As far as I’ve known for over 50 years, there were only two existing photographs of my father as a child. In one that might have been his Baptism Day, he is dressed in white lawn, cradled in his older brother’s lap in front of what looks like the spoke of a Model T‘s wheel.
The other photo is just sad. Skinny little Dad and Edwin are dressed in rags, standing in the middle of a dusty road-bed, and my father is crying. No additional proof needed; it was a hard-scrabble life on a truck farm during the Depression. We felt lucky to have these two pictures, and there was a long gap between them and his high school graduation photo, taken before he left school to enter the Navy in 1945.
This summer I returned to my old hometown after a long absence. We walked into the musty main street bookstore, and there were a couple of guys leaning back on two legs of their chairs shooting the breeze. We languidly browsed through the local history section, skimming self-published bi-centennial commemoratives, organized by township. Little did we know one of them contained treasure: photos of classes at Brush Ridge School.
Brush Ridge was originally a one room log cabin built in 1857 in the wilds of Hope Township in West Michigan. Eighty years later, a photographer visited Evelyn Newland’s students in the newer school down the road from the original, which had been destroyed by fire. There are 15 kids in the 1937 class, squinting in the sunlight, holding triangles and stick instruments.
Third from the right in the back row is my 10-year-old father, identified in the caption as “Jack,” though his given name was John. Shyly, he looks into the camera, chin down, head forward. That look would play out in many of the pictures taken of him throughout his adult life. His shirt is neatly buttoned, his hair cropped and smooth, and his oversize pants must’ve been handed down.
It looks to be a warm sunny day, and the schoolyard grass is scrubby, although the school itself appears well-kept. Because Dad is in the rear, there is no way to prove the family story that the Meisenbach boys didn’t wear shoes to school if it was warm enough. Most of the kids are holding their rhythm band instruments as if they were foreign objects. Dad is no exception, though this is the only awkwardness we can see. He isn’t the tallest boy, and he appears quiet and easy-going. Just like I remember him.