Seems that all I ever thought about when I was in college was money and how to get enough of it to stay alive. And so it came to pass that one day I agreed to sell my camera to a fellow student I shall call Sandbag, because that’s the name by which he was known in our dormitory. Sandbag agreed to pay twenty dollars, which in 1964 was enough to sustain me for at least two weeks.
I had bought the camera ten years earlier for seventy-four dollars, which was at least ten times more than anyone in my family had ever paid for a camera. I never could have afforded it, had not Barney DeVietti, proprietor of Barney’s Photo Shop, agreed to sell it to me on the installment plan. Five dollars a month for fifteen months! The Signet 40 was a top of the line Kodak, rivaled only by the Signet 35. Barney had both models in his display case, and I foolishly chose the 40 because it had a top shutter speed of 1/400 of a second, whereas the 35 had just 1/300. Knowing what I know now, I would have opted for the 35’s superior Ektar lens over the 3.5 Ektanon. No matter, my career as a teenage Cyclops was off and running.
I was the only kid in town with a 35mm camera, one of only five 35mm’s in the entire county. My scoutmaster Ray Downard owned an Argus C-3, Barney owned a Leica M, and Dean Brown had brought back a Leica F from Germany. Jimmy Stagg of Carbonville packed an Aries.
Jimmy, the official school yearbook and newspaper photographer, took me under his wing. He had his own darkroom, complete with running water and an Omega D-2 enlarger. I adored the guy, and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t the most popular kid at Carbon High. Didn’t understand why he went to the cinema alone, Aries in hand, which he would use to snap pictures of the silver screen. Didn’t understand why he had accumulated a vast record collection against they day he might be able to afford a record player.
But I digress. After Jimmy graduated I became the official school yearbook and newspaper photographer. At basketball games I occupied what had been Jimmy’s spot, on the hardwood floor underneath the backboard, my back against a brick wall, following the action through my viewfinder window. One night my view, normally blocked by the referee’s derriere, became obscured by a rapidly expanding basketball. Pow! My Signet 40 took the brunt of it, and for a short time the game was delayed as I gathered up various bits and pieces of the lens barrel.
My camera went back to the factory for repairs, and thereafter became a backup unit as I had spotted an Exakta VXIIa in Barney’s showcase, which—thanks to the installment plan—soon became mine. All through the Sixties I viewed the world through an f/2 58mm Zeiss Biotar. After I accumulated a 135mm Komura tele and a Meyer 40mm, there was no longer room in my gadget bag for the Signet 40—but plenty of room in my growling, empty stomach! And thus Sandbag became the camera’s second owner.
Some years passed and I realized I had made a terrible mistake by selling my Kodak for a handful of magic beans. I offered to buy it back from Sandbag, but no, he refused to sell.
More years passed—in fact, decades! Forty years down the road I got a letter from Sandbag, now living in Coaldale, Alberta, Canada. For some reason I am someone he remembers from college, probably because the two of us used to while away the lonely hours playing checkers in his room.
I sent him a photograph, and an autographed copy of my book. “Nice to hear from you,” I wrote. “NOW can I have my camera back?”
The other day it arrived, in a crushed cardboard box marked FRAGILE. It was no longer in one piece, and some of the pieces are missing. It no longer looks and feels like my camera—but then, I suppose I no longer resemble the young man who years ago tramped the moors with fire in my eyes and my most prized possession in my hands. The two of us have become strangers, like a once married couple after years and years of going our separate ways. I’m not even sure we remain friends.