Yarns, tales, and other lessons
Throughout my life I have loved listening to stories. It goes back to my childhood with memories that continue to this day. Maybe that’s why I enjoy telling stories. It’s a way of reliving the past, but not only mine, but the pasts of others. While I was always a fan of history, learned at the feet of my teachers all the way from Mrs. Armstrong in the first grade through Frank Webster in my senior year, my favorite stories were those of ‘real people’ somehow associated or related to me. Even today when we have our family gatherings we sit around the long table, kick back and tell stories on each other reliving and laughing at our experiences. All the books of childhood and the movies we saw were stories, usually with a moral and with lessons to be learned.
My now grown kids tell family stories from their perspective. Feeling safer, they sometimes confess to things they did and kept secret all these years. They told us how we punished the wrong kid for a misdeed, including uneaten food was later found tucked up on a shelf under the dining room table. Without a dog, those scraps were destined to remain there until they were finally found during spring cleaning. By then it was too late to determine the culprit. When sweets somehow disappeared, we finally heard, that our kids collected them and hid them back for another day. Sometimes they worked in unison, each carefully planning their deceptions. There was a fair amount of mistrust so sometimes it wasn’t conspiracies but mere chance opportunities. At times, they mistrusted even their brothers and acted alone.
The family that doesn’t have some secret stories isn’t realistic. We all have done outlandish things or know of a relative that has. It’s not that it’s good that we misbehave, and I’m not advocating rebellion, thievery, or bullish behaviors, but now that the coast is clear the true value of such things is the retelling for laughs. After all, what kid didn’t misbehave when free from oversight? Secret hiding places, a hoard of something, or tricks to confound others, were often floating though our thoughts. Because there was risk involved, one still had to be careful. In some cases it was the getting away with something that counted, so keeping it private for a time was part of the fun. We really didn’t want to risk getting caught.
When several siblings exist, a parent may have overheard telling someone that a particular kid is ‘the quiet one.’ I’ve heard it said that one should be careful and ‘watch him because he’s tricky.’ Now I’ve gone and used a gender indicator and that’s really most unfair. You see, the trickiest ones were often those sweet, innocent, calico-dressed little sisters with those disarming smiles. They rarely got caught, so I thought for a time that they never even thought of misbehaving. Well, until late in life we just don’t know. When it’s deemed safe to share the stories we finally learn the truth. Of course we can’t be sure that everything is told and the speaker has truly come clean. There are secrets, yet, I’m sure.
I remember a grandmother who was a really fun to be around. In many ways she was a stereotype of the mountain woman of the 19th century, although her life stretched well into the 20th. She passed at the ripe old age of 101 back in the 80’s. We heard stories about when she had moved to a farm on top of a steep hill where she would raise her children. She told the story of how she and her husband had ridden there over the valleys and mountain in a covered wagon pulled by a team of horses. The one-room log cabin they had would grow into a two-story farm house on the top of a hill overlooking a pond, an orchard and cow pastures. The house still stands for I have seen it, even if it is abandoned. The clapboard home looked normal on the outside, but once entered one can see the original front room had been a cabin. The logs and chinking were exposed. A parlor stove set in the center of the room, but in the ceiling there was a vent cut by one of her sons to allow heat to flow into his bedroom, a floor above. It was a reminder of the story the grown man told about cutting the hole without his father’s permission. None-the-less, a grate was fitted over the hole so that the vent kept him and his brothers warmer than they otherwise may have been.
This lady was known to daily sit in a rocking chair, her corncob pipe sticking out from her old-fashioned sun bonnet while holding a magnifying glass over the Bible she held in her lap. This was her daily devotional. I remember her as having few words, but those she had were to the point, but never unkind. I had not met her husband since he had died years earlier, but some of the tales she told featured that man she loved right up until her death.
One story that may bring many to cringe, featured a dry sense of humor that would not fly in today’s ‘politically correct’ environment, but was seen as hilarious in those early pioneering days. One of granny’s job on the farm was to collect the eggs daily from the chicken house so they could be used in her small kitchen, or sold to the neighbors down near the bottom of the hill. As time went on she realized from the empty eggs shells in the nests that her pet dog had developed a habit of sucking eggs. Since empty egg-shells have little commercial or practical value, granny was troubled and mentioned it to her husband. He understood the problem at once and offered up a ‘sure-fire’ solution he’d learned back when he was growing up. He explained that Granny should slice a piece of bread from a fresh loaf and take the tar and nicotine from her pipe filter and rub it all over the bread. She was then to feed it to the dog. She did as she was directed, but the next day she discovered the dog had died. She hurried to tell her husband who smiled and said, “I told you it would cure the dog. It won’t suck your eggs anymore.”
The practicality of farm life was such that foolishness was seldom tolerated even from a beloved pet. Every penny counted to survive and her husband was a practical man. Granny knew that her husband had looked beyond all attempts that might have been made, to implement a lasting solution. He knew the dog couldn’t be ‘untrained.’ He was sorry and went out to get her a new puppy.
I remember in Lawrence County that it was common when buying or trading for a dog to ask how it got along with chickens. Some dogs would kill them, wiping out the livelihood of the farmer. These dogs would have to be shot. Most dogs didn’t have that problem, but those that did wouldn’t respect the neighbor’s chickens or anyone else’s. Feuds have begun with less provocation.
A certain man lived somewhere down near Bland, an area in the tall mountains of Virginia. He wasn’t a religious man and had no respect for those who were. He made it a mission to show his disrespect. He figured it would be fun to disturb the service at the one-room church up the hollow. He carefully sneaked up to the building while singing was going on. He quietly removed the wooden steps that led up to the door of the church. Once they were put aside, he reached up and cracked open the door and let in a pig. As the man imagined, the pig ran right down main aisle of the church squealing as it went. Men and women ran for the door. With the steps moved aside, they fell out into the churchyard in a great pile. As the story goes, the uncle was run out of the valley and was warned never to return.
It was the kind of thing that led to the practice of running someone out on a rail with ‘tar and feathers.’ I guess that might have been a real practice, although I never heard of a particular event around our sweet little town. I was older when I realized that a ‘rail’ was a split rail for a fence, and to apply tar usually meant it was hot. Of course that would burn. Even if applied cold, it would be a tough thing to scrub off and if feathers were added you’d be a sight, for sure.
I was told stories in my youth that left me wondering. One relative of mine is said to have gotten drunk time and again. Whenever this happened the family had to watch him carefully. More than once he would put on a vest and go running down the streets of the town. The problem was that he only wore the vest. He remained uncovered until some of the men of the community cornered him and took him back home in a blanket. Boy! Did he ever have to hear about that the next morning! His wife would let into him with a wooden spoon, which explains why she was regularly breaking them and would have to send her husband out to whittle a new one.
There was another grandfather that had worked on the railroad. He worked all around where he was sent and returned to his farm and darling wife on weekends. His heart constantly pulled him back to his little cabin for he was deeply in love with this wonderful lady. It was early one morning when he found himself free to go home early for the rest of the week. He lit out to surprise his loved one. Indeed, it was a surprise for when he stepped upon the porch dragging a chain behind him a shot suddenly rang out. His wife had been awakened and thought someone was there to do her harm. He discovered not only that the shotgun he’d bought his wife worked, but also that she was a decent shot. As the pellets flew he was wounded, losing one of his eyes. Both he and his wife were ever so sorry. As a result, he wore a glass eye as a reminder that surprises aren’t always good.
As the tale continues, he was once riding on his buckboard to pick up some grain and had one of the hired workers riding shotgun with him. As they rounded a mountain curve a bit of wind blew into their faces. This gave him an idea. He complained that he had gotten something in his eye, so to the shock of his companion, he removed his eye to clean it. The other man was shocked and jumped free of the wagon. He ran screaming down the road. Feelings aside, it must have been funny.
Back in Louisa, it was common for my Grannie to send me out to cut a switch. I learned that if it wasn’t just right, I’d get sent out again to pick one more suitable for the job at hand. I think that I had to get a branch off a bush that was at least two feet long. I remember her peeling the bark back. I now suspect that was more to intimidate me than having any particular effect, but back then my mind knew the welts would rise on the back of my legs. I was so sorry for whatever I had done. In the end, I think I fared better than the bush. It struggled to grow, but I sprouted up all too quickly.
I remember that in the principal’s office in grade school there were two paddles. One was a light, fairly thin one. I figured that was for the girls, even if I don’t remember many of them that got themselves into that kind of trouble. The other was a thick board with lots of holes that had been carefully drilled all around. That was apparently for better effect. I figured that this paddle would come harder and faster and would also leave little round marks matching the holes in the paddle. That was a clear sign to others, but it was also like being branded. The grownups would know right away when I got home if they didn’t already know. Uh, oh.
The stories I heard growing up were often funny, or meant to incite thought. I remember older men sitting on a bench while whittling on a stick. They were known to say things more for effect, than to communicate anything true or important. Testing my wit, I figured, so the challenge was on to prove intellect. Everything wasn’t always the way it seemed. My granny called it spinning a yarn. I learned to doubt most ‘yarns’ after a time. These older men loved to ‘get over’ on somebody and the gullible were plum prizes just ready to be tricked.
I remember that more than once I would see an old farmer talking to a gullible kid and then look to read his expressions to see if it hit home. I remember the old TV program where Kingfish in Amos and Andy, often suggested crazy things and then looked to see if it had its desired effect. Sometimes an elbow would poke out to awake another comrade so they would notice what was happening.
There was this man that was sitting on a bench in front of the courthouse and singing out, “Whatever happened to Katheryn Brown? Was she boiled in oil and drug through town? Does she yet lie in that dark cold ground? Oh, whatever happened to Katheryn Brown?” I’m sure my eyes were wide and my breath quick, but I never found out, nor maybe wanted to; as long as Katheryn Brown wasn’t me or you. When I was young I would run from such things still feeling the man’s gaze on the back of my neck, but this little tune he sang about poor Katheryn Brown had me hanging back so I could learn the words.
Kentucky was a wilderness going back a couple of hundred years, but civilization had nearly happened by the time I came along. Most folks in my day had cars or at least a wagon. Most of them ate with forks and spoons, but some still read by the light of the moon while, others couldn’t read by the light of day. I remember one young ‘lady’ from back in the sticks that ate her soup with a knife. The liquid left in the bowl was turned up and drunk. She would wipe her mouth with the back of her hand and grin. I guess doing it that way got the job done.
They used to sell ‘snake oil’ on the street, usually out of the back of a van. In many cases the elixir was little more than alcohol. People felt good after a taste and sales went up. My granny told me they had sold all kinds of concoctions for generations from horse-drawn wagons. It was common in those days to see ‘pan-handlers’ and tinkers selling all kinds of wares door-to-door. Many of them brought along stories with them, which was how some in the backwater got their news. Some of these traveling merchants became ‘Fuller Brush’ men or ‘Jewel Tea’ salesmen. I saw these frequently as they worked up and down each block in town. We looked forward to their new product lines, as well as the bits of news they brought with them.
With modern medicine fevers were few, quarantines were common, and more babies lived to grow up. Before that, I was told, life was rough. My grandfather being a doctor certainly visited a lot of homes and delivered babies all around. Many paid him with livestock or vegetables from the garden. In those early times a lot of treatments were pretty archaic and may have caused harm instead of promoting healing. The fashionable practice of blood-letting had stopped by the time he earned his MD, so I’m guessing except for the lack of antibiotics he did what he could. I do know he liked practical jokes and suffered as the object more than a few times. His friends were mostly other doctors and druggists, and maybe a merchant or two. While most of these pranks were kept to themselves, a few became widely known and shared about.
Granny told me several stories about ‘Poor Boy,’ a colored fellow that often worked for my grandparents doing chores like cleaning and caring for the horses. No doubt his parents were likely slaves, although not connected to my heritage. I don’t know his real name, maybe someone will remember him. Granny said the family so loved him that he was at the house nearly all the time, sitting and talking and sharing old tales. He apparently had a weakness for drink and that, in the end, it did him in. She said he lived somewhere over in Little Italy in a small wooden-framed house. This particular weekend he had gotten paid for some work he did and went home with a bottle he’d gotten somewhere. He got drunk and fell asleep, dropping his ‘roll your own’ cigarette which started the fire that killed him. It had been years since it happened, but Granny teared up every time she told me that tale. I know it hurt her like losing a member of the family and I grew up wishing I’d known him, but this was one of several lessons that steered me away from strong drink.
All kinds of tales rang out from the hills and hollows, often falling on my ear. Some were funny, others scary, and a few were instructive. I loved them… ate them up. I loved to gather with others around the knee of older folks who would tell of a different time. The hills are rich with these tales that taught us how our fellow men lived, and how to get along socially. We owe the tellers of these stories a thanks for keeping our history alive. That said, I reckon it’s come around to our turn. Story telling is an art and some sure enough have it. They have festivals for storytelling and grand prizes, too. I’m thinking having festivals, whether a ‘fiddle festival,’ a ‘gospel festival,’ or ‘story-telling festival,’ would be fun and may bring tourism that would ultimately help the local economy.
Meanwhile, if you think of some stories, send them to me. I’ll stick ‘em in this column from time to time. We’d all love to hear them. firstname.lastname@example.org