T THE train station a large crowd of people surrounded a temporary platform. The platform was decorated with red, white, and blue bunting and furnished with two chairs and a microphone. There was a red carpet on the platform placed so that the arriving guest could walk right off the train without having to step up or down. Two figures, the master of ceremonies and Sam, pushed their way through the throng, climbed the stairs leading up to the platform, and seated themselves in the two chairs.
The pair sat quietly for awhile, the master of ceremonies glancing occasionally at his watch. Finally the master of ceremonies rose and stood in front of the microphone, facing the crowd that had assembled. There was a hush and all eyes were focused on him.
“The photographer’s train is due to arrive in about fifteen minutes, so I think we can get started. As you all know, we are here to welcome the official photographer for the national stack judging council. It will be an honor to have him as our visitor and I am sure you will all make him feel at home. But first I would like to introduce the chairman of our local nominating committee. Sam?”
The crowd applauded as Sam took the master of ceremonies’ place at the microphone. Sam began by reviewing the progress of the stack competition from the first governmental decision to his own selection as chairman of the local nominating committee. Next he briefly described the guidelines use by the committee— stack aesthetics, so to speak. Then he opened the sealed envelope containing the nominations.
“The committee individually viewed and evaluated twenty-seven of this area’s most noteworthy industrial and residential chimneys. Of that number four were chosen for recommendation to the official photographer. These are . . . (Sam paused while he unfolded the sheet of paper) . . . the concrete stack . . . (applause) . . . the fret stack . . . (more applause) . . . the haunted stack . . . (light applause with some exclamations of awe) . . . and the brick stack . . . (enthusiastic applause). Let me hasten to add that these are only suggestions; the photographer may submit to the judging council any other stack that he feels might be worthy of the grand award.”
Just then a Diesel horn sounded, announcing the arrival of the photographer’s train. The photographer stepped off onto the red carpet and was greeted first by the master of ceremonies with a handshake, and then by the townspeople with a round of applause. “Your camera!” someone in the crowd shouted. “Let’s see your camera!” others took up the chorus. The photographer held up his battered camera, and was rewarded with furious applause.
The master of ceremonies spoke to the photographer: “I would like you to meet the chairman of our local nominating committee, Sam.”
Sam shook hands with the photographer. “Hi.”
“You’ll show me the stacks?” the photographer asked.
“Yes. I’ve got the route all laid out. We’ll see the concrete stack first, loop around town for the brick and fret stacks, and save the haunted stack for last. Four stacks in all.”
The master of ceremonies helped clear a path through the crowd to Sam’s car. Sam drove off with the photographer, leaving the master of ceremonies and the cheering crowd behind. Solitude was required for photographing the stacks.
The concrete stack was in a newly built industrial park, where it dominated the landscape. Sam braked his car in front of a padlocked factory gate, and they both got out. A high fence prevented them from getting any closer to the stack.
The photographer aimed his camera through the wire mesh. “I’m impressed by the bold contrast between the vertical stack and the horizontal factory building. The sheer elasticity of the concrete medium works wonders in the perpendicular.”
“It’s a shame,” said Sam, “that the sun is not behind clouds. The more diffused light would better articulate the roundness of the stack.”
“That’s all right. Roundness isn’t taken into consideration in the judging.”
“Good. The next stack is square.”
The brick stack was closer to the center of town, in the decaying waterfront district. They clattered over railroad tracks, then swung off onto a cobblestone alley. The stack was right next to the alley, attached to a two story building that had been converted into a warehouse.
“What little architecture the building possessed was ruined when the windows were bricked up,” Sam said. “But look at the stack. The way the texture of the brickwork catches the sunlight.”
“Square stacks offer a solidity not felt with the round ones. This specimen in particular has a large base and sharp taper, giving it a nice firm look.”
At every site visited the photographer took a number of pictures. At the brick stack for example he took five: two distant shots from different directions that took in surrounding buildings, one vertical of the stack only, a soaring shot taken standing next to the stack looking up, and an extreme close-up of the brickwork taken with a macro lens. The result was a short photo essay on each stack.
The fret stack turned out to be nothing more than the end chimney on a house in a residential section of the city, its top ornamented with a fret pattern that continued down along the roof. Sam had obtained permission from the owner to wander around in the yard, so the stack could be viewed or photographed from any direction.
“As chimneys go, it’s not much out of the ordinary,” said the photographer, “but the decoration is interesting. I’ll use a telephoto lens to zoom in on the fretwork and a wide-angle lens for the whole house.”
“Take all the time you need. We have but one more stack to visit, the haunted stack, and the rest of the afternoon to do it.”
It seemed to Sam that at the very mention of the haunted stack there was a change in the atmosphere. The air around him became cooler and a slight breeze sprang up. Dark clouds appeared on the horizon; the sky was no longer bright. Now Sam wanted the photographer to finish quickly with the fret stack, though he didn’t say it. The next twenty minutes seemed like twenty hours, but finally the photographer was ready to move on.
The haunted stack was up an old gravel road several miles outside the city. By the time Sam and the photographer reached this road the sky was heavily overcast and very dark, and though it had not yet started to rain, distant lightening flashed at intervals. Dark shapes moved in the treetops. “Owls and vultures,” said Sam. “This stack stands alone. It’s all that remains of a foundery that burned to the ground fifty years ago.”
The gravel road made a short curve and then ended abruptly. The stack was barely visible in a clearing off to the right, though it was so grown over and misshapen that it could easily have been mistaken for the trunk of a dead tree. The photographer mounted his camera on a portable tripod, leaving the shutter open, and as luck would have it the next flash of lightening was directly behind the stack, silhouetting it brightly. Soon it was raining. But the storm passed as quickly as it had come, and as Sam and the photographer approached the city limits the sun came back out.
“What’s that?” the photographer asked.
What’s what?” asked Sam.
“Over there in front of us and to the right, sticking up out of the trees. It looks like a stack.”
“There isn’t anything over there but an old fort.”
“Does it have a stack?”
“Not that I know of.”
“What do you think that is then?”
“It sure does look like the top of a stack, doesn’t it? Let’s go over and take a look.”
It wasn’t a stack, but a cannon. Somehow the curator of the historic fort, by a means that would have been a story in itself, had found out the route that Sam had laid out for photographing the stacks. “Learning that you would pass by the fort on your way back to the city,” the curator told Sam and the photographer, “and not having a stack to enter in the competition, I decided to create one, in the hope that it would catch your eye.”
The curator went on to describe how, with the help of only two or three able-bodied assistants, he had raised one of the enormous guns of the fort so that it was standing on end, aimed straight up, and how he had braced it in that position with massive oak timbers, a feat in itself. “We slipped a tight-fitting canvas, painted to look like bricks, over the top of the cannon. That completed the illusion.”
“Well it sure fooled me.” The photographer extended his hand. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” said the curator, accepting the handshake.
“Before you return the cannon to its original position, let me take some pictures, okay?”
“Go right ahead.”
After about a dozen pictures were taken, by far the most yet for any one stack, Sam and the photographer headed back toward town. “I know you aren’t the judge,” said Sam as they rolled along, “but you know how those council people think. Which stack would you guess will be the winner?”
“I really shouldn’t say anything.”
“I won’t tell anyone. Just your own personal hunch.”
“Well if you really want to know, I think the cannon stack has the best chance.”
Sam felt diddled. All the work of his committee was for nothing. The award would go to a pseudo stack.