Dragon Flies, Little White Lies, and Ugliness

Donald Shephard

Listening to silence, if one can be said to hear silence, was a way of finding inner peace which we have somehow lost along the road from the English county of Essex in the 1940's and 1950's. Silence is certainly a difficult commodity to find in this hyperactive way of life here in California. In those early days in Essex, my uncle and I would walk off into the woods and before long the leaves of the trees absorbed any trace of the internal combustion engine and its incessant noises. Now we must drive for several hours, across the valley of the San Joaquin River, through the foothills and up into the Sierra Nevada mountains and hike for a day until we are deep in the wilderness before the calm of silence surrounds and fills us. Not until then does the sheer joy of solitude, and the communion with nature smooth our troubled souls just as a stroll under the green canopy of Epping Forest did forty odd years ago.

There is a grandeur here, both in the vast cornucopia of the valley, and in the massive granite sweeps of the mountains that does not exist in the gently rolling Essex hills which reach to a meager altitude of three hundred feet. Strange to think, at the time of the glaciers of the great Ice Ages were grinding out the U-shaped valleys in the gargantuan rocks of the Sierras, a vast ice sheet was covering England as far south as the Thames. As it retreated, the ice left sandy glacial soil over the orange London clay of the hills around the river Roding where I grew up. Where the sandy soil has not yet eroded from the hill tops, the silver birch trees grow like ghostly sentries above the village of Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding, my birth place.

During World War II, when the German bombers, God bless their souls, headed home after hitting their primary and secondary targets, they flew over our blacked-out village and Epping Forest. I have studiously avoided the intricacies of warfare, but I understand that it is not wise to land with a cargo of bombs. No doubt it is true that wars do not proliferate wisdom as they do inventions, but the German pilots, in their precise way, certainly seemed to have developed the habit of cleaning house above our heads. It was these junk bombs, these leftovers, as it were, which were dropped on our village and our forest, causing us to live like troglodytes in miniature Quonset huts, called Anderson shelters, buried in the ground. As a result of these bombs the forest is pock-marked by craters which have filled with water and, because the impermeable clay has been further compacted by the explosions, small ponds have formed.

One of my earliest memories of what was then called Peacetime is of a family picnic when we sat among the roots of a silver birch tree beside a bomb crater called "Three Birch Pond." I listened to the papery rustle of a dragon fly's wings. I had never seen or heard of a dragon fly before. Neither Hans Christian Andersen nor the Anderson shelter had given me a hint that such a wonder existed. My mother dutifully warned me of what to her was a well known fact, that these insects sting. I was curious and so investigated closely. Finding no evidence of a stinger I did discover some nasty mandibles which munched flies nicely, no doubt, but hurt when nipping the fingers of a little boy. They do not sting, they bite. I entered hot water. Typically, I could rely on one or other of my siblings to distract my mother as she started her scolding. Perhaps an older sister would stray too far or perhaps a younger brother would stroll confidently towards a new form of enticing danger. This time I was less fortunate.

"Why didn't you listen to me?"

A young boy has no way of communicating to his mother an answer to such a question.

"Oh! Get off with you!" She'd say, and I was as quickly out of trouble as I would be back into it.

Later on, when I knew Fred, he would guide me around these tricky moments. He had an intrinsic understanding of the essential elasticity of truth, particularly as it related to the utterances of small boys in hot water. There are those of you, often of the female persuasion and the clergy, who believe that men are quintessentially boys in hot water. For this reason, and perhaps for more compelling reasons, which I will tell you all about some other time, it is very important that you understand that this is, above all, a verisimilitudinous account. While it is indeed, in fact, indubitably, a fiction, it is not by any stretch of the imagination a myth and, therefore, to the extent that it is not mythical, it is surely true.

A few years later, when Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding had already expanded into a small town and I had grown into a gangly lad my mother told me that marriage was a prerequisite of child bearing. My own empirical observations contradicted this statement. If my mother's rule was factual the gestation period of Ann-of-the-Big-Cleavage was six months; of Jane-Again-and -Again five months, if you ignored her first and second born, and; of Brenda-of-the-Bulging-White-Dress only two months. There had to be a logical solution to this problem. On the very next occasion that I found myself sitting in a hedge waiting with my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge for the rain to stop, I told him of my quandary. There is, he told me, that which is logically true, and that which is emotionally true. What I wanted was absolute truth but he gave me understanding instead.

"Logically," he said, "one and one is two."

"Oh Yes." I agreed.

"So one apple and one carrot are two what?" He asked.

"One apple and one carrot."

"So one and one is two unless they are one and one."

"Yes, so..."

"So, the statement that 'one and one is two' is relatively true while the statement that 'one and one is two unless they are one and one' is more true." He explained.

I began to understand his train of thought.

"Now," he said, "one times naught is naught and two times naught is naught, am I right?"

"Yes, I believe so." I speculated.

"If one times naught equals two times naught and naught equals naught, then one must equal two."

And two equals three and, in fact, any number equals any number," I said.

"Now, no doubt, there have been many occasions when you have seriously believed that your answer to a mathematical question was the true and correct answer only to be shown the error of your ways by an unimaginative teacher who insisted on the perfection of numbers. If you insist on a logical explanation of your mother's statement you have a choice of believing her or living in a world of arithmetic teachers." Neither of these two suited me so I asked for an alternative.

"Well, let's see," he stroked his beard, "there is the case of the Princess Griselda, who could not make up her mind between two suitors. The one, Prince Herrmann Von Fistbegotten, was strong and daring, while his rival, Prince Vilheim Dragmeister, was tall, charming and romantic. Her father, the good and gracious King Weininderglass III, settled the issue by challenging the two princes to race to the mountain top and back, swimming rivers and fighting off hunger, thirst, and wolves along the way. The first one to ask the king for her hand in marriage after the race was to be her husband.

"On the day of the race Princess Griselda was still uncertain as to her preference so she wished them both luck and kissed them goodbye. When, many hours later, she saw the strong, daring Prince Fistbegotten, bathed in sweat, covered in blood and dirt and foaming at the mouth, staggering towards the finishing line she told her father, the good, gracious and long suffering King Weininderglass III, that the race was unfair and that she wanted to marry the tall, romantic Prince Dragmeister. In other words Herrmann was not her man, if you see what I mean. The king quickly developed a diplomatic illness. That is to say he retired to his chambers sick to his stomach in disgust. Prince Herrmann Von Fistbegotten kept the company of the fickle princess. Eventually, the romantic Prince Vilheim Dragmeister came to the finishing line and, asking after the king, found him in his chambers with a chambermaid in a position which allowed for very little compromise. Upon discovering that the princess was not yet betrothed, he asked for her hand and was granted it. The king happily threw in the rest of the princess for no extra charge being ready to live a calmer life."

"You see," said my dear, old uncle Fred, "there are times when a diplomatic illness, a little white lie, was necessary to bring out the truth as it had been presented to the good and gracious king. His daughter, that most changeable of lasses, wanted to marry the romantic prince. Ergo, the king became ill."

"But he lied when he said he was ill. It was not fair to Prince Von Fistbegotten," I protested.

" 'Lie' is such a harsh word. Actually, he did Fistbegotten a favor. Griselda was rather a shrew, she could never make up her mind and she and the romantic, although later he was more rheumatic than romantic, Prince Vilheim Dragmeister lived miserably ever after. The strong Prince Herrmann Von Fistbegotten became very close friends with the ribald, old King Weininderglass III. They went hunting and fishing in the Rhineland together for many years until Weininderglass turned sour but that is another story I will tell you all about some other time."

What puzzled me was this. Was the king only pretending to be ill or was his daughter really a pain in his royal tunic? I was too old for fairy stories then which is strange because I love to tell them now.

"What about emotional truth?" I reminded my absent-minded tutor. "To the extent that you believe that your arithmetic on the various gestation periods is correct and until you are shown otherwise, your answers are true. To the extent that Griselda and her princes believed King Weininderglass III was ill, and until Fistbegotten came to realize otherwise, the sickness was real. To the extent that your mother wants you to believe her statement, it is also true."

"My mother wants me to believe that you have to be married before you have children?" I asked.

"Yes indeed, in fact, indubitably."

"Why, when she knows that I do not believe it?" I said. "When to believe it would mean disbelieving my own eyes?"

"Why indeed?" said Plinge.

"In fact, indubitably..." I started to finish his usual phrase when I understood. My mother wanted me to believe this nonsense to help me avoid the mistake made by so many of my peers. She loved me and did not want to see me suffer.

"Fred," I began in a manly, comradely sort of way, "Women are hard to understand" This is known as the British understatement.

"Don't try to understand them, just love them. It looks like the shower has passed, Donald. That's enough hedge-ucation for one day." He said, as he carefully studied a village bicycle rider as she rode passed smiling at us sitting in the hedge.

"I see her seat is wriggling loose. I shall have to go and fix that," he said, striding down the lane after her.

I am quite sure that my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. meant every word that he said to me but, nevertheless, he spent a great deal of time interpreting the wiles of the girls of the village to me and frequently guessing incorrectly. Ah! But it was such fun studying. Those years of starting to learn the ways of love are a great marvel to me now as I look back on their beauty and innocence.

This matter of beauty has arisen at a rather awkward place in this documentation of the life and times of my uncle. You see I cannot, in all candor, say he was a handsome man, nor was he homely. No, homely is not good enough, it is not accurate enough. There is nothing else for it, I shall have to tell a story. As Fred would say, this is in fact, indeed, indubitably a true story, if that is not an oxymoron. For those of you who do not already know, an oxymoron is a hyperventilated idiot. I know this because my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. told me so himself.

There was a time in Fred's youth when he enjoyed the friendship, shall we say, of several young ladies concurrently. The emphasis, no doubt, on the con rather than the current. I am quite certain that he was just as incapable as George Washington of telling a lie, in fact I can guarantee it, but I also doubt that he was willing to hurt the tender feelings of any of his lady friends. For that reason I have some doubt that any of the girls knew of Fred's precise relationship with any of the others. So it was that some of the young lads of the village threw a party for him. Out of the kindness of their hearts and the generosity of their souls they invited every girl that Fred had ever , shall we say, dated. They came from six different villages and three counties including Gertrude. No, Gertrude is not a county, well not quite anyway. It has been said of Gertrude that, "She walked beside him like a gorilla." If the truth were known, and it may be yet, she was a good, old girl who took care of the entire battalion of the Twenty-Ninth Yorkshire Volunteers with a certain style and panache, but her culinary expertise is other story altogether.

Since we are baring a little of my dear, old uncle's soul here, we may as well admit that he was at times a trifle unconventional towards the members of the opposite sex, if you will pardon such an indelicate expression. There is the case of Gertrude who, at the time of their first meeting, was the village library assistant. I will note here that with the exception of my own name and that of Fred Plinge, I have changed the names of everyone to protect the truly innocent, those that think that they are innocent and, those who know all too well that they are not innocent but, would like you to believe that they are.

Now a curious thing happened to my dear, old uncle Fred during the course of the party. As each of the young ladies came to realize the peculiar makeup of the guest list, printed on vellum by the Varsity Press, by the way, they all, independently came up to my esteemed relative and whispered, well hissed is a better word, the identical sentence.

"Fred, you are ugly!" they said.

You see that by telling a story, rather than a lie, we have arrived at the truth of the matter. What is more, we have used the inestimable testimony of no less than twenty nine of my dear, old uncle's acquaintances to obtain their honorable opinions.

Perhaps I have not properly brought out the amount of feeling these maidens, or "harbingers of the horrors of marriage," as Fred called them, employed while uttering the "ugly" verdict. Given that these particular girls may have had their ability to reason colored by a certain amount of bitterness, let me illustrate the degree of truth in their repeated statement. I will do this by citing, in the approved scientifically annotated manner, some instances which tend to corroborate their view. For, as we all know, and some of us more so than others, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

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