Harold Welsh (or Welsch) Revisited

  Jerome Shea       May 12, 2007      Weekend Wonk

Back in March, I wrote about my erstwhile colleague Harold Welsh, brought low by an inadvertent pun ("Great Moments in Teaching"). But the account was not as it seemed. I had not had contact with Harold in 40 years, but we do have a mutual friend who supplied an address—Harold is still in Illinois, not far from the scene of the alleged happening—and suggested that I send him a copy of the column.

Before this goes any further, let me say first that I misspelled the poor man’s name. I was in fact trying to recall if it were spelled “Welsh” or “Welch,” when in fact it is “Welsch.” Special apologies for that, Harold; “Welsch” it will be from now on.

But it gets worse. Harold wrote back with pleasantries, compliments about my prose style, and so forth. And then he dropped the hammer: the alleged incident never took place! Not only had he no recollection of any “colon” pun, but he capped it by pointing out that we never shared that office or any other one! He went on to list my real officemates and the location of his office (and his officemates) in such detail that it is clear that Harold’s power of memory easily trumps mine. In short, he is right and I was woefully wrong.

And not only did I make the whole story up, but I have fervently believed it these 40 years. How could this have happened?

The easy part is the Harold Welsch connection. Whenever and however the story began to gestate, it was natural that Harold would star in it, simply because the man was renowned for his wit and most especially for his abilities as a punster. So in the old folk tradition of the biter bitten, my brain effortlessly coughed up the name “Harold Welsch.”

So far, so good. The rest is pure speculation. Did I stumble upon the connection between the punctuation mark and the lower tract? I seriously doubt it. I mean, the connection is so obvious that surely the pun has been floating around, like one of Richard Dawkins’s “memes,” for centuries. Did I come up with the scene? That seems entirely possible. Harold Welsch = English teacher = punctuation = agonies of theme grading =…. Well, you see how ineluctably it goes. My little playlet sprang to me full blown and of course I was there, too, because I was the necessary narrator. Or perhaps it did not spring full blown. Perhaps a better metaphor is the oyster, the pun being the (happy) irritant and my musings, my retellings (to myself and to my students over the years) being the nacreous accretions that would finally bring forth the perfect pearl. And I think it no coincidence that I love to tell stories. In fact I was, many years ago, a professional storyteller (“Dr. Shea’s Wonderfilled Storybag”). Now the question becomes, “How could I NOT have made up the Harold story?”

And fervently believed it. I honestly did. I wish I still could. In fact, churlishly, I think that Harold Welsch has robbed me of something! (How dare he!)

The believing part is, to me, more worrisome. Most of us can be wrong about details over the years (“Dad’s old Ford was a flathead V-8.” “No, it was a straight six; you’re thinking about the Merc he had before that.”), but to believe a whole happening seems a quantum jump. Or maybe I am more worried, at 65, about the seeming frailty of my memory.

Actually, I think there is something rather literary about this. That story (I daresay) is so good that it SHOULD HAVE BEEN TRUE. What we are witnessing—not to put too fine a point on it, and in a very humble way—is the power of art to call things into being. It is the power of “story.” In this case (unlike “the priest, the rabbi and the minister,” say) it definitely could have happened, owed its charm to (supposedly) having happened: this was a (real) story, not a just a “joke.” Different rules apply. And every time I retold it I could not help but add yet another detail, and the accumulating details persuaded me even more of the truth of it, made it all the more “real.” Thus does a good story feed on itself. There is magic afoot here.

Well, I am glad to right the record. But the experience has shaken me. I mean, for example, was that REALLY how I met my wife?

Driving into work the other morning, I heard the news announcer say something like this: “And in central Missouri this week, streets are flooded and many residents are being evacuated in the wake of recent violent demonstra…uh, thunderstorms.”

Poor fellow. We have such a smorgasbord of violence these days that it is indeed a challenge to keep things straight.

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