Every family has its particular pecking order and each member has his or her function. The pattern that’s held in American until recently was thus: fathers provide, mothers nurture, aunts and uncles dote, little brothers annoy, grandmothers spoil, and grandpa’s lie to you. At least that’s how it was in my household.
I was blessed with two of the tallest tellers of tales in Pike County when I was growing up and although both of my grandfathers were stalwart, honest men when dealing in business, church, and civic duty, when it came to talking to their grandchildren they put the “whop” in whopper.
When you’re five or six years old your grandpa cannot tell a lie. After all, he’s your grandpa. So when my Grandpa Ralph told me that he’d once killed a man I believed it. In fact, in this case maybe I still do. He said that the fellow who owned the farm next to them was a violent man who was known for beating both his wife and his children. One day the man’s wife awoke to found her husband gone, and when the sheriff came he found the fellow head first down in the well. The coroner devised some tale about the guy getting up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water and falling down the well. What he was doing with a chaw of tobacco in his mouth in the middle of the night was shuffled under the official rug. Grandpa Ralph said that he and his brothers simply had enough of his abusive behavior and tossed him headfirst down the well. In Grandpa’s words, “Some fellas just need killin’. He was one of ‘em.”
It never entered my head to question his truthfulness and in fact, I’ve heard the same story from various sources over the years. But then there were times when Grandpa went so far over the line that even his doting grandson doubted the old man’s veracity. . . like the case of his two missing fingers. Grandpa only had two fingers and a thumb on one hand. The remaining two digits were nothing but smooth stubs that I used to enjoy rubbing when I’d crawl into his lap. He told me that he was out cutting wood one freezing winter day using a buzz saw hooked to the flywheel of a tractor. When he came in for lunch he took off his glove and the two fingers fell out onto the kitchen table. Grandpa said he must have bumped them against the saw and it didn’t even cut the glove. I never did figure that one out.
But Grandpa Ralph had an advantage over my other grandpa, Homer. Homer had trouble keeping a straight face when he’d tell me tales of finding mushrooms so large that he had to run back to town to get a chainsaw to bring them in, or about fish that when he pulled them out of the pond actually lowered the water level by six feet. Homer also regaled us with stories of bears that roamed the Pike County woods and how getting to school meant killing several before the first bell rang. Of course both men warned me never to try the things that they’d done. There was little danger of that since the last bear left Pike in Daniel Boone’s saddlebags.
I was often confused and so I’d ask my father if I should believe these tales. His advice was simple as he’d tell me, “Anything that comes from my side of the family you should believe, but if it comes from your mother’s it’s probably a lie.” This short conversation usually resulted in a very large kitchen utensil being hurled in Dad’s direction from Mom’s place at the dinner table. Our suppers were often violent but exciting.
All of which left an intelligent, charming young man like myself with the quandary: Is it okay to lie? I knew that when I’d tried it myself the results weren’t so happy. When Mom caught me copying my math answers from my buddy’s notebook I told her that I was simply re-doing my own work. She didn’t buy it and when she had me figuratively backed up against the wall I’d say, “But Grandpa lies.” That answer never quite satisfied her and I grew thinking it was okay to lie about killing bears and sending mushrooms to the sawmill but it was a mortal sin to copy the result of five times seven.
Bottom line: I grew up confused so as a form of self-therapy I started writing for newspapers where you can never, never lie. Right Grandpa?