April 12, 2016

We Were Young, We Had Forever

From Erik Kirton:

Of course, my story is no different than many of the other anecdotes you’ve been told and know firsthand, but to me, they’re as unique and precious as the memories of Debra’s laugh and the sadness often reflected in her eyes.  I hope, at least, that my recollections offer insight into Debbie's life, before she was known to the world as Debra McClinton.

Debbie Barry and I were friends…

From 1983 – 1984, she and I attended drama together at A.C. Reynolds High School, in Asheville, N.C.  Even though I was only a year older than Debbie, we were separated by two grades; I was a senior and Debbie was a sophomore.  Fortunately for me, our drama class was comprised of all grades.

Although she and I were already acquainted through common friends, it wasn’t until we actually sat next to each other in class, my senior year, that we began to recognize that our lives were, in many ways, very similar.  Apart from coming from upper middleclass families, neither of us actually came from Asheville.  She was from Buffalo, New York, and I came from Orlando, Florida.  The two cities, comparable in population, were far cries from where we were growing up.  If that somehow contributed to the longing she and I later felt to escape rural North Carolina, is impossible to say.  After all, she came to N.C. as a small child.  Fact is, there was the same underlying tension, in her, that I felt in myself; a tension which would ultimately lead us both from Asheville, and one that we would, later, best be able to express through our creative work.

One of the first things I noticed about Debbie is that she didn’t enjoy feeling physically constrained.  Tight fitting clothes were not things she would frequently wear, for instance.  I remember how she would kick off her blucher mocs, sit barefooted in class, and stretch her toes as if they had finally been liberated from her shoes; an endearing idiosyncrasy that she apparently kept as an adult.  Much later, I understood that this was an outward projection of a much deeper emotional side.  She didn’t enjoy feeling constrained, period.  Outwardly, Debbie was approachable and she liked being around people, but she also learned to hide behind a smile, a smile more radiant than the sun.  It was a mask that she successfully wore.  I don't mean to imply that her smiles weren't heartfelt, but rather, if one looked close enough, sometimes her eyes told a different story.  Debbie would never had wanted to burden another person with her troubles, so she beamed like a thousand-watt bulb.

As we grew closer, we slowly revealed aspects about ourselves that, although often mirrored each other's, were occasionally complete opposites.  Much like a film negative, where one would see darkness, the other would often see light, but in the end, the image was the same.  Later, this was to become a metaphor I would use to describe my own work:  Shadows cannot exist without light, nor can form be depicted without shadows.

Debbie was the light in my world.

Undoubtedly, people were attracted to Debbie like moths to flames.  She was't a person one would likely see sitting by herself in the cafeteria.  She was popular for the right reasons.  It was easy to love her quickly, but I found it far more rewarding that she allowed me into her deeper, more emotional world, so that I could learn to love her over time.  It built the foundation for our mutual trust.  In my entire life, she was one of very few people I was ever able to cry in front of, without feeling ashamed.  She would wipe away my tears, embrace me as only a friend could, and whisper to me words of encouragement and faith.

Our relationship was reciprocal, and as I mentioned, trust was mutual.  Often, Debbie would show up at my house, at the strangest hours of the night, just to talk.  She couldn't articulate her concerns, though.  She would talk about anything other than her problems.  I would listen, and after a while, she would smile and we would part; nothing more.  These rendezvous were somehow exhilarating, and as the months passed, they became more frequent.  I would miss the nights when she didn't show up, though.  At the same time, I recognized that she couldn’t be held, and if I had attempted, I would have consequently lost her as a friend.  I believe we both recognized that in each other.  For us, any other type of relationship would have failed because neither of us would have been able to commit without sacrificing a part of that which we cherished in the other.

As you know, Debbie could fill a room with light.  When she smiled, the whole world smiled with her.  Conversely, when she left a room, she created a vacuum.  Without question, she was beautiful.  Still, it wasn't merely her natural superficial beauty that most people found so attractive, but rather the way she made people feel special when they were close to her.  When she would unexpectedly sit down next to a person, one would never have the feeling that she was intruding.  One would feel blessed.

In retrospect, I believe most people overestimated her strength, though.  I remember that, at times, she would draw her legs to her chest and have a distant melancholic look in her big blue eyes.  In those moments, she would seem incredibly vulnerable, but like turning on a light switch, she would become the most radiant person one could ever wish to be around.  Consequently, many people failed to realize, that she, too, carried her own ballast.  Once, I remarked that she was the saddest happy person I'd ever met.

In 1983, the summer before her sophomore year, Debbie traveled to Europe.  We would often talk about her experiences there.  She could tell the most fantastic stories, but it was also then that I knew we were both destined to leave Asheville, and our days together were limited.

I graduated in May 1984, and was determined to become an intelligence analyst.  It offered me a ticket out of Asheville.  Accordingly, I demanded that my first station would be in Germany.  I left North Carolina on June 20th, 1984, and after my initial training in Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, returned home, for a few weeks in November, before ultimately departing for Bavaria.

During my stay, Debbie and I met on the parking of A.C. Reynolds high school and I drove her downtown to a restaurant called Gatsby’s, where we talked about our future.  Later, we walked around the city without saying much, but that night, for the first time, I told her that I loved her and that, no matter what, I would always be there for her.  She flashed a smile which quickly faded into an awkward silence, but her eyes answered where her voice failed.  Later that evening, she gave me the photo, which I've attached to this mail.  In the last thirty-two years, without exception, the picture has been with me, no matter where I’ve travelled in the world.  The words on the back have given me strength in my darkest hours.  So, in the end, it was Debbie who was always there for me.

As I drove away, that night, I remember looking back at her in the mirror.  She had remained standing in front of the high school, watching the taillights grow smaller.  Had I known it would be the last time I would ever see her, I would have never left.

I took several photographs that evening, but as fate would have it, my camera was stolen at Chicago O'Hare, on my way to Germany.  As recently as one week ago, I told a friend that I never fretted over the camera, but the film inside was priceless to me.

In Debbie’s first letter, after my arrival in Germany, she apologized for being incredibly nervous during our "date" (her quotation marks, not mine).  Her words surprised me.  It wasn’t until, much later, that I understood that our “date” had marked the maturation of our relationship.  On that evening, we were saying goodbye to each other, but we were also reaffirming that our days had, somehow, really mattered.  They were real, come what may.

Regrettably, as time passed, our letters became more and more infrequent, until one day, they eventually stopped, altogether.

In 1989, I departed Germany for Monterey, California.  Still working as an analyst, my free days were spent wandering the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley.  I enjoyed sites that would later become an inspiration for some of my photographic works, and by a stroke of luck, in Carmel, I was offered the opportunity to exhibit some of the stills I had taken in Europe.  I had found my destiny.

It was exciting for me.  At the same time, however, I often wondered where Debbie was.  Since leaving N.C., five years before, my parents had moved and my brothers were attending a completely different high school.  I had no one to point me in the right direction.  If only the internet had been available...

In mid-February 1991, I returned to Asheville as a civilian.  I realized the increasing need to express myself artistically and began an internship at Dale's Graphics, a graphic design studio in the downtown area.  To pay my bills, I worked at the Grove Park Inn.  As luck would have it, I met a girl there who knew Debbie.  Unfortunately, my colleague could only tell me that she had left Asheville.  Likewise, common friends, whom I would occasionally meet, were unable to offer even the vaguest starting point for a search.  Of course, one could wonder why I didn't attempt to contact her parents; it's a question I really can't answer.

Debbie has a way of sneaking into person's consciousness, at the most unexpected moments.  Shortly after arriving in Asheville, for instance, while driving across the parking lot of the Westgate Mall, I thought I saw Debbie.  Like a deranged fool, I jumped out of my car, but the girl had disappeared as quickly as she had entered my line of sight.  To this day, I'm uncertain if the person I saw was Debbie, or merely a hallucination induced by a strong desire to see her again.

As the months passed and my internship ended at Dale's Graphics, I acknowledged that Asheville was still too small for an aspiring artist.  So, in February 1992, almost exactly one year after arriving, I said goodbye to North Carolina and returned to Europe.  

Shortly after moving to Germany, I began working in both the graphic design and photography fields.  I found employment in photofinishing and I moonlighted doing commercial retouching for Volkswagen and a few other major German companies.  Strangely, though, both jobs took me further and further away from that which I had originally set out to do.  My own cameras were in mothballs, and creatively, I was producing naught.

Around 1999, I discovered Classmates.com, and attempted, once more, to find Debbie.  Although I was able to contact many of my former classmates and colleagues, Debbie’s name wasn't listed, and, still, no one knew where she was.  It was as if she had completely disappeared.  Little did anyone know that Debbie Barry was now Debra McClinton.

A new millennium began.

For the next seven years, I continued working in my dead-end job until the point that I knew something had to change.  Gathering inspiration from artists, such as Sarah Moon, I decided to quit moonlighting.  With a newfound determination and more time for myself, I dusted off my cameras and, once more, began taking photographs.  I remember the date.  It was November 2007; a strange coincidence, indeed.

If anyone had asked me what I believed Debbie was doing professionally, it would have been difficult for me to answer.  I might have guessed that she curated an art gallery.  On the other hand, I tend to project my own passions onto others and mistakenly presume people are equally interested in that which I find fascinating.  One thing I would have been certain about, however, is that she wouldn’t be in Asheville, as just another “provincial success story.”  If you’re going to fail, then fail big.  Still, it surprised me to learn that she had become a photographer.  After all, Debbie hadn't shown a particular interest in visual art, during the time we were together.  Admittedly, my own interest didn’t really grow until I had been out of high school for a couple of years.  Perhaps what surprised me most, though, were the similarities in style that I've since discovered, between some of her photographs and mine.  Especially the haunting sepia works.

I believe that, in both of our work, our upbringing in rural North Carolina is reflected in the aesthetics.  When once asked where my inspirations came from, I answered that, as a child, I looked in the cracked and antiqued side mirror of an old pickup truck.  I saw the golden leaves and heavy mist of autumn reflected, therein.  It was beautiful.  Since then, my life has been dedicated to recreating that single moment.

Looking at it from today’s perspective, it’s almost ironic that, through photography, our paths could have eventually crossed again.  Maybe, though, we don’t get a second chance.  Our time was our time.  Light and shadow… both extinguished in the click of a shutter.

On April 6th, after thirty-two years, I finally found Debbie.

She was the pendulum which provided my spirit movement and I feel terribly lost knowing that I will never again have the opportunity to say goodbye.

We were young... we had forever.  Never let your children believe that, my friend.  We don't have forever.  It takes four seconds to fall two-hundred feet.

Erik Kirton
Berlin, Germany