Archive for the ‘Story’ Category

Fame by Association

At eight years of age, I discovered that if you yourself are not famous, the next best thing is to have some connection with a person who is. One of my older brothers was hit by a Model-A Ford as he was crossing the street, and, at school, I became known as “the sister of the kid who got run over.” This kind of notoriety was a heady experience for a third-grader with no major, or even minor, achievements to brag about. But I recognized an opportunity when I saw it. I summoned all my capabilities for the dramatic to capitalize on my brother’s misfortune.

“Yes,” I said somberly, “all three of the bones in his right leg are broken. He had a compound fracture. He’s still in shock.” I was quoting verbatim my mother’s telephone conversation with her sister in Denver.

“What’s a compound fracture?”

I had asked the same question myself, but now I acted as if this were the sort of thing any well-informed person ought to know. With an air of condescension I explained, “It’s when broken bones stick out through your skin—one of my brother’s bones was sticking clear out of his pant leg.”

There was a collective gasp. I savored the incomparable satisfaction of being the focus of a ring of appalled faces. My classmates were aghast and agog.

The main problem with sensationalism, however, is that it dissipates quickly if not replenished with new and juicy tidbits. I was able to maintain my position of vicarious celebrity for about a week by issuing daily bulletins of a quasi medical nature.

First, I described the trapeze placed over my brother’s bed to help him shift positions a little. To hear me tell it, he was performing incredible acrobatic feats on some complex mechanism. I drew a picture of his leg in a foot-to-hip plaster cast in an impossibly elevated position with an enormous weight dangling from it.

Then I talked about the young cowpuncher in the room across the hall from my brother. “He fell off his horse and he’s in a coma. He hasn’t come to for six weeks. His head’s all bandaged up. I can see right into his room and watch him breathe.”

After that I announced I had counted three doors at our small hospital with “No Visitors” signs. “That means the people are probably dying.” I explained callously.

Finally, digging really deep, I mentioned the guinea pigs in the hospital basement. “They keep them there for experiments. They give them germs to eat and then wait to see how sick they get and if they’re going to die.”

After that, I was out of ideas. (My brother recovered without a limp and lived another sixty-five years.)

What triggered the foregoing memories was a recent trip to the super-market. I was in a slow-moving line and all of us in the queue had time to study the lurid covers on the display of tabloids. The man standing behind me was outraged by what he saw.

“Who in the world thinks up all this wild stuff!” he exclaimed to his wife.

“Oh, probably a group of cynical types have a conference and try to decide what’s the most outlandish thing they can publish about some celebrity without being sued,” she replied.

“Well, if I was Prince Charles, I’d sure sue somebody over that picture,” he said, pointing to a maximally unflattering photo of the prince with Camilla. “They look like an ad for people with acute allergies.”

“And, look here! You’re not even safe when you’re dead! They keep resurrecting Jackie Onassis and the Kennedys and even poor little Jon-Benet Ramsey—-wouldn’t you think they could let them rest in peace!”

“People always want a connection to the rich and famous, dead or alive,” his wife responded.

“I’d say the people who print this stuff have got to be pretty hard-up for material!”

The man had put his finger precisely on the problem I encountered decades ago. Even if your original material is good, it has to be constantly augmented and judiciously embellished to hold public interest. Eventually, no matter what you do, the subject matter grows thin. I could have told him that keeping the public aghast and agog for any length of time is no simple undertaking.

Wyoming Easter

           Springtime in Wyoming was always a very iffy thing. Nevertheless after a few balmy days in a row, my mother and the crocuses usually came out together, beguiled once again into believing that winter was over. Despite years of discouraging meteorological data, my mother began laying plans for a “nice Easter.”  She never fully accepted that Mother Nature, while enchanting, also has a mean streak in her, and might decide to whip up gale force winds or a full scale blizzard for Easter Sunday.

            But no matter what the weather might be, Easter outfits were still of primary importance. My mother always had visions of how she wanted me to look. Generally speaking this was all right with me. I liked new clothes and shiny patent leather shoes and I had every expectation of fitting right in with all the other 8-year old girls in my Sunday school class. We might arrive at church in winter coats and galoshes, but we would have bows in our hair. Underneath the heavy coats we would be wearing the lace-trimmed dotted Swiss or flowered dimity dresses our mothers had made for us.

            However, a friend of the family unexpectedly sent me a dress. It came all the way from the Philippine Islands where she and her army officer husband were stationed. The dress was pure white, lavishly embroidered in bright blue around the neck and sleeves and hemline, and it had a tasseled draw-string at the waist. Mother, an expert needlewoman herself, was in raptures over the exquisite, complex embroidery, and declared that I was the most fortunate of little girls to have such a lovely dress. I was aghast. I had never seen anything remotely like it before—it looked foreign, and I felt peculiar in it. Young herd animal that I was, I wanted to look exactly like my friends.

            I knew there was absolutely no way to explain to mother that I hated the dress, and any show of petulance was impermissible. I had learned that in certain circumstances bowing to authority was my only feasible option.         

             Mother decided that the dress required a hat to complete its effect. This entailed a visit to Miss Cottingham’s Millinery Shoppe which was a hushed and carpeted place, somewhat like the funeral parlor I had once been in, a place for final arrangements.

           The hats were displayed on small stands atop tables. Mother flitted about like a hummingbird among flowers, while Miss Cottingham followed behind her with the rapt patience of a stalking cat. A white hat of “superior quality Milan straw” was placed upon my head. After negotiating a change of ribbon streamers to exactly match the blue in my dress, a transaction was completed.

           Easter morning dawned fair, sparkling and almost warm. Mother was ecstatic as our family set off on the walk to church. My older brother and I walked in front, followed by our parents. We looked like the ideal happy family, although this was only three-quarters true. I was miserable.

            My darkest misgivings proved warranted. When I entered the Sunday school room, all chattering ceased and my contemporaries eyed me in shocked silence. However my Sunday school teacher greeted me with utmost warmth. “Hello, dear, how nice you look. I’ll bet your pretty dress came from the Philippines.” She turned to the class and continued, “Remember how we’ve talked about the missionaries our church sends to the Philippine Islands, where people are often so poor they don’t have enough to eat? And yet, just imagine, they can find happiness in making beautiful things.” Our class really respected missionaries and some of us thought we might someday become missionaries ourselves. Suddenly I was seen in a whole new, quasi-glamorous light. I was after all clothed in an exotic garment made by people in a far-away place, brave people who needed our help.

          As our family, now 100% happy, emerged from the church, my hat was snatched from my head by a sudden powerful gust of wind, seemingly coming from nowhere. Streamers flying behind it, the hat whirled upward, then gyrated erratically downward, to impale itself on the bare branch of a lilac bush. When my brother retrieved it, the hat was found to have sustained only a minor puncture wound—-due no doubt to its being a “Milan straw of superior quality.”

         Mother Nature had, however, reminded us that she was still in charge and could have made things a whole lot worse if she had really wanted to.