I remember as a mischievous lil’ urchin, being drawn to and fascinated with the various characters — and their almost mythological feats — found in the expansive canon of American folklore. Some loosely based on selected facts, though wildly exaggerated for storytelling ... .others magically conjured from the depths of the imagination.
There was Paul Bunyan, superhuman lumberjack, traversing the north woods with his blue ox, performing random acts of lumberjackery (I just made that word up).
Johnny Appleseed, coming across as a “Little House on The Prairie” version of a wandering, peace and love filled “Dead Head,” though the seeds he so freely shared were much different (and far less hallucinogenic) than those revered later on by those Grateful Dead fanatics.
Always a favorite was John Henry, who walked the walk, yet unfortunately perished while proving that a good man, no matter how well intentioned, was no match for a machine.
And we are all familiar by now with the wacky tale of Charles Nelson Reilly, flamboyant 1970s TV game show panelist who, using an uncanny, telepathic gift for matching, was capable of sending contestants home only slightly richer than they arrived, while providing Gene Rayburn with continued employment several years beyond what was reasonable.
Later in life, the most appealing thing about folk heroes was that, as a parent, after exposing my children to these classic figures and their epic stories, I could spontaneously make up the most unbelievable facts about the most intriguing characters, delivered with an unwavering sincerity, only to watch my wide-eyed children, after hanging on my every word, go out into the world and convincingly retell these tales, thus creating and preserving our own family folklore.
Most have been relegated to the dusty, back room of our collective memory, vaguely remembered only at those bi-annual holiday gatherings when embarrassing your loved ones with such tales has become as big a part of the celebration as the turkey or Grandma’s traditional “happy punch.”
However, there is one story which has stood the test of time. Told and retold innumerable times, this narrative, which recounts the life and times of an almost iconic character has legend written all over it.
Beginning innocently enough, it was years ago at Steak ‘n Shake, our favorite destination for a fine dining experience. We sat there, patiently awaiting our meal, knowing from experience (and the shiver inducing nasally pitch of her voice) that our easily distracted teenage server was, at that very moment, not so much concerned with alleviating our hunger as she was with informing the entire staff and most of the patrons that we were horrible parents. Not understanding how picky most 6 year olds can be, she found it an appalling notion that we had ordered full meals, while our child would be partaking in a single crock of tasty baked beans and a small strawberry shake.
So, as the judgment behind the etched glass partition continued, we humored ourselves as the hungry often do, by playing silly placemat games and drawing caricatures of the other customers with the three waxy crayons found on our table. Soon tiring of this, I noticed my daughter silently struggling to sound out a word on a sign behind me.
“Tack ... Tayko ... Tako-mosaic,” she sputtered.
I turned, glimpsing the lit neon sign dangling above the counter. “Takhomasak” it blinked, which of course is meant to be read “take home a sack.” Without hesitation, and in an almost reverent tone, the legend of “Tah-coma-sak,” great Iroquois warrior chief and inventor of the hamburger, began.
I’m guessing you’ll never find that miniseries on The History Channel.
Chuck Mason, a self-described opinionated wiseguy, resides in Princeton. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.