Camera Obscura

David Licata

The second day my father was in the Critical Care Unit -- hip broken from falling out of bed, malnourished and dehydrated, fevered and with aspirated pneumonia from lying on the floor for two days, conscious but unable to speak because he had a respirator tube down his throat -- I took his doctor’s advice and showed him photographs.
“It will ground him,” the doctor said, “take his mind off of his predicament, stir up good memories. A hospital can be a foreign and scary place. It’s comforting to see familiar things and hear a familiar voice.”
What does he have in that left breast pocket that the button strains to keep the flap down?
            “Recognize those two?” I asked only yes or no questions those first few days of his hospitalization and he responded by squeezing my hand for yes, or not for no. He squeezed my hand. “You were one good looking couple.”
The photo was taken in 1945 somewhere in Trieste, Italy. It could be a trattoria or a dance hall or the canteen where my mother’s sister waitressed. They are posing, but those are their genuine smiles, not the put on ones they wear in countless other photos. They have both just left their teenage years.
This photograph represents the myth of their meeting and conjoining. The 34th Infantry Division paraded victoriously through Trieste and in that parade was a private first class, Joseph Licata, an anti-tank gun crewman from New York City. Among the grateful citizenry welcoming the Americans were a group of young Triestine women who mocked the soldiers benignly. The G.I. rode cockily on a jeep. One of the women, Neva Crovatin, pointed him out and called him un babbuino, a baboon. He shot back a response in Italian. She was surprised and charmed. It was a movie cute-meet long before that term was coined and it was a portent of what their relationship was to be. They married in Trieste, and there is not one photo of their ceremony or reception; the war wasn’t kind to wedding photographers. He brought her to New York City after he was discharged in 1946 and her death separated them after 58 years of marriage. “You were a lucky man,” I said. He squeezed my hand. “Do you want to see more?” He squeezed again.
            Two generations of Licatas in unfamiliar formal wear, taken in the late spring of 1943 by a professional photographer who owned a studio on East 104th Street, around the corner from where the Licata family lived. The young girl in the photo is my father’s sister, Josephine, and it’s safe to assume she was an accident.
They were a somber group at the best of times, these Licatas from Castrofilippo, Sicily, and certainly they had no reason to smile here. My father, home from boot camp for two weeks and awaiting deployment, is about to be shipped off to war. While they posed they surely must have wondered if this was going to be the last photo taken of the 18 year old. And they must have carried those thoughts with them in their daily lives, my grandmother as she kept house and tried to raise her three other children, my grandfather as he laid asphalt over the streets of New York City.
            I showed this photograph to my Aunt Josephine one day when we were both in the hospital room and it brought to her mind a story she had heard. My father kept a photo of Josephine as a toddler in his helmet and he would tell his fellow grunts that she was his daughter. We laughed about this and when I asked her why he did this she said, “I have no idea!”
These photographs are like millions of others that can be found in albums and boxes in closets and attics and, increasingly, at flea markets and in lots on eBay. They are immediately recognizable to anyone outside our small family as historical documents from the 1940s: a smiling soldier and a woman, a serious family portrait. The photos can also be inspiration for stories of pure invention -- the people are characters, the clothes are costumes. But to me these photos inhabit a place somewhere in between. They conjure stories told from multiple points of view by narrators with hearsay knowledge and faulty memories.
I become a primary source in 1966, the dawn of my memory, and as the family portrait reminded my Aunt Josephine of a story unrelated to the taking of it, photos taken after 1966 do the same with me.
 
“Do you remember those guys we’d rent these chairs and umbrellas from?” I said. “They’d lug all that stuff to our spot, and then drive that metal rod into the sand so they could plant the umbrella. And the guys who walked on the beach selling ice cream? Carrying that freezer box on their back. How would you like that job?” Whether he realized my question was rhetorical or not, I can’t say, but he did not squeeze my hand.
We spent one week every summer at the La Concha Hotel in Atlantic City, when the resort was at its nadir, before gambling and Trump. The skinny, headless prepubescent figure on the right in a pose reminiscent of Donatello’s David is my older brother George and visible beyond him, between his legs, reclined on a blanket, is my eldest brother Joe. I gleaned this from other photos taken this day: the white stripe at the bottom of his blue bathing trunks confirms his identity. I took this photo, then, and though I have no memory of taking it, this may be the first image I ever captured.
            When I searched through my boxes of photographs looking for appropriate pictures to show him, I came across many featuring people of whom I have no knowledge. One of these was a black and white photo taken in the late 1940s at what I think is Coney Island. This photo is full of young flesh, so much flesh that the beach and camera can’t contain it all: a man rests his head on a woman’s lap, she sits up because if she reclined her head would be on someone else’s lap. Written on the back of this photo in my father’s scrawl is “Girl friend of Louis. Kay.” That is as much as I will ever know about these two. But when placed next to the Atlantic City photo, the image tells me plenty.
My parents possess a civilized parcel of New Jersey beach. They have three sons. They are no longer thin but have paunches and my father, at 43, is graying. They had been homeowners for six years. They left the world of apartment buildings and congested beaches and black and white photography and Louis and Kay behind.
I showed another Kodacolor of him and my mother taken in Miami in the winter of 1970-71. “You were always a sharp dresser,” I said. Sharp was a word he used in the 70s. He wears a khaki safari jacket open enough to reveal the left breast pocket of the shirt underneath, again bulging. I find this photograph more revealing if stripped of its implied depth and described as a 2D representation. A palm tree grows out of my father’s shoulder and, though they stand near each other, they do not touch and the entire width of a two-story building fills the space between their heads. They have been married for 25 years.
We owned one still camera, a Kodak Instamatic 134. It wasn’t a family treasure, but I still have it. The Instamatic worked on select holidays and saw duty during all of our vacations. In the summer of 1972 we went to Italy and took a side trip to Opatija, in what was then Yugoslavia.
 
“You know one of the saddest days of my life?” I said. “You’re going to laugh. I had a beach towel that we bought here, and I lost it. I left it in the drier in the Laundromat one day and by the time I realized it, it was gone. That happened about eight years ago and I’m still kicking myself over it.” If my father were capable of speech then he would have said, Forget about it, Dave. It’s just a towel.
            My father was a terrible swimmer and feared the open sea. I have, but did not show him, two other photos of him floating on this raft in the Adriatic.  
            These three photos were snapped probably in the span of a minute, but I don't have the negatives so the sequence in which the were taken eludes me.  Each variation suggests a diferent narrative.
         
            I am 11 years old in these photos and he is 48. At 11 I referred to him as Daddy and I knew him as an authority figure and provider and had no one to compare him to, and it didn’t occur to me to do so. The notion that my father was a man who had a life outside our immediate family hadn’t struck me yet.
 
 

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