Walking in the woods up by Lago Maggiore our friend was showing us the national park that borders his property. The problem, he said, are the wild boars. They come down to root and eat and end up creating a mess. Plus there’s the problem of stumbling upon one while hiking the area.
You can’t imagine the fear you feel when a 400 pound boar is standing in front of you, he said. If one came here now we’d be screwed.
“Well, I could run.” I said. Before he could protest I explained: “See I don’t need to run faster than the boar … I just need to run faster than you!”
Among the many things my father taught me, are the stories, tall tales and stupid jokes that he was so famous for. At that comment it was as if my dad was standing on the trail with us, chuckling, building himself up to tell a story.
“We were out west camping,” he’d begin. “When a bear lumbered into our camp. He was right there, big, brown, staring at us.”
What did you do?! I’d ask, sure someone would be eaten despite the fact that both my parents were still around.
“I grabbed my shoes and started tying the laces slowly. Your mom looked at me, frozen. “Jim, Jim!”, here dad would change his voice to mimic mom. “What are you doing?! You can’t outrun a bear!!”
“I don’t need to run faster than the bear,” dad said, “I just need to run faster than you!”
Daaaaaad! I’d shriek, completely scandalized but not shocked by his response. My dad regaled me with tales like this his entire life. Every single night I’d beg for a bedtime story and every night for more than a decade he delivered. The tales were real or fictitious, stolen from pop culture, like the one above, exaggerated or recounted verbatim from his own life episodes. For years I tried to understand which was real, which exaggerated and which completely fake. The conclusions I came to changed constantly over time as my understanding changed or deepened. It didn’t matter, when my dad told a story everyone stopped to listen and during my childhood I was a rapt audience of one.
If there’s one thing we all remember about my dad, it was his stories.
From my dad I learned that the protagonist doesn’t have to always be the hero. He can be humble or wrong or even a bit stupid at times and still lovable, still hilarious. Nobody would claim my dad was perfect, but it worked in his storytelling favor.
Mistakes made in life were often simply shortcuts to a better story, repackaged and repurposed for your enjoyment; An oral history of not sweating the small stuff, and enjoying every moment.
Sometimes the protagonist of his stories was a young boy putting books in his pants to protect himself from a well-deserved spanking. Sometimes it was a young man brazenly hitting an elephant on the knees to make it kneel after sneaking into a circus tent overnight. No matter what, it was never what one was “supposed” to be doing, but it was always filled with adventure. It’s no wonder that I attempted to hide books over my bum to avoid later punishment.
After all, aren’t all the best stories about adventure? Aren’t they all filled with our protagonist performing heroic acts – whether in his own eyes or those of the other characters – only to be foiled later? Aren’t the truest of the characters multi-faceted, flawed, human? We can only hope for a story that has all these elements in it. Just like we can only hope for a life that has all these elements.
My dad’s life was short. Too short. But no one can say it wasn’t a life fully lived. My dad threw himself into adventures big and small with abandon, often imprudently, but always with a sense of mischief and freedom. He never took things too seriously but always expected the same respect he’d give to you. He never followed rules well besides those of basic human decency. It doesn’t cost a penny to be nice, he’d lecture us, but the true lesson was in his own daily acts of kindness.
The exploits that made it into my dad’s stories always surprised me – I’d never have dared to do that! – but they also shaped the way I attempt to live. Sometimes you just have to jump at life. And if you do, it’s best to do it with a smile, with a friend, and for the story.