Dad’s Time-Lapse Sunrise from Larch Mountain

Cedar Hills, Oregon, c. 1955.

The plan was discussed, that early summer daylight evening, before Tommy and I were put to bed at our usual time, about 7:30. We would be awakened long before dawn and would need to rise-and-shine for the up-coming adventure. But falling asleep to hasten the rising was made extra difficult by the excitement of the flashlights that Dad presented to us. Full sized flashlights, double D-cell powered, and equipped with red and green lenses that could be flipped up in front of the clear glass primary lens. Way too interesting under the covers where it was dark, to allow immediate sleep to effectively drain away some of the impatient waiting time before…

I was being shaken. It took a moment to orient myself, with no light coming through the curtained windows. (No energy-wasting outside lights glaring around the 100-unit apartment project in those “peaceful” days after the wars of the 40’s and the early 50’s. Korea was not on my radar.) Then the adventure reality kicked in and I got up. Mom was getting Tommy up and dressed. I pulled on my flannel lined jeans and put on the warm shirt Mom had laid out. Socks, shoes, and I bounded down the stairs, where I found Dad organizing picnic supplies and his camera equipment: the 8 millimeter Bell & Howell movie camera, a tripod, and the custom shutter control device that he had built into a big, still-labeled, V8 vegetable juice can (one of his favorite beverages). Soon Mom came down with Tommy, and the four of us walked with our preparations to the car, the two of us kids swinging our new flashlights and learning by reprimand not to shine them into people’s eyes, even our own.

The car had a good heater and warmed up quickly as Dad drove the 45 miles or so eastward through downtown Portland and Gresham and eventually up the long grade to the old parking area near the top of Larch Mountain. From there we hiked up and east, with Tom half asleep on Dad’s back in the canvas-and-wood olive-drab Army surplus back-pack-turned-child-pack. Three flashlight beams crisscrossing the pine-needle-padded path ahead. At last we arrived at the rustic old promontory point, as the sky transitioned through ever-lighter shades of gray. 

Dad got busy right away setting up the camera on the tripod and testing the shutter control with its mechanical kitchen timer attached near the top. We heard his ratcheting of the spring wind-up and the quick ticking of the clock escapement as it began unwinding. I stood close-by and heard the additional intermittent clicking of the shutter release solenoid. Then he stopped it and connected the mechanical release cable to the camera, gave its spring a winding and made final adjustments to the tripod orientation and the focus, to capture nearby Mount Hood in all its white glory when the sun rose over its left shoulder – from our perspective to the west.

We stood back and waited. Sunrise had seemed as immanent as any-minute-now, but it took its sweet time on this occasion. At last Dad decided to start the mechanism, and we watched the sky get brighter as we listened for many minutes to the very slow clicking of the solenoid in the can and the camera’s single-frame shutter control, accompanied by a symphony of bird songs that spanned the miles of forest spread out below us.

The sun did rise. And it got so luminous that Dad figured the film would be washing out, so he stopped the shoot. He packed up the equipment and we switched to picnic mode. It was a delicious early morning event for the just four of us, alone on the hill, something to be savored. But before we left, as though reluctant to end such a magic morning, Mom and Dad stood arm in arm facing the huge white mountain to the east and sang in full voice, as though in concert to all the thousands of evergreen trees in the audience below, a song that I had heard only at twilight, usually in front of a fire, in the years before, and even in the years to come:

There’s a long, long trail a-winding into the land of my dreams,
Where the nightingales are singing and a white moon beams.
There’s a long, long night of waiting until my dreams all come true;
Till the day when I’ll be going down that long, long trail with you.

About five years later, Dad was spending a lot of time away from home, in LA, Boise, and other cities, working hard and career-building with Sperry Rand, Univac, mainframe computer division. One day while he was away, I snooped in his closet and found the time lapse shutter release mechanism just as I remembered it looking. As far as I knew he had never used it again after that one-time magic morning on Larch Mountain, which struck me as sad. On many evenings since then we had watched home movies, occasionally including the time lapse sunrise footage from Larch Mountain, which ran by so quickly, but which brought back such an elongated and richly furnished memory.

Now I was 12 or 13 years old and intensely curious. So I carefully took the top off the V8 can and admired the stacked ring of D-cell batteries surrounding a solenoid in the middle, about the same size as two cells stacked one atop the other. The solenoid cable ran up through a hole in the lid and terminated in a little homemade fitting that sure enough attached to the camera when I tried it, allowing the shutter release lever to be activated by an electrical pulse from inside the can. If I remember correctly, the lever could be pulled down for 16-frame-per-second movies or pushed up for single frame exposures. The solenoid would have pushed upward for a brief period at regular intervals; for example, if one frame every 2 seconds, a 10-minute shoot would take about 20 seconds to view, removing the tedium of watching a sunrise in real-time.

I put the V8 can mechanism back together hastily, and I always kind of regretted not giving it more of a nod to Dad’s ingenuity. I didn’t replace the old carbon-zinc batteries that were dead and leaking corrosive electrolyte into the can. I didn’t even take put the thing back together as I found it. Maybe at the time I figured that he had moved on to a much larger world of new, exciting, expensive technology, and this old prototype was no longer important to him. At any rate, he eventually gave it to me without a word or hint of disappointment that I had violated the integrity of his little invention. In fact, I felt he was glad that I had taken an interest in his innovation and his methods after the thing itself had served its purpose.

Tom still has the old movie camera, the projector, the screen, the film splicing board … and the movies themselves, that break at the slightest stress on the acetate. Maybe on a visit to Boise we can find Dad’s time lapse sunrise among the many reels in the old collection that he was always careful to date.

Finally, hinting at another story I have yet to finish writing … where did Dad ask Tom and me to plant his ashes after he passed away? Not in the Idaho region where he chose to spend his last 36 years, but at the foot of a tree that looked like it could use the minerals of his bones, somewhere off the beaten path, up there on Larch Mountain.

~ Tim

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