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Deleting The Flag
October 11, 2003
By Mickey Freed

The pictures I took a couple of weeks back were from down near the Delaware River where it starts to get industrial. I ended up on the wrong street and found myself past the city dump near the Connectiv power station and Dupont’s Edgemoor plant. The sky was filled with dramatic clouds and it was about 40 minutes before the sunset so shadows were long and the towers from the power plant were lit up in golds and silvers. They were beautiful, retro, futuristic and enormous. I captured towers, transformers, weird insulators made for tens of thousands of volts, power lines, symmetric beauty caught in the day’s most perfect light. At least that’s how I saw it. I took them all home put them into Photoshop, boosted some contrast here, removed some red there, solarized, saturated, I came away with several really great shots.

The very first pictures I took with an SLR twenty years ago had the same theme. I was standing in an old Campbell’s Soup chicken coup snapping away at the caved in roof and scenes looking from the inside out through broken windows at rusting trucks and backhoes. I guess I can only describe it as the urge to find beauty in the trash and eyesores of man’s construction. But, this weekend I had the flu. I could have stayed home and sat on the couch watching bad science fiction movies but I couldn’t. Why? I would be asked that later.

I don’t consider myself an artist but I like to think I have an artistic capacity that could flourish if I payed more attention to it. I always get kind of restless when my wife is out of town and this weekend was no different. I tried sitting on the couch reading but the cold medicine had given me kind of a buzz and I was excited about the pictures I had recently taken.

So, flu or no flu, today I wanted to continue on this project. I decided to scout out some places by Naaman’s road since I needed to be down there later at 5:00pm to pick up my standard poodle from the groomer. Too bad she’s not part of this story, she is a lot of fun. Anyway, about 3:30pm I’m driving into Marcus Hook, Delaware, and I’m psyched. The sky that had been flat and gray all day long had started to break up and the sun was poking in and out flashing long shadows and brilliant light on the pipes, towers, and other weird shit down in factory land. Marcus Hook is very surreal. Every factory is stranger than the next.

Being an engineer I have an appreciation for machined parts, production lines, and such, but all the things that I deal with at my job are on a small scale. Marcus Hook is the Big Time. Everything is huge in a refinery or a steel plant. Even everyday things like nuts and bolts can be almost a foot in diameter.

I couldn’t find anywhere to park near the steel mill but Sunoco butted right up to a neighborhood so there was plenty of on-street parking and even a sidewalk around the perimeter of the plant. I parked the car and was off. I took probably 15 shots and about 10 of them looked like they would be really good. This was going to be great. About three blocks into the walk I came upon an American flag that was on top of some sort of pipe structure. It was very tattered and backlit with barbed wire in the foreground. It seemed like a very strong image and I think I snapped about 5-7 shots of the flag whipping in the wind.

Things started to get un-fun on the fourth block. The street took a left and kind of dead-ended behind some houses and a garage, I followed it but found no good photo-ops so I doubled back to where I was before with the intention of heading toward the steel mill next. A guy came out of the house that I was just behind and said something to me. I couldn’t hear him because of the wind so I just nodded and said hi, he looked either crazy or drunk so I kept moving. I was starting to get a bad vibe. I didn’t have to worry about the weird guy for very long since I was about to have a new set of worries.

A police officer pulled his car along side of me and asked me if I was taking pictures. I said I was but that I was certain that I was on the sidewalk and not on private property. I said I don’t think it’s against the law to take pictures. He said it’s against the law to take pictures of Sun Oil, and asked me for identification which I gave him. He called my information into the radio and began to question me.

“What are you taking pictures of?”

“The pipes and towers and stuff, I’m not really sure what it is,” I said.

“So why are you taking pictures of it then?”

Oh boy, that was a brainteaser; sometimes I wish I wasn’t analytical. His question sent me into a long pause while I considered it. First his question implied that if you don’t know what something is then why would you take a picture of it? For me this seems to be the reason why you would want to take a picture. The more difficult part of his question was Why. As I said, I’m not an artist but let’s just suspend belief for a second and say that I am. Or better yet let’s take an example of my friend Henry who is an artist. If I were to ask Henry why he is buying Barbie dolls, crucifying and dripping his own blood on them, I would guess his answer would be because he has to. I don’t think he has much choice in the matter. The same reason why he meticulously scratches photos with a razor or erases money. He is driven to do so and the “Why” may or may not come out at a later date. My friend Karen has been building what she calls Dream Canoes. They’re twelve feet long. She’s consumed by them and has been for years, she wants to move on and paint and do some other things but she isn’t done making Dream Canoes and so she keeps making them. Eventually I answered that I was doing an art project. “What program are you doing it for? What school are you a student of?”

Great, this is going good, “Well I’m not really in a school. I’m just doing a project with a friend on industrial forms and structures and stuff, and like…uhmm, we were maybe going to have like a show or something.” I was starting to get nervous. Telling the truth to defend innocence seems so inadequate compared to lying to defend guilt. Although I couldn’t think of any lies at the moment that would make the officer go away. Lying sucks anyway. So, as I stood there wondering how long I was going to get the third degree from the local yokel I looked down the street to the left and noticed two more squad cars, then one coming from the right and then a State Police car from the street straight ahead about 1 minute later. These guys are serious about pictures.

Marcus Hook seems like a rough, blue-collar town and the cops look like they are built to handle it. They all got out of their cars and huddled around the 5’4” Caucasian, male suspect. One guy looked like something off the Chippendale’s lineup; strong jaw and biceps as big as my entire head. It looked like they had given him the largest uniform they had and the buttons were just barely holding him back. I notice all this because he kept staring me down. Next, came the Emergency Response Unit vehicle (Ford Excursion) driven by a woman representing Sun Oil. It seemed like the cops were going to leave the decision up to her as to how to proceed. This seemed odd being that they were so sure of all the laws that I was breaking. I decided when I saw the helicopter that I was going to play along and be polite. The flu had knocked back my testosterone levels significantly. By the way, I’m not sure the helicopter was for me but I think it might have been. The other six cars were, so why not a helicopter too.

The ERU lady began where the first cop began. Why am I taking pictures of Sun Oil refinery?

“This is a very dangerous proposition you are undertaking here,”she said.

I had no idea what that meant.

“Since 9/11 you are not allowed to take pictures of refineries. Show me your camera and these pictures.”

I began showing her and the cop the pictures I had taken so far, trying to explain again why I like taking pictures of industrial landscapes. She looked at me like I was insane. After scanning through the pictures of Sun Oil she came to last week's shots of Connectiv and Edgemoor.

“What are these of? These aren’t Sun.”

I explained that they were taken last week.

“What is this one?”

“It’s a transformer, that’s some sort of tower and…” I tried to explain.

“Why are you taking pictures of transformers at Connectiv?”

It seemed as though I was not communicating very effectively. I had the idea that if I showed her some of my better shots it would help clear things up once she saw how great the pictures were. I frantically pushed the buttons on the back of the camera to scan through the images to one of my better shots. Unfortunately, the view on the back of the camera is about 1.25x1” so even if I had shown her an Ansel Adams landscape I don’t think she would have been very impressed. I showed her one of my favorites; six towers at Connectiv, three ablaze in gold and the others in silver with brass like cigar band things on them. Awesome.

“Here!”, I said excitedly. “Here is an example of what I’m talking about, see the gold towers…”

In fact, this seemed to convince her that her initial assumptions were right and that I was a nut. I don’t think anyone thought I was a terrorist, probably too short for that, just a nut case running around scaring people and threatening the peace in an otherwise peaceful refinery.

Once we had gone through all the pictures in my camera a couple of times, she decided that they could let me go if I deleted all of the pictures related to Sun Oil. Knowing that the Patriot Act had been written vaguely enough that they probably could lock me up for months of questioning, I decided to avoid any more excitement and started deleting. She and the cop watched as I deleted each picture. I finally came to the images of the American flag. “These too?” I asked.

“Delete all of the photos from Sun property,” was the reply.

I deleted the photos of the backlit tattered American flag waving from high above a convoluted pipe structure that looked like a Windows Screen Saver with barbed wire in the foreground. I was escorted back to my car by a police car and the ERU vehicle. A helicopter flew overhead as I drove out of Marcus Hook on Rt. 13.

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