I had a wonderful day yesterday. I spent most of it in tears but I found myself so enthralled in what I was doing I didn’t notice for the first two hours.
My day was spent going through old photographs, scanning them in an effort to preserve them and wishing I knew the story behind each one. I’ve done the basic work on just over a hundred so far, I have half that amount again to go through and although I know the general location of the images, the places, the activities and the smiling faces all have stories that I can’t help feel are now lost.
They were my uncle’s. My father’s brother was like a second dad to me and he died fifteen years ago. I remember how long ago because my youngest son was only six months old and I had him with me when we had to verify my uncle had indeed passed away in the small, two-room flat that he called home. My dad made the call to the police while my baby boy’s cry for food covered my own tears of loss. My uncle never married and didn’t have children of his own, that we know of anyway, and his passing was as quiet as the life he lived.
In his life, I knew him as a bit of a larrikin, a playful torment and the uncle who knew how to have a good time. He use to get my sisters and I, and himself, in so much trouble with his brother and sister-in-law with some of the antics he encouraged us into. Although my two eldest children were only 7 and 2 when he died, he was well on the way to teaching them his brand of fun bad habits too.
Yesterday was a day of missing him as I started going through a bundle of black and white photos he had kept to remind him of his service with the Australian army during World War Two.
We found the photos in the bottom of an old suitcase that contained many knickknacks and items special to him. What makes things special to one person is very personal and this was true of many of the items in the case. I convinced my mother to hand the photos over to me a few years ago but only started the process of digitally recording them yesterday. My uncle saw no need to write information on the back of the faded images of his past; he knew what was going on. Looking at the details in the photos without having details made my imagination take flight and I found myself diligently working with tears silently and slowly leaking from my eyes as the possible stories behind the images filled my head.
There were some details on the back of the odd photo. A few of the faces in small group shots have an initial before a surname but loose lips sink ships so locations and activity were not mentioned. Well that’s what my imagination suggests could be the one reason for no more details.
Although I don’t know the young men’s names, their faces became familiar as they appeared time and again in the photos. All the images depicted good times and good mates. Good memories stored away in a safe place.
It took a bit to work out which of the smiling faces was my uncle; at first glance, they pretty much looked alike in the same torn shorts and slouch hats. My uncle’s worse bad habit, his tobacco pipe, gave him away in a photo not much bigger than a postage stamp. Once I saw him, I spotted him easily in the other photos. From that point on it became personal as I was looking at a part of his life I knew nothing about. I wish I had paid more attention and asked more questions when he told funny stories about that time. In my defence, he never talked about it a lot.
It also became clear where the story of these photos started as over the series I saw pale, water fat young men become tanned, fit and strong but also thin and weary. I could see the toll defending their country was taking on them. That tugged at my heart, especially as the occasional image showed stern grins where toothy smiles had been before.
The collection also includes snap shots of the environment they were living in with only a posed glimpse of the reason they were there. The bush camps the gunners of his division called home were rough, dry and obviously hot as the soldiers were bare-chested in all the shots. Showers appear to have been an occasion as there are a few shots of men standing under a suspended container, lathered up with soap, waiting for an owner-less arm from the side of the photo to pull a rope attached to the container. These shots don’t reveal anything they shouldn’t however they highlight the dark tanned skin above and below the place that army issue shorts usually cover. It is in these images the soldiers weight loss is most visible as bony limbs are uncovered.
My uncle’s photo memories from the suitcase include fishing trips off the very beach they were defending, what looks like a sports day with running races, boxing events and what appears to be a donkey race with soldiers as jockeys. There are many shots of a horse race that appeared to have gathered hundreds of people from across all the military services as well as some long forgotten officials who have been named but I am yet to search out. With my uncle no longer around to help me find out the easy way, I think I now have my life work ahead of me to find out what I can.
It may not be easy as memories are like the special things I mentioned earlier, personal.
There is still one photo I don’t have in my possession to search out an answer for. My mother and father are keeping that one and I’m not allowed to ask any more. It is a single photo of a women, again unnamed, that was tucked away from the others. Was she someone special to my uncle who broke his heart? Did he break hers? Could she be the reason he never married? Am I just being a hopeless romantic with an over active imagination?
Every picture may tell a story but these have left me with a thousand questions.