Friday, September 30, 2016

Lost, Then Found

by G. Jack Urso


Fig. 1: Kodak Brownie 8 mm Movie Camera II (author's collection).

The venerable Kodak Brownie 8 mm Movie Camera II, produced in the 1950s and 1960s, cataloged American life. The jumpy, faded, color-saturated footage produced by the camera has become the quintessential iconic imagery of the post-World War II era.

The current home I live in belonged to my Uncle Frank Comparetta who bought the home in 1952 and lived in it with my Aunt Anna until 2000 when he died – followed by my aunt a few years later. I moved into the house in 2002 and bought it in 2005, so the home has been in our family for nearly 65 years. As with many homes of my uncle’s and aunt's generation, it was well-kept, but hopelessly out of date. The furniture, curtains, carpet, and kitchen all dated to the 1960s and 1970s. The bathroom was painted a glorious mushroom green, as it had been for the past 40 years, and accented by 1950s-era bathroom décor – such as the pink metal wastebasket decorated with a rhinestone-studded poodle.
Fig 2: The list as I found it.
Whenever someone moves out of a home after five decades a few things are left behind, and in Uncle Frank's case that included an 8 mm movie reel (fig. 5). There was a folded, yellow piece of paper inside with a short list of segments on the reel (fig.2): “At Lake Placid,” “Fran & Joe’s home,” “Easter 1957.” By holding the film up to the light, I could make out the first few frames as taking place in the swanky, fully kitted-out 1950s family room at my grandparent’s house (“Fran & Joe’s home”). Searching the Internet, I found a local business that converted film to video. I wrote the name and number on a slip of paper and told myself I’d get around to it someday. I put the reel away and let it sit in a drawer for 14 years.

It takes me a while to get around to doing things. I’m not a procrastinator – I prefer to think of myself as extremely patient. During those 14 years, I worked a variety of job in education, freelance writing, and public relations. My mother moved in, and as her health deteriorated I took care of her much as she had taken care of my Aunt Anna in her final years, until she died at home in my arms in 2014.

Earlier this year, I finally got around to opening up that old can of film once again and pulled off that old yellow slip of paper taped to the inside. As I unfolded it, the full contents of the reel were revealed (fig. 3):

·         Grandpa’s 87th Birthday Party 4/18/58

·         Joey & Maria Wedding
Fig 3: The full list.

·         Colonie Radio Dedication 6/30/58

·         Guy’s Confirmation

·         Grandpa & Joey Trip to Italy

·         Vacation at Lake Lauderdale, NY

·         At home

·         At Lake Placid

·         Fran & Joe’s home (Woodlawn Ave)

·         Carol, John, & Debbie Stevens. Easter 1957

The big reveal for me was “Joey & Maria Wedding.” That was my parent’s wedding in August 1958. They divorced in the late 1970s to much acrimony and as is often the case with divorces old wedding memorabilia typically goes out in the trash. Nevertheless, here they were – young and in love; my mother, a beautiful 22 year old bride looking forward to a future that sadly never came to be.

Fig. 4: Here's
looking at you!
On one hand, I’m glad I never transferred the film to video and showed it to my mother while she was alive, but on the other hand I don’t think it would have saddened her that much. Towards the end, my brother, sister, and I would often take our mother to visit her childhood hometown of Whitehall, NY. We would visit the home her father built with his own hands. We would visit her mother’s grave, where we eventually buried her. We visited her old school where she was tormented by bullies who didn’t like semi-literate immigrants, and we visited the small restaurant where she had her wedding reception. A few old pictures of that occasion survived and to my mother’s delight the reception room was virtually unchanged in over 50 years since her wedding. One could see in her eyes her being transported back in time from a broken-down old woman of 78 with only months left to live to a young woman of 22 with her whole life ahead of her – full of promises and hope.

The Internet is replete with videos like this one. Kodak 8 mm film cameras were a ubiquitous part of the post-war Baby Boom generation and millions of feet of impatient children, proud parents, wise-ass uncles, doting aunts, and distant cousins were recorded. Often, a soundtrack will inevitably accompany these films with era-appropriate music, attempting to mimic the nostalgic opening of The Wonder Years, yet that is not how these films were originally watched.
Fig. 5: The original 8 mm reel I found.
Thrown up against a sheet spread on a wall, someone announcing the segments while hushed voices point out relatives and friends, the images flickered like lost memories recovered after a long absence – found gathering dust. They are preserved here, in silence. At times, one image fades into another in a double exposure much as our memories blend one into another. The actors are long dead and the meaning of the scenes are lost to time, like an ancient mosaic missing crucial segments so all we have are fragments of lives.  

I present the video below for your consideration – without commentary or enhanced content – just a few frames of an America lost, then found: