Twilight at the Root Glen

The semi-gauzy illumination of the morning fills the cloudy, chilly sky.

And deep along the wooden walkways of a small arboretum on the campus of a Central New York private college, I’m hoping that the photos I take this early morning will soothe my troubled, fractured soul.

I’m here on the campus of Hamilton College, down in the depths of the peaceful and tranquil Root Glen.  I’ve mentioned in the past that the Root Glen helped keep me level and calm while the rest of my campus life spun around me like lo mein in a hurricane.

The deep inferiority complex was something I dealt with in four years on campus.  I was woefully unprepared for a life that would take me nearly two hours away from any comfort zone I previously knew.  I didn’t belong here in 1981, and I wasn’t sure I still belonged there in 1985.

And here I am.  I’ve packed a pack of high-contrast Efke B&W film into the Rolleiflex on this unusually chilly, damp summer morning.

What in the world do I hope to accomplish while everyone else is still in slumber?

Trust me.  There were moments when, with a campus of over 1,600 undergraduates, I felt like the loneliest person on the face of the Earth.  Lonely and unwanted and pathetic and useless.  And yet, even with those feelings festering and flipping inside me, I knew that staying at Hamilton College was my one escape, my one chance to break away from the toxicity that was my family.

My camera is ready; I’ve added the manual shutter cable release to capture crisp, tack-sharp tripod pictures that are free of camera shake or motion blur.

I gently press the shutter release, holding it down for a few seconds.  Here I am.

It’s 1981, and I’m away from my familial torments.  I had to get away from my parents.  And no matter how much my brothers and sisters loved and adored my stepfather, to me he was a monster who beat me and belittled me and bullied me and broke me.

I had to get away from my relatives, the ones that still thought I could stay home and take care of their kids and be an extra dependent for a welfare check, instead of actually attending school and achieving a real goal.  Even in those first days of college, I still had requests from my aunt to come home and watch the kids for a few weeks.  “You’re smart enough,” she once said to me. “You can catch up with whatever you missed.  If you can attend college based on attending a pretend high school, you can do anything.”

Yeah.  My aunt always called the Street Academy of Albany, my high school, a “pretend school.”  Never mind the fact that my Regents diploma is just as good as any other Regents diploma in New York State.

Another shot with the shutter release.

I was emotionally awkward in college.   I was lacking in social graces.  I didn’t understand at times that people were not laughing with me – in some cases, they were laughing at me.  I went through two dormroom moves in my first semester – one because my college roommate and I didn’t work well together (I think the college computer system matched us up because we were both from the Northeast and we didn’t smoke), and one because my neighbors didn’t want me nearby.

I tried to mask everything with an outward personality that probably drove away more people than it attracted.  I was, for all intents and purposes, a knucklehead.

Nobody can understand.  It’s so hard.  So emotionally draining.  It’s the vicious self-doubt that creeps and crawls and bites me.  And during reunion weekend, I find comfort in conversations with my classmates, with thirty years of distance from those 1980’s years.  The shared experience, the knowledge that, despite my insular feelings, all of us went through the wars.  We all dealt with the best and the worst of the college experience.  The temptations and the derailments.  The questions about what we would eventually do with our lives.

Graduation Day.  It’s 1985.  In the morning I’m still in North Dormitory, my clothes all packed and stored and ready to ship away.  My Grandma Betty and my Aunt Elaine have traveled to the campus, so have members of my family.  I receive my diploma and a ceremonial wooden cane.  The diploma was returned in 2013 so that the college would have an example of a diploma from that era; the cane was lost and later replaced.  And by the end of the night, I’m back living with my aunt and uncle in Ballston Spa and feeling like four years has been a dream and I’ve woken up to a life of misery.

I need to get my life together.  Within days, I’ve moved out of that dead-end locale to a third-story walk-up studio apartment with an overview of the lake at Washington Park.  Escape.  A new life.  A new chapter.

Take another picture.  Keep on going.  Don’t waste a shot.

And that was my mantra.  Don’t waste a shot.  I spent four years in college, take that impetus and find something to build upon it.

A few years later, I received some money for my published articles.  A few years after that, writing assignments for magazines.  One by one.  Animato.  Hockey Ink.  Goldmine.  Antique Trader.  MOJO.  The Academy of Country Music Hall of Fame.  Hustler.  American Brewer.  Basketball Digest.  Hockey Digest.  Football Digest.  This digest.  That digest.

And then, during my Goldmine years, came the books.  Warman’s American Records, two volumes.  Eleven cover stories with Goldmine.  Interviews with superstars and legends.  Treasured moments, portions of my life I will never forget.  The artists I used to play on college radio station WHCL (88.7 FM) were now talking to me for Goldmine publications.  This is an amazing moment.

And then came the photography.  Capturing art in a digital image; freezing a second in an analogue filmbase.  Self-taught.  Self-contained.  Shared.  Appreciated.  Some of my pieces are now residing in new homes.  I am humbled and thankful.  The reunion recruitment spokesperson, Paula Clancy, mentions my photographs as something to see during our reunion dinner.  Claps and cheers from my friends.

And a blog.  Can’t believe I’m pushing six years with the TU.  Six years; it doesn’t even feel like six seconds.  K-Chuck Radio.  Collarworld.  Iverhill.  Amish Mafia reviews.  A casket filled with record albums.  A movie club based on a throwaway John Travolta line in Pulp Fiction. 

Of course it all came from my four years at Hamilton.  How could it not?  How could I be so dense as to never realize it?  That it wasn’t just a college institution.  It wasn’t just classrooms and lessons.  It wasn’t just.   It just was.

Take another picture.

It’s Sunday morning, the last day of Reunion Weekend.  I’m at the Chapel, the iconic house of worship in the center of the campus.  It’s an interdenominational faith service and remembrance.  In the program, I note the names of eleven classmates from my graduation year.  Eleven classmates who could not attend our 30th reunion.  Or maybe they did attend, in spirit.  Terry Blunt.  Gregg Kreider.  Maia Sinisi.  Dan Kopel.  Randy Shure.  Glimpses of memories.  Fragments of moments.  Their journeys are over.  But memories of them still continue in all of us.

Find that one frame, that one shot.  The one that captures the journey.  The bridges that span the chasms of despair.  The journey to the finish.  That one shot is here, Chuck.  You took it.  You took that photo on a chilly Saturday morning in 2015, at a moment when you were the only person awake on the entire campus.  This is the culmination of everything imaginable.  This was the step.  Guided on the way by professors and administrators.  Assisted by counselors and friends and compatriots.

This is the shot.

Take it now and stop talking.

Root Glen.  Rolleiflex Automat MX camera, efke 100 film.  Photo by Chuck Miller.
Root Glen. Rolleiflex Automat MX camera, efke 100 film. Photo by Chuck Miller.


Nice like spice.

And for all intents and purposes…

Emotional batteries recharged.