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)