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Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Something Occurring by the Side of a Road


Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Children playing by road near school house, Kansas (?), c. 1942

I Hide and Seek

Along the roadside it appeared the children might have been playing a game of hide and seek. Passing cars slowed down as the people strained to see what these children were doing, kneeling with their heads hidden beneath folded arms, or lying motionless as if playing dead by the shoulder of the road. At a quick glance it looked as though they might have been hit by cars. But the bodies were scattered at a certain distance apart. The impression that they were playing a game was in the mind of the beholder, it was possible this was a misinterpretation. A theory of games is not the same thing as a game; in order to understand the progression of a game it is not necessary to have a game theory. If it is possible to make a false move in some game, then it might be possible for someone to make nothing but false moves in every game. The person passing along on the road would have no idea.

Image, Source: digital file from original slide

Road out of Romney, West Virginia,1942/3

II History Lesson

The Sunray man wearing the spectral white face of carbon black may not after all be a visitor from a scorched and vacant dead world beyond our solar system. You whistled soundlessly in the sleepless dark and he came, as in a dimly remembered children's game.

When you played hide and seek there was a secret excitement hidden within the game, the private knowledge that, should you be lost, it was he who lay in waiting, he who would find you.

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Worker at carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas, 1942

III But Then

in the hard white northern distance of the clouded morning the school bell tolled.

The child who was found in the game of hide and seek discovered he did not know the language that was being spoken by the other children. He may well have known some other language or languages, but the babbling going on around him in the here and now, that to him seemed a mystery, a bafflement.

Behind every tree in the immediate vicinity of the confused child was concealed another bewildering uncertainty. Branching off in several directions from the point where he stood a labyrinth of conflicting paths beckoned equivocally. And so it seemed to the child he had no choice but to hold perfectly still and remain completely silent. It is at this point that from behind the nearest tree emerges the waiting figure.

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Landscape, Northeast Utah, April 1942

Photos by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)


Curtis Roberts said...

This series sent me back to my books to look up definitions of Surrealism, which always seemed to be in conflict with the works themselves, i.e., the artwork and poetry tended to be deliberate, highly intellected efforts, rather than exercises in “pure psychic automatism.”

For some time now, my daughter has been describing her dreams to me, which has been interesting and fun, and brings me back to my own dreams and now to Something Occurring by the Side of a Road, which I would love to see published on its own.

You’ve really done something with/to the Vachon photos here and they’ve really done something with/to your words.

TC said...


Your good eye brings to this another dimension as always.

With or without the Sur there is a special kind of Realism in dreams I think, and as time goes by I find it less easy to clearly distinguish the reality we see around us from the reality we dream.

In this case I approached Vachon's work from obverse directions, subjective (here), and objective (in the post above), in both cases by way of childhood and that dreaming of space and scale which begins very early on.

Among my favourite childhood books were the travel romances of Charles Halliburton. I was especially taken, c. age five or six, with the Seven Wonders of the World.

In my childish dreaming of a larger world I always began with what was palpable and so my earliest actual voyages, to such fabled destinations as the Blackhawk Hotel in Des Moines, or Briggs Stadium in Detroit, or the Missouri Ozarks or the Allegheny River (all Vachon subjects, as it happens), could be extrapolated out, the infinitely small and the infinitely large conflated in space and time, to rival the Colossus of Rhodes or the Mausoleum at Hallicarnassus or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

The strange momentary tingle of otherness which electrifies these prosaic American realities, these distanced or defamiliarized dream spaces, in the Vachon work, excited the words in this post into being.

Curtis Roberts said...

The words you wrote definitely excited me. I tried looking up Charles Halliburton's Seven Wonders and found instead information about Richard Halliburton, the author of the Complete Book of Marvels, the Royal Road to Romance, Seven League Boots and Flying Carpet, among other volumes. Is this the same person? The books sound amazing (the reader comments on several sites are really passionate) and Halliburton's biography is truly incredible.

TC said...

It is indeed Richard, Curtis. Excuse the memory slippage, fairly routine it seems. I am hoping to forget twice as many details as I learn every day, until none at all are left.

That should happen by mid-afternoon.

In his Complete Book of Marvels he presented the Seven Wonders of the World.

That one did so well he then produced his Second Book of Marvels, which included the "updated" or "new" seven wonders -- this time including the Pyramids, Mount Fuji, the Great Wall of China, and so on.

Both volumes were greatly treasured by yours truly. I regarded the illustrations of the Ancient Wonders as bonafide. It never occurred to me Halliburton would exaggerate or lie.

I later learned my trust had been perhaps misplaced. But now of course that has no bearing.

In any case he was indeed an amazing fellow, went everywhere, did everything, was amazingly adventurous and gay, and died while doing it all, still young, disappearing in a plane over water, never again seen.

TC said...


Further recollections of a Halliburton haunted childhood. His legend hung over one like a taunt and a dare.

At one point I spent a prolonged period abed with rheumatic fever and Halliburton's works strewn about the fever-racked coverlet. It was heaven in a strange boiling half-hallucinated sort of way. I had a ledger tablet and scribbled into it, while convalescing, a longish narrative history of Australia, stylistically influenced by the heroic romanticism of Halliburton. All I recall of it now is the canary yellow red-ruled ledger paper.

Curtis Roberts said...

Thanks so much. All of this, and particularly the memory of childhood fever, is very easy to picture. I am now, as they say, off to the races with Halliburton. The Seven Wonders reference, by the way, made me think of your recent post, Mute, showing the Easter Island statuary. A couple of years ago, an organization called the New 7 Wonders Foundation, ran an online poll for the selection of an updated, expanded Wonders list. Easter Island was nominated but finished in runner-up position in the top 10. We were slightly disappointed because even though the whole exercise was kind of phony, the father of one of Jane's schoolmates is a native of Easter Island and we were encouraged to vote. Santi, by the way, is a remarkable looking man, and clearly a kinsman to the stone figures.

human being said...


what have you done?!

this is exquisite!
putting the whole knowledge one needs in life in a play in 3 acts... or a story in 3 episodes... or a poem in 3 stanzas...

the magic of your words again!
and your mind...

rarely does anyone write like this!

TC said...

That's certainly an injustice to the Moai of Rapa Nui, Curtis.

(The carbon black Sunray man appears to possess the strange immanence of an Easter Island figure...)

hb, yes,"a play in 3 acts..."