“No More Stories Are Told Today, I’m Sorry They Washed Away // No More Stories, The World Is Grey, I’m Tired, Let’s Wash Away.” (the complete title of an album by the Danish band “Mew“)
God knows I love stories. I love stories spoken in song, in film in writing… doesn’t matter. But I worry a lot about whether it’s a dearth of creativity or an abundance of laziness and greed that’s causing the re-re-re-retelling of a lot of familiar stories. Sometimes it’s easier to put a spin on an old one rather than telling a new one. Maybe there’s more money to be made in putting your touch on a story already told than there is putting originality out there and hoping someone bites. I make mention of this to the lady of the house whenever we see advertising for a “new” something that’s really an “old” something. I tell her it bothers me. She says “well then, I guess you just need to get busy telling your stories.”
I grew up with a lot of people who if asked what they do well, none of them would’ve answered, “well, I’m a really good storyteller.” But they were.
Uncle Hank was a prisoner of war and had scores of terrifying, heartbreaking tales to tell. But the stories he loved telling were of a much, MUCH less serious nature. He told us at dinner one night he’d sent away for a license to be a preacher. Apparently the opportunity to do so was found in the back of a magazine. He said he was going to call his congregation, “The Church of The Militant Saints.” (He was an attorney and, to my knowledge, never got this flock of believers off the ground.)
Uncle Ralph used to take me to visit an old man named Harry. Harry lived way off in the woods, couldn’t read a word and grew or killed every bite of food that hit his mouth. And he could keep this child wide-eyed for an entire evening telling me story after story (most of which needed to be taken with a grain of salt, as my uncle would later explain). Here I am this many years later still mesmerized by the cow that lost her long tongue when Harry cut it slap off. Seems the cow had stuck that long tongue through an overgrowth of honeysuckle and it found Harry’s posterior standing on the other side. He said he thought it was a snake and took out his knife and rendered the poor bovine mute.
Speaking of Uncle Ralph some of the most memorable hours of my childhood were spent in his truck. He never turned on a radio in his truck. If he was alone he’d light a Winston and roll down his window and see what folks all over Dawson County were growing in their gardens, parking in their yard or building a fence around. If he had someone riding with him he’d tell the rider all about the crazy person in that house, the fish someone caught in that cove over there or the chicken truck that wrecked coming down that hill. Simple recounting of very simple things came across more like folklore than just talk.
And Daddy, well, he rarely talked around the house, but when he did it was about things that fascinated us… things like the Winecoff Hotel fire or Lucky Teter busting up cars at the old Lakewood Speedway. His first job was at a funeral home and in those days funeral homes picked up bodies from disasters like the Winecoff fire, not a medical examiner or such. There was usually a humorous slant to his recounting of that cold night in December, 1946. Maybe that’s the way he dealt with some of the awful things he saw and heard. When telling us about Lucky Teter he would always do a perfect imitation of the grandstand announcer at the Lakewood Speedway describing the antics of Lucky (one of the original “hell drivers” – read more about him in this blog).
My very first paying job was doing yard work on Saturday mornings at the Methodist church in East Atlanta they had named after Martha Brown. They now call East Atlanta “East Atlanta Village” and it’s a real bohemian kind of place with trendy restaurants and shops and people a lot cooler and younger than myself hang out there. But for us it was home and a small town in a big town. And Charlie Smith had his finger on its pulse. When I was cutting that grass or raking those leaves, Charlie Smith would always stop by on his morning strolls and chat. Before he retired Charlie ran a burger joint called “Charlie’s Place” on Glenwood Avenue (I THINK it was on Glenwood?). One of the earliest recollections of my childhood is of those burgers and wondering why anybody was eating burgers from underneath those arches, no matter how many millions they served, when they could get one from Charlie – actually, it was probably “thousands served daily” when I was a child… maybe even “hundreds.” Anyway, during those Saturday morning visits Charlie would tell me stories that found a permanent home in my brain. Pick out an intersection, a house, a business – hell, a TREE – there in East Atlanta and he could tell you something fascinating about it. If it was football season we always talked about who Georgia Tech was playing that day. On one chilly morning in November, 1978 I remember telling him that I was worried because the morning paper had said that Eddie Lee Ivery was sick with the flu and Tech was about to play Air Force in the snow in Colorado. Charlie grinned and said, “don’t fret, sometimes when you’re hurtin’ or sickly is when you do your best because you’re trying harder.” Daddy drove me home after finishing my chores that morning and we listened along on the radio while Eddie Lee ran for 356 yards on those poor Air Force boys. Charlie could tell a good story AND handicap a football game.
There were always stories. We latched on to them because we didn’t have a device in our pocket that connected us to the world and spoon fed us our favorite TV shows, or let the world know we’re having a totally awesome tuna salad for lunch or show us videos of cats doing funny things. We actually talked to other human beings and told them about our day, the characters we knew or something strange we’d seen that morning. Harry Crews in “Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus” said it better than I can (what a shock… Harry Crews said most things better than I can, that’s why he’s a legend)
God knows we still live in a world full of characters. And we’re definitely living in interesting, scary and exciting times. So why are we “covering” old songs, publishing new releases of old novels with different endings and making the same movie over and over and over?? (Seriously, there are only so many angles from which we can approach Batman, Superman, Robin Hood and the crew of The Enterprise.) A friend from my high school days who has done a lot of writing and I had a similar discussion recently about the written word in our world. She told me she’s certain there’s lots of good writers out there but “they write for the heart and not for the market and sometimes those two are diametrically opposed.” That’s too bad. We’re probably missing some classics.