Telling the truth — as memory allows

Neil Snarr - Contributing columnist

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part column which will continue tomorrow.

Politically, this is not an era of truth-telling. It is an absolute travesty the amount of intentional “story-telling” that takes place. We don’t seem to want to call it lying, however.

There is a form of untruth, however, that is not intentional, but still needs to be exposed – that is due to faulty memory, which might have a variety of sources (youth and old age are just two possibilities).

In writing for the News Journal, I often tell stories from my dim past, especially when I lived in Yonkers, N.Y. where I was born. My family moved from there to Indianapolis when I was five years old.

I have, or think I have, some memories from that time that are not to be questioned.

Take, for instance, the landslide that took place on the Palisades across the Hudson River on the New Jersey side that, as I remember, resulted in an image that looked like Adolf Hitler.

To check my story, I phoned my 92-year-old sister and she confirmed my story – she was quick to explain it just as I had experienced it. I took that as adequate support for my memory.

Another clear recollection I have concerns the burning of the French ocean liner Normandie in the New York Harbor. “The Normandie, built in 1931 … was enormous, measuring 1,029 feet long and 119 feet wide… it offered passengers seven accommodation classes and 1,975 berths. Despite its size, it was also fast: capable of 32.1 knots. In 1937, it was reconfigured with four-bladed propellers, which meant it could cross the Atlantic in less than four days.” … “It was the largest and most luxurious ocean liner on the seas at that time.”

In 1940 when France surrendered to the Germans, the Normandie was docked in New York City. In order to keep this mammoth ship from returning to France and falling into the hands of the Nazis, the U.S. Navy placed it in “protective custody.”

A year later the Navy proceeded to turn it into a troop ship, “renaming it the USS Lafayette in honor of the French general who aided the American colonies in their original quest for independence.”

In my mind I can remember the ride down the highway skirting the Hudson River with the many docked ships including the gigantic French ship, the Normandie. In the process of transforming the liner to a troop ship, it caught on fire.

As I remember, after weeks of pouring smoke into the metropolitan area, it turned on its side and eventually sunk! I’m certain I remember seeing that!

What is the matter with my story? As I see it, “nothing.” However, all the references to this tragedy put the date of the burning as November 9 and its sinking one day later – not those weeks of burning as I remember (just 10 hours to sink).

But that’s not all; the year when it burned and sank was 1942! In 1942 my family was living in Indianapolis, not outside of New York City in Yonkers. I contacted my sister and she could not recollect anything about this gigantic and famous French ship! A blatant falsehood!

How do I explain this? I presume it is correct that I saw the ship in the New York harbor as it was a major story and was docked there for a long time. My family was interested in such events and the highway system made the trip quick and direct.

Beyond that I can only presume that my family followed the story in Indianapolis, further imprinting this event in my memory. I also picked up my mother’s habit of cutting stories and photos out of the newspaper and keeping them in a scrapbook.

Related to this, I can remember a photo I had of the Normandie on its side, burning in the New York harbor. Also, somewhere in one of my collections is a postcard from a first cousin of mine who had delivered trucks to New York City from the International Harvester works between Urbana and Springfield, Ohio.

The picture on the card was of the Normandie at sea.

To be continued tomorrow: The Andrea Doria and “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.”

Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.

Neil Snarr

Contributing columnist