The past is apocryphal
| Will the last person out of the room please write a history? And turn off the light while you are at it?
For years I had this memory of riding with my brother in my father's 1958 Chevy Biscayne to pick up my sister from field hockey practice. I have this picture of her in my mind, on the hockey field in front of the Junior High, playing goalie on that golden autumn day.
I made the mistake of mentioning my recollection to her in a letter. Like me, she has a long memory. She responded that she never played on the team but was the manager, the person who brings the water bottles and collects the equipment after the practice or the game. What a downer!
She's always doing things like this to me ever since the fall evening in 1954 when she broke my ankle while propelling me forward on a pair of roller skates. I think she was getting revenge for my part in her thumb being caught in a closing door in Venezuela in 1950.
I should warn her. I will resuscitate her hockey career should I outlive her. When I get through she will be an All-American. That day was too golden to ruin with petty details. That, friends, is the way my history is written, not by the winners but by the survivors.
In my history, all stories are apocryphal. Crossing the Ben Franklin Bridge yesterday, I remembered my father, a man who rarely told you anything about his past, spinning tales of his walking uptown, taking the ferry over the river and hiking to Atlantic City. Did he really do that? The story cannot be proven one way or the other, but it was part of his history nonetheless.
Why he would tell THAT story and not travelers' tales of "Dan Lidle's Charleston Boys" is beyond me. I found actual evidence of that group of swingers in the form of a handbill my mother had. Did he have it printed up to impress my mother? Was he only a one-man band? His reluctance to have mentioned the band casts more doubt on its existence than on his march to the sea.
Was he blowing smoke about his great trek? Practical facts say that at four miles an hour, it would have taken him sixteen hours of walking to get there. Should we let facts get in the way? 'Print the legend', they say!
Maybe it was for a gig. Did his band come with him? Did they carry their instruments and push their wheeled piano? A picture comes to mind of them shuffling through Hammonton, playing le hot jazz, followed by all the flappers in town. The Pied Piper of South Philadelphia picking his banjo and strumming his way to the sea.
I have to stop this rambling! As I try to do so, my tape deck insists on playing Hank Williams "I Saw the Light". James Lee Burke puts an apocryphal tale in one of his books. Hank leaves the stage at the Opry after singing the song, and on seeing Minnie Pearl tells her, "It's all bull, Minnie, there's no light". Did he really say that? We don't know. Hank and Minnie are dead. James Lee Burke gets the final word.
My dictionary says to be apocryphal is to be inauthentic or spurious. I don't know about Burke, but my stories are definitely inauthentic. Spurious? Perhaps!? I am not going to drag us back to Liberty Valance and say, "Print the legend", though I just did two paragraphs ago.
I am looking at a photograph from the year 1900. There is a seated man and an elegant proud woman standing next to him. They are dressed to the nines. Who is the man with the mustache? It was taken on their Hochzeit?
We know that he was a skilled carpenter and the father of two children who lived past early childhood. We know he died blind, in a home away from his wife. There are stories that he was thought to be a German spy, and a crazy man. Are these stories apocryphal? Again, perhaps. But was he really a skilled carpenter? Is it possible he was a fly-by-night, take your deposit and never finish the job bunco man? We don't know. We like to think he was a craftsman. We always like to think well of our paternal grandfather, especially one we've never met.
And what do I do about Grandfather Valerio? I never met him and have no photo of him. He was in the liquor business. Was he a bootlegger, or a manufacturer of bathtub gin? It is doubtful that in Norristown, Pennsylvania he could have been a vintner. Depending on my mood I might make up different apocryphal stories about him, but the family seems to have been a matriarchy and so for the most part he passes unnoticed out of my memory.
By now my readers are sick of the word 'apocryphal', but this is what you get when I spend my early afternoon sitting in a patch of shade by the side of the blue spruce on a late August day, scratching my dog's head and
thinking of girls in blue field hockey uniforms in the golden days of the past autumn. Tomorrow, I promise, I will return to the present.