First liar doesn't have a chance
By Ken Root
The inspiration for this story comes from an event that involved a Des Moines police officer who lives in our south side suburb and attends our church. On duty in Des Moines, he shot a mountain lion just a few weeks ago. The story is documented in the official police records and was covered by the news media. There is no video of the encounter with the adolescent male cougar that somehow ranged into a metropolitan neighborhood, but there were several witnesses and pictures of the dead carcass to prove that it really happened. He regretted having to shoot a beautiful animal but in discussing it with him last Sunday, the real shame is that there are too many facts and that really damages the quality of a good story.
I'm up here in the matter-of-fact, bare-landscape Midwest and at times I miss the culture of the creeks and hollers of Oklahoma where the soil was thin but the residents had a rich imagination that allowed them to take a grain of truth and turn it into a field of fantasy.
Retelling a story with embellishment really shouldn't be called a "lie," nor the teller a "liar," as there was no intent to cause harm to another person. The purpose seemed to fulfill the male role of "expanding his plumage." Women would listen but quickly discount the stories while other like-minded men drank them in and carried the legends to other groups and to higher levels.
My father and mother were exceptionally good at "visiting" and that often included discussion (and telling) of cultural lies as a form of entertainment. They would invite another couple for supper and the four of them would sit and talk for hours. The conversations that I eavesdropped on would usually get around to something that someone had said that was totally implausible. "Lester showed up for work this morning claiming that he was feeding his cattle and there were 38 deer out there with them," would be the opening of this saga by Foster, the motor grader operator who worked on the county highway department with my dad. "He's always got more and done more than anybody else," Dad would say. "You just can't beat Lester in any conversation." The women would poo-poo the story since deer were very rare in the countryside at that time but they would entice both men to tell more "Lesterisms," which they would do.
"We were standing behind the truck talking about ducks. One of the guys said he shot a couple the other morning. Lester stepped and quickly got everyone's attention. He said he heard a lot of quacking at the creek last week so he took his double barrel shotgun and snuck over there. The fog was so heavy that he couldn't see more than 20 feet so he just shot down into the water and realized he was late for work, so he left. That afternoon he went home and the cows were standing around looking gaunt and bawling so he went over to the creek and found he'd killed so many ducks that they'd dammed it up and the cows couldn't get a drink of water downstream." Upon hearing this there was uproarious laughter but little condemnation of the source.
Men have a tendency to "one up" each other as part of their behavior and to admire storytellers. When you combine this with beer, there is no end to what may unfold. The hardest part is reconstructing the story so that it can be told again at an opportune time.
There are regional differences in lies and storytelling, as southerners, particularly Cajuns, are the best with rednecks from the southern Plains also being quite good. The ability to lie, in good humor, declines as you go north through Kansas and Iowa but picks up again in the Dakotas, especially among Norwegians. Arkansas has some very good storytellers but they tend to keep their humor within a trusted ring of friends.
A story, like a tribal legend, gets better with age. When there is no one still living to disprove it, the details can become more involved and the actual event can be elevated to almost mythical stature.
To bring it all together, it is best if you start with a hypothesis that is provocative but unproven. In the case of the mountain lion in Des Moines, there have been rumors for years that there were a few large cats roaming through the area but the state wildlife agency wouldn't document that they existed. With this public display, similar to one in Missouri several years ago, the rumor became fact so the story needed to be elevated to the next level.
In the town where the police officer lives, the owner and loafers at the local hardware store have begun to embellish the story. In his informal gathering of customers, sitting on torn and taped barstools in the back of the store, they have expanded on what the shooter was thinking, the size of the animal, the number of shots fired and the number of guns used. Speculation also exists as to how the cat got there and what it would have done had it not been subdued. The listeners, myself included, get caught up in the likelihood that there are more cats, as reports of seeing a long tail dart through fields, across roads and into creeks have definitely spiked.
Maybe this is why docudrama plays well on TV. We can use cell phones, surveillance cameras and other instant news gathering tools to document just about every activity, but the mind wants conjecture and mythical conflict to entertain its higher functions.
I may have witnessed the beginning of something that will be embedded in our culture: A hapless young mountain lion, a policeman doing his duty to protect the public and a culture ready to take a few facts to the next level. So the next time someone says: "You ain't gonna believe this," lean in and listen because even if you don't believe it, the story will be worth hearing.
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.