Monday, October 29, 2012

Throw in a little pixie dust

One of my favorite movie lines of all time comes toward the end of the John Ford Western: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In the story, as legend had it, the eponymous "man" of the film's title was the beloved Senator Ransom Stoddard (played by Jimmy Stewart). Years before he was challenged to a gun duel by the notorious outlaw and town menace Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). At the appointed hour, the vastly out-matched Stoddard fired his gun and the gunslinger Valance fell dead, much to Stoddard's surprise. As he and the audience would find out later, the real killer of Valance was Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who was hiding across the street in the dark. He shot Valance for the sake of the woman both he and Stoddard loved, but that's another story. Anyway, neither Doniphon nor Stoddard ever let on to anybody else about the true identity of Valance's killer. Stoddard went on to great success and got the girl, all based upon his being the "man who shot Liberty Valance." Doniphon, brokenhearted, slipped off into obscurity. Late in life the guilt-ridden Stoddard, in an interview with a newspaperman, fessed up to the true story.

At the end of the interview the newspaperman burned up his notes telling Stoddard:
This is the West sir, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Imagine a reporter today being spoon fed a scoop like that and letting it go up in smoke.

Despite the fact that nine out of ten Americans according to a 2011 Gallup poll, claim to believe in a God of whose existence they presumably have no rational proof, we seem to have an insatiable thirst for proof of everything else. No stone goes unturned to get the "real story", no matter how many people get hurt in the process. Hope, acceptance and faith (except apparently in God), seem to be rare commodities these days, at least in this country.

We live in a fabulous late twenties apartment building on the north side of Chicago. For the past two years our building has been one of the several hundred buildings featured in a wonderful event called "Open House Chicago", sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. It has been my privilege to have been one of the tour guides for the building. As you can imagine, a big old building like ours has lots of stories, many of them involving sprits of former residents haunting the building.

Now I can't say truthfully whether I believe in ghosts or not, all I'll say is I have no proof they do not exist. Besides, I like a good ghost story as much as the next guy. Our building's engineer told us the story of a teenager, Johnny Gidwitz (I'm making up the name), who many years ago drowned in our swimming pool after hitting his head on the ceiling while trying to show off on the diving board for his friends. According to our engineer, his spirit has been hanging around the pool area since. Again, I don't know as I've haven't seen hide nor hair of him.

Our neighbor, one of my fellow tour guides who herself has no time for such foolishness, told me that on one of her tours, while walking though the pool area one of her guests asked her completely out of the blue: "Are there any ghosts in this building?" "Why?" our neighbor asked. "Because I can sense one right now", said the woman.

I'm presuming it was Johnny Gidwitz but of course, I can't prove it.

The story gets more interesting. On my first tour this year, a gentleman told me he grew up in the neighborhood and one day back in the fifties, his sister and her friend snuck into the building and went for a dip in the pool. The two girls entered the shallow end and eventually worked their way into the deep end. Unfortunately neither girl could swim and both found themselves in a state of panic, struggling for their lives. All of a sudden the girls felt themselves being grabbed by the backs of their swimsuits,  pulled out of the water, and placed on the edge of the pool. Standing in front of them was an enormous man with a shaved head, dressed in a white tee shirt.  The man they said bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Clean. He asked if they were OK then calmly walked away. The girls ran home and told the girl's mother the story. She immediately went over to our building to thank the man who had just saved the girls' lives. She found several people from the building and asked them about the man who looked like Mr. Clean. To a person including the building's engineer at the time, no one had any clue who the man was, as no one fitting that very distinctive description either lived or worked in the building. To this day his identity remains a mystery.

From the gleam in the storyteller's eye I could tell where he was going: "So you think he was an angel?" I asked the man. He shrugged his shoulders and said sheepishly: "Well you never know."

That story was too good to pass up and I told it, along with the story of Johnny Gidwidtz to the rest of my tour groups that day. Perhaps because I didn't have just the right the gleam in my eye when I told the story, nobody bit as I did. "Hmmm... maybe he was an outside contractor or a guest" they'd say or, "maybe he was someone who snuck into the building himself."

Probably. Those are perfectly reasonable, plausible explanations.

But I think I'll just go with the legend.

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