It may have been the best 50-cent investment I ever made, even in the mid-1960s economy. It took me two hours of baby-sitting to earn that half dollar, and the sudden impulse to feed it into the slot of a shopping mall photo booth and pose for the camera with my 10-year-old brother was highly extravagant for a Wunder.
We were raised by parents weaned on the Depression, who then coped with the shortages of World War II. My mother carefully saved the checks my father sent her during his military service overseas, as she earned her own living. When he came home, the tidy amount she'd put aside helped pay for the two-story, three-bedroom house we still gather in for reunions.
We kids were so well schooled in the lessons of thrift that we had no idea there were such things as impulse and luxury spending. We bicycled and rode buses, clipped coupons at the dining room table, pasted Green Stamps into booklets, and saved and sold back returnable bottles.
My mother's one shopping excursion a week – centered for years at a neighborhood grocery we could walk to – was no slapdash affair, but a carefully planned culinary and financial campaign, engineered to get the best nutrition for the money.
That said, there was nothing miserly about either of our parents, and my impulse to feed the photo machine echoed some of their more expansive moments.
Those Thursday morning shopping outings always included a box of animal crackers or snack of cinnamon toast at a nearby coffee shop. The filled Green Stamp books yielded treasures, sometimes just for us kids. There were occasional treats of a movie, Christmas was ever bountiful, and each summer we packed the family Chevy with bedding, clothes, and food enough for a week at a mountain or seaside cabin.
We three kids saved our allowances for months to have enough ready cash for vacation mementos – such rarefied frivolities as balsam bears, cedar-lined boxes, plastic floats, and, most memorably, a short excursion my father arranged over an Adirondack lake on a seaplane.
I still have some of those childhood vacation keepsakes, worth considerably more now than I paid for them back in the 1950s and '60s.
But the little strip of four photos capturing a few zany moments with my brother still counts as my prize purchase of the rare, spontaneous "don't need it" kind. I have only to look at it to enjoy the kind of belly laugh that can prime one's system for the day. In that sense, perhaps, I do need it now and then.
Picking up the little strip, I can still hear the camera clicking in sequence, allowing us a few seconds between each frame to adjust poses.
I smile cheerfully and steadily, my stance and face barely changing from frame to frame. David, on the other hand, undergoes a dramatic and rapid metamorphosis, as if compressing years of confidence-building and shifting sibling hierarchies into a few brief seconds.
His first tentative and demurring expression as he stands shoulder height against me has vanished by the second frame, as a smile plays on his still closed lips. He snatches the limelight in the third frame, head tilted, eyebrows raised, mouth wide, as I smile benignly on, beginning to be slightly obscured.
In the final frame, he blots me out completely, a laughing alpha male, gazing into his future as an accomplished JAG lawyer whose sister would just as soon eat Spam as speak in public.
I came upon an updated version of one of those photo booths recently and paused, tempted to enter for nostalgia's sake. Once inside, I saw the $2 price and moved on, thrift automatically kicking in. This was a purchase I did not need or even want to make (ice cream would be better).
Besides, what fun would it be to sit in there and pose without my big little brother?