[This week, I'd like to share a story excerpted from my recent LogiCON keynote. The speech is a bit on the personal side, as I'm sure you'll be able to tell. Much of it has to do with my own childhood. —Daniel]
My father has always been a wonderful storyteller.
When my brothers and I were little, my Dad would tuck us into our beds, “bristle” our cheeks with his stubble, and tell us stories or poems. We loved Australian bush poetry (we must have heard “Mulga Bill's Bicycle” and “The Man From Ironbark” a thousand times), but our favorites were tales of his own childhood, growing up poor on the edge of the desert in South Australia. His Tom Sawyer-like childhood sounded magical to us: racing horses bareback over red sand, plucking oranges from the trees of his family's tiny fruit farm, catching yabbies in the hidden backwaters of the River Murray.
Many of these stories had a subversive edge to them, I realize now. Many were direct lessons in skepticism.
I'd like to tell you one of those, as I remember it 30 years later — exactly the same way I recently told it to my own son.
The Elephant Story
Once upon a time, your Grandpa Farmer was a little boy like you. He had a mother and a father, and six brothers and sisters. They were very poor, and did not have the toys and treats that I had growing up, or that you have today. They trapped rabbits for food for their family (which was bad for the rabbits, but good for Australia). Every day, the kids would run barefoot over the burning sand to their schoolhouse, uphill both ways.
One day, my Dad's mother came home with a rare and special treat — something almost too precious to believe.
It was a chocolate bar! The children gathered around in amazement. Their mouths watered. Their eyes sparkled. As their mother unwrapped the foil, the chocolate seemed to glow with deliciousness. It seemed to sing.
Carefully, carefully, their mother broke the bar into seven equal pieces: two sweet, small squares for each child. These she put into the children's lunches.
That day my father ran to school. He could hardly believe his good fortune. All day he dreamed of the chocolate. It felt to him like lunchtime would never come.
But lunchtime did come, in the fullness of time. Trembling, my father took out his small chocolatey treasure….
“Watchagotthere, mate? Candy?” It was one of the bigger kids.
“Yes,” said my father. “It's a special treat.”
“Can I have some?”
My father held the chocolate a little closer. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I don't have very much.”
The other boy considered this. “What about a trade?” he asked.
“I don't know,” my father replied. “What have you got?”
“I'll tell you what,” the older boy offered. “If you give me your chocolate, I'll let you have a ride on my elephant.” He beamed with his own generosity.
“I… wait, what? You don't really have an elephant. Do you?”
“Sure we do!” assured the big kid. “My father got him from a circus. We use him on the farm for plowing and stuff. He's stronger than a team of bullocks, but he's tame as a kitten! Also, he can jump over a tree. We ride him all the time. I could bring him to school with me tomorrow.”
Now, my father hardly knew what to do. He loved chocolate, but what kid could pass up a chance to ride on top of a real, live elephant? Swiftly the deal was made. They shook hands — and then the bigger boy woofed up that chocolate in two seconds flat.
That night my father could hardly sleep. He raced through his breakfast the next day, and practically flew across the sand to his school. He turned breathless into the schoolyard, and saw… no elephant. Puzzled, he went and found the older boy.
“Sorry about that!” said the boy. “My folks needed the elephant home on the farm today. I'll bring him tomorrow.”
The next day my father was twice as excited, and ran to school twice as fast. But again, no elephant.
“Yes, sorry,” the older boy told him. “He needed a washing today. Big job to wash an elephant! I'll bring him tomorrow.”
But the next day, the elephant was missing once more.
“Sore foot today! I'll bring the elephant tomorrow for sure….”
At this point, I stopped and asked my own little boy, “What do you suppose happened next? Did Grandpa Farmer ever get his ride on the elephant?”
My son frowned, his eyes deadly serious. “No,” he said, his voice tense with the knowledge of injustice. “That other boy was lying.”