There I was in the newsroom minding my own business on a hot summer day when the call came through: A monstrous serpent was loose in western Tennessee.
Some said the monster was 30 feet long, some said much longer. Farmers had been baffled and their wives terrorized.
Surprisingly, no local St. George appeared to do battle or even, for that matter, find the creature.
I set forth to interview the good people who had been astonished by the vast reptile. It was widely known the creature could perfectly well eat babies or maidens, though unfortunately nobody could be found to say he had seen such a tragedy.
They said everything but.
Perfectly upstanding steady God-fearing rural gentlemen assured me they had themselves seen the monster. The typical man had been out in a field with his tractor when he saw it.
"I seen him when I was turning this furrow right here and that's how I knew how long he was because he stretched clear from that persimmon over there to about 10 feet from that bayou, etc., etc."
The newspaper I represented was quite interested in the beast, and it was thought well to call on various university people, all of whom uttered figures on the maximum lengths of anacondas, pythons and monsters in general, and one of whom speculated at some length whether a tropical snake could endure the winters of Tennessee (with winter temperatures similar to Washington's).
The great snake was never found.
Now in that part of Christendom the good people rather look forward to traveling carnivals in late summer, and it happens surprisingly often that a few weeks before the carnival arrives (usually without an elephant but sometimes with a monster python eight feet long, which is described in shuddering and glowing terms) a great serpent monster is reported loose in the countryside.
It is a matter of some wonder and comment for four counties around. Sightings are about as frequent as those of flying saucers, and never mind if the descriptions vary widely. It also happens that the same 40-foot snake will be seen at more or less the same time in widely separated places. Never mind.
The story struck me as total nonsense, somewhat like astrology, since these sorts of things depend largely on gullibility, auto-suggestion and a touching faith in the suggestions of others.
The paper I worked for had little faith in a 50-foot serpent, but rather hoped a nice 16-foot specimen might be found somewhere, and in any case people rather enjoyed the accounts of those who had seen the monster wriggling right through their cotton or right down there by their bayou. After all, a 60-foot snake is memorable and you are happy to inform reporters about it.
The chief thing I have carried about with me all these years is my certainty that man after man had personally seen the 70-foot venomous reptile and recounted his vision with a sobriety, thoroughness and attention to convincing detail that would have been believed (if he had been witness in a criminal trial) by any court in the world.
For the first time it dawned on me that people could and did easily believe they had seen things that did not exist. It did not bother them, that I could see, that the thing could not exist to begin with. And yet I kept feeling that these good people were not deliberately lying. That is my own country down there and I like to imagine I am not all that easily fooled when a man is telling the truth. Or when he honestly thinks he is.
But never since then have I had all that much faith in eyewitness accounts of anything. Maybe true, maybe not.
Now I do not have any criticism to make here against anybody's confidence in religion (in fact, nothing is more stupid than to underestimate the power of religion in civilizing barbarians), but I merely remind you the new president of the Southern Baptist denomination has called anew for a firm faith that the world was created in six calendar days, and since I was not present (I should have made several fairly good suggestions if consulted in a timely way) I am far from saying that is not true.
I do point out that many people find it incredible, and my central point is that no matter how incredible something may seem to most people, there are other people who will stake their lives on its accuracy and truth. Even reporters are not free of hoodwinking themselves in a kind of self-hypnosis, as several showy examples have demonstrated.
But then I remember when the three kids were murdered and buried under the dam at Philadelphia, Miss. Virtually everybody in that neighborhood honestly believed (or at least believed) the victims were "living it up in a fancy hotel in Chicago, just laughing at us." All the evidence suggested (what proved to be the truth) that they had been murdered and buried right there in Philadelphia.
A spokesman for B'nai B'rith has publicly observed that the Israeli attack on Lebanon was, of course, a defensive action. The murderer of Michael Halberstam has observed that Halberstam ruined his (the murderer's) life, and without multiplying examples it may be said flatly that there is no crime known to man that cannot be called a nicer name.
My own view of language, which I confess I have never seen endorsed by anybody, is that language developed chiefly from the universal itch to give a better name to murder, greed, blood-lust, cowardice and sloth. And I will say this for language, it has succeeded in these little revisions far better than our Neanderthal relatives ever dared hope. What could not be foreseen, and what is so magical about words, is that it takes very little time to think up liberation (instead of murder, say) and takes even less to start believing it