I was revisiting that beatup old cardboard box in my basement, the one filled with black-and-white photos, some dating back to the turn of the 20th century, most WWII shots my dad brought back, and miscellaneous family photos up to the 1980s or so. Many of the them are unlabeled and so likely lost to the murk of days.
Included are a few shots of me as a young child, a couple of them professional portraits, a few small semi-candid shots. One, which on the back has my name and “age 5”, shows me on a small backyard swingset, in winter, wearing mittens and a hat with flaps. I’m sitting on that part of the set we used to call “the horse,” the one on which two kids sit opposite each other and make it move by pulling on a bar. It’s in the backyard of typical post-WWII midwestern development, small box houses, looking a lot like the photos of my dad’s Aleutian Island outpost during the war. Few trees, most of them quite small -- it all looks a lot like what is was, farmland recently converted to housing for the returning GIs and the baby boom. Snow is still drifted up against the backs of the houses, though out in the yard and around the swingset, the ground is bare. I’ve got my hands on the bar, and smiling for the camera.
I had mostly forgotten that swingset and the photo brought back a lot of vague memories. And one specific one. My father, a well-meaning man who sometimes took shortcuts, had assembled the swingset -- not an expensive one, I’m sure, given his early career status -- anyway he bolted it together, stood it up, and turned it over to me. Probably that next spring or summer (we moved the following year) I and a friend or two were swinging on it and, as we did with the bigger ones at school, we tried to see how high we could go. Pretty high, high enough to make it rock.
Then high enough cause it to tip over, depositing us out in the lawn. No injuries, but we had to wait until dad could dig some holes and set the legs in concrete. That incident is burned in my memory, not traumatic, simply a peg on which a lot of my other earlier memories hang.
Thinking on that swingset brought to mind a part of my later self, busily adulting and thinking big thoughts, shushing that inner child, trying to push everything into logical boxes. I remember, when the kids were about grown, seeing the occasional swingset or playhouse in someone’s backyard and thinking what a waste it was to put all the energy, money, and time into something that will be abandoned and forgotten in just a few years. Better to invest that time and money in things of more lasting value.
But today my five-year-old self is telling my adulting self that he (the adult self) was wrong. True, I have no idea what happened to that swing set other than we didn’t move it with us. No doubt it got handed around somewhere until rust got the better of it and it went to the town “dump,” where it faded away.
But it didn’t fade in my memory, where it stands indelibly. It wouldn’t be there if my dad had taken the cold attitude of measuring value by external factors only. For me, in that photo and in the surrounding days, time stood still; it doesn’t matter to my inner child how far the world has moved in space and years since then, because its value lay in my experience. I’ll have have that swingset all my conscious life, and I’ll always be grateful that my dad found time to set it up.
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