Sunday, August 24, 2008

Bob's Magic Horse

Take a second and click on the picture to the left. Look at this merry go round horse. Look at the fracture running down his neck. Look a the amazing detail in the hand carved flowers. (Click on the "Back" arrow when you've finished looking at it and I'll meet you back here.)

Here's how that San Antonio horse came to be here in front of your eyes.

Doug, one of our two traveling companions, did most of the driving on our San Antonio / Houston trip. He’s a little guy who reminded me of a bantam rooster. He drove the streets of San Antonio like Mario Andretti going for the checkered flag but, since he never actually killed anyone, I mostly let him alone except for the occasional sharp intake of breath and soft whimpering sound.

We were on our way to the Botanical Gardens and out of the corner of my eye, we saw an amusement park that looked so completely out of place that all I could do was say “Oh! Oh! Oh!” and point furiously. The long-suffering Doug, who had spent considerable amounts of time in the car with two photographers understood me perfectly. “Oh! Oh! Oh!” in photographer means “Excuse, me Doug. But I see a subject I would very much like to photograph. Would you mind pulling over so we get out of the car and make some photographs?”

To his credit, Doug didn’t sigh or growl. He just pulled over and Sheree and I piled out of the back seat and walked into another era.

The Kiddie Park has been on this tiny strip of land in San Antonio since 1925. I love amusement parks, especially when they are deserted. There’s a very specific feeling that creeps in a place designed to entertain crowds of people when the people are gone. It is a pleasant desolation.

The gate was open so, even though there weren’t any people, Sheree and I walked in. It was the now-familiar San Antonio trick of stepping back in time and listening to the voices and songs of people long gone.

I was standing there, camera limply held in my hand, drinking this in. We’re talking about a place that has entertained children over three plus generations. The rides looked lovingly maintained but so very old. I have no idea why I felt emotional standing there but I did.

“Can I help you?” The voice jolts me back to reality. I see a tall thin man advancing. His arm is in a sling but there’s a manner about his approach that tells me I am about to meet the owner. For just a second I think of him with a striped shirt and armbands. Maybe a straw hat and a bamboo cane. Then the image is gone.

“…the gate was open,” I say. I do NOT want to be sent out of this place yet. “These things are beautiful.”

He looks at me for a long second. I suspect he’s formulating an opinion as to whether I am really a gang-banger cleverly disguised as a genial kinda round Canadian tourist with a camera.

“How old is this park?” I ask. I figure the bestdefense is to get someone to talk about themself.

The look continues for a few seconds and then suddenly his face cracks into a smile and I realize I’m in.

I have met Bob Astin.

“When I was four,” he says with the air of someone who has told this story before, “I came here with my dad. I asked him to buy it for me. He didn’t. So when I was 27, I bought it myself. Been here ever since.”

I am swept up for just a second in how much I immediately like this man. I recall riding merry-go-rounds as a kid and wondering how we could get one to fit into our living room. I remember the sound of the music and the gentle up and down motion of the horse. I remember looking up and watching myself in the mirror and scrunching my eyes up tight and rocking back in the saddle. Yeah. I remember the magic of a carousel. But I grew out of it. Bob didn’t.

He’s warming to his subject now. He takes me to the merry-go-round.

“These horses here?” he says with a daddy pride, “All original. Each one unique. Each one carved by an artist from wood. No additions. Been here since 1925.”

Is it wrong for me to think that this is so cool I can hardly stand it? I look at these horses. So many of them are cracked and lovingly reassembled. They, like the San Antonio Missions, are time travelers. How many little hands have touched these creatures? I cannot stop my own hand from running over the pitted paint and the cracks.

“Kids,” says Bob. “They climb on the legs. They break them.” He shrugs, apparently deciding that children are a force of nature. He doesn’t seem to mind much.

I am blown away by the thought that most of the children who rode here when it was brand new are dead now. Maybe they grew into men who died on a lonely beach during the second world war. Did some go off to nearby NASA and help put a man on the moon?

As I look at these horses, I start thinking about how I am going to convey their stark beauty in a graphic. These are hand-carved horses. Each one is unique. Each one hand painted. These horses served as templates for their modern counterparts. These are the originals.

Bob and I talk for a while. How long, I do not know. But we are chatting like old friends. I suspect it’s because we both get the whole merry-go-round thing. Neither of us has forgotten the sensation of friendly motion and the wind in our hair and each ride that ended too soon. We both see these horses as utterly wonderful things.

I ask him if he will pose for me on the merry-go-round.

“People always asking me to do that,” he says. “Don’t know why.”

But his tone sparkles just a little and we both know why.

“Look straight at the camera, Bob,” I say.

“I’m lookin’ at ya,” he says. He isn’t sure whether to smile or not so there’s this odd expression on his face. It’s perfect.

I wanted the image to be a little off center to draw the eye. I want the image to be odd because the subject is odd. The background is black and white while he is in color to bring the modern man into the historical context. The flag is a wonderful background component, so I allowed a little color here.

The horses are the stars of the show, though. I cannot stop looking at them.

My wife comes and reminds me that our very patient travel companions are waiting.

I smile and nod at Bob.

He smiles at me and for an instant I see at once the face of the kid who wanted to have his own amusement park…and the man who bought one.

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