Stories Archive

National Story Project
With Paul Auster

April 2000

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.

audio button 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 coasts?'"

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 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."

audio button 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 resuscitation—and 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.

The National Story Project can be heard the first Saturday of every month on Weekend All Things Considered.