In the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, newspaperman Maxwell Scott tells Ransom Stoddard, “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
I first encountered the words in Martha Sandweiss’s book Print the Legend (Yale University Press, 2002). Sandweiss examines the West through its photographic record, the ways images have seldom jived with reality. Legends are more common than facts, and often, when we are presented with the truth, we prefer the legend.
This week, I wrote a news obituary for John Alton McIlhattan, who died on May 6, 2007. McIlhattan was a renowned veterinarian, horse driver, and outdoorsman. In the last years of his life, he suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, which robbed the strength from his arms and took him away from the draft horses he loved so much.
I spoke with people who knew McIlhattan, a farrier who worked on his horses for years, people who knew him professionally through various youth programs, and even the woman who took care of him in his dying time. He was universally described as a quiet man, modest and kind. Others said he was a ladies’ man and the funniest man they ever met, with a knack for storytelling.
In fact, McIlhattan spent the last months of his life writing a book of his life stories, which he self-published in January, called Montana-born Luck. He wrote the pages, 350 by some accounts, more than 600 by others, in longhand, despite the failure of his arms. Others said he dictated the book or at least parts of it.
The stories span more than 120 years, from the time of his grandfather to the present. One tells of how his father barely escaped a Cuban revolution and returned to the United States. Another reveals the secrets of keeping happy buffalo; yet another expounds the virtues of draft horses as the perfect employees.
I mention these things and McIlhattan’s life in the context of the “legend” quote because I wonder sometimes about the stories we choose to remember. Memory is a curious, inconstant thing, even when it gets written down. The Bible records several different accounts of Christ’s last words, after all.
In this case, will these people who celebrate McIlhattan’s life and friendship remember who he really was or who they wanted him to be? Will my obituary, even if the details are not quite perfect, be counted as the one most people remember? Who holds the keys to our lives after we die? Newspapermen, family, friends?