Last weekend, emptying the top drawer of a file cabinet otherwise full of news clips dating from at least 1994, I found a pile of old photos. Not just old but historic, some from the early part of the 20th century. One or two look like tintypes.
They clearly seem not to be part of the News-Topic’s old files, sitting here in a cabinet filled with material from the 1980s and ‘90s. They look like people sent them in. A couple have notes saying as much, such as a photo of the 1923-24 Hudson High School basketball team, in an envelope postmarked Sept. 17, 1991. The handwritten note inside identifying the players in the photo says at the end, “Please return the picture to me at the above address. Thank you.”
Why the picture wasn’t returned I can only guess. I wanted to return it, but it has been over 21 years, and the handwriting in the letter looked old and frail already. I found no listing for the same person in the phone book, so I turned to the Internet’s phone-book-and-Encyclopedia-Brittanica, Google. There I think I found a match – unfortunately, an obituary: Mary Eunice Query of Hudson. The name on the letter was Eunice Query. One of the basketball players was Hunter Query, and in the 2007 obituary I found online, it mentions a brother named Hunter. It also lists no survivors. But what a life of accomplishment it alludes to. Degrees from Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a master’s from Appalachian State, where she also taught for 25 years; awards from UNC and from the state; multiple scholarships established either by her or in her honor.
Another photo in the drawer has a stamp on the back saying it is a Kodacolor Print made in January 1960. On the front, three young women recline in hospital beds lined up in a living room, each of them in a contraption enclosing their torsos that had what looks like a vacuum hose attached in the middle of it. The contraptions were the respirators polio victims used, a more advanced, mobile version of the iron lung that more people likely have heard of. A handwritten note on the back identifies the photo as “Alta & other polio patients in ‘We Made Our Peace With Polio’ by Luther Robinson.” The book pops up at the top of a search of Google – one site lists it as scarce, but Barnes & Noble says you can buy it in paperback.
Nothing at all comes up online in a search for L.R. York of Harmony, who received a post card in July 1920 that came to be in the same News-Topic drawer as the photos above. The sender signed his name only as Doug. The return address was in Oakland, Calif. The front of the card shows two men, perhaps 25-30 years old, in nice suits, seated and facing the camera, one seated just behind the other, his hand casually resting on the other’s shoulder. A style of the time was to put personal photos on post cards, so who knows, perhaps the men are L.R. and Doug. Under the photo is written in green ink: “Quoth the raven, ‘never more.’ Haven’t felt that way since you left. Have you?”
Each of the photos in that drawer is but a moment, like a window on the side of a time machine. You catch a glimpse and the machine moves on to another moment. You see a detail but no context. You see a person but learn no story. You can tell how things looked, but not how they were. Even where something is written to provide some additional information, there is no place to turn for what was left out.
What does the quote on the post card mean, that code between friends? The faces gaze out from the photo, smiling softly, not revealing the answer. Was it a greeting on a cloudy-minded morning, an abbreviated way of saying, “We should never do that again, but wasn’t it a fun time”? Was it an exclamation on rejoining a friend: Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow … ? Google doesn’t know the answer to that one. That story stayed with the men, gone like footprints left in sand dunes.
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”