Wandering the Salvation Army depot downtown
not long ago, I was about to leave, having found nothing I needed amongst the
used clothing racks, when I saw something that stopped me cold.
Behind the cashier, sharing a shelf with a marionette clown and a novelty baseball, was a framed picture – a photograph – of a tall church on a lonely hill. It was a rather stark photo, shot in reddish grey and white. The church was not a grand stone Cathedral of European antiquity, but a humble wooden steeple in state of ever so slight decay, standing beacon like in the middle of what looks to be farmland. I suspect it was taken somewhere in rural
or maybe the American mid-west. At the foot of the hill was a dirt road, with a
dust cloud off in the distance, as if a speeding coach were zooming away.
I stood transfixed. It wasn’t just that this kind of rural gothic was exactly suited to my taste, but that this particular picture played a large role in forming my taste. This very picture had been hanging on my parents’ wall in the basement, and had been destroyed in the flood of ’14. I spent most of my formative years staring at this picture, and thought it had been gone forever.
Funny how the mind of a kid works: when I was little, I thought the focal point of the picture was not the church, but the dust cloud. And I thought it was coming towards us, rather than going away. Something was coming. Something noisy and harsh to disrupt the staid tranquility of the scene. It was actually quite ominous – a picture of almost tomblike stillness, under permanent threat of ever imminent invasion.
The rest of the artwork in the basement lacked this impending chaos, but all shared its vaguely gothic quality. Right beside it there was another picture (photo or painting, I couldn’t tell) of an old derelict house in a field of snow. The house looked comparatively modern, but like the church, a completely dead monument to the past, and in this case, literally frozen in time.
Somewhat incongruously, there was also hanging, a train yard, with a freight train pulling away. Again, I used to think the train was arriving, and thought it only slightly odd that it seemed to pulling in backwards. As a kid you trust such things: even if they appear unusual, there must be a good reason for them to happen if they’re happening. Looking at the back of the train meant no engines and no engineers, no evidence of human presence or agency. The train station appeared just as deserted as the church or the house.
The theme of desertion abandons us (ha!) in next room which was my father’s study. Dad had a big picture of
or some such guy. A very grave, regal figure with a dark beard (the painting,
not Dad), this man would have fit perfectly in any of the other pictures (even
the train station). He too was a figure from the past, ancient, unchanging,
unmoving. As it was, he was very at home in a study, hanging on imitation wood
panelling between vast shelves of dusty books. He bespoke knowledge (if not
wisdom), and disciplined scholarship. Ponce-de Leon
Dad’s study was not off-limits to us – indeed, it was open access all around. But it was clearly grown-up territory. This was a place where work was done, all books and machinery. Dad was (is) a gadget hound, particularly in the realm of audio-hi-fi. On the north wall, in between two ground view windows that stared down at you like eyes, was his setup: a massive floor-to-ceiling stack of machinery, every bit as grandly imposing as Deep Thought from the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At its base was the Marantz deck, a dreadnaught of an amplifier, to which was connected the Teac Equalizer and Reel-to-Reel machine, Nacamichi tape deck and Cd-player, Technics turntable, and Celestion Ditton 44 speakers (which were taller than I was). When given the right command, this monster could move mountains.
(Am I supposed to be impressed by your piddly little ipod?)
Like the church on the hill, this stack stood unchanged, apparently carved out of the earth itself, from before I was born to the very Day of the Flood. My brother and I tried to save it – the Marantz at least – but just as you can’t uproot a tree in a hurry, there were too many cables anchoring it to the ground. Too many things to unscrew and unplug, while water was rushing in. Sometimes you just gotta concede.
Anyway, this is the place where I lived. To a kid, everything looks big and foreboding, and unimaginably archaic. To me it looked looming and shadowy as well, and just a bit surreal (to say nothing about stuff like this playing on the big cathode ray tube-television:). But to me it was home; it was warm and safe, and it was where I wanted to be. Perhaps it was there I developed a lifelong taste for solitary looming, shadowy things, and became an incurable antiquarian. Why I feel so at home in churchyards and on country roads, and attracted so much to old, lonely buildings, though only from the outside – never from within.
To my horror, the photo on the wall was not for sale; it was for auction. I put in a ridiculously high bid, but did not win it, even though I still had the highest bid when I checked on the closing day. Some smart alec probably snuck in at the very last moment with an extra dollar or two. I really wish I’d thought to examine the picture first, to find out who took it or published it, which might have given me a clue as to where it came from. I’ve tried Googling “Church on a Hill”, and it hasn’t helped so far. In any case, it was clearly not a one-off work. Maybe not mass-produced, but copies exist in the world. In my mind, that makes it more valuable, not less.