Kevin Winter – "A Young Man, Once"

They say a picture, it’s worth a thousand words.

Looking at it, you might not think much.  Just a grainy four by six.  Some people, a road, a tank.  No color save for the unfathomable variations of grey.  The people, they are dressed in old and honest clothing.  Strapped overalls and work boots, banged up hats made for shade, not for Sunday.  Frozen in a time long past.  And they are shoulder to grey shoulder in the background, watching without a word.  The road, it is shadowed with the crawling of a hundred faint cracks.  It runs from God-knows-where to eternity and it is bearing the weight of an army tank, a large white American star painted front and center.  The turret is forward-facing, its long cannon is capped and sealed.

There are men perched on the tank, uniformed army men.  Two sitting high on the top.  They look relaxed, as much as army folk can, as if they are enjoying the ride.  Another’s face is obscured by the length of the cannon but his arms are visible and crossed lazily over the front of the tank just taking it all in.

And there he is.  His head is poked up and profiled from above the star as he drives the monstrous hunk of steel and iron and alloy.  He is no bigger than a thumbnail.  Face as smooth as a baby’s, and though it is difficult to tell for sure, I believe he is grinning as he powers up that pavement by the silent onlookers.  He’s grinning in that hidden playful way like when he’s stolen your nose from your face or he fools you into testing the corn fence and you get a jolt.

He is smiling though, I think he is.

And why shouldn’t he?  A young man with his whole life laid out before him like a picnic blanket, the road ahead longer than that behind.  Why shouldn’t a grin play across those youthful lips while the living is good and the world seems pieced back together?  It seems only right, a smile does.

His cap is pulled down snug and tight and buckled beneath his chin, goggles laid upon his head and out of the way as he shifts those levers and churns those gov’nment issued treads.  His nose is sharp in profile like the edge of a lightning bolt the way he taught me to draw them when my hands were just big enough to wrap clumsily around a crayon.  It is the same nose I see in my periphery every time I look down to tie my shoes or button my shirt, the one he passed down to my mother, his daughter, for safekeeping.  Until I was ready.

You might not be able to reckon the type of the tank from the picture.  I wouldn’t.  And I am not sure he would remember either, though he might.  Names of things were never all too important to him.  But he would take his time, pull it apart and grease what needed greasing, tighten what needed another turn.  He could get you running again, whatever the name.  Then he would likely step back and wipe off his brow and blow air through his lips without a whistle at what man had made.

It’s not perfect though, the picture.  His hands are absent, missing from it.  They are down inside the thing, left and right, unseen and making sure it runs straight and true up that long forgotten roadway.  What I wouldn’t give to see those hands.  Hands that will come to fold over the turning wheel of that ageless brown Chevrolet pick-‘em-up, around that morning coffee mug, on the back of that wood-stained pew.  His young man hands, no doubt strong enough to do any work that needs doing.  No doubt kind enough to handle children and grandchildren, teach them the kindness to handle their own.  Strong enough plenty, but kind, like the man they belong to.

And, of course, it could never capture the eyes.  Blue refuses to be dealt with on black and white terms and so the pinpoint of his photographed eye remains a mere collection of darkened pixels.  Its genuine impact is left to the imagination to color.  I see it as I saw it, as everyone who knew him saw.  A newborn’s blue eyes that never changed.  The blue of Saturday skies, of the flag faded on the mast.

Not perfect, no.  But a life cannot be passed through a shutter and kept on a film.  A man, his essence, all of him, cannot exist wholly within a frame.  But reminders can, buoys floating on the endless ocean of time.  And this serves as that, as well as any, reminding me of the man he was.  Of tractor rides up and down that washboard gravel, of easy chair domino games, and sunburnt backs after potato digging.  And a million others that cannot be packaged into words.

But it also speaks of a time before all those.  A time when there was some people, a road, and a tank that needed driving.  It says that he was a young man, once.

Maybe if he saw it today you would get a chuckle.  If you were fortunate, you would get a story, like the one he loved to tell about the time he ran the tracks off a tank during a post-war parade near White Sands, New Mexico.  Maybe he would even slap his knee and say shoot like he would.  But I rather think he would just smile.  Smile and look.  Look with those deep forget-me-not blues that I never have.

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words.  I guess I agree and I guess I don’t.  Seems such a small price to pay, like the poor widow’s two copper mites, for a window into that world, colorless and simple as it may be.

Too small a price, I think.