Stretching the Truth

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

-Mark Twain

Recently I decided to explore the Málaga Metro. It is a tribute to this town that almost all essential services are within walking distance of any neighborhood. Large cities go to the enormous expense of building a Metro, or Underground, or Subway, to help people get to work cheaply (or with less expense than if they bought a car). They reduce road congestion and pollution. They help large venues such as museums and stadiums to attract more customers. They reduce the need for huge parking lots. People in Europe do not use the Metro to go shopping for tomatoes.

In the US, Metro systems are highly controversial. Most people who speak against them say that they lose money. This is an example of what I call stretching the truth. Of course, Metros collect less money on fares than the maintenance and labor costs they incur. When you find a way to measure the time they save to the riders, the savings that they realize by not having to use and park their car, and the benefit to society from having less pollution, mass transit systems come out ahead. Truth-stretchers never bother to look for differing points of view.

But I digress. I went online to look for the Metro station locations. The municipal website said that there was one a block away from me. Which surprised me, since I had heard no noise from the trains or seen any large vents in the vicinity. What we do have is a lot of construction, with its attendant noise. We have been told numerous times that this inconvenience is due to the Metro.

I went to the place the municipal website suggested. No Metro there. I used my Google maps to ask for the nearest Metro station. It was six blocks away. I walked to the station and rode on a beautiful car for fifteen minutes. It was a good experience.

I went back to the Municipal website. Under the “Comments” section, one disgruntled tourist complained that not all the stations shown on the map existed. It immediately came to me that the municipal government was engaging in a classic example of stretching the truth. They have planned to have a Metro station near our place, for more than five years, as it turns out. There has been construction all that time. They very much want the station to be open. It is not.

This divergence between reality and how we wish that things were reminded me of my family. The Garrigas are notorious truth-stretchers. By some unfortunate coincidence, the families that married into our clan in my generation suffered from the same malady, but not to as large an extent. Which means that you should double-check anything that any of us born between 1909 and 1955 say. Just to be sure. This includes this blog, and all the others.

My wife calls it “embellishing.” I say that it adds realism to the story. The tragic part of this illness is that the affected ones go to extraordinary lengths to prove that what someone else has said is a lie. You would figure that truth-stretchers would do their best to discourage original research, since the more people that go about fact-checking, the more likely it is that someone will run into something that proves that you were bragging about something that never happened to you.

But no. I have many cousins, all of them wonderful people, who have belonged to exclusive social clubs, or traveled to Indonesia and Japan before planes were popular, or wrote brilliant dissertations that their professors were so impressed by, that they were immediately offered a desirable faculty post. Some of these urban legends become part of the family lore, to the extent that fifty years later the grandchildren recite them as if they were God’s truth.

My mom and dad were masters of truth-stretching. My mother’s lies were mostly centered around how extraordinarily everything her kids were. Numerous times she told Phyllis, in my presence, that I had never had a “B” in school. A patently false statement.

I have a congenital disability which makes it impossible for me to understand grammar. Any time that Spanish and English classes veered into past perfects and prepositions, I did very poorly on those tests. My grade for the class suffered.

Mamá: this is not true. I never had A’s in Spanish class.

“Your teachers loved you. All A’s. Always perfect score.”

Mamá: I have the report cards. I can show them to you. I was not good at parsing poems.

“Which class? Name one teacher that did not love you.”

Sophomore Spanish. I did not do well.

“That crazy woman? She looked like she was a drunk! Nobody liked her; you were perfect!”

Mom! She was a famous poet. She taught us a lot. She…

“I don’t know what has happened to you in the United States. You were perfect. No B’s.”

My father was tall, handsome, and much involved in university politics and administration. This made his statements more difficult to rebuke, because no one in his/her right mind wanted to alienate the boss. Plus: he was generous and kind to his students and colleagues, so he was allowed some leeway. Many times, I saw people look to the ground while he spoke. I could tell that they wanted to change the subject, soon.

There was the time that a hurricane threatened to strike the island. Newspapers printed daily maps that charted the storm’s course. I remember that on this occasion, a direct hit was predicted.

Enough so that my father went out and bought a few planks of plywood that he hammered over our front windows. There was no bottled water in those days, but he did collect a lot of tap water in several receptacles, and we bought dozens of candles.

My father was a mathematician. Every four years, one of the local TV stations hired him to chart the course of the election results after the polls closed. Maybe this is where he became addicted to drawing graphs and predicting outcomes in front of a large audience.

For this hurricane he listened to hourly broadcasts. He used the coordinates that the radio gave out to plot the storm’s course on the newspaper’s map, until the next day’s paper came out. The evening that we were supposed to get hammered we went to bed early. I woke up before sunrise the next morning, and I jumped out of bed to see how bad things were.

There was nothing. The storm had taken a sharp turn north. It missed us, by a lot. My father was also up, listening to the radio. As soon as he saw me, he asked me to go outside with him. He had a hammer in his hand.

“Help me to pull this plywood off.”

We had a neighbor that usually helped with the heavy labor. I asked why we could not wait until he woke up.

“It has to be now. Help me.”

With much difficulty we got the job done shortly after daylight. My father looked ecstatic.

“I knew the hurricane was not coming,” he said.

I was used to his truth-stretched stories. I nodded. Something in the way that I moved my head told him that I was not a true believer.

“Here, look! I had it all plotted out, long before the radio broadcast its course.”

He showed me the newspaper map from the previous day. The actual course of the hurricane was plotted, in blue, un-erasable ink.

“The hurricane was behaving like a parabola. I figured out the formula and plotted its course!”

I was way too young to know what a parabola is, but unfortunately for me, I had two older sisters who had taught me. I nodded again, this time putting a bit more emphasis on my movements.

He did not stop there. He waited for all the family members to wake up, and he repeated his success story. When he was not met with unbridled enthusiasm, he went to the balcony and sat down, something he never did, to wait for the neighbors to stir.

Our next-door neighbor came out to get his morning paper. My father rushed to greet him. Out came his ink-stained map. I walked over to listen.

“I knew it was not coming. Look at the map. I knew last night; I even pulled the plywood from the windows before we went to bed. That’s how sure I was!”

I was used to his exaggerations, but this one clearly crossed the line. I was embarrassed. The first chance that I had to talk to my mom when we were alone, I complained to her.

He is going to make us look bad. What if the neighbor had woken up earlier to look for the paper? Please make him stop!

A few hours later, I saw my mom gently lead my dad into the kitchen. She was smiling, and gently upbraiding him. He flashed a sheepish, “I am caught” grin. I heard no more hurricane boasts.

Years later, when President Trump pulled his Sharpie hurricane trick, millions of people wondered why he had done such a stupid thing. I must have been the only inhabitant of this country who knowingly smiled.

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