As a devotee of most things steeped in antiquity, such as another viewing each time Bogart and Bacall’s “Key Largo” comes on TCM, I read a lot of books written years and years ago. Recently, I completed a biography written in 1958 by James Thurber on Harold Ross, the founder of arguably the finest literary magazine ever published, The New Yorker.
The memoir by Thurber, entitled “The Years with Ross,” was, indeed, a personal one, since Thurber, as well as a veritable who’s who of America’s best humor writers in the first half of the 20th century, worked under Ross for years, in Thurber’s case, for parts of four decades.
Among the trove of humorous anecdotes about the infancy of the magazine and Ross’s role in the magazine’s reputational ascension, one, in particular, I found germane to my topic today, a topic which carries manifold euphemisms such as fibbing, white lies, whoppers and tall tales.
In the chapter “The Dough and the System,” one in which Thurber discusses Ross and his favorite colloquialism for money, “dough,” as well as Ross’s penchant for gambling in card games like cribbage and poker, Thurber included an anecdote about the greatest throw down to win a large poker pot Ross said he’d ever witnessed.
In telling Thurber about that memorable poker game in which he participated, Ross said, “One guy held a royal flush, and the other had four aces.”
Thurber, instantly recognizing that would have meant the deck had five aces, asked his boss, “Who got shot?”
Then Ross confessed, saying, “All right, all right, then it was a straight flush king high, but I’ve been telling it the other way for 10 years.”
And, so it is with so many exaggerated tales. They began with several kernels of truth, and, as the stories are told time after time, several kernels slip through a rent in the burlap sack as the teller of the tale tries to captivate listeners on a higher level.
In the classic fish tales, fishermen have for years exaggerated the size of their catch, especially the ones that somehow disengaged themselves from the hook and swam away. I’ve often heard over time about the ones that got away from one of Lima’s most enthusiastic fishermen, Steve Contini, but, of course, those who know Steve know he’d never exaggerate to elevate his status in the angling community, right?
When it comes to fish stories, Contini and another of Lima’s dedicated anglers, John Conley, and the rest of Lima’s fishermen would be wise to remember the words of Mark Twain, who once said, “Do not tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly don’t tell them where they know the fish.”
Speaking of Twain, of course, a great deal of tall-tale telling was part of his most famous writings. In one of my favorite Twain books, “Life on the Mississippi,” the author details in one section of the book his experiences as a cub pilot during his apprenticeship as a young man serving under an older, more experienced pilot.
Since the steamboats of Sam Clemens’ early 19th century were so vital in the transportation of both people and cargo up and down the hundreds of miles of the Mississippi, there were always two cub pilots aboard if both of the master pilots a steamship required to steer the vessel agreed to train a young pilot, in exchange for the going rate of $500 that an apprentice was required to pay once he got his license and began his career, using a system that operated a lot like a student loan.
Often these cub pilots competed not only in their training with each other but also in trying to impress the young ladies that often were traveling with their parents on board. In discussing one such competition with another cub named Tom, Twain wrote, “I told the girl a good many of my river adventures, and made myself out a good deal of a hero; Tom tried to make himself appear to be a hero too, and succeeded to some extent, but then he always had a way of embroidering.”
And, for most of us, Twain’s metaphorical use of “embroidering” is what we do because, like Thurber’s Harold Ross, we’ve told our tales for so long that we just like the sound of our upgraded versions.
Yes, when it comes to our prevarications, there are the hurtful ones and the ones far more serious, as in ones as dark as the bottom of a well at midnight, but then there are those far milder versions that remind me of the song title of, arguably, the most overanalyzed song of my late 1960s, Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.”
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.