I was in Portland with a group of students standing on the train platform near the airport. We were getting ready to head downtown for a day of photography and touring art galleries. This man came up to me and asked me if I was a photographer. He could see the large camera bag hanging from my shoulder and the cluster of students with Nikon and Canon camera straps around their necks. I explained that I was on a field trip and he immediately told me about all the places to go and how to get off the train and catch a connection up to the area around Portland State University. He said his name was Bill and talked about how they film lots of movies in Portland and that they have lots of craft service food trucks and RV’s for the actors. They sometimes gave him a free meal.
I didn’t know where Bill came from and whether or not he was homeless. He was missing most of his teeth and was wearing frayed pants, but seemed to possess a generous heart as he smiled and laughed with me. After a few minutes he got very serious and stared me straight in the eye and said, “Keep an eye on your kids and don’t let them get separated. There are places you shouldn’t let them go!” I thanked him for the advice and wished him well when the train arrived and turned to gather up my students. I did not see Bill get on the train even though I looked for him to see if he was going downtown or not.
I told the students about his suggestion and we all agreed to take Bill’s recommendation. We jumped off at the Rose Quarter station and waited for the yellow line. We were immediately solicited for money by the many panhandlers that lingered there. They saw our cameras and knew we were tourist and offered to model for us in exchange for cash. Some of the group decided not to wait at the station and wanted to walk across the bridge that leads into Portland over the Willamette River. I’ve walked across that bridge by myself many times and it was such a beautiful sunny spring day I didn’t blame them for going.
The yellow line train finally arrived and we made it over to the Portland State campus. Although we started out the morning together the group soon dispersed and I found myself photographing alone until I ran into a couple named Frank and Christina from our group.
The three of us walked to the Portland Art Museum and I ended up spending four hours wandering from exhibit to exhibit. Frank and Christina decided to go sit outside on a park bench and wait for me. My brain was on overload from all of the visual stimulation of the art, particularly the Rothko retrospective where I just sat on a bench and stared until the colors begin to vibrate so powerfully that I had to close my eyes.
When I finally exited the last dark gallery space and rejoined Frank and Christina I found an unexpected surprise. They were chatting with Bill.
It was hot in the sunlight where they were standing so I told them I was going to move down to a shady park bench. Bill followed me over by himself while Frank and Christina stayed in the sun. He immediately asked me where the rest of my “kids” were. He was alarmed when I told him I didn’t exactly know. He pressed me further and I protested that they were college students and all legal adults and didn’t need me to act like a babysitter! I tried to reassure him that we were all checking in with each other later that evening at dinner.
Bill was upset. I tried to distract him by asking if the Marine snap-back hat was an indicator that he had served. He told me he was an ex-Marine. He told me that he was the son of a Marine and that his own son was now a Marine.
Since I had my camera hanging around my neck I asked him if I could make a portrait of him. He agreed. I made a few photos as we continued to talk. He got a little teary eyed as he told me that his father had been a 29-year veteran of the Marines and that his son had served two tours over in Afghanistan and was now a working as a recruiter. He was extremely proud of his family’s tradition and seemed to me to exemplify Semper Fi. Bill told me that he had served in Vietnam. A moment later he took his marine ball cap off and flipped it over and stuck his hand inside. He pulled a faded portrait of a young Marine out of the hat and said that it was an photo of him from when he had gone through boot camp before shipping out to combat.
He kept that portrait hidden in his hatband like a gambler who keeps a spare ace. He didn’t have much else in the hat besides the portrait and some train tickets. I imagined that this portrait was a reminder of what it was like for him to be young, healthy, and proud.
Life hadn’t seemed to turn out so well as he spoke of the shelters and food kitchens he routinely went to and as he described his twice a month visits to the Vet hospital. He said it had taken him over 30 years to get his life back together and to move on from the mistakes he had made.
Something about his demeanor and his story caused me to also think that the significance of this portrait was that it served as a reminder of what his own son might look like. I asked him if there was an address where I could send copies of my photos of him but he just politely declined. He spoke both lovingly and wistfully about his son and it seemed as though they were no longer in contact and that he didn’t have anyone to give these portraits to.
Bill described losing his entire squad on a mission. Now I understood his automatic and dire concern about where “my kids” were. He was like a patrol leader who was trying to make sure everyone got home safe. I kept photographing and he kept revealing himself to my camera and me. Eventually he tucked the photo back into his hat and put it on again and I kept making a few more photos.
By now Bill was smiling and crying at the same time. We both seemed to run out of words. I put down my camera and we shared a long silent exchange and the sun sparkled in his moist eyes as he looked as intently at me like an Eagle searching below the surface of the water. I had not been paying much attention to what was going on around me while we had been standing there. When I finally turned my head away from Bill’s gaze I noticed that Police officers on bikes had showed up in the park and were trying to intervene and get some of the panhandlers to leave the tourist alone. There were so many homeless people hanging out in the park, some wrapped in blankets and others walking with shopping carts, all of them asking for money. I expected Bill to ask me for money too, now that his story was over but he didn’t. We made eye contact again and shook hands. As I said goodbye I promised him I would keep a closer watch over my “kids” and thanked him for his service. Bill never asked for anything. He acted like I had given him so much by just listening.
I keep the portrait of Bill in my portfolio. He didn’t need a copy of it but I do. It is one of the most important photographs I have ever made.
Bill reminded me of my Uncle who also served in Vietnam and whom I idolized as a child. Christina said she felt like he was a guardian angel sent to watch over us. I tend to agree with her. Bill thanked me for making his day and I thanked him for making mine. We shook hands firmly and I reassured him that I would find my “kids” before dark and that I would keep them safe.
Today is a holiday. I am keeping Bill in my heart and will never forget him. I think that is what a Monday off work is supposed to be about.