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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Last night, yesterday morning: a Wheeler family story

My father's patrilineal family line, the Wheelers, have a particularly great family story that's been passed down from generation to generation.

The story takes place in the south, probably in Kentucky, sometime before the Civil War; my great-aunt, who knew her grandparents' generation well, placed it around 1950.

County fairs were the big entertainment in those days, huge week-long extravaganzas full of pumpkin growing contests, horse pulls (seeing whose horse can pull the greatest weight), bake-offs, and various carnival games. In the days before movies, let alone television, if you weren't in a city and near a vaudeville theatre, this was just the best it could get.

My great great grandfather, Charles James Merriweather ("C.M.") Wheeler, born around 1830, loved the carnival games as a boy, and as he got older he was especially fascinated by the unconvetional games--where instead of throwing hoops around a nail, you were trying to outwit a carnival veteran.

His favorite booth each year was the memory expert: a man who swore he could remember any story under a hundred words, which had to be grammatically correct of course, after only one hearing. To challenge him, you had to obtain or come up with the story, and read it aloud off a piece of paper; the crowd behind you would follow the words, so there would be a record to compare the carny's response to.

The fireworks came after you'd finish reading; there would be a pause, when it would seem to the crowd perfectly impossible to remember every word; and then the memory expert would rattle it off, the whole thing, in one or two breaths, slap his hand on the money you'd wagered, and add it to the bank, while the crowd gasped and clapped and shook their heads.

Oh, and that wager was a whole quarter, a good day's wage in that time. The Wheelers were schoolteachers who had recently immigrated from Scotland, and a quarter was no small amount to part with on a lark.

If by some miracle you won--something C. M. had never seen, in several seasons of hanging around the booth--you would win a "whole ham". In other words, the cured hindquarter of a hog, a massive two hundred pound piece of meat that would feed a family through the winter--an enormous payoff.

We all know this story in my family because C. M. saved up, wrote the most nonsensical story he could think of, and one summer day plunked down his quarter, waited for the crowd to stop shouting, pulled out his paper and read aloud the following:

Last night yesterday morning, about one o'clock in the afternoon, a hungry boy about 40 years old bought a custard for a levy and threw it through a brick wall nine feet thick, and jumping over it, broke his right ankle above his left knee and fell into a dry mill pond and was drowned. Ten years later on the same day, a cat hatched nine turkey gobblers and a high wind blew Yankee Doodle on a frying pan in Boston, where a deaf and dumb man was talking to his Aunt Peter.

The memory expert got half way through the mill pond, and no farther. C. M. won the ham, became a local hero, and (with plenty of help) brought home a huge surprise for his parents and brothers and sisters.

I asked my father to comment on this, and he said: "Of course he won the prize! This ditty has been handed down from father or mother to son and daughter across five enerations now, in the 150+ years since."

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