According to Legend

According to legend, when my grandmotherís brother Zaven was a kid in Fresno, he would lie down for amusement on the streetcar tracks. When the streetcar came to a halt to keep from running over him, he would jump up, throw rocks at the windows, and run off laughing. From what Iíve been told, this was fairly common behavior, consistent with Zavís personality. This is the same person who, at the height of five feet and the age of almost sixty, challenged a large, muscular black man to a fight on a street in San Francisco. I forget the story, but apparently Zav thought he had been insulted in some way, and felt it necessary to defend his honor. There was no fight, of course. When the black man heard Zavís loud voice and witnessed his wild gesticulations, it was probably hard for him to keep from laughing. Then again, there is also the possibility that he did feel threatened. After all, who knows what a crazy person will do? The smaller man might not win, but in the process of losing he might sneak in a painful kick to the groin, or gouge out an eye. Stranger things have happened.

Very well, brother. I understand. Let us part in peace.

The streetcar incidents would have taken place somewhere around 1915, when, back in the Old Country, Armenians were being slaughtered wholesale by the Turks and marched into the desert to die. The near-brawl in San Francisco would have been in the early 1960s. I donít know exactly when Zav died. I know he didnít live a long life. But between stints as a court reporter after World War II at the Japanese war crimes trials, and as president of a semi-fictitious uranium mine, he lived an interesting one.

I also donít think we ever met. We have a picture of him in one of our old family albums taken in 1946 on the occasion of my brotherís baptism. My father, ten inches taller and many pounds heavier, is sitting on his lap, and both are wearing silly grins. The only other pictures we have were all taken much earlier, sometime after Zav was released from the reformatory but before the war. In one, he is wearing a small, round, flat-topped straw hat and looks like a ticket-seller at a circus.

Zav was also a singer. He loved the opera, and, again according to legend, tried out as a tenor for the Metropolitan. Many years earlier, when he was going to sing on the stage of the State Theater in our old home town as part of a musical program, he was paralyzed by a case of stage fright that left him voiceless.

A similar thing once happened to me. When I was playing the trumpet in the sixth grade, I was to participate in a recital in the high school auditorium, accompanied on the piano by a Japanese girl who lived in our old farm neighborhood. Unlike Zav, however, I never made it to the stage. While we were warming up in a room on the first floor several doors away from the auditorium, I realized that playing a stupid song called ďTrumpeterís ChoiceĒ in front of several dozen parents and teachers was not something I wanted to do. I should have realized it earlier, I know, and informed those involved while there was still time for them to make other arrangements. The fact is, Iím sure that deep down I did realize it, and had allowed myself to ignore the truth in order to satisfy the music teacher and my accompanist. When I finally told the girl that I had decided against performing, I saw the surprise and disappointment in her face. But I didnít really understand until later that although I was the one to have given the recital, the performance was more important to her than it was to me. When she was completely certain I wasnít going to change my mind, she picked up her music, left the room, and went into the auditorium.

For what itís worth, about fifteen years later, I sang on several different occasions in front of as many as 200 people. The songs were Armenian songs, and I sang them in Armenian, and not a single person in the audience demanded my head. A few old deaf people even clapped.

Life is strange. We all have these mysterious currents that run through us, these rivers of memory and meaning that carry our old triumphs, failures, and fears out to sea, where they become part of something infinitely larger and more profound.

To this day, I am both shy and outgoing. Something inside me drives me into the public eye, and yet at the same time I strive to remain anonymous and unknown. Someday, one will either win out over the other, or things will continue this way until I die.

March 17, 2006

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