Stories from the Past?

Being an elder is an important job; not everybody can do it. There are qualifications… In traditional societies, survival was key –if you made it past a certain age, it was assumed you must have been doing something right. Teeth didn’t matter –just the ability to explain why you were still around. A few exciting stories didn’t hurt, either.

But evolution demands new stuff, and pretty soon, people began to want more than just being told things like ‘a tuber a day keeps the lion away’, or ‘be careful what you eat from your friend’s hair’. As knowledge accumulated, new generations began to demand more than just homilies from their old folk. They wanted more than memory –although that helped- they wanted entertainment: spellbinding stories around the bonfire that would keep the kids off the paths; clever lies about each family that would make them laugh and then argue later in their caves. Artifice required talent and the clever selection of words: metaphor; wisdom, however -the other ingredient- only required the clever sorting of experience: an accountant. Elderhood had specialized.

But the difference between elder and fogey, is knife-edge: you have to be old enough to have lived through things the young have not, but you also have to pretend to remember enough of it so you can tell them about it. Accuracy is not as important as story. History, after all, is what we choose to recall; it is what somebody decides is worthy of reminiscence -even if it’s not.

It used to be that we older folk controlled history –it was hard to check our versions. Nowadays, though…

Allan didn’t believe in the internet. He got all his news either from television or paying attention to the next table at Starbuck’s. He would readily admit that he missed some things, but by and large felt he had an adequate command of the stock of tragedies accumulating around the world. He also felt comfortable in discussing what he felt were the root causes of all the troubles: history. Strangely enough, history had a distinctly Allanesque flavour to it, though; everything seemed to be mirrored in the small Saskatchewan town where he grew up –it was the global proxy.

I happened upon Allan one day, sitting all-ears at a little table in a busy Starbuck’s. As soon as he saw me, he stood up and signalled me to join him. He looked pleased to see me. Pleased to have someone to talk to.

“Allan,” I said as I walked over to join him. “I haven’t seen you in, what, two years…?”

“Three,” he said, waving his hand dismissively as if impatient to dispense with the usual formalities of greeting. “Have you heard?” he started, as soon as he saw my coffee was safely on the table. I raised an eyebrow. Allan hadn’t changed physically, over the years –he was still short; still bald; and he still seemed incapable of getting his shirt buttons in the correct holes. I mean, how could you trust someone like that? Anyway, something in his expression also told me that he was also still story-laden. Word heavy. His eyes twinkled and I could feel one coming.

“Heard what?” I said, and smiled to be polite.

He rolled his eyes, as if he had yet more evidence to impugn the use of the computers for anything other than Pac-man -his keyboard excursions had aborted at an particularly early gestation. “About the hostages!”

Although they had always looked artificial and falsified, I remembered his almost-visible exclamation marks. Allan had the uncanny ability to project his words as if they were illuminated on a screen in front of you. I think he anticipated PowerPoint presentations by at least a decade. I could not remember a hostage situation in the news, however, so I shrugged politely to suggest that maybe I had, maybe I hadn’t.

“But taking hostages is not new, you know,” he said, and stared at me as if there was a need to defend the thesis. And then he was silent for a moment, probably thinking I’d want to digest that important revelation. “Capturing people was perfected long ago…” he added slowly, and then stared quietly, patiently, at his coffee so I couldn’t see his eyes.

But the stillness became uncomfortable as he waited for me either to challenge or agree with him and I felt compelled to splash the surface. “No… I don’t suppose it…”

He jumped at the opportunity. “I remember back in the town where I grew up…” He hesitated, to make sure I was following him.

“Small town in south Saskatchewan, right?” I added helpfully to reassure him I hadn’t forgotten.

North Saskatchewan,” he corrected me, complete with visible italics, as if the information would have a profound bearing on what he was about to say. “Anyway, when I was about eight… No, I think I was in Mr. Spencer’s class because my friend Janice had just developed smallpox, so I might have been seven.” When my eyes opened wide in surprise, he thought about it for a minute. “Well, maybe it was chickenpox –I forget, now…” but he shook his head when he realized where his confusion might have arisen. “There was a big chickenpox outbreak in the town some time around then. People blamed it on the eggs from McIver’s farm because they’d started to feed their chickens grain they couldn’t sell because of the fungus…” He stopped for a moment, shrugged, and looked at me. “Well, that’s what people said, anyway. Science hadn’t worked its way that far north yet, so people pretty well believed everything the old folks told them.” He smiled, as if to assure me that they’re much smarter in northern Saskatchewan nowadays.

“Anyway…” He hesitated, and then slowly sipped at his coffee, obviously wondering what he had been talking about.

“Chickenpox?” I suggested, helpfully.

“Oh yes. Well, Mr. Spencer was no fool.” Another pause. “Actually, no, it was Miss Alliman.” He started nodding his head at the memory. “She taught us arithmetic and geography…” He glanced at the ceiling for confirmation. “Health, too.” He smiled, evidently pleased with himself for finally nailing it down. “Anyway, Miss Alliman thought it was smallpox. She said she was pretty sure that Janice didn’t have chickenpox… or measles, or whatever. She had us all come over so she could point out what was happening on Janice’s face.” He tossed a cautionary glance at me. “Not to touch her, of course. ‘You must never touch someone with smallpox’, I remember her saying and slapping John Simcoe’s hand as he reached for her.”

I have to admit that the Starbuck’s, faded around me as I found myself in the little classroom crowding around Janice somewhere in the north. “How did Janice…?”

“Oh, she loved the attention,” he jumped in, anticipating the question. “You have to remember that Janice was shy –but only because she was taller than the rest of us and we used to make fun of her because her clothes never fit -she was growing so fast, I guess. But now, finally, she had something to show off other than the wart on the side of her nose. She used to charge new kids a candy during recess if they wanted to touch it…  She’d meet them out by the swings near the pump if the weather was good. Otherwise it was behind the little green outhouse –it had a bit of an overhang on the roof there for some reason. When she couldn’t get a candy, sometimes she’d settle for jam sandwiches, but when the new store opened in town, most of the kids spent their allowance there on candy so they were easy pickings…” A serious look appeared on his face. “She didn’t like peanut butter, she told me once when I tried to touch it.” He shrugged, embarrassed at the memory. “I was kind of fat then and I wasn’t allowed candy.”

It suddenly occurred to me that Allan was going nowhere with his story, but even though I couldn’t remember why he’d started, I have to admit that I was curious about the smallpox diagnosis in Janice. “Did Janice have…”

He chuckled loudly before I could finish -something else had occurred to him. “Miss Alliman took Janice to the doctor as soon as we’d looked at her poxes. It caused quite a commotion in town.”

I looked at Allan, expecting to hear that the doctor had needed to quarantine everybody. And then it occurred to me –maybe they’d been the hostages Allan had started to talk about. But, as with all of Allan’s stories, there was a twist.

“No, she didn’t have smallpox, or chickenpox, or anything like that…” He smiled at me, waiting for me to ask what she did have. But I was too confused to take it further and so he shrugged. Reluctantly. He hated to give stuff away without a struggle. “Impetigo,” he italicized finally. “It’s a skin infection,” he added, on the outside chance I didn’t recognize the word.

He sat back in his chair, pleased as Punch and massaged me gently with his eyes while he waited for me to process everything and come up for air.

I succumbed to the increasing pressure in spite of myself. “So what has all that to do with hostages?” I asked, finally deciding to confront him about the reason for his story.

For a moment, he seemed puzzled; the story had just kind of gotten away on him. And then his face brightened with a justification: “Uhmm…” He was stalling while he organized his excuse. “I just took you hostage didn’t I?” He downed the coffee, glanced at his watch, and stood up. “For about five minutes, I’d say…”

But he was wrong; hostages are unwilling prisoners; I’m still wondering about the eggs…





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