Where I grew up, we had this huge drainage ditch. Honestly, it rarely worked, our street flooded every time it rained, but back when it was hard to gauge depth and distance because you were a child and didn’t know any better, it was a huge ditch. The neighborhood kids and I would spend countless school nights trying to figure out how to jump it with our bikes. Many tried…none succeeded.
Except one. His name was Blake and he lived around the block. He got a new bike for his birthday and brought it out for Show and Tell. We were out at the ditch attempting the impossible again. Something in the air seemed different that night, when Blake took the turn, picked up speed and steadied his handle bars. It may have been luck, it may have been the bike…but it happened. Blake cleared the ditch, and was the talk of the town the next day and for years to come.
I grew up in a time when daydreams were cluttered with stories of the Paul Bunyans and the Pecos Bills of the world. The kind of folklore that you just can’t believe, but the only confirmation you needed was more than one person saying “that’s what I heard”. Even if it weren’t remotely close to fact, it still grew to such a tale that it started to seem true. That’s what legends are made of. I never saw Babe Ruth play, but the stories about his childhood are astounding. Even in the modern day with guys like Albert Pujols. You can’t go 3 miles in Independence without somebody talking about his accomplishments in Youth League ball games.
“You know that ball field in Excelsior? Yeah, I was there when Pujols jacked not one, but two dingers into the forrest past left field..in the SAME INNING. 500 feet easy.”
It’s the awe-struck feeling one gets when they hear that, mixed with the comprehension of how incredibly improbable that feat truly is that makes legendary stories legendary. Entire movies have been made from that feeling (Sandlot, anyone?). Sadly, I feel as if they will soon cease to exist.
I was watching the 30 for 30 documentary the other day on Bo Jackson. The world’s greatest athlete who had his career stripped from him way too early. The beginning of the film touches on all the childhood stories about him: dunking a stick in 8th grade, throwing rocks with both hands for hours on end never getting tired, doing backflips effortlessly…in water. The only footage we have of Bo come from the few years he spent playing in the MLB and NFL. The rest…you just gotta take their word for it.
Sadly, I don’t think this will happen anymore. The Gen X-er’s and all who follow have grown accustomed to stats that back themselves up with evidence that can be found in multiple locations online. “Just Google it” has replaced “that’s what I heard” as the standard for credibility. While having this option has been a blessing in many ways, it’s the Achille’s Heel of legendary stories. I have a tough time believing that kids in the future will listen to their parents tell tales of how John Henry beat a machine and built an entire railroad system on his own, then jumping on their phones to find out if this really happened through a YouTube search. When every fact has been held in check since we’ve all had access to the internet, the term ‘legend’ has slowly started to lose it’s meaning.
I hope we don’t reach that point. What’s the point of legendary tales if not to inspire us to achieve the impossible? “Don’t give up! Johnny Appleseed never gave up when he set out to plant Apple Trees all over the country. If he hadn’t, we never would’ve been able to have that pie tonight!”
That neighborhood from my childhood has disappeared, forever in the hands of city planners trying to find ways to minimize flood zones, but that ditch is still there. To this day, there’s only been one person to successfully jump it. No videos, no podcasts, no official record on hand to document. It’s just what I heard.