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Old family slides reflect fun times
A Benziger family slide shows a poignant memory in the life of the author: His mother holds him as an infant in October 1961 as a Navy ship pulls into the port in San Francisco. Benziger was born in Japan and came "home" for the first time. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

I kind of miss slides.

No, not the kind that you slide down on a playground but photo slides.

My dad called them slides but technically they were called transparencies. They were basically "positives" which are the same size of negatives and mounted in a cardboard sleeve where you can insert them into a tray and project their image onto a screen or wall.

In my family, watching slides translated into a fun family time. We had to turn out the lights to see the images projected onto a special projection screen. There would always be talk about where that scene was shot, or the "oh, I remember that," or laughs about the looks on some of our faces captured by Dad's 35 mm camera. There was a sense of embarrassment when there was a five- to 10-second stop at my face, blown up to 20 sizes larger. A zit could seem like Mount Vesuvius. The more you begged "next, next" the longer the slide would stay up there to prolong the embarrassment.

Those slides allowed us, as a family, to relive and comment on photos of happy times. Kids in this digital age don't have a clue what slides are now. Showing slides was a big production that was a family event. Try to gather someone around a computer screen and do that. Yeah, I get that you can do that with a wide screen TV but now it seems that families don't do a lot of picture taking, let alone family trips. Everyone seems too busy.
About five years ago something extraordinary happened - my grandfather's slide collection came to light. That was a big deal considering how my grandmother (I call her Nana) talked about the slides for years and how they were "back there somewhere." "Somewhere" meant the bedrooms and she wasn't going to look for them anytime soon. I fondly called that place "the black hole" because I wasn't sure anything existed in "there" any more.

Nana shuffled off into a closed-off bedroom and flipped on the light. I followed her. Something great was about to happen. Nana stood in front of his closet, and suggested I look in there. I eagerly climbed over some items in the way and could see the slides on a shelf; they had been sitting in an old flat box wrapped in faded Christmas gift wrapping.

As I pulled them down and made my way back to her living room, I paused at the bed where my dear grandfather slept for 36 years. His bedroom had been closed up since he left for a rest home in Turlock only to never return. I hadn't been in this room since his passing in July 2007.

The box was a treasure. His slides hadn't been viewed in decades and they allowed me to see life through his viewfinder. When I was young, I felt especially close to my granddad. The older I became, the less connected I felt with him. He was a quiet man who worked hard on a grape ranch in Livingston; he worked when it was blistering hot in the summer and he worked when it was bone-chilling cold in the winter. Few of the slides, however, show him at work. He recorded the times he spent with my grandmother fishing and camping at Indian Flats on that hellishly hot canyon west of El Portal. There's shots of my Nana standing outside the Glacier Point Hotel at Glacier Point in Yosemite which was reduced to ashes in 1969. There are poses with the family in the backyard, including my Uncle Carl before he headed off to Vietnam. The transparencies allow me to once again see my cousin Sandra Dodd who was taken by leukemia at age 10 back in 1975. The slides allow me to see my grandparents' road trips to Arizona. Mostly the slides document the times they visited children who moved away, such as Milpitas where I lived a while as a curly-haired toddler.

Because I was his first grandchild, many of the shots are of me. As I raised slide after slide to the light and struggled to make out familiar faces, I could see that brown curly headed boy with impish grin appear more often than not. The slides showed me something that I forgot with the years: a special bond between grandfather and grandson. I don't know if I fully appreciated that fact until I saw the slides through adult eyes. It saddens me to know it now - now that he is long gone.

My favorite of all the transparencies is of my grandfather and I sitting in the saddle on his horse. A lump developed in my throat when I recalled the bond that had once existed.

Another photo, taken in 1963, caught my eye. Nana is holding me, and my Mom is holding my brother Kevin, in front of 2108 Seventh Street, Ceres. Another mother and her two boys are also in the photo. My grandfather's sister, Dorothy Holland, lived in that house with her husband Jack Holland, who was one of the first offset printers in Stanislaus County. I doubt if he knew that his great-nephew living some 100 miles away in the Bay area would later become the editor of the Ceres Courier.

I remember visiting the Holland home numerous times. I especially took to their sons, Gary and Larry Holland, who were older than me. I remember playing in the backyard and watching TV as the adults visited for what seemed forever. I remember once when Gary and Larry led Kevin and I to Richland Market for sodas.

In those days Ceres was only a couple of thousand people big, Whitmore Avenue was a two-lane road, and Richland Market was located in what is now Richland Ace Hardware. Hatch Road was still packed tightly on both sides with orchards and no businesses.

In 1966 we moved to Modesto to be closer to family. One evening Gary got permission to take me for a ride in his vehicle to a park (which had to have been Whitmore Park) where he met friends and goofed around like teens do. I was 10 in November, 1971, when Gary was killed in a car crash near La Grange. He lost control on a curve and rolled off the road and died in the wreckage. I came to realize at the moment of hearing that horrible news how brief life is, and how dangerous the world could be.

The slides made me realize that family times are important and the art of picture taking is definitely worth the time to capture since memories are very fleeting. Some of us, like Gary, die young. Some of us grow old and fade away, like my grandfather. So many others in that old slide collection are gone, taken by drugs or cancer or old age. In the crisp Kodachrome images, I see people enjoying life - as it should be - and it reminds me that life goes on and we need to make each day count. It's up to us to pursue happiness and health and life. There's always more vacations, family gatherings, picnics and fun to live and now that summer is quickly heading our way, no time like the present to start planning.

How do you feel? Let Jeff know at