A CONNOISSEUR OF SUNSETS

Beautiful Sunset by Obie BeukersOh jeez, what was it with Grandpa Erle and sunsets? He had his hobbies—collecting plume agates for the Smithsonian, growing Grand Slam dahlias for the church, and deep-sea fishing out of Princeton Harbor. These pursuits, however, were slo-mo at best. But sunsets? His passion for capturing them was something else.

I was eleven years old, basically sitting around and waiting for Grandma Lucile to get dinner going, when Grandpa—a mostly bald man who liked a close shave—hustles into the breakfast nook. He sits down, opens the back of his camera, rips open a box of Kodachrome, inserts it, slams the camera shut, feverishly levers the film to the first frame, jumps up from the table and, like a man possessed, dashes out of the kitchen.

I follow him out the back door to see what all the fuss is about. Now he’s dragging a ladder out of the garage. It’s an extension ladder that reaches all the way to the second-story roof. With Camera swinging from his neck he goes up the ladder so quick it’s bouncing against the house to the point where I think it might go walking off on its own and dump Grandpa in the dahlias. But no, he gains the roof and disappears.

Curious as hell, I mount the ladder and follow in his footsteps, albeit more slowly and carefully. And gaining the roof I spot him climbing up the side of a third-story room he calls the Eagles Nest, where he already has a shorter weatherbeaten ladder in place.  I watch him climb it with the same insane speed and then he’s on that roof. He stands there facing the sea, as rigid as a flagpole, except for the click, click, click of his Pentax.

Having used up his long role of film, he comes down from the Eagles Nest, sees me standing there on the second-story roof and says, “You shouldn’t be up here, you know.” And then he shakes his head regarding some greater concern. “I was too late,” he said. “Missed it by a hair.”

Missed what?” I asked.

“The sunset,” he said, “when the clouds are on fire and God peeks through the blazing rivers of lava.”

Rivers of lava, huh. And God peeking through them? It was hard for me to picture what he meant. I lived on the ground, surrounded by buildings and things so much taller than me. When people spoke of sunsets I thought only in terms of a dull golden glow, with perhaps a hint of pink, as day passed into night.

“Oh well,” he said, “maybe tomorrow. Let’s get down from here.”

It would be many years before I, too, became a connoisseur of sunsets. And during especially glorious displays, I always remember—if only for an instant—Grandpa Erle standing at attention atop the Eagles Nest and click, click, clicking away.

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