(NOTE: The following is a longer version of my “Small Talk” newspaper column published in the print edition of the Johnston County Sentinel’s Feb. 25, 2021, edition. I wrote the column at home over the weekend and found I had written longer than my weekly allotted space allows, so I had to trim it down some to fit. Here is the full-length version, live and in person… or something like that.)

It happened a long, long time ago now. I usually don’t like to talk about it; as a man much wiser than I once pointed out, there is all too often a lot of pain and suffering whenever we try to dig up the past.


But apparently I no longer have a choice. The events in question seem to have become the subject of rumors and wild speculation on the part of people who were not there, and thus are not in a position to give accurate testimony. 

Besides, it was precisely because of such pain and suffering that I reached the epiphany which became the guiding force in my life.

So in spite of any reservations I may have, it falls upon me to try and set the record straight once and for all. Whether you choose to believe it is up to you, I suppose, but your failure to believe will not make it any less true.

So what really happened was this:

There was this emperor, see, and he was parading down the street buck naked. Nobody else seemed to notice… or, if they did, they were choosing for whatever reason not to say anything about it. Which struck me as incredibly odd. Not to mention incredibly silly.

So I said something about it. 

Actually I said something about it more than once. Too many times, perhaps, and perhaps a wee bit too aggressively. I made no apologies for it then and I make no apologies for it now; it needed to be said, and since nobody else was apparently willing to do so I took on the mantle of responsibility for myself. 

Almost immediately, however, I found myself questioning the wisdom of that decision. 

Any hope I might have had that society would choose to reward me for speaking the truth was quickly dashed. The people did not wish to know the truth; they were far happier maintaining their careful constructed prejudices and long-held preconceived notions. 

And so I was cast out. Declared a pariah by a community that valued the illusion of comfort and security more than they did the peace of mind that comes with reality. 

This saddened me for, oh, all of about five minutes… just long enough for a Messenger to come down from On High and tap me on the shoulder. 

“Let not one wrinkle of apprehension furrow thy noble brow,” she said. “Sometimes the simplest way to show the world it’s wrong is to let it have its way.”

It was difficult to argue with that kind of logic. (Actually I’m sure I probably could have had I wanted to; but that would have been defeating the purpose, wouldn’t it?) 

So I willingly took my leave, tossing a swag bag in the back seat of my Volkswagen 411 hatchback and humming John Williams’ main theme from Star Wars to myself as I pulled onto Interstate 57 and made my way toward the distant horizon…

Three days later I found myself in the middle of the desert and nearly out of gas, money and any sense of belief that I knew just where I was going and why. So I turned off the car engine and walked away, my path lighted only by the moon and stars hanging there in the night sky. The air was crisp and cold, and in my solitude it seemed as if I could almost taste the universe. 

It reminded me of a corn dog from the state fair. I don’t know why…

I had walked perhaps a mile or two when, for reasons I can’t explain and probably would not matter even if I could, I was reminded of an old story from the 19th century that my father had told to me when I was but a wee nipper sitting on his lap, watching an old rerun of Route 66.

The story went something like this: The Truth and the Lie meet one morning in the center of town. They nod at one another on greeting, and then the Lie says to the Truth, “Isn’t it a marvelous day today?”

The Truth sighs, suspicious as always of the Lie because… well, because he was the Lie. But after a moment the Truth gives in and cautiously glances up at the sky - and sees that, yes, the morning truly is beautiful. 

So the Truth smiles and shakes his head in agreement, and the two of them begin walking along the street and commenting now and then about just how lovely the day is. Eventually they make their way to the outskirts of town, where they happen to come across the local swimming hole. 

The Lie looks out across the water and comments to the Truth, “Gee, the water sure looks nice today. What do you say we go for a swim?” 

The Truth, once again suspicious of the Lie, slips off one shoe and dips her toe in to test the water… and discovers that, yes, it indeed is very nice. So the two of them slip out of their clothes and jump into the water for a quick skinny dip, swimming and splashing and generally having themselves a pretty good old time.

But suddenly, as the Truth ducks under the surface of the water for a quick swim, the Lie rushes out onto the shore. Once there he grabs the clothes of the Truth, quickly puts them on instead of his own and runs away, laughing hysterically at the Truth for not being more vigilant against the Lie’s deceit and trickery. 

Furious, the Truth makes her way out of the swimming hole and runs everywhere in an effort to find the Lie and to get her clothes back. And the World, seeing the Truth naked, turns its gaze away and reacts with contempt and rage. At which point the poor Truth returns to the water to hide its shame. 

“And ever since that day,” my father had concluded all those years ago, “the Lie travels around the world, dressed as the Truth, satisfying the needs of society because the World seems to harbor no wish at all to meet the naked Truth.” And as I continued walking, I suddenly realized that I had spent most of my life on a seemingly futile quest to help the Truth get her clothes back…

After a while I stopped and looked up into the night sky, telling those stars what I believed and what I hoped for in life. I ruminated on the way I thought the universe ought to be, listing those things I felt were good and proper and expounding on the things that could be made better if only the rest of the world saw things the way that I did.

But the stars showed no concern for such things. They just hung there in place, fiery balls of hydrogen looking down and silently reminding me that I was nothing more than an animated valise of water riding on an infinitesimal speck of cosmic dirt spinning through an incomprehensibly vast expanse of nothingness. 

I half-expected Carl Sagan - or perhaps more appropriately, Rod Serling - to step out of the shadows and launch into a monologue about how everything I believed, wanted, dreamed of and hoped for was ultimately irrelevant to the universe-at-large. And how my expectations to the contrary were in some form or fashion the ultimately act of delusional arrogance and narcissism.

And yet, in spite of this evidence laid out before me, I continued to believe otherwise. I refused to be ground beneath the heel of an unfeeling, uncaring Universe. I raised my fist and shook it before those fiery balls of hydrogen and cried out: “Blast you, sir, I exist! I matter!”

And the Universe responded, “Aye, an’ so you say, laddie-buck. But your sayin’ so sure doesn’t instill within me any sense of obligation for your well-bein’, now does it?”

And it was in that moment that I at last understood and learned to appreciate just how important this God-given gift of free will can be, if utilized properly and to the utmost of our abilities. Of the importance - to use the parlance of the science fiction and comic book geeks - of using our powers for good, and not evil. Of our partnership in the Human Adventure, working together to improve the world for the betterment of all by ending hunger and pollution, fighting disease and poverty,  and making a positive difference in the lives of our fellow man.

Don Quixote called it “the impossible dream.” 

But what is a dream, if not a blueprint for action?

The rest, as they say, is left as an exercise for the reader…