A New Awareness

A+New+Awareness

Eric Mens

Thank God, I’m graduating in June.

Shortly after classes started in September 1966, I moved into a friend’s house to complete my senior year. The atmosphere in my stepmother’s home had become increasingly toxic. I had moved in with her to escape my father’s home and his latest marriage. ‘Ma’ was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Despite her protestations, she helped me early-enlist in the Army. I would report for induction the day after my June graduation and two weeks before my 18th birthday. 

I had always been an A/B student. But I had started to wear my hair long and hung out with my fraternity brothers on weekends, usually on unchaperoned camping trips or at a lakeside cottage. That meant lots of underage drinking, late nights out, and an unhappy stepmother trying to raise a delinquent son five years younger than me. The Army was my ticket out of a town that I had grown to despise.

One school morning, standing at my locker, I turned to my friend JC and said, “I’m quitting school and hitchhiking to San Francisco. I’m done here.”

“What?!” he exclaimed. “Are you nuts? You are not doing that! I’ll talk to my parents tonight. You’ll move in with us.”

And so, I did. ‘Ma’ did not resist or complain when I told her that a friend and fellow Scout had invited me to live out my senior year with his family. 

That semester I signed up for an Art Class to complete my list of electives and required courses.

My instructor, Mrs. JP, would be my photography teacher. In the eyes of a 17-year-old, she was a gorgeous, long-legged, dark-haired beauty. Her long hair swishing about her shoulders as she walked about the school captivated me. I was in love. 

Unfortunately, she was married to my English teacher – a retired senior enlisted man. Mr. P treated his wide-eyed students with a straight back, no humor, and all business. Sitting in his class, I daydreamed about HER and how she deserved much better than him – she deserved ME!

Mrs. JP patiently taught me how to use a Weston light meter, operate a Yashica twin-lens reflex camera, and develop and print the black and white film. She set us loose on the school campus to begin our assignments.

Wandering around the campus, I struggled to find worthy material. Each week, my classmates would show and talk about the shots they had taken – mainly of students involved in school activities.

As the semester’s end neared, I panicked. Mrs. JP wanted to publish our work in the school’s annual Art Bulletin – a compendium of student photos, poems, and short stories. I had nothing to contribute.

I wandered about the wood-fringed campus and discovered a long row of rusty barb wire stretched along a collapsing stone wall. Perhaps the farmer had laid the wire to prevent critters from harassing his herd of cows. Framed against a gray, cloud-swept sky, the scene reminded me of the WW I front-lines that I had seen on television documentaries. I took several shots. 

I discovered that by laying down on the floor in the auditorium, an empty and dimly lit row of seat supports looked like a row-upon row of Roman or Grecian arches. I snapped away. At JC’s girlfriend’s house, I discovered that laying down beneath the chandelier gracing her hallway, I could get a star-shaped perspective of the brightly lit chandelier. 

Hours after processing film and printing photos, I had several shots that I felt pretty ambivalent about. They provided a unique perspective through my eyes, but I wasn’t sure how Mrs. JP would react.

Handing her the prints, I watched her reaction closely. Choosing the images described previously, she looked at me and said, “You’ve got a unique perspective, Eric. A good eye. These are great! All three will go into our Art Bulletin.”

My heart soared. Wow! She likes what I did!

“It would be a shame if you didn’t follow through on your creative talents,” she continued.

I was, indeed, in love.