Horsin’ around

If you ever have the good fortune to visit Ireland, in a very short while you’ll find out about Irish Truth.

And what is that?

The foremost example is every town or city you visit will be the home of Ireland’s oldest pub.

Also there will be multiple locations where you’ll be told that Yeats wrote “Crazy Jane” or Joyce wrote “The Dubliners” or Countess Markievicz bought her pistol ” right in that very house.”

And on and on and on.

So, ultimately, Irish truth can be no truth at all. Or maybe it’s partial truth. Or maybe it’s even the complete truth. But the fact is you’ll never find out definitely what it is.

The Irish are not alone in the art of recounting semi-history. The Adirondacks have their own version of it, and I found this out the hard way.

I was asked to write a short history of the Saranac Lake school system and of course I agreed to it. I mean, how hard could it be? I thought. Well, I’ll tell ya, it was a lot harder than I imagined. And that was all due to Adirondack Truth.

Catch this: In one history I’d read some putative fact or other; then in other histories, I’d not only read the same material, but I’d read the same words. That’s right – various writers took material from one source (of course without notating it) and took the source’s words as well. Flat out plagiarism masquerading as history. Imagine that.

But then it got weirder. I’d read another account and it would have the author’s own words, but the facts would be different. And it didn’t just happen once or twice. I did get the school history written, but it was a chore that was sometimes fruitful, other times fruitless, and almost always fruity.

Separating fact from fiction

With the school history, I’d like to think I managed to separate the facts from the bumpf, which was due to having enough written sources to consult and compare. But verifying something for which there’s only oral history is a whole different bear.

If you can find a witness, that’s all well and good provided the witness is reliable. And you can ask any cop how often you find one of those.

Beyond that, there are people who claim to be witnesses, but they actually heard it from someone else. And even if that person had been a witness, he might’ve been a lousy one.

Then there are people who got a factual account from someone who knew the truth, but in their retelling, things get left out, other things get put in, numbers are inflated or deflated, quotes are mangled, and you’ve not only another version but sometimes another story altogether.

The only thing that works is knowing how reliable your teller or reteller is. Some people are absolutely right-on all the time. Others embellish so the truth is there, somewhere but you don’t know exactly where “there” is. And finally, some people are simply constitutional liars. They don’t mean to deceive; they just couldn’t recognize the truth if it spit lemon juice in their left eye.

And so it took me the better part of 50 years to find out the truth of the Bluff Island Horse Jump.

On the trail of the tail

From the time I was a little kid, I’d heard that Way Back When someone jumped off The Bluff on a horse and the horse died. Why would someone jump a horse off The Bluff in the first place? For the movies, that’s what. And there’s some truth in that. Before the movies moved to Hollywood, their capital was the East Coast. Edison invented the moving picture camera, and since he was an East Coast guy, that’s where the original film studios were.

So how did My Home Town get involved? Simple: This area was used for wilderness and winter scenes. And if you think about it, if you can find a better place for wilderness and winter that’s near New Jersey, you tell me where it is.

It’s also believable that a horse could get killed jumping off The Bluff, since it’s around 70 feet high and people have died jumping off it.

The story was a riveting one on many accounts, not the least being cruelty to animals for the sake of cheesy entertainment. But moralizing aside, as much as I tried to find out if it happened, I couldn’t. I just kept getting the same vague answer: Some guy Way Back When jumped a horse off The Bluff

Then, maybe 10 or so years ago, I heard the man wasn’t some amorphous someone – he was someone I’d actually known, Harry Duso. Mr. Duso, an old man when I was a kid, had long since gone to his just reward, so there was no way of finding out from him. But luckily his son Don was still alive and well and was an excellent source. Don had a steel trap memory, plus he was one of those guys who didn’t embellish. He told it like it is and I knew he’d tell it like it was.

Making a splash

So I hauled up to Crescent Bay and asked Don if anyone had ever jumped off The Bluff on a horse, and if so, was it his father. He knew the story, and here it is:

Yes, someone did jump off The Bluff on a horse for a movie short, but it was not his father. However, his father was in the movie doing his own jump.

The movie was the classic serial melodrama, The Perils of Pauline. Every week Pauline was pursued by the villain, who tied her to the railroad tracks, or set her house alight or committed some other nefarious and potentially lethal deed, only to have her saved by a hero just in the nick of time.

This particular episode involved the villain chasing Pauline through the woods up to the top of The Bluff, whereupon she leaped into the water and swam to safety, since the villain, sniveling coward that he was, didn’t have the chutzpah to jump off the cliff himself.

For The Bluff jump, Pauline was none other than Harry Duso in drag. Outfitted in a long dress and a huge bonnet, he sprinted through the woods, the villain close on his heels. Mere inches apart, they got to the top of The Bluff, whereupon Harry sprang and dived off the cliff, hitting the water in near-perfect form.

When he surfaced, rather than being pleased with his performance, the director was scowling. As it turned out, he’d wanted Harry to JUMP off the cliff, not dive, since it would’ve been more realistic. But he didn’t tell Harry beforehand because he couldn’t imagine anyone was verrucht enough to actually dive off it.

Since Harry could dive off the cliff with ease, jumping off it presented no challenge at all. So tricked out in a new dress and bonnet, Harry redid the chase-and-jump, hitting the water feet-first.

It was a happy ending all-around.

The director was happy because he got his shot.

Harry was happy because he got his pay.

I was happy because I found out the real story.

And happiest of all was the horse, which not only survived the jump, but did it unscathed.