I stood before my English class trying to get them to realize the mysterious qualities of ancient stories, like Gilgamesh and Beowulf, that had been handed down orally.
“Look, ” I said, “It’s like Thanksgiving.” My students looked at me, perplexed. I continued, “My sister, she is the best story teller I have ever met, every year she tells the story of our white horse, Smokey. But every year, the story gets better and better and better.”
“This is what happened: I had a white mare named Smokey who was a Mustang. She was caught on the range and trained when she was almost ten years old, and she still had the wild-horse mentality. We lived on a two acre parcel in Carson City, and the horse had come from Fallon–a town about 60 miles away. The horse was smart, determined, and obviously unhappy with her circumstances, so one day she escaped. She ran across a field, down a road, and found herself marching down the middle of main street on her way back to Fallon. The local police were afraid someone would hit her, so they gave her an escort–a couple of cars with their lights on–so she wouldn’t get hurt. My sister went downtown and roped her, and, with the help of one of the policemen, brought her back home.”
My students were moving in their seats.
“Ok, that’s what happened, but there are a lot of details there that I am quite foggy about–like how she caught up with the horse. That’s where my sister comes in. The first couple of times she told the story, my sister went after the horse by flagging down a guy on a motorcycle and then, when she got downtown, jumped into a cop car, roping Smokey as she stood up hanging out the window–which was pretty great to begin with.
“The next year, my sister roped the horse from the back of the motorcycle amidst blaring sirens and flashing lights as all traffic was stopped to make way for the fabulous beast. It was a wonderful story, filled with detail, aching with the pain of the fight against Smokey, the most bull-headed of broncos.
“The next year, my sister roped the horse while sitting on the front of the cop car, and when the policeman stopped, she was nearly thrown right on top of the horse. She jumped off, wrestled a halter on Smokey’s head, and led her back nearly five miles. It took all day–she swore and swore while she walked, and she missed going to high school that day.
“The next year, the governor himself in his fabulous car with the bull horns on the front was coming down the street at just the moment she needed him. Wrapping her legs around the mounted bull horns and finding herself secure, Governor Callahan drove the car into the blazing confusion of sirens, lights, and foolish policemen who were on the verge of shooting Smokey because she couldn’t be controlled. My sister showed up just in time, roped her, thanked the Governor, and rode the horse back through town the other way to the cheering admiration of the gathered crowds.”
My students were now paying close attention to my story. “One year, after leaving Thanksgiving dinner, a friend turned to me and he said, ‘That story about the horse that your sister tells every year, its a lie.’ “
“‘No, it is the truth,’ I countered .”
“‘How could it be the truth when it is different every year?’ he asked, exasperated with my defense of the story.”
“‘The truth of the details are not what is important, it is the truth of the story that is.'” Now I turned to my students and said, “You must realize that stories can be truth and fiction at the same time–true for their excitement, wisdom, heroism, and beauty–and fiction in the details. Just as my story about my sister’s stories might not be perfectly accurate, the truth is there, and you were interested. The more I told, the more interesting it became, the more you learned.”
I was feeling mighty proud of my lecture and was ready to wrap up when one of my older students put up his hand and asked, “Hey, didn’t that happen in 1972?”
“Yes, ” I said, shocked that he would know the year.
“My dad tells that story every year at Thanksgiving too–he was the cop who roped the horse.”