Stories we tell

Off the Beat

My attempt to escape from preschool is a well-worn family tale.

It was a team effort. Harrison, Audrey, John, Grant and I spent our recesses digging with fluorescent-colored plastic shovels under the chain-link fence that ringed the dusty playground. Once recess ended, we covered our handiwork with leaves to hide it from the teachers. After a couple of days — or maybe a week or so — we were ready; there was a hole under the fence just big enough for a 4-year-old to wriggle through it.

On the day of our escape, the five of us went outside for recess. John was the designated lookout — or maybe it was Grant. Anyway, some kid stood in the Southern California sunshine atop a dirt mound in the center of the playground that seemed like a mountain from our preschool perspectives. John/Grant signaled the rest of us — yeah, we had hand signals — from his lofty vantage point that it was go time.

Audrey was the brave one; she went first. She cleared the leaves that had obscured our escape route and slithered under the fence, trying to avoid catching her clothes on the protruding metal. Harrison, my best friend, went second. I was supposed to follow him. But just as Harrison started to crawl through the gap, someone hollered. The grown-ups were after us.

Towering legs loped toward us. Audrey gazed at me, eyes full of fear, and then bolted down the sidewalk. I scampered across the playground, turning in time to see one teacher scoop up Audrey and another drag Harrison back by the ankles.

That’s a short version of the story I used to tell. But most of the story is fabricated — a semifictional narrative based on real-life events.

Here is what I think I actually remember: that one moment when Audrey looks back at me from the other side of the fence. Her clothing, the details of her face, the weather, the smell of the playground, the sounds of my friends, classmates and teachers — all of these details have evaporated. I’m left with just the frightened expression on my friend’s face, but even that memory is so hazy, so distorted — like a few flickering frames of charred celluloid run through a dingy projector — that I can’t trust it. Maybe that’s made-up, too.

It was sometime during elementary school when I started to embellish the story. I can’t pinpoint the first time I started lying about it, but if I remember correctly (and maybe I don’t) my parents liked to tell the story — “My son tried to escape from preschool. Isn’t that hilarious?” — and I would bring it up occasionally as a fun fact about me. It’s not much fun, though, to start the anecdote and then end it abruptly with: “But I don’t really remember. My parents told me it happened.”

Laughter turns to disappointment. The listener settles back after previously leaning forward, eager to hear the story. The conversation lulls.

So I wrote a multipage rendition of the narrative for a school assignment. Did we actually use leaves to disguise what we were doing? I don’t know. Did we devise a system of hand signals? Probably not; we were preschoolers. Who was the lookout? I don’t even know if we had a lookout. And how many days did we spend digging? Haven’t got a clue. But it was fun — for a while, at least — to tell my embellished (fake) version of the tale.

I probably did well on that school assignment, but I don’t remember. And I haven’t told this story in a while. I think I got tired of telling the fake version and tired of yearning for the memory to be something more than just a snapshot. Most of my personal memories are like that — ephemeral, unreliable. This particular anecdote still resurfaces periodically, though, in my mind. And I think I know why.

The story changed when I started lying about it. It changed again, gaining new resonance, when Harrison died. That was two years ago this month.

He was the only member of that preschool group I stayed in touch with for years afterward — we were best friends for about a decade. We drifted apart in high school but remained teammates in track and cross-country. Then we went to different colleges in different states, I saw him just a few times in a few years, and he died at 22.

The escape story was one of the many I returned to in the aftermath of Harrison’s death. It’s been told too many times and embellished too much, but it’s there whenever I choose to revisit it. I remember the rhythm of the story, the parts I used to lie about, the ending. I knew it well, and then Harrison’s death shifted it into a minor key.

When I exaggerated the story, I morphed a faded memory into an entertaining caper. Later, it morphed itself into a nostalgia-drenched lament for a life that intersected with mine before it was cut short. But the story doesn’t need to be forgotten just because it’s bittersweet. Maybe I’ll tell it a few more times with the truth, the context, the baggage — the emotional afterlife of the story — for Harrison.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.