Sunday, March 04, 2012

Uncle Elmo and my gullible grandma

My grandmother died at age 90 in 1986. She had lived in a small town in Central Utah all her life. She was a churchgoing Mormon and lived her life by church principles, never once straying over the line in word or deed. Grandma was honest to a fault, and to her way of thinking so was everyone else. She trusted everyone to tell the truth. I don't think she had the ability to tell when someone was lying.

I never met Uncle Elmo, and I'm not even sure where he fits into the family tree, but Grandma used to speak of him occasionally. Everyone, even Grandma, called him Uncle Elmo. I never heard any other appellation for him, not even a last name. Many years ago I saw a picture of Uncle Elmo, who was a small, wimpish-looking man. He reminded me of Caspar Milquetoast, a newspaper comic character from the first part of the Twentieth Century.

Uncle Elmo had been dead for decades when Grandma told a group of us this story about him. Grandma had spasmodic dysphonia, a medical condition of the vocal cords that gives the speaker a weak, quavery voice, so she didn't talk all the time, but when she told a story we listened.

"Years ago Uncle Elmo traveled to Chicago," she said. "He needed a haircut, so he went into a nearby barber shop. There was a big man in the other chair who asked Uncle Elmo where he was from."

"'I'm from Utah," Uncle Elmo said.

"'Utah!' The big man snorted. 'Isn't that the place where the Mormons live? How many wives do you have?' He then said some other awful, awful things about the Mormons, and he laughed at Elmo, loudly."

According to Grandma: "Uncle Elmo was so angry. He jumped right out of that barber chair and stood in front of that big man, and he waved his finger in his face. He said, 'Don't you dare say a word about the Mormons! They are a great people who live the commandments of God, and you have no right to say anything bad about them!'"

Grandma continued: "There was little Elmo, telling off this great big man. And he got the big man to apologize for saying anything about Mormons. And do you know who that big man was? It was Al Capone!" Grandma said the punchline with as much force as her weak little voice could muster.

With respect for my grandmother I didn't say anything, but I smelled the overpowering odor of bullshit in Uncle Elmo's story. What are the odds that a businessman walking into a barbershop in Chicago in the 1920s would run into the most famous crime lord of that time and place? Unlikely, I think. And why would he back down to a little guy like Elmo? I thought that Elmo, small and meek, would come back from his Chicago trip wanting to appear tough and brave. That's understandable, but to use Al Capone in his lie, well, that tipped me. Uncle Elmo was over-compensating.

My grandmother may have gone to her grave thinking that Uncle Elmo had bearded the lion by getting Al Capone to say he was sorry. I believe Grandma would have been easy pickings for a confidence game had one been pulled on her. She believed everything she heard.

Bullshit lies are all around us, and I should know because I've told a few in my time. I'm pretty sure everyone knew they were lies and just didn't challenge me, but on the rare occasions they did I knew I was busted, that someone wasn't fooled by my self-serving fiction.

On the other hand, there are stories that, even on their face might come off as tall tales, have more of the sound of truth to them. In the sixties I patronized a service station in an era when service meant something. An old man named Bud would come out to greet my brother and me and fill up the tank when we'd pull in for gas. "Hello, fellas," he'd say in a gravelly voice from fifty years of cigarette smoking. Once while we were waiting for the tank to fill he told my brother and me a story, which I'm reminded of after re-telling Uncle Elmo's fabrication. Bud's story sounded authentic to me.

"Back in '26 me and my friend hitchhiked and rode the rails on an adventure back east," he told us. "We was right out of high school and wanted to see some of the world before we had to go to work. We ended up in Chicago and decided to see if we could get into a speakeasy, see some of the night life. We walked into some joint and set down. We was the only ones there but one guy in a suit, settin' at another table."

Bud took a dramatic pause to recapture some of his breath. "The man looked at us, said, 'Boys,' then laid down a big ol' .45 automatic pistol on the table in front of him. 'You see that door over there,' and he pointed it out. 'In a few minutes there's a man a'goin' to come through that door and I'm gonna shoot him with this here gun. I strongly advise you leave now.'"

I asked, "What did you do?"

Bud looked at me like I was totally stupid. "We got the hell outta there! What did you think, we was gonna stick around and get shot, too?"

Had Bud told us he and his pal had jumped up and wrestled the gun away from the hitman I would have instantly known he was lying, but his answer let me know he was telling the truth. Sometimes there are shades of difference in the storytelling and the story, but I believe I've developed a pretty good ear for what's true and what isn't.


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