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From The Vault Of Art Shay: Pearl Harbor

By Art Shay in News on Dec 5, 2013 8:50PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. This week Art looks back on how the attack on Pearl Harbor changed his family's destiny.)

It was a Sunday morning and I was 18 and doing one of my chores—minding my year old twin baby brothers in their ragged second hand baby carriage in our small backyard hemmed in by scruffy bushes and wine barrels in which our Romanian character of a landlord, Mr. Schor, stored the pungent Passover wine he made every Spring. The Schors owned the adjoining corner grocery store in which they sold the wine—probably without a liquor license. They also owned our four-family building containing our four-room apartment where we were always three months behind on rent. It was, after all, $30 a month.

Semi-employment reigned amongst the dressmakers and furriers who were our neighbors. My father averaged one week of work a month and I remember his giving my mother 28 singles and her kissing him and saying, "If you could do one week a month like this, we could get along." I used this story as a cudgel the night two of my kids left their new Japanese bikes out on the schoolyard baseball field overnight.

On our street, Bronx River Avenue—the river that wandered nervously down from the north (from the Bronx Zoo actually) first washing the animals then meandering down past the Bronx Coliseum with its wrestlers and six-day bike riders and, in summer, through a gypsy encampment—on to our impoverished Jewish and Italian neighborhood where perhaps 20 percent of our population (some much richer than we were) were on relief. We played handball and stickball and I once hit a Spaldeen ball over the five-story roof of James Monroe High, then the most populous in the country with 15,500 students. I was the class wit and humor columnist. Suddenly my mother screamed out the bedroom window: The radio!!! It's a war!!! Get the kids inside and into the basement—Pearl Harbor has just been bombed and there are two unidentified planes heading for the Bronx down the Hudson River!!!!

I grabbed the frightened, screaming kids, squeezing them into a ball of tiny arms and legs, and carried them down to my darkroom where my mother and other brother Lenny, 11, joined me. There was no TV of course, so the radio was our only link to the war. Next day I spent the morning spending $5 on canned goods—a big bag of them—then I ran to the subway where I had to go downtown to 57th Street to meet with my first photo clients, the Hammond Organ company. I got the account because neon lights had started to appear in snooty 57th Street windows. So I shot a few time exposures of window displays, made some prints in my tiny basement darkroom which had been a coal bin and sold them for $5 each. So Hammond began sending me to shoot famous organists and funeral services at which they played. I loved these assignments because the bodies stayed absolutely still during my 8-second time exposures. One night, while making Hammond window pictures, I was picked up by two tipsy, well-furred and perfumed society women in their early forties. One was a Broadway producer named Jessie Royce Landis, who said they just had dinner with Walter Huston. They gave me the first $20 bill I ever saw for photographing them in their nearby penthouse apartment but then they started to make moves on me and one asked me if I ever had a blow job. I got scared and was glad to escape. I mailed them their pictures and the negatives and they mailed me another $20 bill. I started a bank account. The teller was suspicious and said, "Do you mind if I call your mother?" "When I told him we didn't have a phone but here was the phone number of the candy store around the corner, owned by the Neuschatz family that used to send one of their kids to tell us we had a phone call the teller said ,"Never mind."

I carried two shopping bags of equipment—a flood light with long wires in one, a 3x4 Folmer-Schwing Graflex with a beat up film magazine in the other. My father, a tailor, had made a new leather bag—lightproof, unlike the original—for the top of this device that held a dozen sheets of film. I heard FDR's thrilling speech and declaration of war from the subway platform. The trains had all stopped so we could hear the speech. I was ready to enlist and would do so about a year later, leaving the safety of free Brooklyn College to become a flier. I and my pal Harvey Gleberman both wanted to fly. He joined the Naval Air Cadets and was killed months later landing a training plane in Texas. I started as a pilot trainee, washed out for poor landings and became a lead navigator. I flew 30 missions, signed up for another combat tour of secret missions flying medical supplies into Sweden and bringing internees back to England. I flew in civilian clothes 22 more missions against the Nazi night fighters in Norway, got a month's leave, married Florence then, because I wanted to see the Pacific, signed up with the Military Air Transport Command to help fly the wounded home.

When we ran out of wounded I wrangled a job at the Pentagon navigating generals and other VIPs all over the world. The last echoes in my life of Pearl Harbor: navigating the planeload of 53 MacArthur occupiers from Guam to Tokyo. Later I navigated the first low level (30 feet over the water!) Air Weather Service flight from San Francisco to Anchorage, Alaska. The record book lists it in 1946 as the first 10 hour flight to navigate by isobars, not celestial bodies. And of course there was the DC-4 plane crash I survived flying blind in a Newfoundland snowstorm. Photographing it was my ticket out of the Air Force. Life and the Washington Post offered me jobs as staff writer and Look , which printed my plane crash story after Life discovered they'd already done a plane crash in the snow story two months earlier (!) offered me a job as a staff photographer. I took the Life job. It was like being tapped to play in the Yankees infield or, in today's world, being asked to work on 60 Minutes.

Yes, I well remember Pearl Harbor and have the Distinguished Flying Cross, five Air Medals, 60 books, 1,000 magazine covers and the French Croix de Guerre to refresh my memories of where I came from since then and assuage the burden of waking up each day surprised to find myself now a hopeful 91 with 4 exhibitions scheduled.

"So, I beat on," as Scott Fitzgerald almost said in "Gatsby", "a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Published with permission.

If you can't wait to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago's Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.