If there is one thing that each new generation has in common with the one that immediately preceded it, it is the tendency for members of the older generation to rant and rave about how easy the current crop of youngsters has it compared to the days of their own youth. 

We all grew up with the stories about how our fathers had to travel for miles in the snow to get to school and back - walking uphill both directions, naturally. 

Or how their favorite toy one Christmas was a stick that had fallen off a tree out in the backyard. 

Or how they had to go out into the woods with their bows and arrows in order to shoot their own potatoes if they expected French fries with their supper that night. 

Such stories are part and parcel of the experience of growing up. Our parents are trying to teach us something that will stand us in good stead when we become the adults - and if they have to exaggerate a little bit in order to get the point across, then so be it. There’s a lesson to be learned, after all. 

Hey, it worked for the ancient Greeks and Romans. Those people turned exaggeration for educational purposes into an art form. 

That lightning bolt Zeus supposedly wielded against his enemies? It was actually a homemade slingshot that he carried around in his back pocket to protect himself against playground bullies.

The trials of Hercules? That was just a bedtime story ol’ Herc told his kids to make them think they had it easier than he’d had as a kid when it came to doing their household chores.

Leda and the swan? A mother’s cautionary tale about avoiding college frat parties - the details of which became ever more imaginatively and bizarrely embellished with each subsequent retelling…

So yes, exaggerating for effect in order to convince our children that we had it rougher when we were their age is a time-honored tradition. We’ve all done it - and any parent who tries to tell you otherwise has, whether they realize it or not, merely retold the same old stories so many times that they’ve fallen victim to the “illusion of truth” effect, that glitch in the human psyche that equates repetition with truth.

What’s interesting to me is the way some of those stories evolve in the retelling. Sometimes illusion of truth appears to walk hand-in-hand with the theory of parallel universes - raising the question of whether differing versions of the stories our parents tell us all really happened, just in alternate realities. Sounds like a great idea for a History Channel documentary. Or maybe a 12-issue comic book mini-series: Exaggerations On Infinite Earths.

When I was growing up, my father used to tell a story about a scam he and one of his childhood buddies pulled on a local grocery store owner in order to get a little spending money. Seems Dad and his buddy rounded up a bunch of soda pop bottles and brought them in to get the five cents in deposit money back, which they then split between them. 

The first time I remember hearing the story, Dad and his chum simply pocketed the money, then went down the street to the local drugstore to buy an ice cream cone and a couple of comic books apiece. But over time the details of the story seemed to change as Dad’s memory of the incident became, as he put it, “clearer.” 

One account had Dad and his buddy turning in about a dozen bottles, watching as the store clerk placed them in one of those old wooden pop bottle cartons you can buy at just about any antique store worth its dust these days, then carried the carton out to the back of the store and placed it just off to the side of the door so the soft drink distributor could pick it up on his next delivery… whereupon Dad and his friend reportedly snuck around and took the bottles again, hiding the carton as they did, and brought them around to the front door and told the clerk that they’d found a few more bottles. At which point they were given another handful of deposit money for their troubles by the oblivious clerk.

Each time Dad retold the story, the number of times he and his friend reclaimed the bottles and turned them back for the return on the deposit seemed to grow exponentially. By the time my own sons were old enough to sit in wide-eyed wonder as their Grandpa regaled them with the tale, Dad and his friend were spending the better part of an entire Saturday running back and forth with the same reclaimed armloads of bottles, collecting enough deposit returns that they should have been able to buy ice cream cones and comic books for every kid in town… and still have enough set aside for a new bicycle.

I almost - almost - made the mistake of questioning my father when he shared that latest revision to one of the great misadventures of his childhood. Fortunately my mother and my wife were both there to shoot me their patented “keep your mouth shut” looks. 

Mom taught Melissa well, I’ll say that much…

And for all the eye-rolling we might have done as kids when our parents would share these mythic tales of their youthful misadventures - and you might as well admit it, you rolled your eyes, I know you did - there seems to be some sort of genetic disposition amongst those of us who claim membership in this little coffee klatch we call the Human Race that leaves us little choice but to try and outdo our parents‘ storytelling skills when our own kids come along. 

Years ago, when my sons were still young and one of them was having a little bit of trouble with a classmate, who according to him was something of a bully, I sat down and shared the story of an incident from my own school days in which I found myself faced with a similar scenario. When I was in the sixth grade, there was this kid who had moved to town over the summer and thought he was, as the kids like to say, “all that.” 

This kid was a bully in every sense of the word, a fact that quickly became apparent to everyone and which, we were told, had been at least a partial factor in his parents’ decision to relocate. One day his misbehavior towards one particular friend of mine was even nastier than usual and, being the chivalrous fellow my parents raised me to be, I took exception. To which he responded by challenging me to a fight in a nearby alley that afternoon after school.

At the appointed time we both showed up, surrounded by classmates eager to see Mr. All That get what was coming to him, and by golly they were not disappointed. It was a battle royale straight out of one of the old movies I liked to watch on TV, with me in the swashbuckling Errol Flynn role and he as the dastardly Basil Rathbone. And lo and behold, the good guy won that day, just like in the movies.

Except that wasn’t quite the way it really happened...

Oh, there was a bully whom I actually bested, and it happened in the alley after school. However, the “fight” was not an epic exhibition of fisticuffs  but, rather, an agreed-to beforehand situation in which we just pushed one another and the first one to fall down three times was the loser.

Yeah, I won. But what man wants to tell a son looking to his hero of a father for advice that Dad’s only “fight” was won simply because the other guy was a bigger klutz than he was?

Of course, that’s not to say that I didn’t experience my share of youthful misadventures. I remember there was this one time on the back of a church bus, when me and...  

Wait, hold on, that one actually happened. And I promised I’d never talk about it. 

Forget I said anything... 

(Column copyright © 2022 by John A. Small)