engine to a 1932 Chevy Street Rod. She was the fastest car in town at that time. We used to have races on Maple Road every Saturday night. There wasn’t a soul in town that could ever beat me. Boy, the times I had in that car.”
I began to feel a lot less critical of his photography skills as we sat for over an hour flipping through a shoebox full of aging photographs while he told me a story for each one. There was the boat with a hole in it from when he and his friend Jack tried to reel in the biggest fish in the Black Lace River. Grandpa fell backwards and broke a hole right through the bottom of it with his butt. They lost the fish and had to keep bailing the boat out all the way to shore, laughing about it the whole way.
There was one of a tire swing hanging from a giant oak tree. “That’s where your grandmother was sitting when I asked her to marry me. When she said yes, there wasn’t a man in the world happier than me that day.” There was one of a tin cup with a string, a flat tire, and another of a doorknob. “That’s how I knew I was finally home,” he said with an incredibly grateful look in his eye. “Once I turned the knob and opened that door, I knew the war was over and I was home.”
When the box was just about emptied he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes as if he were long overdue for an afternoon nap. His face was glowing with the heart of every story he had just relived. I gently gathered up the pictures, careful not to damage there frail edges, and noticed one that I had overlooked: an old, worn photo of a makeshift Formula 1 race car complete with a mailbox number six nailed to the side. My heart sank remembering my disinterest that weekend and how my grandfather’s smile never left his face while he taught me the ins and outs of racecar driving.
“It’s all about the angle,” he said as he shuffled his body, sunk deeper in his chair and began to dose off. ” If you don’t get it from the right angle, you ain’t gonna get the right picture.”