“Take it all in. We ain’t ever coming back,” I told mom.
Mom laughed as we looked out at the procession of shaved heads and neatly pressed uniforms.
“LEFT! RIGHT! LEFT! RIGHT!” an angry man shouted.
Gave mom a side-eye. She laughed. She heard similar from Matt when he was my age. In early high school, all was going according to plan for him. He had bangs below his eyes and went everywhere with a skateboard and baggy jeans. And then one day, he came into the house and informed my parents that he was joining the Marines.
Mom and dad weren’t happy. Dad said he wouldn’t sign for him early and scared the recruiter away from the house. All my friends were scared of my dad, but I never imagined a military recruiter would be. Matt would have to wait until he turned 18 and graduated high school. Matt was stubborn. Matt signed up after he graduated.
We arrived in Parris Island, South Carolina, for Matt’s basic training graduation a few months later. I was in the fourth grade. Parris Island didn’t look like Paris. And it wasn’t exactly my vision of an island. All the signs said Semper Fi. There were tanks by the gas station and a whole bunch of brick buildings. Barracks, Matt the Marine called them.
I held my end of the bargain when I was in high school. I practically sprinted by the recruiters when they set up their tables in the high school hallway. Head down. Hands on my backpack straps. Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Oh… wait.
Those big memories. We can remember those, with or without a photograph or a video. They get talked about around every holiday dinner table. The recruiter texts every once in a while, or we see funny memes of high schoolers’ replies to those texts on the internet.
I purchased an old, used Kodak digital camera after I read this Casual Photophile article about how all the cool kids were getting digicams again. And I needed an SD card to put in it. I found one in a junk drawer and put it in the camera.
“When we got to Parris Island, they kept you up for the first two days,” Matt says on the decade-old video. He is sitting in the brown chair in our living room, which has tan walls that appear brown on this 480p recording. Matt is in his camo uniform, his eyes nestled in shadow beneath his standard-issue buzz cut.
“What did they keep you up doing? Running you? Walking you?” The camera shakes as mom prods. She sat Matt down to give an entire audio-visual narrative of his boot-camp experiences. And sure, there are minute details in this 20-minute long recording. The times that Matt arrived at the camp, an explanation of how the crew had to stop in a convenience store to buy Matt a belt on the way.
But there is also my mom’s voice. Her not so gentle way of cutting in and asking follow-ups. My dad’s voice booming through the background to my grandmother saying that he is heading to Walmart. The dark spots on the felt chair changed shades of brown where Matt would allow his hands to rest in between sentences.
Mom and dad are ten years older now – their voices don’t sound the same. That chair was thrown into the ditch two years ago. And even more, hearing Matt’s experience reminded me of my own car trip to Parris Island as a spectator. Crammed in the third-row seat of my grandmother’s Ford Explorer, listening to One Republic and regretting the grilled chicken sandwich I had just eaten at Cookout. I was working on getting abs – I had a girl to impress back home.
“I thought we lost these,” mom said as the video began. And truthfully, we would have. A random SD card in a junk drawer. One cleaning day away from the landfill, just like the chair.
Or maybe the card would have ended up on eBay. Sold for a couple of bucks as a hot commodity for the upcoming digital camera boom. Mom wouldn’t know how to wipe it, so Matt’s video would be shipped off with it, just as Matt himself was shipped off that morning on a bus outside the recruiter’s office in Tupelo, Mississippi.
The Kodak C813 arrived at my New Haven, Connecticut, P.O. Box about one week after I ordered it on eBay for $21.26. A digicam + memory card combo. Eight megapixels. Flash. A record of an entire family.
Wait, what? That wasn’t in the listing. Nearly 1,000 photographs spanning several years of a family’s life. From births to weddings to camping trips to vacations to dog pictures, they were all here. Forgotten on an SD Card. Which was picked up by a vendor somehow who promptly sold it online. To me. A college kid in need of a silly camera to take spontaneous photographs of his friends.
I’ll never know the tiny memories and stories hidden behind these photographs. Maybe the hospital cafeteria food was bad before the birth. Maybe some family members got into an argument at that wedding in the West. They loved that dog, I can tell that much.
Typically, this is where I would end the story. I would write some nice, pretty metaphorical ending that would get some positive comments and net a text from mom saying “Very well written!”
But nope, not this time. This is a call to action. Because frankly, I’m sick to my stomach that I have all these photographs, unsure of whether this family has lost them forever. And I don’t want any future college kid or, worse, a reseller to end up with your old memories. So, reader, sit down with those old SD cards or negatives and the people whose memories are recorded on them. Enjoy the little memories, the feelings and emotions that can only flood back with the tide of an old recording.
And me? I’ll search for this family. They deserve their own Parris Island. Their own felt brown chair. Their own recollection of exactly how their voices sounded, how that dog looked, what that wedding cake tasted like.
“I wanted him to remember what it was all like,” mom told me as I copied the file onto one of my archival hard drives before shutting off the video of Matt. “We should get him to watch this. Did you send it to him?”
Our guest posts are submitted by amazing photographers and writers all over the world.
Today’s Guest Post was submitted by…
Lukas Flippo is a first-generation low-income student at Yale University from rural Mississippi. Lukas is a photojournalist, with work appearing in the New York Times, TIME, IndyStar, and the Sun Herald. Lukas’ work, including a series on found photos, can be seen at Lukas’ website. More of Lukas’ guest posts on this site can be found here.
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