engineer. noun. 1. Someone who designs or builds engines and machinery, or anyway knows how to. 2. Someone who operates engines or other machines or complicated equipment. 3. Someone who makes complicated things happen. verb. Make something complicated happen. From Anglo-Norman and Old French, ultimately from the same Latin as gave us ingenious.
This album is from about 15 years ago, plus or minus. Family and friends. There’s Carol, lips pursed, looking like she was getting up to mischief in some place she wasn’t supposed to be, which in fact was exactly the case. You can see the bookshelf and camera cabinet behind her. She moved to Vancouver and Jacob hasn’t heard from her in years. There are Pam’s friends Dick and Jane. Jacob always wondered if they got married just because of their names, but they seemed to have fun anyway. In this photo Jane’s hand is swinging in a wide gesture and just connecting with a glass of wine. Jacob could have warned her – he saw it coming – but then he wouldn’t have gotten the photo. And here’s a photo of a puppy and a model train.
Jacob inhales sharply just a little, then raises his eybrows and exhales through his nose. He remembers this photo: he shot a roll of medium-format getting it, even though it was just for fun. The train was no problem, of course, but that puppy. They don’t go where you want them to and do go where you don’t want them to. And when you’re shooting that close, you need to stop the lens down to get enough in focus, which means a slow shutter speed, and the little bugger kept moving.
He flicks the page abruptly over to the next, but I’m not done telling you about this photo. We can let him take close looks at dinner party pictures while I say a bit more that you’ll want to know.
First: The puppy belonged to Lucian, his older son, the one who is now a lawyer, rapidly upwardly mobile and Important even at the fresh age of 25. He loved that puppy. It’s buried under one of the trees off to the side of the house.
Second: The model train set belonged to Carl, his younger son, the one who is now an engineer, but not a train engineer, the other kind. Carl loved trains as a kid and decided to become an engineer. But then as he got older he decided that he didn’t want to just drive machines, he wanted to design them. So he has his B.Eng. now and is starting at the bottom but will surely do well.
Now take a look at the interface between the puppy and the train in this picture. It’s not an accidental occurrence. The puppy wasn’t normally allowed into the basement where the train was, and anyway the train setup was at waist height, where the puppy couldn’t get without being lifted. And Lucian wouldn’t have liked having his puppy put on the train tracks and Carl wouldn’t have liked having the puppy put on his train tracks. So, obviously, this photo was taken one day while they were at school. Jacob was bored and had too much to do so of course he had this great idea for a fun picture to take instead. He didn’t bring his studio lights down; it’s just lit with the room light. He set the camera on a tripod and used a macro extender, and he set up the shot, and then he went and got the puppy. Which, as already mentioned, was a pain in the ass because, you know, they can’t be talked to. He finally got it to stand still facing in the right direction by staring at it from behind the camera and growling slowly.
So what you see is a mid-century locomotive with maroon livery, pointed obliquely forward, dominating the left third of the picture, appearing to be moving ahead into the frame (of course it was not actually moving), the cars behind it stretching out of the frame to the left; it is on a middle track of three, heading to a switch where it will have to go onto one or the other of two tracks, but standing in between those two tracks is a massive puppy, tan and white, in a half-crouch with its tail pointing up. The train set is very well made; a person might almost be fooled if it weren’t for the puppy. These days many people would say the puppy was Photoshopped in, because most people have no idea what’s worth using Photoshop to alter and what’s better arranged in real life.
But also, a person who looked more carefully would see some other details. The engineer, leaning out the window of the locomotive, even from behind looks odd and stiff and shiny and more like an unfortunate and paralyzed passenger of a juggernaut than anyone in true control. A shed by the side of the tracks is tilted at a stiff, awkward angle (the puppy did that). The cabin by the switch has an unnatural glow from the little incandescent bulb in it. The grass looks a bit like felt. The gravel under the tracks is made of rocks that are rather large for gravel. And the depth of field of the focus is too shallow for this to be life-size unless the camera and lens were improbably large.
But who looks at the little details?
Well, Carl did. When he got home he noticed that the train had been moved and that the shed was off-kilter. “Dad! Can’t you find something else to photograph?” He hadn’t see the photo, but the explanation was obvious. Especially after he observed a puppy-paw print in the felt. “And don’t put the dog on my train set!”
“You put Emma on his train set?” It was Lucian’s turn. “That’s not safe for a puppy! Can’t I have one thing that you’re not busy click-click-clicking away at?”
That last jab was not altogether fair. You can see how short the stack of personal photo albums is. And Jacob resisted posing his sons for photographs. They were… personal. It would have been like revealing something of himself. Pam came into his life, but Lucian and Carl came out of it.
Pretty far out of it now.
And when they turned cool to him and distanced themselves from him, he felt it like an aging man feels his muscles and joints turn against him. It doesn’t seem decent that it would happen but you know it’s inevitable and won’t get better.
Part of it is neglect. We don’t pay enough attention to our muscles and joints, and Jacob didn’t pay enough attention to his family. All those other guys worked so hard to be friends with their sons and called them “Buddy” and played catch with them. Jacob could not see the sense in that. They were an intimate part of his life; they were, you know, there. But that’s not enough. And now they’re not there, not really.
They’re certainly not here in this house. They’ve moved out and taken their stuff with them, most of it. Some was gone already. That train set. Carl spent countless hours with it as a child, but by his later adolescence he just kept meaning to get back to it. Too busy. Every so often at a random time he would go down and turn it all on and watch it go, a dreamy look on his face. And then turn it all off again and come back up for dinner. And then he went to university and it was just gathering dust and taking up space. Another photographer, Doug, mentioned to Jacob that his son was curious about model railroads, so Jacob arranged a swap: the railroad for a very nice Linhof Master Technika kit. Jacob surely got the better side of the bargain. Also, he kept the Linhof in great shape and used it regularly, while Doug’s kid hardly used the train kit and broke some of it and it ended up in boxes in Doug’s basement.
I don’t think I need to describe the scene the following month when Carl came home for Christmas in a nostalgic mood and went down the the basement to spend some time with his trains.
Jacob’s efforts to show Carl what a masterpiece of fine engineering the Linhof was were wasted. He didn’t point out that he had paid for every piece of the train set with money he had made taking pictures; he could see that wouldn’t help.
I’m not supposed to see this far into the future, but Carl will get a model train set when he retires from engineering and will spend the last 25 years of his life being that nice old guy with the amazing train set that all the kids love to come look at.
While Carl was freaking out over his missing train set, Lucian barely heard the noise. He was out in the side yard, where he always went first when he got home, to spend some time at the spot by the tree where Emma, his cute little puppy, was buried. She had been there for years; she barely made it to a year old. She might have been daunting to Carl’s little engineer, a great obstacle to his maroon locomotive, but she was unnoticeable to Jacob and no obstacle at all to his burgundy hatchback when he backed it out from the house one Saturday. He did not know anything unusual had happened when he put the car in drive and rushed down the long gravel driveway to go to a photo shoot.
It is true, as Jacob pointed out when he got home that evening and discovered the whole house in mourning, that the dog should not have been there. It is true that Lucian should have been keeping an eye on it. It is also true, however, that Lucian had been around the side of the house with the puppy and had just gone over to the back because his mother was calling him.
Anyway, Pam will be grateful if she never hears another person scream like Lucian screamed when he came back around, looked for Emma, and found her.
At least Carl was in the basement at the time.
But regardless of the sequence of events – the puppy running away just as Pam called Lucian, Jacob backing out just at a time when he couldn’t see the dog, the dog being entirely silent the whole time – everyone in the family always remembered the death of Emma as being Jacob’s fault.
So yeah. There’s only so long Jacob was going to look at that picture before turning the page.