Truths, half-truths and Saranac Lake truths

One of our most famous summer residents, Albert Einstein, came up with the groundbreaking physics’ theory of the relativity of time. Sadly, he did not win the Nobel Prize for it.

Essentially, it means that time isn’t an absolute thing, but is relative to the people perceiving it. Or to put it in simple terms, a 10-day honeymoon will seem to be a lot shorter than three days in divorce court (or at least it SHOULD).

But for all the time Einstein spent here, it’s obvious he never hung out with the homeys. Because if he had, I’m sure he would’ve come up with the Relativity of Truth, for which I’m also sure he WOULD have won the Nobel Prize.

Don’t feel bad if you never heard of the Relativity of Truth, cuz I just made it up. Or more exactly, I just put it in print — it’s existed in My Home Town forever.

The Relativity of Truth means that whenever some local starts to tell a story about SL history and prefaces it with, “No kidding, this really happened …,” there are three possibilities. One, it’s completely true. The second is it’s partly true and partly false. And the third is what I like to call Saranac Lake Truth. SLT is total bumpf, but all the locals believe it unquestionably and will defend its veracity till the cows come home.

The problem with our local history is it’s almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. A lot of the stories are set in the town’s past and nothing was written about it, nor is anyone around to verify it. And even if someone from then WAS around, there’s still no way to establish if they know what they’re talking about because of the spectrum of storytellers.

At one end of the spectrum are pathological liars. The good thing about them is you know that no matter what they say, it’s 100% BS. The bad thing about them is their stories are far more entertaining than either honest or slightly embellished accounts.

At the other end are the truth tellers. Those are the peeps who value and validate facts. One stellar example is Mark Wanner, who is a dogged and knowledgeable researcher. Another is Howard Riley, who from all his years at the ADE took away a reporter’s eye for accuracy, coupled with a storyteller’s wit and delivery. Bunk Griffin knows a whole lot of our history and has probably the greatest collection of SL clippings, pamphlets, letters, cocktail napkins and matchbooks of anyone … if only he could find the one he’s looking for, at any given time.

And somewhere in the middle are folks who tell stories that may or may not be true. Or they witnessed an event, but in retelling it, they either leave out or add details, or they didn’t see everything that happened. As much as I try to recount our history accurately, I’ve fallen into this category more times than I want to admit.

An example of lazy retelling was in the old pamphlet for Pine Ridge Cemetery. It said the oldest grave was 1852. In fact, while there are three graves from 1852, the earliest grave is 1843. So how did this happen? I don’t know exactly, nor does anyone else. But the best guess is since the cemetery was officially established in 1852, someone put that as the first grave, it got accepted as correct, and then was repeated on down the line.

In the Hole

And now a most recent example of SL Truth at its best.

Last week I wrote about local storytelling and stories, and got a comment from my pal Karen Smith. Karen’s been in Californy for over 20 years but lived here for at least 20 years before that, so she holds the exalted official status of Honorary Townie. And as such, she knows her share of SL tales, one of which follows.

It was told to her by our mutual pal Ken Youngblood, and it took place in that venerable and venerated bucket of blood, The Waterhole, probably back in the early-to-mid ’70s. As Karen tells it, Tom Ratigan walked up to the bar and announced, “When Ratigan drinks, everyone drinks!” Predictably, everyone in the joint bellied up and got served, after which Tom announced, “And when Ratigan pays, everyone pays.”

It’s certainly an entertaining story. But is it true?

I’ve got my doubts, and I’ll tell you why.

Shakes McLaughlin told me that same story … only it didn’t take place in the Waterhole and it didn’t involve Tom Ratigan. Instead, it took place in Little Joe’s and the guy who called for drinks on the house was FRANK Ratigan, Tom’s father.

And now the plot, as it often does, thickens.

First, I’ve swapped a lot of stories with Shakes, and I’d give him a five-star rating for accuracy. And I’m sure he told me this story just as he heard it. I’m also sure he heard it from his father, Bill, who may have witnessed it … or heard about it, himself.

Some fog starts to seep in …

Is it possible it happened, as Shakes told me? I only knew Mr. Ratigan to say hello to, but he had a rep for a sardonic and quirky sense of humor. A perfect example was told to me by Carl Bevilacqua, who I never knew to exaggerate, probably because he knew so many wild stories that COULDN’T have been embellished. Mr. Ratigan worked for Mr. Bevilacqua in the Post Office Pharmacy, and in a drawer under the counter he kept a box labeled, “Open Only in Case of Snakebite.” In it was a bottle of whiskey.

Beyond that, the men in that generation had a fondness for practical jokes. I always found them more mean-spirited than funny; plus they struck me as juvenile, at best. But since men never mature after age 16 (including, I freely admit, me), such a stunt happening in Little Joe’s is eminently believable.

I told Karen about this version of this story, and her reply was, “Obviously he got it to work at both places.”

To which I say, ain’t nuthin’ obvious about it at all. Matter of fact, it’s quite the opposite.

And even more fog seeps in …

Ultimately, there’s a myriad of possibilities:

One, the Waterhole version is true.

Two, the Little Joe’s version is true.

Three, both are true.

Four, neither is true.

Hell, for all I know, this could be the Numero Uno of gin mill urban legends, being told and retold over the centuries, in all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world (to cop a quote from my favorite flicker).

Ultimately, only the Waterhole version is provable. If the Little Joe’s version actually happened, all the witnesses have long since been hoisting ’em in That Great Cocktail Lounge in the Sky.

As for the Waterhole version? Simple enough to find out. Since I trust him implicitly, all l have to do is email Ken Youngblood and ask him.

But I won’t, and I’ll tell you why: While truth will often settle an issue, it’s rarely as much fun.


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