A Meditation on Creative Cartography

The last Saturday Night Live I saw was the episode with Justin Timberlake as both host and musical guest. Not bad. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised. For me though, nothing can top the show’s zenith with the original cast. My father was an obsessive devotee and my childhood is dotted with soundbytes from the Coneheads, Two Wild and Crazy Guys and the Blues Brothers. A high school trip to Chicago with my dad was punctuated with constant reminders that we were “on a mission from Gahd” and a must-see visit to the Billy Goat Tavern. (“Pepsi, no Coke.”)

My father pretends to be a lot of things. Jewish. Black. Chevy Chase. One of the first words I learned to spell out in refrigerator magents was “facetious”. I learned to sense sarcasm early from him. When his face would suddenly relax completely and take on the signature Clark Griswald look of solemn truth, I knew to prepare myself for a tale of mighty proprortions.

“Kids, ” he would say (though there was only one of me), “I have something to tell you.” Then he would cast his eyes downward and heave a deep sigh. “I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a very long time and it’s not going to easy to hear, but there’s something you need to know.” And then he would finish with plainspoken National Lampoon fact that I was born with a partially formed twin embedded in my back. Or that my mother was actually his fifth wife. Or that I had three stomachs and that’s why I was always constipated.

Eventually, he would sneak one eyeball upwards to check how well it was going over. Since I knew “gullible” was, in fact, in the dictionary by the time I was five, his ploys didn’t last very long. He would then burst out laughing and try to convince me that he had indeed convinced me of whatever strangeness he had in his mind.

One of my all-time favorites was initiated on one of our annual trips to the beach. My dad had been busy in the basement mapping out a new route when he came running upstairs to show my mom and I that our journey was going to take us past the site of a little known Eastern Shore town called Chugamo City. The town, apparently, no longer existed but the body of water it was named for, Chugamo Creek, did. We knew this because it was right there on the map, see? My mom and I looked at the map to see a squiggly blue line drawn out from the Chesapeake Bay with ballpoint pen. Labeled with my dad’s unmistakable bl0cky writing, it clearly said “Chugamo Creek”.

My mom and I looked at him with wary skepticism and my father launched into the tale of Chugamo City. It seems that the area had originally been an old Indian burial ground and the name “Chugamo” was derived from the ancient language. The city had sprung up as part of the Bay’s fishing industry but had died with the birth of the Industrial Revolution. And it all must be true because the woes of its citizens in the early twentieth century were documented in a forlorn little ditty that my dad promptly sang to us. Oh, Chugamoooooo.

“But Dad,” I protested, “you wrote it in on the map.”

“Well, of course, I did! That’s how sad this little town is. No one even knows it existed anymore. So I had to write it in. To correct the record.”

Every summer after that, the trip to the beach would give my dad an opportunity to expand on the story of Chugamo City. The woes of the town grew more woesome. The song grew more verses. And my dad would grow more and more convinced that he had convinced us to believe in Chugamo City.

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