Friday, May 23, 2014

What Really Happened

My parents named me Charles after my dad's grandfather because, aside from the name's refined masculinity, he was by all accounts a highly cool, strongly built, intelligent guy who busted hump his entire life to provide for his family. Working as a blacksmith (among other trades) in Priest River, ID, he hunted to put food on the table, made shoes for all his children, and was never reputed to lose his temper except on one occasion, when a neighbor stole and sold off their stockpile of winter firewood, before hopping a train to skip town. Tracking the thief to the train before it took off, Charles grabbed him by the ankles and dragged him out on his back, extracted the wad of cash collected for his rightful property and returned home in time for supper, where no one dared even look at him the rest of the day, or so my grandpa's brother recollected.

I remember my dad telling me that one of the stories he admired most about his grandpa Charles was that he rode a mule from Missouri to settle in the Pacific Northwest, an arduous trek through over 1,500 miles and harsh elements that few today could even comprehend. But, years later when I asked my grandmother to expand on that, she told me that wasn't Charles, but my grandpa's maternal grandfather, Michael, who'd immigrated from Italy.

So, in just five generations of stories being told, passed on, and retold within the same family line, two different figures had been melded together, with one being credited the acts of the other.

Comparing this against so many beloved tales and doctrines copied and translated and passed down through hundreds of generations into thousands of different versions over thousands of years, all I could see was the classic "Telephone Game" playing out in a ninth grade English class, where the teacher whispers, "I enjoy reading," into the first student's ear, to be whispered verbatim up and down the rows, and by the time it reaches the ears of the final student in line, he relays back to everyone, "Let's give Roy a beating."

Stories passed down over gulfs of time become dancing shadows whose original sources fade farther and farther behind our sight. Changing hands and marked by more fingerprints from one century to the next, they undoubtedly gather subtle alterations that blur each figure they immortalize with many others, whose acts and words are often wrongly attributed or manufactured in the retelling. 

I used this to pull myself out of a nasty jam with my own book years ago, when it was still coming together conceptually. Initially building it in my mid-teens around elements of Arthurian mythology, I finally came to my senses and realized I couldn't have an organic, rich story that was truly my own if it were indentured to pre-existing characters and plot points.

Taking advantage of this gaping disparity between our presently accepted fables and their vanished source material, I wrote characters who reach with bleeding hands for meaning and fulfillment before their memory becomes distorted and lost, and decided, my story can be "what really happened," that long lost gem we'll never quite know.

1 comment:

  1. I love your writing style and creativity! For me, I have told the same stories so many times over the years that have been, shall we say "embellished" that I actually have started to believe them! The line between fact and fiction has blurred! But, as long as it is done in a positive manner, I prefer the embellished version as it gets a much better reaction.