Around the world, speechwriters and other authors collect the most brilliant of anecdotes. Unfortunately, most of them will never be told again.
Recently, I came across an old newspaper article. I found it in one of my notebooks. It contained the story of Merv Grazinski from Oklahoma City. Merv was driving on a highway in her brand new recreational vehicle when she became hungry. She decided to switch on cruise control and went to the kitchen where she made herself a sandwich.
Subsequently, the vehicle overturned several times and landed in the ditch. Merv overturned with it and landed in a hospital. After regaining consciousness, she quickly decided, who was to blame for the incident.
Surprisingly it was not herself, but the vehicle manufacturer, the Winnabago Motorhome Company. She was of the opinion that the manual should have contained a warning advisory that drivers may not leave the steering wheel while in cruise control. She went to court.
Until this point, this is already an unusual story, isn’t it? But it gets weird when you read that a jury granted Merv damages of – I am not making this up – 1.75 million dollars. On top of that, the jury ruled that Winnabago must add cruise control warnings in all of its car manuals.
Isn’t it amazing what companies have to do these days to protect consumers from their own foolishness? One day, the ktichen appliance manufacturers will have to put a warning label on each oven saying: Sitting on a hot stove with water and a stock cube in your mouth is not a safe way to cook soup.
Anyway, why am I telling you all this? Oh yes. I wanted to write about forgotten stories, which reminds me of another anecdote that I read on Wikipedia a while ago and that I saved under ‘favorites’ in my internet-browser.
During the slave uprising in ancient Rome, the rebel leader Spartacus once managed to put to flight a whole division of the Roman army. Marcus Crassus, the commander of the Roman troops, was so upset about the cowardice of his men, that he decided to punish them very hard.
He let the legionaries muster in one row and commanded that every tenth of them took one step forward. Then he ordered, that these soldiers had to be beaten to death by their comrades.
You might regard this procedure barbaric, but we still use it today. Not the punishment of course, but the word that the Romans used for it. Every time we say that something was ‘decimated’ we use a word that has its origin in the brutal killing of Roman soldiers.
At this point you might ask yourself what these two anecdotes have to do with each other. I will tell you. Not much. These are just two of the hundreds of stories that lie around in my study. Anecdotes that are interesting remarkable or funny but have nothing, absolutely nothing to do with anything I have ever written about.
Isn’t that sad? These are great stories, but I just don’t know how to use them. They lead a useless existence in drawers, shoeboxes, computer documents, link collections and many other places. They are like great stage plays that aren’t performed any more.
To increase the chances for at least some them to get back on stage, I have recently started a filing system. In order to make sure I find my stories whenever in need them, I refer them to different keywords. For example, if you flipped through the register under the category ‚”fatal errors“ you would find the story of John Sedgwick.
Sedgwick was a unionist general in the American Civil War. One clear spring morning, the proud commander stepped out from behind the firewall, looked over to the enemy position and spoke his famous last words: “Man, at this distance these idiots couldn’t event hit an elef …”
Unfortunately, since the establishment if my new filing system, no one has hired me to write about disastrous miscalculations. Therefore, the story will have to remain in the archive and wait for its chance.
One story that might have even worse chances of seeing the light of day again is that of the German shepherds dog Kuki. Kuki fell through a frozen lake in Brandenburg a couple of winters ago. A fire fighter crawled over a ladder to the hole in the ice where Kuki was about to drown. But when the firefighter tried to pull him out, the stupid mutt bit him in the hand.
I found this story in the local section of a Brandenburg newspaper and I probably wouldn’t have cut it out, had it not been for the cover story of the same day. There I read an article about the German chancellor Angela Merkel and her visit to Athens the day before. She wanted to talk to members of the Greek government about the forthcoming bankruptcy of their country.
Inside the government’s palace, Merkel negotiated about a bailout for the hopelessly indebted Greeks. Outside, there were thousands of them displaying pictures of Merkel with a Hitler moustache and other Nazi accessories. I found that to be very offensive and I asked myself if this wasn’t a reason to stop giving money to Greece all together.
But then I had to think of poor Kuki and how he was panicking while drowning in that icy cold lake. There of course, the brave fireman had pulled the dog out of the water, despite his dog-bit hand.
What a great analogy for a text about Merkel in Greece, I thought. Unfortunately, no one asked me to write one that day. And so the story went into my archive where Kuki lives in oblivion ever since together with Merv Grazinski, John Sedgwick, Marcus Crassus and so many others.
Most of them will forever wait in vain. And that does not only apply to the stories in my archive. All around the globe there are columnists, speechwriters and other authors who hoard stories in their drawers, on their computers and in their heads. There are millions of delightful anecdotes that patiently wait and hope that maybe one day they might be told again.
And every once in a while, one actually does get back on stage. For example in a speech by a Danish minister of science. The politician wanted to talk about how insufficiently Danish university graduates were prepared for entering the labor market. She told her speechwriter to illustrate the situation with an anecdote. He looked in his archive and found a story about dry swimming.
In the 1950s, many towns in Denmark didn’t have public swimming pools yet. Therefore, swimming lessons were held in school gymnasiums. The students had to lie on the floor and row with their arms and legs under the instruction of their gym teachers.
One doesn’t dare to imagine how it looks when kids practice butterfly swimming without water, not to mention high diving. But this was of course an excellent anecdote to highlight the lack of practical relevance of many university courses.
Unfortunately, many of my stories might never have such a comeback and when I think about it I feel a little sad. But that will not stop me from collecting more and more stories with great enthusiasm.
Speaking of hanging on when there is little hope left, it reminded me of the Aron Lee Ralstonstory. Aron is an American mountaineer, who was rock climbing in Blue John Canyon in Utah, when a big rock broke lose and smashed his hand. Aron Lee was stuck.
For several days he tried to move the rock, but it was too heavy. Finally he came to the conclusion that the only way to save his life was amputating his own arm. The only tool that he had to do this was blunt pocketknife. But with that he would not be able to cut through his bones.
He therefore decided to press the arm firmly against the rock that had jammed his hand and after several extremely painful attempts he finally managed to break the bones. After that he cut flesh, muscle and sinews with his old knife and escaped to freedom. After his return to civilisation, Ralston was asked by a journalist if he would ever climb in the wilderness by himself again? Without any hesitation he replied: ”I can’t wait.“
Does it make sense to compare amputated arms with forgotten stories? Probably not. Aron Lee’s story probably might not really belong here. But it doesn’t have to. I just wanted to tell it one more time.
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