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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   January 2009

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Auld Lang Syne

Old photos start the new year on a nostalgic note.

When our daughter was visiting for the holidays, she dug out several boxes of old family photos and papers. We'd toted these back to New Mexico when my mom died — shortly after we moved here — and never given them more than a cursory look. I'd seen a bunch of photos of us and our daughter that we'd sent my mom over the years, duplicates of snapshots we already had, and assumed the whole box was more of the same.

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The author's father (right) in the "office" of the Sun Setter military newspaper in the Philippines, 1945.

Digging down in search of photos to scan for herself — everything's digital for our daughter's generation, everything goes into the "cloud" of the Internet — our daughter uncovered piles of less-familiar pictures. Some were simply stacked or gathered in oversized envelopes or plastic shoeboxes, while others were still neatly filed with their negatives. A series of bright orange-yellow albums, each holding a dozen or so black-and-white prints and stamped with the name of a camera shop in my hometown, chronicled my earliest childhood. Most of these were labeled in my mom's distinctive big-and-small-caps printed handwriting, in blue ballpoint ink, on the front of the little album.

All the older photos were in black and white, but it was shocking to see how the handful of more recent, color snapshots had deteriorated. Black-and-white images nearly a hundred years old looked as though they could have been printed yesterday, while color photos from our 30 years of married life were already fading. It made me want to start frantically scanning and copying all our own snapshots, before all we have left are memories and glossy rectangles of indistinguishable blurs.

I recognized many of the photos, and already had copies of a selection of those of my mom's family — her parents and siblings, grandparents and favorite aunt. But many others were new even to me, the unofficial family historian and genealogy buff.

We stumbled on a small collection of photos of my dad in his Army uniform during World War II, posing with one of his brothers, who's sporting a Navy uniform. Mugging for the camera and cavorting on a street corner, the pair look like a scene from the old Sinatra movie, On the Town, with the "town" probably being Moline, Ill., rather than Manhattan, or suggest Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh, minus the animated accompaniment of Jerry (as in Tom and Jerry). Knowing from a previous stash of old letters how miserable my dad had been in the military, it was a special treat to see him smiling in uniform. Of course, in these pictures he's home and reunited with family, not alone at some isolated Army base.

We also found the only photo I've ever seen of my dad "in action" overseas. Although he'd talked of being in the Philippines and working on some sort of armed-services newspaper there (guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, huh?), Dad was stingy with details. After his death, my efforts to learn more about his military career hit a brick wall because of a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which destroyed more than 16 million service records, especially those from World War II. Piecing together a timeline of Dad's postings from his letters to my mom, I'd begun to wonder if he'd really even been in the Philippines.

But here he was, in the "office" of the Sun Setter, an armed-forces newspaper published in the Philippines that, according to the caption, my dad edited. The photo looks like a scene out of "M*A*S*H," the grind of military life familiar even though that show depicted the next war: Dad sits tilted back in a chair, wearing an undershirt and poking the air with his omnipresent cigarette, which dangles over a typewriter. A clutter of papers and what looks like a dictionary litter a primitive wooden table between my dad and his fellow Sun Setter staff member, who squats shirtless, eyes closed in weariness, on a camp stool.

Close inspection and some high-dpi scanning revealed a small grouping of photos along a drooping wooden shelf in the picture. The photo turned toward the camera must be the other guy's "gal," but we think that one of the other, angled pictures shows my mom. Tacked to the shelf is a small "pinup" calendar — too tiny to read the month, but it's a long word and the month starts on a Thursday. An instant's detective work on the Internet by our daughter determined that this must be November 1945. Although after the Japanese surrender, November 1945 would have been before my dad's service ended in January 1946; that also made sense with the gaps in my timeline, although it had never occurred to me that Dad might be overseas months after the war was over.

The box of photos and papers next revealed a copy of my dad's "Enlisted Record and Report of Separation" — the very paperwork the government lost in that fire. Sure enough, he was overseas from July 26, 1945, to Jan. 20, 1946, and earned, among other decorations I'm sure he had zero interest in, the Philippines Liberation Ribbon.

Dad's right thumbprint adorns the lower left-hand corner of the discharge document. Below it is his oh-so-familiar signature.

For a moment, sitting there in our living room with papers and photos sorted all around me, I could almost feel my dad's presence, smell the acrid smoke of his cigarette and hear him clearing his throat.

We spent all day and well into the next wallowing in the past, the present-day football game on the TV forgotten. Other than photos of my black-and-white childhood, most of the pictures showed my mom's family — many of them capturing her as a child. At least until I came along, my mom must have been one of the most-photographed youngsters in history.

One priceless photo, captioned "Three Generations," shows my grandmother holding my mom as a baby, with my great-grandmother standing behind them. Another, later photo shows my mom with all three of her siblings — my uncle, her brother, looking very much like a little girl, as was the fashion then for infants. Good thing that photo, with my uncle sporting girlish curls, never surfaced when he was campaigning for Congress.

But I'd seen many of these oldest family pictures when I'd gathered genealogical fodder from my mom, when she was still alive. As for the others, well, cute as I indisputably was as a little boy (what the heck happened?), a fella can only take so much backward-looking narcissism.

So what really struck me, besides the military photo finds, was a handful of pictures that likewise fell between my mom's girlhood and my boyhood — showing my parents together before I was born. One charming sequence, pasted onto paper pages and assembled almost like a "flip book," was labeled "The Fryxell Affair." The first photo shows my parents casually sitting and reading (more daughterly detective work dated the Esquire my dad is perusing as February 1943, published only two months after my parents' marriage). Flipping through the pages brings them closer, one photo at a time, to the smooch in the final scene.

Imagine, one's parents actually young and in love!

Even then, though, apparently I was already a twinkle in their eyes. I came along late in their lives, long after that 1943 smooch. But our daughter also found a letter — one of that earlier cache, which we'd subsequently tucked away in the boxes of my mom's stuff — from my dad to my mom, which startled me. Written from one of those military bases where my dad spent so many miserable days during World War II, the letter speaks longingly of the future they will spend together. My dad envisions that future as including an unnamed daughter (who never materialized, as I was an only child) and a son, "our David."

More than a dozen years before the irrepressibly adorable little David Fryxell would come along in person, my parents had already picked out my name!

As the calendar page turns again to 2009, how lucky to be able to spend a few moments back in 1943. And how lucky for me that "The Fryxell Affair" happened as it did.


Not nearly as cute as he used to be, David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.


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