This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Everything In Focus

11 August 2018

The young soldier aims carefully,
checks the sight line one last time,
adjusts the tripod,

smiles at his target,
and clicks the shutter.

It's a friendly grin
that I wouldn't meet until two years later,

but one I grew to know all too well
as I became his favorite quarry
to practice his camera marksmanship.

This is my father,
Lt. Russell E. Brubaker,
communication officer, Company L,
3rd Battalion,
38th Infantry Regiment,
2nd Infantry Division, United States Army.

It's 1952 and he is in Korea.

He was 23 years old,
just a year into his army commission,
and newly married.
 Last weekend would have been
he and my mother's 67th wedding anniversary.

Here he looks into the camera while sitting in the driver's seat of his company's jeep. He's stepped up a uniform level from his field dress and wears a tie neatly tucked military fashion into his shirt. The wheel well of his jeep is marked Rock of the Marne, the official nickname of the 38th Infantry Regt., earned during the regiment's service in 1918 during World War 1.

But this war was different. It began at the end of June 1950 with the invasion of South Korea by the forces of communist North Korea. That summer my father was just finishing ROTC at the University of Maryland where he and my mother were students. By the summer of 1951, the war had escalated into a global power struggle far beyond the Korean peninsula, and American troops were fighting Chinese soldiers as well as those of North Korea. My father was sent over in February 1952 and returned to the US in December, but the conflict did not end until the armistice of July 1953. By then my parents were happily living in Williamsburg, Virginia while my dad transferred to the US Army's transportation corps. His army career continued for another 23 years with postings in France, Washington, Korea again, Kansas, Germany, Virginia, Vietnam, Georgia, and finally Virginia once more where he retired at the rank of Lt. Colonel.

Obviously I wasn't around yet during his first time in Korea, and it wasn't until a couple of years later in France that we were first introduced to each other. Later when he went to Vietnam in 1969, I was a self-absorbed teenager and paid little attention to his service in that conflict. When he died in 2014 at the age of 85, my biggest regret was never taking the time to ask him about the stories behind these photos and what his war experience was really like.

Later that year, as my mom and I cleared up the countless boxes of ephemera acquired during their life together, I discovered dozens of small notebooks on which my dad recorded hundreds of lists and recollections about his life. I had seen some before in his car or around his desk and recliner, but I'd never bothered to look at what he wrote in them. It seems that whenever he was my mom's chauffeur for her many visits to doctor's offices, he would stay in the car with the dog and write down in these pads whatever reminiscence came to mind.

Written in no particular order on steno pads and school notebooks are lists of every place he called home including the dates (1952 Korea was number 14 of 42 homes in total); every car he owned (this army jeep isn't on that list since it was government issue, but it ought to be number 2 of 23 cars and trucks, and that's not counting the black and gold 1925 Harley Davidson motorcycle with a rusted out gas tank and bald tires that he purchased for $95 in Westminster, MD); and numerous lists of every camera he owned (and there were a lot of cameras!!). 

In this second photo of Lt. Brubaker standing up in his company's jeep, there is a narrow leather strap across his chest which I believe is attached to a camera case holding the same camera he stands behind in the first photo. It's his prize Swiss made Alpa 35mm SLR, which he bought in Tokyo when he was on leave in 1952. It was his fourth camera in a long list that eventually numbered over 300. Fortunately this list was put into a sortable spreadsheet format. There's a second list for camera lens that's even longer! 

The Alpa was my dad's first professional camera after getting hooked on photography in college when he used various Kodak Brownie cameras. One page in his notebook memoirs is devoted to these first cameras and how he developed the film in a closet at his home and at night printed photos in the attic. When he received orders for Korea he bought a Universal 16mm "spy camera" in Washington, D.C. which he carried in his first aid pack. It produced very small 2"x3" photos which are grainy with fuzzy focus.

All these photos are in a large album devoted to his Korean War photos which he put together a year later. It's the old fashioned kind made with black kraft paper and the photos are held on the pages by little gummed corners. Written in white ink are captions my dad added. Just so I can claim a musical photo for this week too, here is one of those 16mm snapshots taken in 1952 of a US Army Band during a parade drill in Korea. My father writes: 2d Div Band marches in review. Notice that the leader is out of step – Ha –.   (The leader is stepping left-right while the bandsmen are all right-left. My dad took pride in his marching style from ROTC training.)

Over several years my dad filled these mixed up notebooks with a number of short accounts, funny tales, and long lists of trivia and personal history. It's a treasure trove of detail about his life and our family history, but especially on both his army career and his later volunteer work teaching civilians safe boating operation in Virginia Beach with the US Coast Guard Auxiliary. Combining these notes with the myriad printed photos, color slides, negatives, and digital images I have inherited is like an archeologist puzzling over ancient wax tablets and broken pottery. He remembered the names of fellow officers, the men in his platoon, and some of the Korean people who worked around his bivouac. The war turned out to be just the first chapter in a very long narrative for him, illustrated with thousands of pictures. I'm very fortunate that he left me this gift of his memories to give some context to his photos.

This last photo of Lt. Brubaker holding a camera is also from Korea in 1952, but it was glued into a different album. Like the Alpa SLR this is also a high quality camera but to use a military comparison, where the Alpa was a pistol, this is a cannon. It's called a Speed Graphic made for the military by the Graflex Company of Rochester, NY. It's the iconic commercial camera used by magazine and newspaper photographers. The camera design requires single 4"x5" plates slipped into the back of the camera to take each photo. My dad may have used this in his duties as a communication officer in Korea, but I think he just exchanged cameras one day with the battalion's photographer so that each soldier could get a snap of the other.

Many years later he would acquire one of these same heavy duty cameras, complete with stout case and flash accessory. Even though it was Navy issue he was very fond of it and it was a feature in his collection. In 2015, for better or worse, my mom and I decided we could not manage the disposal of my dad's numerous cameras and lens, and we sold the lot of them to a dealer.

Fortunately I've kept a few for nostalgia's sake, but I think the real value was never in the cameras anyway. For him it was discovering a creative pursuit that lasted a lifetime and produced thousands of photos. And each and every one was first reflected in his eye before the camera shutter clicked. For me, his son, it was how he introduced me to a fascinating connection between words, photographs, and history. It's what inspires my own eccentric collecting and this blog. When I read his handwriting in those notebooks, a style that is both conversational and military efficient, I can still hear his voice. If a camera can sustain a smile across time, handwritten words can preserve a sound of love.


For this weekend's Sepia Saturday theme I want to include one other small photograph from one of my dad's family albums put together before he even went to college. It's taken about 1946-48, I think, on a family gathering in Reisterstown, Maryland on the lawn of my Uncle Lawrence's home.  Two women and a man are taking photos of the same subject which is off frame. Each one has a different kind of camera that perfectly shows how the format of old photos was determined by the type of camera and how it was held.

Standing on the left is Cecile with a simple box camera. It used a tiny reflective prism or mirror set into one corner of the box in order to crudely aim the camera. I beleive this is one of the cameras I still have. It was quite challenging to frame photos with a box camera as the little thumbnail image in the viewfinder was reversed left to right. Generally they were held at waist height for a rectangular "portrait mode' oriented photo, but some could be tipped over for a "landscape mode" too. The shutter was activated by a simple side spring switch which could accidentally produce multiple exposure photos.

The man on the right, who I think is Lawrence Brubaker, looks down on a twin-lens reflex camera which uses wide format film that takes a square image. This camera has two lens on the front, one for the film and the other for the viewfinder. Both lens are controlled with a single geared knob which adjusts the image into focus so that what the photographer sees is what the film will see. However, like the box camera, the viewer is a mirror reversed image left to right. Again the photographer holds the camera at various positions from chest to waist height as they look down at the prism image. These cameras often had great lens and were so finely crafted that they are still popular today with film photographers.

It's not exactly clear what the third camera is that's held by the kneeling woman. But the position of the viewfinder held to her eye means that her camera will produce an image from head height, albeit in this instance at waist height as she is kneeling.The camera's shape looks like it has film moving from side to side which creates a rectangular format photo. But it's the arrangement of a viewfinder which shows not a mirror image but a true-to-life image which give this camera an ability to "point and shoot". It was a novel technology that was improved upon over the next few decades.

Perhaps one day I'll figure out what the subject of their cameras was. Someone smiling?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
Check the F-stop.
Advance the film,
and Click the shutter
for more cameras.


Barbara Rogers said...

What a great collection about your photographer father! And what you said about hearing his voice reminded me that this morning I was trying to remember my father's Texas accent. He's been gone since the 80s, so I guess that's the limit of my auditory memories. However I probably could mimic my mother without any problem! Cameras are such wonderful ways to capture moments in time!

Postcardy said...

Great photos of your father and family members with cameras!

tony said...

Just Perfect Michael!
Thank you for sharing some of his memories here.
Like you, my dad saw Service & I never got to hear his rememberings in person.But for you to have access to these treasures is lovely and important.
Again,thank you for introducing your father.


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