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A Christmas Dinner Surprise

Posted on: Jan 03, 2012

A Time Preserved

It was our family’s annual trip to the hills of Marin County to have dinner with the in-laws, or more correctly the mother-in-law.  My father-in-law Dick Beeler, a colorful character in his own right, died prematurely years ago while taking one of his daily swims in San Francisco Bay.  Dick was a writer and publisher of a group of small magazines serving the farming communities of California.   Lois, his second wife, has lived in the same house that Dick built in 1959 ever since.  For someone with an architectural focus, visiting the Beeler house is a step back into mid twentieth century modernism.  The architect Beeler hired created an almost perfect replica of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House 22.  The only significant difference was the fact that he chose to frame it in wood instead of steel.  A visit to the house brings up visions of Danish modern, hoop skirts, skinny black neckties and episodes of Mad Men.

The Beeler family in Kansas City, ca. 1920

Lois, in her mid-eighties, still enjoys living in this hidden architectural relic, entertaining friends and neighbors and living an active senior citizen lifestyle.  She cooked us a lovely holiday dinner while my wife and sister-in-law caught up on family friends.  Lois had recently had some work done to the garage and in the process found a collection of family photo albums, slide collections, scores of reels of film and some amazing vintage 1950s camera gear.  She asked us to take a look and see if there was anything there we wanted.  I was stunned.  Out came bag after bag of family history.  The photo albums documenting my wife’s family from the early twentieth century on were copious and illuminating.

Dick Beeler's high school swim team

Dick Beeler's high school swim team

Dick Beeler led a short and illustrious life. He grew up in the mid-west, went the University of Texas where he was a star swimmer. He was selected for the 1940 U.S. Olympic team which was to be held in Finland, but was cancelled because of the outbreak of the war. He joined the army and like so many other soldiers returned to California after the war to start his magazine business. I met Dick toward the end of his career when he was editor of The California Farmer. I knew him as an engaging man with a quick wit and sharp pen, in much the same genre of Herb Caen or Art Hoppe. What I didn’t know was that he was also quite a photographer. I suspect that in the early years of his magazine business he did a lot of his own photography. His collection of family photos went from mediocre Kodak moments to quietly insightful shots of his children and the mid-century world they lived in. Those priceless albums induced a wave of nostalgia and awe.

Dick with his brother and sister ca. 1940

Dick with his brother and sister ca. 1940

Snapshots are literally 1/60 of a second of a person’s life captured. That happy face can often hide a lifetime of sadness and woe. Yet the snapshot is also has an iconographic quality that has long been revered and feared by both primitive and modern peoples. Snapshots can speak volumes. They give us a random but useful history of a person, a family, a society. On some level, they tell us where we have been and who we are. Archivists and film makers have used snapshots to recreate entire epics; think Ken Burns. The snapshot is not a narrative but an associative document. We look at the snapshot and let our minds create the story from the visual clues it provides. The snapshot allows us to remember; it allows us to touch the past, if only for 1/60 of a second. Will future, digitized “Kodak moments” find their way into photo albums to be discovered generations hence, or be lost forever in the ether of cyberspace? Only time will tell.

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