I often called my dad in the middle of the week. I knew he’d be alone, and it would be prime time to devote the entirety of the call to him without the distractions of my sisters or mom trying to get on the line. Sorry mom.
We caught up on all kinds of things; usually he wanted to hear what I had been up to and what pictures I had been making on some crazy adventure in the backcountry of Montana. I’m pretty sure he believed living in Montana was rugged and wild, and that I spent my days trapping, hunting, and chasing off the occasional marauding Indian. He asked about the mountains and cowboys living here, and then would refer to a scene in Jeremiah Johnson, or one of the other countless westerns we watched together long ago. I never had the heart to tell him I was actually dragging my knuckles through my days as a clerk, and I was slowly going insane. But these calls, these calls in the middle of the day when the houses were quiet are what kept me balanced. Some days, I could tell my dad would tire quickly, and I could hear his breathing get louder as if he were just about to fall asleep, so I would tell him I had to go to work. I would make it my fault we had to hang up. I never wanted him to feel bad about ending a call. His last words were always, “I’ll tell your mom you called,” and I would say, “no, it’s ok, I’ll call her this weekend.” I was selfish and wanted this to be our time. And, as far as I know, he kept most of these calls between us secret.
My dad has been gone just over a year now, yet I sense him everywhere; it’s in the paint strokes of an old oil painting depicting a western scene, it’s in the times I order iced-tea with Sweet ‘N Low – even though I won’t use it, and it’s in the times I see a characteristic so strong in someone reminiscent of times with my dad, I won’t soon forget it. And one of the times just happened last weekend.
I was shooting a wedding, my first of the season, when I saw something that just startled me. It was in a groomsman, and when I first saw him all dressed up for the day and looking sharp, I also saw something else I couldn’t ignore. In my head he was a near spittin’ image of Lucky Ned Pepper from True Grit. Not the original True Grit with John Wayne, which my dad and I watched countless times, but the recent remake with Jeff Bridges playing Rooster Cogburn. Side-note, the first time I watched the remake I remember thinking of my dad and being nervous for the directors and actors, hoping in hell for them it lived up to my dad’s expectations of what John Wayne did with the original. They succeeded, although my dad still had some criticisms.
If you look up Ned Pepper, or have seen the film, you will see what I mean about the resemblance, and in that resemblance, I saw one of my dad’s favorite films and our times together. Sunday afternoons were spent sitting on the couch watching westerns, sipping iced-tea, all the while my dad narrating his thoughts. In Deke, my new friend, I saw my dad and those memories. I know Deke didn’t understand why I wanted to take his picture that day, or why I was messing with his hair trying to get it just right as my memory directed, or why I kept telling him he couldn’t smile for the picture, but I told him I would explain later. He had no idea what taking his picture meant to me. But, now I hope he does. I wanted to turn Deke into the old west and Ned Pepper, well, someone reminiscent of those times, and specifically an outlaw. My dad taught me to pay attention the details. And probably because he dressed up for his own western shows, I learned the importance of it all, right down to the last stitch. So, with the image of Deke, I took the time with those details. I aged and toned, added scratches and dust for patina, and kept working until the image slowly appeared and spoke to me. I worked those eyes, making them glow like in the old wet plates of those days. The vest, memorable in many westerns and of the times, was a perfect complement to what I was trying to bring out.
Thank you, Deke, for allowing me this.
Thank you, dad, for everything. I miss you, and I hope I made you proud.