True vs True Blue
While every American small town is different, they all have one thing in common.
Go there, chat up the locals, and then ask ever-so-nonchalantly, “Hey, do you have a village idiot here?”
They’ll tell you they do, and even name the poor sod. But because we live in kinder, more enlightened times, they’ll do it, in sotto voce.
Then ask, also nonchalantly, “Um…do you have a village sage too?”
And when you do, you’ll get a blank stare and shrug in return. Then they’ll admit they can’t name one at all.
It’s all self-serving, of course. If you’ve got a village idiot, known and named, then it can’t you. Conversely, if there’s no village wise man, then it can be you.
Traditionally, village idiots have been figures of ridicule in movies and TV comedies, and have all been country-bound. The hick, the rube, the goof and the doof, hailing from such exotic locales as Mudville and Dogpatch. There they are — Mortimer Snerd, Klem Kadiddlehopper, Li’l Abner, Gomer Pyle, and of course the whole damned Clampett clan — they of see-ment pool fame. And they’re bungling through one moronic faux pas after another, all for your personal enjoyment.
There’s a Latin expression, “Infinitus est numerus stultorum,” which means The number of fools is infinite. (And one quick study of the Roman emperors will tell you that when it came to idjits of epic proportions, they knew what they were talking about). But accepting this dictum and projecting a bit, it becomes obvious that a city — any city — will have so many fools that a small burgh wouldn’t even register on that scale. But that rarely happened, I think because the people writing those wholesome “entertainments” were all city types, and thus their favorite, and safest, targets were country bumpkins.
Though that attitude should have died out, it hasn’t. Due to my impeccable (and thus undetectable) eavesdropping skills, I’ve heard many convos confirming this.
Inevitably, the speakers are the Blue Line’s latest patroons, suburbanites and metropolites who moved here to bask in the scenic glory and Thoreauvian enlightenment that only the Adirondacks can provide. And while they kvell with joy over the wonders of native flora and fauna, our native Homo Sapiens don’t fare as well.
It seems the patroons, though lacking in missionary zeal, have missionary attitude toward locals…with a unique updated twist – kinda like “Making the World Safe for Makoccinos, artisanal cheese and NPR.” And in their worldview, native Adirondackers seem less like civilized beings than Sentinel Islanders in workboots and wool, strapped 30-30’s.
Of course that outsider vs insider attitude seems a given in all realms — civilians vs military, blue collar vs white collar, tee-totalers vs imbibers, and vice versa, ad infinitum. But within each group, it takes on a different spin. For example, in small towns the clods and clumsies are viewed affectionately, even protectively, as in They may be goofs and gomers, but they’re our goofs and gomers. And tales of their greatest gaffes become the stuff of legend. A foremost example is from The Tupper Lake Canon.
Let there be…
I heard this years ago from my pal Bob Jessie. Bob, a WWII vet, was not only a native Tupper Laker, but a third-generation one. He loved to tell tales about local characters, and having an extended family who’d been in town almost from the get-to, he’d collected an impressive collection. This one was about one of the town’s old-time mayors, a man known more for his community commitment than his sophistication. It took place at a village board meeting.
After calling the meeting to order, Hizzonor brought up old business, which was then settled. Next was new business. The formal agenda items were discussed and dealt with one by one, after which one of the trustees raised his hand to be recognized.
The mayor acknowledged him and the trustee said he had a proposal that he and the other trustees had discussed after the formal agenda had been submitted.
“OK,” said the mayor, “what is it?”
“Well,” said the trustee, “we think the town hall should have a chandelier.”
A scowl crossed the mayor’s face, his eyes narrowed, and face colored.
“A chandelier?” he barked (pronouncing the “ch” as in choice, not Chevrolet). “A chandelier?”
The trustees were taken aback and said nothing, and the mayor raved on “As long as I’m the mayor of this village,” he said, his voice rising, “there ain’t ever gonna be a chandelier in the town hall!”
Finally, one of the trustees found his voice.
“What reason do you have for not wanting one?” he said.
“I don’t have one reason,” said the mayor. “I have three of ’em.”
“All right,” said the trustee, “what are they?”
“First,” said the mayor, “ain’t anyone in town could spell chandelier on the Sears Roebuck order form.”
He paused for effect, and then went on.
“Second,” he said, “ain’t anyone in town who knows how to play a chandelier.”
He paused again, saving the best for last.
“And third,” he said, “what this town hall needs ain’t a chandelier. What it needs is more lights!”
On the trail of The Grail
It’s a great hometown story, but is it true? And how could I even find out?
Since I’ve forgotten the mayor’s name (if I ever knew it), I wouldn’t know where to start looking. Beyond that, Bob heard it from a grandparent, so it would’ve taken place at the turn of the century, if not earlier — as long lost now in the Mists of Time as The Holy Grail. And finally, I don’t have to look, because as entertaining as the story is, I know it’s not true.
How do I know that?
Simple: I’d heard that same tale told by a brilliant Southern storyteller named Jerry Clower, only his mayor was from a small town in Alabama.
Not only had I heard Jerry Clower’s rendition, but I’d heard it years before Bob told me his version. Which should raise another question, namely Did I tell Bob there was no way his story was true?
If anyone asked me asked that, I’d tell them a couple of things.
First, they know nothing about Storytelling’s Guiding Principle, which is Never let the truth get in the way of a great tale.
And second, they know even less about the nature of friendship.