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Truth, Embellishment, and Lying: My First Lie

October 19, 2021
It’s starting to come back to me.

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t my first lie, but it’s the first lie that I remember. Growing up, I knew that my parents would punish me harshly if they caught me not telling the truth. My older sister had once brought home a rain-soaked report card from school and told my parents that the blotted out grades were all A’s and B’s. Unfortunately for her, my dad called the school and found out that two of her grades were D’s.

The punishment for lying was the belt, and that day my sister got a bad version of the belt. Back then, the belt was a common punishment. Every kid bragged about how bad his dad’s belt was. I had no frame of reference. I just knew my dad’s belt hurt, but I couldn’t compare his belt to anybody else’s.

Anyway, my sister got the belt, and I could hear her get the belt from her bedroom, and I knew I didn’t want the belt.

Still, no matter how cautious and quiet a kid can be, nobody could completely escape the belt back in the 1970s.

I don’t remember all the details of the first lie that I remember. I think it was summer because this had to have taken place on a weekday morning and I wasn’t in school. It was probably between kindergarten and 1st grade, and I was in my front yard, and a kid that I had known from school said hi to me as he was walking on the sidewalk past my house. I hadn’t seen this kid for a while, so I kept talking to him as he walked up the street. I don’t remember his name, and I don’t remember what we talked about.

I knew I was supposed to stay in my front yard. I’d always had to get permission from my mom before I left the front yard, and instead I’d followed this kid up the street. I knew I was breaking a rule, but I kept walking with this kid anyway.

The kid’s house was two blocks away, and as he stepped into his house, I turned to face my walk home, and my dad’s car stopped just in front of my house. I think he was on a lunch break from work, but he hardly ever came home for lunch. I guess this wasn’t my lucky day.

“Get in,” my dad said, or he said something like that. I think the passenger side window had already been down.

When I got into the car, my dad said something like, “Does your mom know that you’re here?”

“Yes,” I said immediately. It was a stupid answer. I had a delusion that he wouldn’t double check with Mom. Maybe something else would happen when we got home, I thought, and Dad would forget to ask her. I think I actually believed that delusion. I’ve believed in more far-fetched delusions since then, so I probably believed that one too.

As soon as we got home, Dad asked Mom if she knew that I had been two blocks away, and she said no, and I got the belt. I don’t remember much about the belt, except I know I got it.

When my older sister and brothers found out about me getting the belt, they laughed; I hardly ever got punished for stuff, so they were probably glad that I wasn’t safe from consequences like the belt.

Afterwards, I reflected on what went wrong. If I had told the truth to my dad, I still would have been punished, maybe even with the belt, because I had left the front yard without permission.

The Watergate scandal was going on around the same time (I didn’t know what it was about; I was just ticked off every afternoon because the hearings pre-empted afternoon cartoons on television.). After the scandal, political pundits always claimed that it wasn’t the crime, it was the cover-up. I don’t believe that’s true. I think it’s the crime and it’s who commits it.

I believe if I had told my dad the truth, I still would have gotten the belt. I believe if President Nixon had just outright said, “Yeah, those were my guys, and the Democrats deserved what I did, and LBJ did a lot worse than what I did and nobody gave a damn,” he still would have been forced to resign. I’m not sure my sister would have gotten the belt for a couple D’s on her report card, but she still would have been grounded for a week or two, so in her mind it was worth taking the risk.

This version of my first lie (that I remember) is kind of dry. The writer in me wanted to recreate the conversation between the kid and me. I could have made up his name. I could have made up dramatic details of the drive back home and the tension I felt as my dad discovered the truth from my mom. I could have added traumatic details about the belt. I could have thrown in a serial killer to make things really interesting.

I could have, but I didn’t… not this time.

So here’s what I’m getting at. At what point do an author’s embellishments become outright lies? Do embellishments really improve a story? Or is a story better if the author just admits that he or she doesn’t know all the details?

3 Comments
  1. I’m a writer, too, and I like embellishments, which is why I would probably never write straight-up nonfiction without the “creative” label, but there’s a case to be made for sparing some details in order to make the experience feel more universal to the reader. I didn’t grow up in a belt family (and though I didn’t come along until the end of the seventies, I have older siblings who I don’t believe ever got the belt, either), but still, I related to this. Getting in trouble for lying is a childhood experience we’ve probably all had, and likely all remember.

    • There seems to be less belt usage now than there was in the past. My dad’s dad used the belt on my dad, and then my dad used the belt on my siblings and me, but none of of my siblings nor I have used the belt on our kids.

      I’m not complaining about the decrease in belt usage. I just think it’s interesting that (at least anecdotally) it doesn’t seem as common as it used to be. But it can be fun to dramatize in writing.

      • True. I only mentioned it because I grew up in the belt era. I think my dad just didn’t have the stomach for it.

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