W. Benjamin West: A Name in Photo

Benjamin Bascom

My maternal grandfather lost his leg aboard a Navy ship during World War I. He died forty years later. The cause of death was a combination of heat exhaustion and stroke. My mom says the actual cause of death was attempting to dig a hole for a swimming pool in his backyard.

When I first looked into that same Florida crater my grandfather left, I imagined him feeling like a failure. He contracted pneumonia in the VA hospital he swore he’d never enter after half-dying digging the hole, the hole he’d never see filled with water, but the one I’d see as if it were a symbol for something beyond itself, like something he left behind just for me to see.

I saw the hole after it had become a barely noticeable depression in the backyard–a sloping bowl perfect for twisting ankles and jamming knees. Now, years after first seeing it, I wish I could go back and finish the hole, not to fill it with anything, just to say it is finished. But the property has been sold and Florida is so far away from Utah right now.

*

A photo of my grandfather leans against the wall atop my desk. I want to describe him as dark-looking, but it is more elusive than simply dark. There is something I feel he’s hiding in the photo, and how can that be captured in words? There is something in his past that the photo makes present in its two-dimensional, superficial representation. It’s that mystery, that indefinable essence, that I want to discover. I would dig to find it. I would do almost anything to know that mystery, to understand the aura that floats from the photo even while I sit here and type.

*

Grandpa, I need to ask you something. The photo remains silent. Mom remembers harsh words and abrupt hands. I’ve tried to ask her about those moments, but the conversation usually stumbles around the subject of what she’s already mentioned, or barriers grow between what she’ll discuss and topics on which she’s mute. I can only catch new information about him when I raise his photo on my bedroom wall or ask Mom for more photos or ask her if he ever smiled or laughed or loved her. It is times like this when I glimpse another side of him, a side I’m uncomfortable with. I ask, I press, I wait for her to be ready to share another experience. She takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, unraveling her thoughts to find the right thread. This could be why I hunger to know him. This could be why I feel there’s something there in his eyes, right now, in the photo atop my desk, that will explain something, somehow–what, I’m not sure.

Mom remembers an electric pee detector strapped to her bed so that when her six year-old bladder was too small to keep all her fluid in, an alarm sounded. She tells me about being thrown into a bathtub like a ragdoll and washed like laundry. She says that grandpa died when she was thirteen and she hasn’t really looked back since. And so I’m left to do the looking.

*

Mom tells me that her father was a successful writer. He wrote for engineering periodicals and local newspapers, taking advantage of any freelance work that 1920s, 30s, and 40s America would give a handicapped man. Reading over his material, I catch glimpses of him. I feel like it’s only half a picture, though, because most of his personal writings rant about his mistreatment by family or society, subtly masking an inadequacy I imagine he felt with his amputated leg, although I realize I’m projecting “inadequacy” onto his life because I really don’t know for sure. I guess I am missing a text written by an outside source about my grandfather, something I can trust as accurate. I have the authentic account, the words he wrote in his history, but I don’t have the multidimensional perspective of my grandfather, as if his writings mimic the photos in their superficial imitation of life’s events. For anything extra, I have to rely on my mom.

She is good with dates and names and places, but not with emotions. When I write that I mean she remembers things, but not how the “things” felt. It is like she remembers the name of her father, his birth and death date, but all the other stories she tells me feel exactly like she’s reciting facts—processed facts that fill my ears with a stale ringing.

His sister Ella, mom tells me, had him committed to an insane asylum when he was twenty-five. The Great War had ended and he became too reclusive and solemn, taking long walks alone in the woods. Between his bouts of anger and depression, he was out of control. How safe his sister must have felt when he was in a straightjacket. How comfortable she was when my grandpa received shock treatments, cold showers, and the “I don’t know what else” my mom adds. I visited a mental hospital museum once. It was filled with wax figures frozen in time, some receiving surgeries, others happily sitting in dark cells waiting for a door to open or a light to finally turn on. After six months, the doctors let my grandpa go.

*

With an attempted grin and fierce hawk-eyes that look through me as I continue staring at the photo, I almost want to describe my grandfather as looking like a philosopher or a preacher or an angry man. As my mom read over what I’ve written so far, she said that “an angry man” probably describes him best.

The photo itself is fading, imbuing the whole artifact with the sense of a distant past. The metal and glass seem to poke at me from the past, beckoning me to turn the picture over and over in my hands, to feel and embrace the photo in a symbolic ordinance to appease the ghosts of the past. I believe in ghosts too. I believe they live in photos and when you hang a photo on a wall you are resurrecting a spirit from the dead. I keep my framed photos on my desk so that when they become too noisy I can quickly turn them over.

I love how the small knot chokes my grandfather’s white collar together. He reminds me of a preacher. I would love to have a preacher for a grandfather, the type of grandfather that offers advice and condemnation at the drop of a hat, or at the slightest hint of sin. The type of grandfather that you remember at moments when you need God the most.

*

In 1917, while attending college, my grandfather “asked God all the while that the work which [he] was then doing might mean much to [God’s] kingdom on earth.” My grandfather had a deep concern for doing right by God and people, which he credits to being raised in poverty.

Mom tells me that in the thirties he went on a service mission for the Methodist Church to help Rhodesians build dams. In Rhodesia, he built a Church and dedicated a stained glass window to Uncle Elias, “an ex-slave who had been employed by [his] father.” After his dad died, Uncle Elias asked to remain on the property to farm and care for “Miss Martha’s chillun,” as the record I’m reading states. The text states that Uncle Elias often sat by the campfire, praying for hours before dozing off. In addition to my grandfather’s life history, an editor for The Christian Advocate wrote an article called “Black Bread on White Waters” that tells the story. In the copy I have, my grandpa has inserted minor corrections, like how he lost his leg aboard a boat off the coast of America, not “somewhere in France.” I’m proud of my grandfather’s honesty, not trying to aggrandize his amputation that had nothing to do with shrapnel or trench combat, but instead a neglected infection that festered in a sweaty boot.

I’m surprised that I haven’t found anything more than a paragraph in my grandfather’s life history about the “ex-slave” that took care of him. There are photos of “Uncle Elias Shook” sitting on a porch with my grandfather standing behind him. Elias looks down, away from the camera, and my grandfather looks just to the right of the lens. I’m sure my grandfather loved Uncle Elias, but I want there to be more than just a name in a hundred page life history.

I found one interesting anecdote about Elias. Whenever Uncle Elias came home from a heavy day of work, my grandfather said to him: “Uncle ‘Lias, didn’t you get me nothing?” And in return an apple or a peach somehow materialized.

*

My grandfather left Alabama for MIT and would never have returned had he not needed to take care of his mother. In his life history he describes being stuck in mud during one of his family’s cross-state moves: “I have sometimes wondered, in the light of subsequent events, if it would not have been better had that Cherokee County mud stuck a little tighter so as to have held me in that section.” I guess he’s referring to losing his leg and being falsely institutionalized because of his siblings. Of course I’m biased when I infer that he shouldn’t have been institutionalized. But in his history he even mentions becoming friends with the psychiatrists and how they understood that he was only hospitalized because of jealousy, or hate, or some other emotion that dirties family history. Besides, he wasn’t crazy, but instead dealing with the trauma of losing his leg and his siblings refusing to take care of their mother.

My great-grandfather wasn’t a good man–at least in his wife’s eyes. My grandfather writes how his mother said, “You are just like your father” whenever any of the children disobeyed. In his journal he references a falling out with his sisters and brother. That is all I know about it. In his history, he’ll often preface historical reflections with an anecdotal “in light of recent events…” or “when considering current feelings…” Part of the problem, as far as I can tell, is that my grandfather—twelve years younger than the nearest sibling—sided with his mom, while the rest of the family tried to remember their dead father.

The only time my grandfather has his father “speak” in his life history is in reference to the man’s dying wish: “that I [my grandfather] should not be allowed to choke myself with a fish bone, as I was eating fish under a table when he was suddenly taken ill.” My grandfather was a little under two years old and his siblings must have told him the story.

*

A brief moustache rests between his nose and lips in the photo on my desk. I wonder what made it shine so luminously in the black and white picture, giving new depths to ordinary hair. I imagine him rubbing his moustache, finger oils refreshing dry hair, while he plucked away on his typewriter. Mom says that he used two fingers to type, like bobbing chickens plucking away at a fertile earth.

I think he had brown eyes, but I can’t tell from all the photos I’ve seen of him. Mom didn’t remember the color when I asked. After admitting this, she quickly said she thought they were hazel. I still think they were the type of brown that holds you in a trance when you really look at them. Any color, really, except my iridescent green.

And at times I wonder if rune stones, Ouija boards, or tarot cards, with their brown, haunting light, resemble the color of his eyes.

*

“To say that I was reared in abject poverty is certainly not exaggerating,” my grandfather writes in his life history. At the age of fourteen he “had to serve all day long just as the hardened and fully-matured Negro and other laborers were required to do.” The account states that his mother owed money in another town and so he was sent to work off the balance. I was kind of uncomfortable when I read his personal comparison to the sharecropper laborers. It just felt racist, especially when he says that he was no better than “an ordinary pickaninny.” I understand that I’m probably reading my grandfather anachronistically, but that doesn’t cover up the fact that my initial reaction to his comparison was to scratch out the sentence from the white paper I read it on. Scratch out the history and live on the mythic legacy of a stained-glass window in Rhodesia dedicated to his Uncle Elias.

My grandfather hated manual labor because no one ever told him the purpose behind it. He was an engineer by education, so I’m assuming he loved knowing how the farm equipment worked, why the cotton was picked a certain way, and how the farmer knew when to plant and harvest. In fact, the picture he paints of himself in his life history is that he loved working with his hands and getting dirty, whether it was building dams in the nearby stream or creating swings in trees. He hated that at the farm “there was no effort whatever made to teach me farming by any logical method such as explaining the process to me, but, instead, I was just ‘dumped’ out there in some great field and given one task to perform. Naturally, under these conditions I developed no special liking for farming.”

*

What did you like, Grandpa? I ask the photo. I mean, I hardly know him. I feel as if I must introduce myself to the black and white image surrounded by a dirty pewter frame. Did he like children? Did he want to have more? Was he afraid of children not understanding his missing leg?

Mom doesn’t remember him giving her a piggy-back ride. He couldn’t. Having the extra sixty pounds on his shoulders would have made him off-balance, falling headfirst into the hard ground. In his defense she says, “He would have tried to do something.”

“Like what?” I ask. And then she tells me about baseball.

*

My grandfather played catcher. His life history reads: “I followed baseball during part of my high school years so closely–and especially the 1912 World Series between McGraw and Connie Mack–that I became imbued with the determination to become active in this field–not NECESSARILY as a major league player, although according to some of my friends this might not have been unreasonable–but in some manner commensurate with my ability.”

Losing the leg, then, meant cutting himself off from a childhood dream of playing professional baseball. But nearly every boy dreams of being a professional athlete, so losing the leg didn’t just mean losing a dream before he was ready to bury it. I imagine it meant experiencing daily fatigue and discomfort, having an awkward sex life, and treasuring the empowering pleasure of driving an automobile.

*

W. Benjamin West loved to swim. He, his wife, and my mom traveled often to southern Florida to spend a week lounging in natural springs, soaking up earth’s minerals through their pores.

His missing leg made him feel unbalanced and inadequate, but water equalized him, enabling him to stand upright without all the pressure of his body pounding on one foot. He grew up in a time before there were handicap laws governing building accessibility and job security and so he had to suffer through feeling like an unstable, wobbly man. He was a man dependent upon women opening his doors in the Victorian morality of the South.

He spent World War I in a boat off the coast of New York, getting gangrene from not washing his foot after a cut. He had asked the medics to remove his foot once the gangrene set in, but they refused. He implored them to cut above his ankle, but they wanted to wait. He begged, pleaded, swore to God he’d kill them if they didn’t cut just below his knee to stop the rancid growth from swelling up his leg, but the doctors deliberated. The stench became unbearable, his cabin mates complained, his complaints intensified, but not until after my grandpa could no longer do the work expected of him did the doctors etherize him and saw his leg off, making a four inch stump out of his once whole thigh.

*

Mom wanted to name me Jason, but my dad liked the sound of Benjamin Bascom. Besides the same name, I don’t think I share anything with my grandpa. It’s not that I don’t want to share something else, I’m just a little worried about what that something might be.

Also, I don’t think I have his mysterious allure. I’ve never looked at photographs of myself—or anyone else for that matter—to understand my life better. But as I gaze into the black and white portrait, as I drift off into my grandfather’s encompassing eyes, feeling as if I am staring into my future and staring into an inheritance I’m not sure I want, I feel like I’m unlocking some type of mystery. I’ve written that already, but the mystery is beginning to feel more real, less incandescent, more like something I can actually express.

*

The more I conjure him in my mind, the more I talk through who he was, the less I’m sure about what I know of him. In his written account, he talks about having an “inferiority complex.” I wonder if I can accurately infer that he felt inferior because of his amputated leg. One complication to my generalization is that he writes about his “inferiority complex” a few pages after detailing his family’s poverty and his fear of getting beaten up throughout elementary school. The timing is off, but my essay has relied on him feeling inferior or inadequate because of the four inch stump on his left side.

Maybe the missing leg had nothing to do with his “inferiority,” or with the masked inadequacy I’ve written into my grandfather’s life. Maybe I have unfairly filled in the lower half of the photo—the part that I can’t even see—with images of what I assume would make anyone feel inadequate.

So, the absent leg isn’t a symbol for his wobbling inadequacy, nor the hole in the ground for an inherent inferiority; they’re both just references to a man that vanishes into a photo when I get too close.