We hadn’t been in the small town of Cuba for more than 15 minutes when an elderly lady approached to express how much she enjoyed my photography. I thanked her, flattered at the recognition, when a sudden infusion of doubt poisoned the compliment.
No good deed goes unpunished, I inwardly groaned.
Had our encounter been anywhere other than Cuba, there would have been no suspicions about my identity. But I sensed something amiss, and asked the nice lady who she thought I was.
When a lengthy pause ensued, I offered a suggestion based upon such variables as location, probability of correctness and location: “Jim Richardson, the National Geographic photographer?”
The same conversation popped up twice more, each time eliciting awkward silences and pained expressions. Not knowing how to proceed, I introduced myself and explained that I was part of a Blue Rapids contingent come to take notes on Cuba’s famous week-long Czech festival in preparation for our own event. My own part was ancillary, more personal than purposeful. Fortunately, the residents of Cuba (and the hundreds of others from far and wide who showed up for the fried chicken lunch) were outgoing, friendly and welcoming, if not occasionally a little befuddled.
Cuba was like no other town I’d ever visited. Small to the point of slowly disappearing, its downtown nevertheless included a service station, bar/cafe, antiques store, post office, library, and grocery store—something of a rarity, for only two exist in Republic County. (The second is in Belleville, the county seat.) An engraving on the oversized town hall, a massive two-story brick structure with colonial-style architecture, greeted visitors and residents alike with a cheery “Vitamé Vas,” a Czech welcome. The town’s location, one mile south of Highway 36, isolates its businesses from casual travelers, often tantamount to a slow strangulation. Like many other small rural towns, the population appeared to be showing its age to the point where sustainability is a word one hesitates to use. But such was the case with Cuba. As Dale Huncovsky, co-owner of the Cuba Cash Store, put it, “We have to keep trying. We’re not giving up.”
None of those things make Cuba exceptional, however. What makes it so are the omnipresent photographs taken by Richardson. They’re in the town hall, notably upstairs where a gallery of images taken from National Geographic excursions line the walls, giving it something of an international flair; they’re in the Two Doors Down Cafe, whose small gallery of luminous works span the walls and, content-wise, the globe; and they’re in the antiques store, wallpapering the back room with images of townspeople and events dating back 30 years or more.
It was there, stepping through a bead-draped doorway, that I ran into a mental blockage of monumental proportions. One minute my brain was chugging along at a good pace, pleased with several of the photographs I’d taken of old baby carriages lined up outside, several interesting doorways and signs (“Accepting Hot Czech’s Since 1869”) and the shadowed metalworks of the restored blacksmith’s shop, and the next my brain piled headlong into a barricade. Facing me wasn’t just a large expanse of relics, some of dubious worth, but a shrine built around Richardson’s Cuba photos portraying the people in their everyday lives, each an exquisite slice of life, each better than I could ever hope to replicate. Entranced, I moved into the room like a somnambulist, dragging my feet as if loathe to proceed, afraid of the inevitable blow to my self-esteem, the ineffable perfection of his work.
“I should hang up my camera and get a real job,” I told my wife. “I can’t compete with that.”
No wonder Richardson’s presence was palpable. And, as I later learned, no wonder I was mistaken for him. Both of us are gray-bearded and gray-haired, both favor hats, his a fedora and mine a broad-brimmed Tilley, and both prefer Nikon cameras. When the realization dawned on me, I felt like a poser, a fake, masquerading as one of the best photographers on the planet, and in his own adopted hometown!
But it couldn’t be helped. After touring the remainder of the downtown area, our group returned to the town hall for a presentation on our own projects, including the Czech festival (where I intend to offer our one-of-a-kind fusion Czech-Mex green chile cheese kolaches) and the Way We Worked Project. I was feeling a little off-kilter by then, conscious of the confusion surrounding my appearance and wanting nothing more than to ditch the hat and camera, when the elderly woman approached me again.
“I know who you are,” she said.
“And who would that be?” I asked, a little surlier than I would have liked.
“You’re Tom Parker,” she said, “and I like your photos in the newspaper.”
She smiled brightly, and after a moment of shock I smiled, too, and taking her hand in mine I thanked her from the bottom of my heart.
“Move over, Richardson,” I thought. “There’s a new kid in town.”