In the middle part of last century, there was a Minnesota forester named Wayne Hanson. Wayne was about six feet tall, with brick-red hair, droopy ears and rows of teeth like a Mako shark. He was also something of a rapscallion. One year, while managing a public forest, he encountered a state senator wading in a river bank, fly fishing without a license. Rather than cite him and collect a small fine, Wayne parlayed this encounter into political pressure to get a bill passed. Wayne split his time between working in the north woods and living in Minneapolis near Folwell Park. He went to church at Wesley United Methodist, one of those sprawling, Romanesque Minneapolis churches erected during the Minneapolis building boom of the 1890s. In 1949, shortly after committing to a Wesley Bible study, Wayne met Gladys Granlund, an assembly-line worker at Honeywell. Despite the considerable ethnic tension – he was Norwegian and she was Swedish – they married six years later. This is lucky for me. Wayne and Gladys were my grandparents.
Of course, this is the polished and abridged version of their story. During my freshman year of college, after my Fall semester romance fizzled and died, Grandpa took me out for coffee and pie at a Perkin’s. He ordered blueberry and I got banana cream. In what I can only guess was an effort to make me feel better, he detailed for me his own experiences as a bachelor. Turns out, while he was dating my grandmother, he had a second girlfriend, deliberately chosen because of her name: my grandpa’s weekend lass was also named Gladys. He didn’t want to risk calling either one by the wrong name and slip his secret. Rather than making me feel better, though, that just made me feel worse: it demolished my understanding of my grandparents and their relationship.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so naïve, but the childish notion that my grandparents were in some way a perfect couple had merit. It gave me a model to emulate and aspire to. You could argue that a better understanding of my grandpa’s humanity had merit of its own, and there’s no doubt that it did. But if given the option, I’m not sure I’d make the tradeoff.
We live in the information age, and part of our ethos is that ignorance is bad, and knowledge is good. Shakespeare might as well have been speaking for our generation when he wrote, “I say there is no darkness but ignorance.” Plato described ignorance as the root and stem of all evil, and that thought was echoed by Camus two thousand years later: “The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance.” But I disagree. I think there are some things that we are all better off not knowing. The problem is there is no way to identify in advance how to tell if knowing something will build up or if it will tear down.
When I was in elementary school, my grandparents would take me and my siblings on road trips. We’d ride in a big white Chevy conversion van, with a backseat that folded into a bed and a 10-inch TV in an overhead compartment. My grandma would always have the coffee-flavored Nestle Nips in the glove compartment. I remember now that grandpa would honk the horn from time to time. There was an official explanation to this behavior, and that was he always honked at the pretty girls. Twenty years later, it strikes me as possible that my grandpa was just an angry driver who was aggressive with his horn. I don’t feel a need to justify his behavior. I just guess at this point I’d rather not know.