The Picture

It all started when Steve and Gene met back in third grade. It was the early 50s in Greeley, Colorado, high plains ranching country with the Rockies on your west and sky in every other direction. It was when everybody liked Ike and school kids practiced duck-and-cover drills under their desks. Steve’s family had just moved into town, and of all the possible other kids to pick from, these two became friends.

Considering the times, you might think these two played cowboys and Indians after school, or war games, or maybe even ranchers and rustlers. Everybody else did, at least if they were boys. But these two developed their own game, an after-the-war game, and not even WWII, recently ended, but the Civil War. They never actually gave it a name. It was just the game they always played with each other.

It always starts the same way. Gene is the Union soldier, Steve the Rebel. (Steve says he picked that part, not out of sympathy for the cause, but because he’s always felt a bit rebellious, and it sounded good to him.) The war has just ended, both are finding their way home on foot, still in uniform, bedraggled, soul-weary. The only thing keeping them putting one foot ahead of the next is the thought of home and family. Meeting on the road, they recognize each other through the grime and dust for the brothers they in fact are. There follows a reconciliation, joyful that each has survived, each forgiving the other for taking the part they did in the war. United, they return home to their family.

They find that not all is well after their absence. And here is where each day’s game really gets fun. Now the boys fight together to save their family from the evil enemy du jour, whether it’s carpetbaggers, bands of marauding soldiers, wild animals, fire, weather, or anything else a well-informed imagination can bring to bear. And it is well-informed. As the boys grow older, they read and do research, and each bit of knowledge improves their game, makes it more sophisticated and more fun. And of course they always triumph. It is, after all, their game.

Nothing lasts forever. Families move, seldom for reasons having anything to do with childhood friendships. First one left the area, then the other. Both lived several places around the country, never the same place and time. Both married, had children, divorced, formed new attachments, developed hobbies, gained grandchildren, and managed, somehow, to keep in touch.

It was mostly by phone calls, perhaps as often as weekly through the years, sometimes skipping years. Recently they stopped to figure out that it had been 45 years since they had actually seen each other and were starting to give up on its ever happening again for real. Both were finally retired. What had been work and family commitments keeping them apart had now become a seemingly insurmountable financial obstacle. Steve was living in Minnesota and Gene in Florida, both surviving on Social Security and Medicare. Neither owned property. Neither could afford an internet connection. Both had debts. Only one had a car; only one had teeth. Life had etched itself on their faces, on their souls.

Still, they both had a dream, kept alive through the years. They would meet again, somehow, and when they did, they’d get a portrait taken. It wouldn’t be an ordinary picture, no, not for them. They would go to one of those costume portrait studios, where you can pick out your favorite period costume, pose with campy accessories in front of a period backdrop, and pretend you lived way back then, or just had ancestors who strongly resembled you. The two of them, of course, would be dressed in Civil War uniforms, commemorating that moment where their childhood game had started each time, meeting on the road.

More and more, it was looking like it was just a dream.

Then one year, Steve’s lady friend, desperately needing a vacation from both work and winter, decided the budget could be stretched just a wee bit more to cover a second plane ticket, if juggled with a shorter motel stay and car rental, and Gene’s city would suit as well as any other warm southern place. She promised to put up with Gene and his lady, whatever they turned out like, as long as Steve promised her a day for just the two of them. Merry Christmas!

In the actuality of it, everybody had a great time. All were friendly, good folks, each just enough of a character to keep the days spent together interesting. The weather cooperated, highs hovering around 70 and not enough rain to fill a thimble. There was plenty of Spanish moss and ocean in the scenery and sufficient local wildlife and birds to satisfy any camera-ready tourist. Steve and Gene kept conversation going almost nonstop. It wasn’t catching up on family, since they’d done that through the years. It was a combination of “Do you remember —— from school and whatever happened to them?” and discovering they could talk for literally hours about all the movies they had seen and collected, and books they’d read.

Turns out that several years after the boys split, Louis L’Amour wrote a book about two brother soldiers reuniting after the Civil War. Both Steve and Gene had read it at some point. Both agreed, no matter how great the author was, it just wasn’t as good as their game had been.

But what could have been?

Getting the portrait taken was the high point of the reunion. It took a whole day, involving a road trip to old town St. Augustine, an address with no directions or map, and a maze of streets with one lane and no parking. Gene, always striving for authenticity, tried to find the rattiest, thread-worn uniforms, as they would have looked after years of battle, but had to settle for the higher standard the portrait studio prided itself on. He was also the one who kept pulling his hat down to cover his forehead, as soon as the photographer finished adjusting it up again to show his face and turned back to the camera to take the picture. Gene had his own ideas of what was important.

In the end, the pictures turned out quite well. Each chose his favorite pose to keep, matted and ready to frame, and they bought the disc and rights for the whole shoot. There is one in there, after all the formula shots were taken, where the photographer let them chose how they wanted to pose. In it, the two of them are shaking hands, meeting on the road. You can still see the boys-that-were in their old-man eyes, ready to start the game once again.

On the Road

On the Road

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2 Responses to “The Picture”

  1. March 3rd, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Thanks, Heather! “One had no teeth, the other had no car.”

  2. March 5th, 2009 at 10:33 am

    khan says:

    Very good, Made me misty eyed.

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