In past posts I have confessed to an obsession with the passing of time. I have had this obsession all my life. I am not sure why, but I have. On New Year's Eve, 1958, I wanted my grandparents to get me a jar with a lid.
"Why?" they asked.
"Because I want to save some some 1958 air," I told them. "Then I will have a little bit of 1958 forever."
When I look back on this memory, it makes me smile and shake my head at the way a kid's mind works--or at least the way MY mind worked. But I also still feel more or less the same way: very aware of the passing of time and wanting to preserve the present moment for future reference and for experiencing it once more. I guess you could say my little jar of air was my child's version of a time machine. But even though I am not filling jars with the air of time anymore, I still feel pretty much the same now as I did then. It's why I love antiques. It's why I play jukeboxes. It's why I will watch anything produced by Ken Burns. It is also why I read the obituary from my on line, home town newspaper every day: The Journal News, Rockland County section.
Yeah, I know. That sounds like something your grandmother would enjoy doing. Still, I do it. Everyday. Sometimes I see the names of parents of high school friends. Every now and then, I see the names of the high school friends themselves. Believe me, that is sobering. The strange part is that when I see no names that are familiar to me, I have a macabre sense of disappointment: no news, nothing of interest. And then, when I do, I wish I hadn't, because I would really have enjoyed seeing that person again at some point in the imaginary future, even though I have not spoken to him or her for that past 35 years.
One of the nice parts about reading obits is that I also check up on who else died, as reported by the Associated Press. In their little sidebar I learned that Killer Kowalski died even before I saw it in the Times. I learned that silent film star Anita Page passed away at 98. I read about famous Peanuts animator Bill Melendez. And I learned about the death of Jim Hoyt.
Who is Jim Hoyt? Jim Hoyt was the last surviving veteran of a group of four soldiers who liberated Buchenwald concentration camp. Jim Hoyt was a an extraordinary guy and an ordinary guy at the same time, because Jim Hoyt was part of a generation of countless soldiers who fought bravely and namelessly in a war unlike any other, where there was a clearly defined evil of great magnitude that needed defeating. Jim Hoyt lived a quiet life, was not a person of renown, and we would most likely never know about him except that he participated in The Oxford Project.
The Oxford Project, from an editorial quote on Amazon:
In 1984, photographer Peter Feldstein set out to photograph every single resident of his town, Oxford, Iowa (pop. 676). He converted an abandoned storefront on Main Street into a makeshift studio and posted fliers inviting people to stop by. At first they trickled in slowly, but in the end, nearly all of Oxford stood before Feldstein's lens. Twenty years later, Feldstein decided to do it again. Only this time he invited writer Stephen G. Bloom to join him, and together they went in search of the same Oxford residents Feldstein had originally shot two decades earlier. Some had moved. Most had stayed. Others had passed away. All were marked by the passage of time.
In a place like Oxford, not only does everyone know everyone else, but also everyone else's brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, lovers, secrets, failures, dreams, and favorite pot luck recipes. This intricate web of human connections between neighbors friends, and family, is the mainstay of small town American life, a disappearing culture that is unforgettably captured in Feldstein's candid black-and-white portraiture and Bloom's astonishing rural storytelling.
You can visit the Oxford Project website and read some of the stories and see some of the pictures. That is where I went on to read about Jim Hoyt, who's obituary via AP I just happened to catch one day while checking the daily obits at the Journal News. I had never heard of Jim Hoyt, and I had never heard of The Oxford Project, but I am so glad to have discovered both of them. It is incredibly fascinating to see a picture of a person and a picture of the same person 20 years later. That kind of thing has always been my favorite part of the Ken Burns documentaries, and here is an entire book of aging faces, and what makes it even better is that these are ordinary citizens, living ordinary lives that are as meaningful and interesting as any celebrity or historical figure.
This book will be available on the 16th of this month. You can read more on the Amazon link. Needless to say, I have already ordered a copy. If I had thought about it, I would have created this book myself. It is, as they say, "right up my alley."
I do have one question for Stephen Bloom and Peter Feldstein: did you save any 1984 air?
EDITED TO ADD: Please take a moment to read the comment left by photographer and Oxford Project creator, Peter Feldstein. He shares a touching bit of information and an update on Jim Hoyt.