The Junk Whisperer, Part II

The word, “camera” is a squishy little noun. It can mean so many totally different objects these days. To my children, the word, “phone” is synonymous with camera. To them, it’s something that lives in your pocket at all times and is capable of taking movies as well as stills and then send them effortlessly to the other side of the planet as fast as your wireless carrier can charge you. When I was their age, the manifestation of the word “camera” might have meant the Polaroid. It was capable of taking hideous, blurry, square snapshots that faded dully with the passing years, BUT let you actually see what you had snapped a photo of with only a few minutes of mindlessly waving the picture in the air in the strange and vague hopes that this would somehow produce a better image. They were great!

What I had picked up was different.

Hanging in my living room is a picture of my Great-grandfather and my Grandpa. It was taken in about 1917 and in it, my Grandfather, whom I only knew as an old man, is perhaps three or four. My Great-grandfather, whom I never knew, looks to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He would not live to become an old man like his son.

There are several reasons beyond the obvious why I love this photo. One is that my Great-grandfather is an unbelievable match for my own Dad when he was that old. If you had shown me that picture as a child, I would have wanted to know why Daddy was wearing those funny clothes. Another reason is that my Grandfather and my own son don’t look alike. They look identical.

Seriously.

There is no question in my mind what my little boy will grow up to look like. The match is pretty much perfect.

All this is enough to crank up the voltage on the sentimentality-o-meter but the last reason for my attachment is the photographer. It’s my Great-grandmother. Saying that they didn’t have much money is a huge understatement, but one of the very few indulgences they enjoyed was a Brownie camera, and from what I understand, she enjoyed it mightily.

For those of you who’ve never seen a Brownie before, it is quite the interesting little box. Made for much of the twentieth century in one incarnation or another, it brought photography to the masses. They only cost three or four dollars and took, if not wonderful, then reasonable pictures. For the first time, almost anyone could chronicle their lives on film. It was a huge change and really started in earnest photographic record keeping for average families.

Now Great-great uncle Horace wasn’t just a name in a list, but a face you could spot familial connection with. I know that’s what it does for me, any way. The moment I bought my very own Brownie on that internet auction site, it somehow made me feel that much closer to the people in that family portrait as well as my Great-grandmother. I liked that. My problem, I knew, was that there was no way I was going to be contented with simply leaving it on the book shelf to gather dust.

Don’t get me wrong. It’ll do that too! But I was going to need to take this little bit of history out and see what I could get with it as well. It needed it to work.

A handful of days later, it arrived. The auction photos had been less than clear and the item description was seriously… sparse, so it was with some trepidation that I opened the package. It’s probably the main reason I has no competition in buying it. TO my elight, other than some surface rust on the front, some smudgy optics and a sticky shutter, it looked surprisingly sound. Like a giddy eight year old with his father’s pocket watch, I quickly took it down to parts, cleaned everything that looked cleanable and added a little bit of thin lubricant to the moving bits. After reassembly and a few dozen cycles of the shutter release to break it back in after who knows how many decades of neglect, everything was moving happily and snappily! Now all I needed was film.

Ah… film.

It’s a little startling to realize that the word, “film” is very quickly becoming a forgotten word that will eventually slide into anachronism. Buying film? Whoa! Do people still do that?

A few do, as it turns out.

Film for a camera built in nineteen-thirty-something though, is harder.

Back in the celluloid days, film came in a zillion different sizes and formats and the choices were aplenty. The Brownie’s particular type is called 620 and it was sold everywhere and even cheap, compared to the more modern 35mm which most of my contemporaries are familiar with. 620 is a large format film with each negative bigger than some prints that I own and a fresh roll providing a paltry eight exposures. It has also not been commercially produced since the 1980’s.

I never let stuff like thirty-five years of obsolescence deter me. That just makes it more satisfying when you get it all running.

Many professional photographers still shoot actual film in their cameras and for really posh portraits, they use a format called 120. Luckily it’s almost exactly the same size as 620.

ALMOST.

The film its self is the same, but the spool that the film is wound on is just ever so much bigger. Just bigger enough, in fact, to not allow it to work in a Brownie. Don’t think for a moment that this didn’t happen by design.

Ugh.

Solution number one is to strip off the film and hand wind it onto an old 620 spindle. It sounds simple except that it needs to all be done in perfect darkness, there’s a finicky little tab at the end of the film that you need to get in just the right placement and… you need some old 620 size spindles. Solution number two is to ever so carefully use a belt sander to grind down the oversized spindle without ripping the film still curled around it.

Given a choice, I will always go for the belt sander. Always.

Who wouldn’t?

So, a little time in the basement and a scun knuckle or two and, poof! Film for an eighty year old camera!

How would it work? Would it work at all? Does it leak light? I had no idea. Even if the pictures didn’t come out, snapping them would be part of the fun.

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Frog Racing

Needing to know how mechanical things work has always haunted me. I was never the kid who took the perfectly good pocket watch apart or removed the family car’s carburetor, but that was solely for fear of screwing things up and getting in trouble. If something had the audacity to actually break on me though, well then, that was a different story! I positively reveled in the excuse to bring what ever it was down to the basement and get the screwdrivers out and start the post mortem. Sometimes, I’d just get a view of perplexing circuit boards and I’d put things back as I found them. More often than not however, I’d get what ever it was, running again. Perhaps it didn’t work JUST the same way that it had before, but hey, it DID work now, right?

My proclivity for voiding warranties followed me as I grew and my patients got more and more complex. Building plastic models and fixing dysfunctional toys was fun and all, but I was looking for a challenge. If this challenge could ultimately provide me with something that I could then play with, well… so much the better! I knew what I needed. I wanted a radio controlled car.

I had owned a handful of cheap radio controlled gizmos, usually created in the image of pop culture icons of the time. There was the Cylon Raider spaceship, the miniature R2-D2 and a few others of less notable stature. These little toys could go forward and reverse and turned only as they backed up. Though appreciated, they were far from what I was looking for as I grew. When I was eight, navigating them across the kitchen floor was a hoot. As a thirteen year old, they just wouldn’t do. A real radio controlled car was a work of art. It was something to be proud of. It made your friends jealous. It also cost a bundle to get into. I would have to save long and hard for this one.

The first thing that set these toys apart, other than the sticker price, was that you had to build them. They didn’t arrive assembled and ready to go. Far from it. For your one hundred and fifty or so dollars, what you got was a box filled with hundreds and hundreds of parts, bits, pieces, nuts and bolts. It wasn’t, “some assembly required”, but rather, “all assembly required.” That was the point.

While I was aching for one of these cars, Mom and Dad were more than a little dubious. My track record for, “projects started vs. projects finished” wasn’t the most stellar. I have a tendency to get distra… HEY! Look! A penny!

The clincher for me was when my friends Charlie and Mike both got cars of their own. My burning desire for one of these had become incandescent. The hobby shop in town was owned by a good hearted fellow and I routinely came in to drool on the car kits and discuss the merits of each model with him and his infinite patience. It was he who introduced me to the concept of layaway. I bit at the chance and gave him my down payment. With saved birthday money and hoarded allowance cash, I picked up my very own car kit shortly after. It was called, “The Frog.”

frog-box

The picture on the box showed a tough looking dune buggy bounding into the air as it rocketed off a rise in the land with a slogan painted on the spoiler reading, “No Guts, No Glory!” The ride home from the hobby shop just about killed me with the anticipation of getting at it. When we arrived, I cleared a large spot on the floor in an out of the way room, dragged my record player and speakers down from my room and put on Van Halen’s “1984” It was time to build!

The directions, though lengthy, were no harder to follow than the average plastic airplane model and I dove in with gusto. I remember being surrounded by little piles of nuts and bolts, all arranged in order by size and type as I made a zillion trips to my Father’s bench for tools, the kitchen to forage for munchies and to my record player take off the current record and put on some ZZ Top or, more aptly, The Cars. I was in heaven.

It took me a day and a half to finish it but in the end, it was a thing of beauty. Ugly, ugly, beauty. Naturally, all the parts you needed were not included in the kit and had to be purchased separately, but I had seen to that. For my birthday, I had asked for and received a radio transmitter to control my new car and I had scraped up enough cash from piggy banks and squirreled away stashes to purchase my battery charger. The rechargeable battery itself, I had to beg Dad for. It was twenty bucks, More accurately, it was twenty bucks I didn’t’ have. I can still see his face, mulling over whether to get it for me or not. In hindsight, I doubt seriously that he would have said, “no”, but his pause and measured suck of air through closed teeth made me appreciate it all the more when he said, “Okay”. I was in business!

As it turned out, driving “The Frog” wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be. It was WAY, WAY more fun! There is something compelling building something your self and the pride that I took in the finished car made me highly protective and eager to show it off to my friends and the guys at the hobby shop. The place where I had bought my car also put on radio controlled car races every other Sunday and I did what ever I could to make it to them. Again, my Dad was an integral part in all this since the little battery pack for my Frog only lasted about fifteen minutes before it needed recharging. Since the races were outside, the only way to recharge was with the battery under the hood of the family car. I may never have taken the carburetor apart, but I did get to know the car’s electrical system pretty well! My Father would sit with a book or the paper in the running car as I carefully adjusted the load from the charger, hooked one end to my twenty dollar battery and the other to his car. I tried very hard to make sure to thank him for this. I bet he could’ve thought of a hundred better ways to spend his Sunday mornings rather than in a parking lot, waiting to watch me race. He’s a great dad, that way.

I was down in my basement yesterday and noticed a familiar shape hanging from its bumper on a beam. Its looking a little worse for wear after Lord knows how many hours of being driven at break neck speed over all sorts of terrain and then gathering dust for nearly two decades. Taking it down and cleaning it off reveled that things seemed to be in working order despite the years of neglect. I fiddled with it a bit, greasing up a part here and there and applying WD-40 as needed. As I got reacquainted with this old but hard won distraction, I realized that the only part it really needed was a replacement battery. The original was now far too elderly to hold any appreciable charge.

I ordered its new battery today along with a set of new tires to take the place of the elderly, cracking ones currently clinging to the rims. It feels like I’m thirteen again and waiting to make my last layaway payment. I can’t wait for the new parts to arrive! My son will no doubt be confused and enthralled, all at once when get it out in the snow. I’m betting that it will take about a minute and a half before he’ll want to drive it himself. That ought to be a hoot. At least I don’t have to worry about his feet being able to reach the pedals.

Back in that room, so long ago, I never would have guessed that some day my own kids would get a chance to drive my little off road buggy. You might think I’m crazy, but I hope Short Stack doesn’t mind listening to The Cars while I get it ready to run.

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