Okay, that headline may be a bit of a cheat. But it's the truth, even if slightly stretched. There's just one week left to see the gorgeous photographs of steam locomotives taken by O. Winston Link at the Grohmann Museum. The special exhibit closes on April 27, next week Sunday.
My office is on the Grohmann's second floor, and I've enjoyed looking at these photos since the exhibit opened in January. They are amazingly clear images, painstakingly designed and captured though the use of flash photography in night landscape settings at exactly the moment a locomotive rushed past.
This past February, as part of Wauwatosa's first annual "All-City Read," I facilitated a "talk back" session following a screening of the 1999 film October Sky. This film was based on the All-City-Read book, Rocket Boys, an award-winning 1998 memoir by Homer H. Hickam, Jr., about building and launching rockets as a teenager in 1950s Coalwood, West Virginia, after seeing the Russian satellite Sputnik pass overhead. As part of my prep for that talk-back event, I read a short book by Hickam about the making of the film called From Rocket Boys to October Sky.
I don't know why it took me so long to make the connection, or why the thought randomly flashed into my head over the weekend, but not until just now did I realize that O. Winston Link had a tiny cameo role in October Sky! If you've seen the movie, do you remember the part where the boys (including 16-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal in his first starring role) are pulling up railroad ties along an abandoned spur for the scrap-metal money they can get for the spikes? And then they hear the whistle of a train and in a panic run to stop it, only to watch the train switch over to another track at the last minute?
As the train rolls past, an elderly engineer waves to them.
That engineer is O. Winston Link.
Here is what Hickam, who was a guest on the set, has to say about the filming of that scene (pages 78-80 of From Rocket Boys to October Sky).
The Tennessee Film Commission jumped in to help and the Tennessee Valley Railway Museum agreed to send a 1950's era Southern Railway steam locomotive—old 4501—with several coal cars, all dressed out on Norfolk and Western livery. . . .
I asked if I could go aboard and was given permission. Following me, with considerable help by a couple of stout men in the crew, was an elderly, slightly befuddled looking gentleman. He was greeted warmly by the engineer and the fireman, then allowed to settle into the engineer's seat. Joe [the director] was right behind him and I learned that the man was none other than O. Winston Link, the famous photographer whose series on steam locomotives had made him an icon in the world of train afficionados. I also learned Link was in the second stage of Alzheimer's Disease but on that day, it didn't matter. Joe was letting him fulfill a dream, to actually operate one of the locomotives he had so lovingly photographed, including those hauling vast lines of coal cars through the West Virginia coalfields of my youth.
Joe hopped off to supervise the camera set-up but I stayed on board. For the rest of the day, we ran up and down the track. Link's job was to wave at the cameras as we ground by while also pulling the whistle chain. When that proved too difficult, the engineer, who was actually operating the train from the floor, decided that he would also reach up and pull the whistle. When Link kept missing his wave, I said, "Tell you what, Mr. Link. How about I pull your pants leg when you're supposed to wave. Would that be OK?"
Link nodded and I laid down on the cab deck where I could just glimpse the cameras as they came into view. When they did, I tugged Link's pants leg and he waved. When we stopped, Joe hopped aboard. "That was perfect!" He glanced at me. "You still here, Homer?" I shrugged and said nothing about the part I'd played.
What a cool story!
If you haven't seen Link's photographs yet, be sure to stop by the Museum sometime this week. Second floor. Where you may run into me taking a long, last look myself