Legends and Lies

Memory lies.

I thought I knew that, but I keep forgetting it.  Like the fact I recalled seeing an ATM machine at Mount Vesuvius when I was there with my son in 1998.  An ATM machine in the ancient ruins!  Looking back, I’m pretty sure I invented that out of nowhere.

But I was in the midst of a major disappointment then.  I’d heard all the stories about going to Italy when you were a young women and how the men there wouldn’t let you alone.  They whistled, they winked, they ogled, they stuck to you like cheese on a pizza.  By the time I got to Italy, though, I was in my late forties and nobody seemed to notice me.  Which was a relief, of course (I kept telling myself), but also a bit anticlimactic.  So I wandered around the ruins of Pompeii with my son and finally realized that the extremely old guy who kept turning up was hitting on me.  Oh, please; the guy was about the age of my grandfather, who’d been dead for decades.  Weren’t Italian men all supposed to be young and dashing?

In the midst of all this crushing disappointment and ancient ruins, I’m pretty sure I conjured up the ATM machine, and that became my defining memory of Pompeii: crass, modern materialism in the midst of a centuries-old site of death and tragedy and hot lava.  Anyway, it beat the bejeezus out of the real story of a woman who took too long to get to Italy.

That’s what happens, though.  The better, funnier, more flattering personal narrative wins and truth gets stomped out of the picture.  Even now, I swear I can see the ATM machine a lot better than the old stalker.

Similarly, I spent years misquoting Kay in The Godfather, Part 2. I was positive she told Michael, “This Sicilian thing has got to stop,” which I adapted for my own marital purposes. Over the decades, I’d repeatedly told my native Texan husband that, “This West Texan thing has got to stop.”  Unfortunately, I made the mistake of seeing the movie again and noticed — reluctantly — that the line had only existed in my head.

All of which brings me to my recent trip to Fredericksburg, which is in the Texas Hill Country.  The area, settled in the 1840s by German immigrants, is one of the most scenic in the state.  As recently as 30 years ago, you could visit there and hear German spoken in the stores and on the streets.  These days, though, the downtown shopping area is filled by tourists from all over the country who come to shop and eat Wienerschnitzel and drink beer.  The German language lingers mostly in family names and occasional store signs.

Since I had some extra time, I stopped by the area museum and gift store.  I idly picked up a book that focuses on a local incident that happened during the Civil War, less than two decades after the Germans had immigrated to Central Texas.  It’s known as the Nueces Massacre.

“Have you ever heard of it?” I asked my husband, after I got back to Austin.  He shook his head.

So I went on to tell him about about the massacre — how most of the German immigrants had resisted supporting the Confederacy because of their opposition to slavery.  To avoid being drafted, a group of 61 men had left the Hill Country to flee to Mexico in 1862.  They were apprehended by Confederates at the Nueces River, and half of them were either killed outright or executed later.

My husband and I both grew up in this state that’s so proud of its own history that schoolchildren are required to take two years of Texas history in the fifth and eighth grades.  Between us, we’d studied Texas history for four years.  We remembered the Alamo, we remembered Spindletop, but we’d never heard of the Nueces Massacre that disgraced the local troops of the Confederacy.

I don’t know why I’m surprised.  Memory lies, soothing us with the stories and dialogue we prefer to remember.  Why should history be any different?

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” the newspaper publisher said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

That’s right.  It’s a legend, not a lie.  Remember that when you don’t see a cash machine at Mount Vesuvius.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

11 comments… add one
  • I went to Italy with my best friend when we were both 18 and blonde, and I can confirm that the young men were suitably attentive. And not just the young men! Everyone wanted us. My great uncle, who lived in Rome, took us sight seeing and translated for us. At our very first cathedral he informed us that the Sister had declared we would both make lovely nuns.

    As for your more serious point, I approve of a state that demands its young know its history. From there you can ask that small, subversive question about memory — when does a legend become a lie?

  • I didn’t know about the massacre until I traveled to the quite aptly named town of Comfort, where there’s a monument to the martyred Germans, unless I’ve conjured it out of imagination, like your ATM. Once you know about the massacre, it changes the way you look at that part of Texas. While working on a story about LBJ, I met a guy in Johnson City whose ancestor was one of those hanged. Still fresh in memory for their descendants.

  • I’ve yet to make it to Italy. *sigh* And, I want more than ATM machines appearing within the ruins..

  • Steve Link

    I can’t figure out who actually LIVES in Fredericksburg. Seems that every house is a Bed and Breakfast (we’ve stayed at several of them).

    There are still vivid connections to the area’s German roots if you get outside of Fredericksburg. The Methodist church in Castell, for example, still has a recurring German hymn sing. My friend and mentor, Rev. Bruno Schmidt, who turns 100 in a couple of months, regularly participated until a few years ago.

  • Cindy A Link

    My best friend and I went to Rome (and Pompeii!) in 2001 when we were both 43. We didn’t notice having any trouble wading through Italy’s enthusiastic men. Except at the Coliseum where two young gladiators offered to take a photo with us. We have since called them “The Roman Gropers.”

    Wasn’t Pompeii overlooking the ocean unexpectedly beautiful?

  • I have Italian forebears, so I blush to admit that I have yet to visit Italy. But it’s on the list … I’ll keep an eye out for ATMs. I seem to remember quite a few of them in Athens, but not among the antiquities, I’m happy to say.

    I’m guessing Texas history won’t be worth the paper it’s written on from here on, given its recent ‘rewrite’ by the Texas State Board of Education?

  • Now let’s engrave those pseudo-memories onto the opening lines of literature:

    Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again, and there was an ATM beside the gatepost.

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of the ATM.

    Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when charmed by her reflection in the ATM screen over in Jonesboro.

    Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow ATM.

    It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife who can’t recall his ATM pin number.


    And if it’s that time of life when memory fails,
    here is a key:


    A Tale of Two Cities

    Gone With the Wind

    Th Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

    Pride and Prejudice

  • I don’t recall seeing an ATM in Pompeii, but with so many tourists hustling in and out, it wouldn’t surprise me. I think it’s a blessing our memories aren’t quite perfect.

    And as far as getting extra attention in Italy, I was 18 the first time I went and didn’t get a second glance (that I’m aware of) but we had a tall woman in her 40s with bright red hair in our group and she definitely got plenty of amorous looks. Maybe next time you should try a little hair dye?:)

  • Sheryl Link

    If memory lies, how about telling yourself you were a ravishing 20-year old when you went to Italy, and could not escape the groping hands of the gorgeous and sexy young men? That’s a LOT more romantic than an ATM machine hiding among the ruins.

  • I think it’s funny that there is a German enclave in Texas – I would never had guessed!

  • I like the line that you remembered that isn’t really there, though.

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