- Historic Sites
A LIFETIME AGO A QUIET STRANGER passed through the author’s hometown and came away with a record of both personal and national importance
December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
The next morning I was waiting at the door when the public library opened at nine. I headed straight for the single viewer, quickly loaded my microfilm—and stepped back in time.
The first part of the reel consisted of pictures made in Marshall, Lufkin, Houston, and other Texas cities by various FSA photographers. Then, about halfway through the ninety-five-foot reel, I came to what I had been looking for.
A typewritten introduction to Series 551 stated: “San Augustine, Texas. April, 1939. Small town in farming region on Saturday afternoon. Activity and parked vehicles in court house square. Negro and white farmers and families in town. Automobiles, wagons, mules, horses, etc.…”
Faces from my boyhood looked out at me as I scrolled on through Series 551 and 552. Lee had taken pictures of almost everyone in the courthouse and jail. There were several shots of County Judge R. N. Stripling and the county commissioners, and there was Dad again, sitting at his typewriter recording an oil and gas lease. Among other candid shots of county officials, I recognized Justice of the Peace Maurice Armstrong, Tax Collector McNeil Sanders, and Sheriff Hoyt Marshall.
As I neared the end of the series, I experienced a sudden breathlessness.
The next group of images had been made at the grammar school. As I neared the end of Series 553, Library of Congress Photo No. 33065-D slid into view: “San Augustine, Texas. April, 1939. Grade school children making books from comic strips.” The shot showed several fourth or fifth graders huddled around a blond boy who was busy pulling the staples from a Weekly Reader magazine in order to remove the comic section entitled “The Circus and Sue.” I immediately recognized my friends Maurice Mitchell, Charles Withers, and James Hooker. Several other faces looked familiar, but I couldn’t put names to them. And that boy in the center, the towhead in striped overalls, mouth screwed sideways as he wielded the staple puller…
I strained to recall that moment half a century ago when a flashbulb sizzled and Russell Lee’s Contax froze a tiny moment of our lives, suspending Charles, Maurice, James, and me in time, eleven-year-olds forever. I had some sense of a craggy-faced man pointing a camera and the flash so startling me that I dropped the magazine.
For I was the boy in the striped overalls. No question about it. Fifty-odd years ago the famous FSA photographer had snapped my picture, and now I was seeing it for the first time.
Looking at Photo No. 33065-D, I felt a sense of completion, as if my life had come full circle and the final loose ends had been neatly tied together. No man wants to slide down the shoot-the-chutes of life without leaving some bit of personal graffiti to mark his passage, even if it’s nothing more than his handprint in wet cement or his initials carved on a sycamore tree. Now, out of the blue, a great photographer had given my friends and me a small but real immortality.