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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Best Stories in the World: Six Men and a Bench

So these six guys grow up together, go through school together, and then separate to make their fortunes. Decades later, the men return to their home town to enjoy their retirement. That summer, they get in the habit of going to the park  every Saturday to sit on a bench, feed the pigeons, and watch the world go on around them. The find the perfect bench--it fits all six of them, just right.

Soon autumn sets in, and then the first snowflakes fall. The next Saturday, the men all show up bundled in puffy new winter coats. But when they sit down, they discover that the bench will only hold five of them.

"Oh, no!" cries the one left out. "The bench...it must have shrunk because of the cold."

"Well," says another man, "we'll just have to stretch the bench out so we can all fit on it again."

They set to it. With all the heaving and hoeing on the bench, the men become too warm. So they take off their coats and keep at it. After a while, they figure they must surely have stretched the bench enough to fit them all. So they sit down, and they all fit. Content once more, they resume their normal world-watching.

After another while passes, one of them says, "It's getting cold again. Let's put on our coats." The others agree, but once it's done, they discover that only five of them fit on the bench.

"Oh, no!" cries the one left out. "The bench...it has shrunk again."

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I hope you'll forgive me for telling my own version of this best story in the world. The one I learned just didn't have quite the right punchline. From the 1960s until the 1980s, the pre-eminent folklorist Richard Dorson edited a series of books that contained collections of folktales from around the world (France, Japan, China, Norway, Hungary, India, Egypt, and others), published by the University of Chicago Press. These are uniformly great books. Each contains a foreword by Dorson and an intro by the editor. The editors also provide some context for the stories. I first encountered "Six Men and a Bench" in Kurt Ranke's Folktales of Germany, from that series (translated by Lotte Baumann). In that book this story is called "Stretching the Bench"--Tale Type 1244, motif 211245--and according to the the notes it was recorded by Grete Horak, from an unnamed German. Ranke also notes that 26 different versions had been collected in German by the 1960s.

"Six Men and a Bench" is a numskull story. My dad has told me lots of these stories, though fewer in recent years. One of my favorites was about these two guys--one dumber than the other--who were running from the police after a botched bank job. They took to the roofs, jumping from building to building in the dark. They came to a gap too large to jump.

"I've got an idea," says the dumb one. "I'll shine my flashlight at the other building, and you can walk across it."

"What, you think I'm an idiot?" says the other dumb one. "You'll wait til I get half-way, then turn off the light."


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