Al Batt: Mysterious man challenged to staring contest

Published 10:41 pm Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Tales From Exit 22 by Al Batt

Most of us have miles and miles of miles and miles.

We have experienced the push of pain and the pull of hope.

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We grow up. It takes some of us longer than others. My wife hopes I’ll become a grownup one day.

By the time we mature or just get older, we have met a lot of people. It’s impossible to remember everyone. We know more people than we can recollect.

I was at a crowded event. Someone waved. I waved back. I waved with gusto to someone I didn’t know who was waving at someone standing behind me. When I realized this, I kept waving, pretending to wave at someone who didn’t exist. Then an innocent bystander, thinking someone whose face he couldn’t place, was waving at him, waved back, continuing the Ponzi waving scheme.

Photographs help us remember. In this day of never-ending photo opportunities, maybe I’ll end up with a photo of everyone I know, so I’ll be able to discern whom I should wave at.

The photos in family photograph albums don’t change. The same eyes stare back at me. Eyes that have never lost a staring contest.

They are photos that came from film taken to a drugstore for developing. There are no snapshots of UFOs, Sasquatches or brushes with fame. No fascinating array of cornfields. Most are of people and nearly all the shots were posed. Ansel Adams, the famed photographer, said, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”

Buying a camera doesn’t make a person a photographer. It makes a person a camera owner. I see photo albums presenting images with their heads cut off. My mother (my father never pressed a shutter) claimed that she’d only once cut someone’s head off in a photo and she’d done that intentionally.

Some may have wanted their heads cut off because they didn’t enjoy having their photos taken. I don’t know of a term that describes the fear of having one’s photo taken, but scopophobia, scoptophobia or ophthalmophobia are used to identify an anxiety disorder characterized by a morbid fear of being seen or stared at by others. Scopophobia is associated with a pathological fear of drawing attention to oneself. Pantophobia is the fear of everything. Crazy Horse supposedly forbade having his picture taken. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but there are photos purported to be of him that can’t be authenticated.

I turned the pages of a family photo album featuring photos corralled by my mother. Some of the photos were free-range and capable of escaping. A photo album is a flipbook. Flip the pages and see loved ones age. Each photo was taken before phones became cameras in disguise.

Life is a mystery. So are old photo albums. Every photo is supposed to tell a story, but some are good at keeping secrets. Some of the photographed are beyond names.

A fellow was in a few photographs. Not many, but enough to make me more curious than a questioning cat. He appeared to be an Earthling. Sometimes a woman accompanied the man. He smiled. She didn’t. She looked as if up with more she would not put. I worry that it had been a troubled relationship.

My mother and father were dead when I first began wondering about the mysterious man. Jack Webb, who played Joe Friday on the TV series “Dragnet” was also deceased, so he was of no help. I didn’t need to know the man’s identity, but I wanted to know it. I turned to siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins for answers. I asked each civilly. Silence roared. Perhaps I should have fired off emails in all caps to anyone and everyone who might have had a clue, but I didn’t.

I swear on a stack of eyeballs that no one recognized the man. Some guessed that he was someone my parents knew when they’d lived in Omaha at the beginning of their marriage. Maybe a neighbor, a coworker, an international spy or an extra in a home movie. He might have been able to belch the entire alphabet. He could have been Crazy Horse’s youngest son.

I wish I could talk to my mother for a few minutes each week. I’d tell her that I love her, that I miss her dearly and then ask her to label all her photos.

Questions may be greater teachers than answers, but I still hope to learn the mysterious man’s identity. No pessimist ever discovered a new star.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday.