National Story Project
With Paul Auster
In this installment of the National Story Project, Paul reads
stories by Saul Isler, Beth
Kivel, Theodore Lustig and an
anonymous contributor, Grace Harstad
and a doctor who goes by the name M.
Saul Isler of San Rafael,
California, writes: "It was a Saturday in the summer of 1947.
The next day, an Old Timer's baseball game was to be played before
the Indians game at Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium. I had just
turned thirteen. As I often did on Saturdays, I accompanied my
father to his patent office downtown to putter around with the
inventions that lined his office shelves. At noon, he sent me
across the street to the Hollenden Hotel coffee shop to pick up
some sandwiches for us. As I entered, I immediately recognized
Babe Ruth. The real Babe, the legend himself, bigger than life.
He was sitting with two other men at a table. I was too nervous
and excited to think. I had no pen and paper with me, so, instead
of approaching him and asking if HE had a pen, I bolted out, ran
back across the street, and flew up the four flights of stairs
to my father's office...'Dad,' I yelled, 'I just saw Babe Ruth!
Give me a pen and paper!' He became just as excited as I was...
and jammed his pen and a loose-leaf sheet into my shaking hand.
A minute later, I burst through the coffee shop doors. The Babe
was still there, sitting alone now and lingering over his newspaper.
I hurried over to him and said, 'Mr. Ruth, can I have your autograph?'
He smiled, 'Sure, kid,' he said. And then, as he scrawled out
his familiar, beautifully Spencerian signature for me, he added:
'You shoulda been here five minutes earlier, kid. You coulda got
Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, too.'"
Beth Kivel of Chapel Hill, North Carolina
calls her story "A Case of Mistaken Identity Times Two." "In the
mid-eighties," she writes, "I worked at an underground food coop
in Washington, D.C. One night while I was bagging raisins, I noticed
that a woman was staring at me. Finally, she stepped forward and
said, 'Michelle? Michelle Golden?' 'No,' I said, 'I'm not Michelle,
but do you mean Michelle Golden from Madison, Wisconsin?' and
she said yes, that was exactly who she meant. I told her that
I knew Michelle and that many people had mistaken me for her.
A few years later, I moved to the West coast. One Saturday morning
as I was walking in downtown San Francisco, a woman approached
me. She stopped in her tracks, looked me up and down, and said,
'Michelle? Michelle Golden?' 'No,' I said. 'But what are the chances
of you making the same mistake twice in your lifetime on two different
Theodore Lustig of Morgantown, West
Virginia received his discharge papers on April 25, 1946. He had
survived three years of Army service in World War II, and now
he was heading home on a train to Newark, New Jersey. The last
thing he had done at the base in Fort Dix was to buy a white shirt
at the Post Exchange, a symbol of his return to civilian life.
"I was eager to put my grand plan into action," he writes. "I
would return to college, launch my career, and look for the girl
of my dreams. And I knew exactly who that girl would be. I'd had
a crush on her ever since high school. The question was: how could
I find her? We hadn't been in contact for four years. When the
train pulled into the station, I gathered up my bags, tucked my
new shirt under my arm and headed down to the bus platform...the
last leg of my journey home. And then, miracles of miracles, there
she was, just as I had remembered her: a short, slim, dark-haired
winsome beauty. I walked up to her and said hello, hoping she
hadn't forgotten me. She hadn't. She threw her arms around my
neck and kissed me on the cheek, telling me how glad she was to
see me. Fortune was truly smiling on me, I thought. It turned
out that she had been on the same train, coming home for the weekend
from Rutgers University, where she was studying to be a teacher.
The bus she was waiting for wasn't mine, but that didn't matter.
I wasn't about to let my opportunity slip away. We got on the
same bus--hers--and sat together reminsicing about the past and
talking about the future. I told her of my plans and showed her
the shirt I had bought...my first step toward making my dream
come true. I didn't tell her that she was supposed to be step
two. She told me how lucky I was to have found that shirt, since
men's civilian clothing was in such short supply. And then she
said: 'I hope my husband will be as lucky as you when he gets
out of the Navy next month.' I got off at the next stop and never
looked back. Alas, my future was not on that bus. Thirty-one years
later, in 1977, I met her again at a high school reunion...not
quite so dark-haired, not quite so slim, but still winsome. I
told her that my career was going well, that I was married to
a wonderful woman, and that I had three teenaged children. She
told me that she was a grandmother several times over. I thought
enough time had passed for me to mention that meeting three decades
before...what it had meant to me, and how every detail of it was
etched in my memory. She looked at me blankly. Then putting a
coda to half a lifetime of 'what ifs,' she said: 'I'm sorry, but
I don't remember that at all."
Paul picks up with a story by an anonymous writer.
"During the First World War," an anonymous contributor
writes, "my father was stationed with the American Army at Savenay,
a small town in west central France.... When I visited Savenay
a few years ago, I carried along a few of the photographs he had
taken there. One of them showed my father standing on a country
road with two girls. There was a small house in the background.
Alongside the road not far from Savenay, I found that house...a
small brick cottage surrounded by a low stone wall....I went through
the gate and knocked on the door. An old woman poked her head
out of an upstairs window and asked me what I wanted. I handed
up the photograph and asked in my best French if she recognized
it. She disappeared into the house. After a long discussion with
another woman inside the house, she opened the door. The old woman
asked me where the photograph had come from. I told her that it
was my father's and that I thought it had been taken on the road
in front of her house. Yes, indeed, she said, the photograph had
been taken on the road, and she and her older sister (the other
woman inside the house) were the two girls in the picture. Her
sister remembered the day the picture was taken, the old woman
said. Two soldiers were walking on the road and had stopped to
ask for water. I told her that one of those soldiers was my father...or
became my father much later. Unfortunately, the old woman said,
their mother had not allowed the girls to give water to the soldiers.
This had distressed her sister very much, she said. As I was leaving,
the woman called me back and said: 'My sister would like to know
if you'd care for some water.'"
As a little girl, Grace Harstad's
grandmother lived in Setesdal in southern Norway. Her name was
Gyro Omlid. "When Gyro was ten," we are told, "her mother died
of tuberculosis, and the young girl was sent to Kristiansand to
be cared for by a couple who had recently lost their only son.
Gyro's father and three younger brothers emigrated to America,
settling in Harmony, Minnesota." Grace Harstad is not quite sure
why her grandmother was left behind...but a few years later, Gyro's
father mailed her a ticker for passage on a ship to America. "Gyro
was so happy," Ms. Harstad writes, "not only because she would
be seeing her father and brothers again, but because her best
girlfriend was booked to travel on the same ship. Her happiness
was short-lived, however. Gyro's ticket didn't arrive in time.
Back then, in 1873, the mail from America to Norway went by way
of England, where there had been a train wreck and a fire. Gyro's
ticket had gone up in flames. When the ship set out for America,
she stood on the dock weeping as her friend left without her.
Then came the part of the story that has always left me wondering
who I would have been if my grandmother's ticket hadn't been destroyed.
The ship carrying Gyro's friend struck a rock and sank near Newfoundland.
Not a single passenger survived. Later, my grandmother received
a replacement ticket and traveled safely to America. I was born
four years after Gyro died, and my parents named me after her,
Gnlicizing Gyro to Grace. She had to miss the boat...just so I
could be me."
M. is a doctor who cannot use his real
name. He works as a cardiac surgeon in a western state. Some years
ago, he performed high-risk bypass surgery on an elderly patient,
a man in his mid-seventies. The operation appeared to be a success,
but three days later the patient developed an arrythimia and his
heart stopped beating. M. performed CPR on the man for close to
three hours and, miraculously, was able to resuscitate him. But
in the process the man suffered a brain injury. The symptoms were
altogerhter unusual. The man now thought he was fifty years old.
During the three hours he had spent in another world, he had lost
more than twenty years of his life. M. followed the patient for
several months after he left the hospital, and during that time
he seemed to regain about ten of those years. He now thought he
was sixty, but he still had the energy of someone ten years younger
than that. Then M. lost track of him... A year and a half went
by. One afternoon, M. played golf with a good friend of his and
another man, who happened to be the son-in-law of M.'s patient.
The man pulled M. aside and told him that his father-in-law had
died earlier that month. M. expressed his sympathy. Then the man
told M. a story that M. says he will never forget. Prior to his
surgery, M.'s patient had been an alcoholic, a wife-abuser, and
had been impotent for almost twenty years. After his cardiac arrest
and resuscitationand the loss of twenty years of memory
he had forgotten all these things about himself. He stopped drinking.
He began sleeping with his wife again and became a loving husband.
This lasted for more than a year. And then, one night, he died
in his sleep.
Story Project can be heard the first Saturday of every month
on Weekend All Things Considered.