December 7, 2019

An Accidental Walk Through History

Retro camera on wood table background, vintage color tone; Nikom Khotjan / EyeEm/ Getty Images

It’s true. Sometimes the best things happen when you least expect them. 

Our family was planning a trip to Chicago to attend a bat mitzvah. My wife and I have many relatives and deep roots in Chicago. 

The night before leaving, while discussing whom we would visit, my wife said we should make time for Aliza. Aliza was one of my wife’s best friends from high school who she hadn’t seen in a number of years. 

“Give me her address,” I said as I opened my cellphone’s GPS. 

She did. 

“This address is Indiana. Are you sure this is right?” I asked. 

“She told me it’s not that far from Chicago,” my wife answered. “Plus, she and I already made plans to visit on Sunday.”

Looking at maps on Google, I saw lots of highways. I worried that if we missed an exit, our kids could declare us legally dead.  

“OK. Guess I’ll bring a book to read,” I said.

“I heard her husband is really nice,” my wife said. “He does photography, I think. We won’t stay long.”

When Sunday arrived in beautiful Chicago, we headed out. I focused on listening to Google’s directions. An hour and a half later, I heard those wonderful words from the GPS: You have arrived at your destination. 

After the initial hugs, my wife introduced me to Aliza, who then introduced us to her husband, Charles, a seemingly quiet and polite gentleman. Soon the two high school alumni were thumbing through yearbooks, reminiscing and laughing. 

Charles felt as awkward as I did. He asked me about the drive and then we talked about the weather. That killed about a minute and a half. I remembered what my wife said about his interest in photography and saw some photos of kids on the walls. 

“Nice photos,” I said. “Grandchildren?”

“Just snapshots,” he said.  

Charles then suggested that he and I leave our wives to themselves. He started to walk down the hall and motioned for me to follow.

About five steps later, we were in what appeared to be the den. There was a desk, computer and several wood shelves. But this wasn’t an ordinary den.

On the wall to the left hung a large photograph of the Beatles, my lifelong obsession. I thought I had seen every Beatles photo but I’d never seen this one. Before I could ask, my eye caught a shot that was familiar: Richard Nixon the day after his resignation. 

“These shots are amazing,” I said. “Do you collect historical photos?”

He smiled. “No, I took these.”

Over the next two hours Charles told me his story. After a decade working as a news photographer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he joined the Associated Press Dallas bureau in 1971. Two years later, he was transferred to Washington, D.C., to cover the Watergate hearings, which led him to photograph Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford’s presidency and Jimmy Carter’s election. He traveled on Air Force One with Ford to Vladivostok, Soviet Union, for the SALT II talks and on a trip to Japan. He was steps away from Ford when Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pointed a pistol at the president in an assassination attempt. 

I felt like a kid in a candy store. I asked to see more. We went to his computer, where he showed me his photographic archives. In addition to presidents and politicians, he had photos of celebrities, sports figures, social issues, you name it. And of course, the Beatles when they played Atlanta Stadium. 

Looking at all the people and events he documented was looking at the unfolding of history. And every shot had a story behind it. 

Then it was time to leave. 

We said our goodbyes. Charles gave me two prints as mementos. The photo of the Beatles and a shot of Louis Armstrong playing in a nightclub. I asked that he sign them. He did — Charles Bennett. 

The purpose of the trip was for my wife and Aliza to catch up on their history. Little did I know I would also take a historical journey — through the lens of one amazing photographer.

Harvey Farr runs a Los Angeles-based public relations firm specializing in nonprofit marketing.