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“Did you take cigars from the store? Now, don’t you tell a story,” my mother would say, which is confusing now, but I understood perfectly back then.
My mother would never have called me a liar. A word like that would have felt like Caster Oil in her mouth – slimy. It would have choked her. To accuse anyone of such a thing would have been much too harsh, even if it were true. Labeling someone a storyteller was much gentler, even for a dreadful sin such as stealing Swisher Sweets from our own store.
To be called a storyteller was actually a compliment to me. I knew so many them at that time, men I admired. Their stories, mixed with truth, kept my mind actively visualizing things that could not have possibly been true, but should have been. Oh how I wanted them to be true.
A story is just an ordinary deviation from external reality. “There never was a story worth telling that didn’t deserve a little exaggeration,” my grandfather would say. He was right of course because he was a back porch entertainer, and a good one at that, but he didn’t get paid, didn’t profit from it, and that made all the difference in the world.
“I think the difference between a lie and a story is that a story utilizes the trappings and appearance of truth for the interest of the listener as well as of the teller. A story has in it neither gain nor loss. But a lie is a device for profit or escape.” (Steinbeck, East of Eden).
I thought long and hard about her question, as she hovered over me, her finger in my face. Certainly, I had taken the cigars, and I knew it was wrong even for a thirteen-year-old boy trying to find his moral compass, but my mother was far too delicate to disappoint, to hurt. If I lied it would wound her, and there was no gain in that for me, so I told a story – for her sake.
“No, I didn’t take them,” I lied by telling a story.
When I was a boy and a red wiggler on a hook was the most important thing in the world, I didn’t read well. I guess you could say I was distracted, got behind, and never seemed to catch up until reading was no longer a requirement to make the merit list.
I did read all seventeen books in Louis L’Amour’s Sackett series, every single word of it. My daddy read them at the same time, but he got through them much more quickly than I did. I was prone to read a chapter and then go outside and act the scene out. Tell Sackett was my favorite. Many were the days that he and I fought our way out of a tight spot with Comanches, Apaches, Sioux, and at least a hundred downright scoundrels.
At night, just before bedtime, I’d look over at my daddy, kicked back in a recliner at least a decade past its prime, and see that he was several books ahead of me in the series. I’d stare at the alluring picture on the cover and naturally assume that the one in his hands was the best one yet. “What’s that one about?” I’d ask.
Without taking his eyes off the words, he’d slowly say, “You’ll see. Just keep on reading.”
I tried to read The Shining for a book report in the eighth grade, but even a BB gun by the head of my bed did not keep thoughts of Jack Torrence and those twins at bay, so I just assumed they all died in the end and closed the book for good. A year or two later I spent the night with Brooks Gallman, and his sisters insisted that we watch the movie with them. They were older, and well, they were girls, so we did, and I didn’t sleep for a week.
There was always an excuse not to read in high school. Sports, hunting, fishing, horses, and suddenly girls seemed to steal more and more time from my day. I skimmed to get by, sometimes got hooked and read beyond the minimalist barrier, but never enough to excel. It wasn’t until college that I found a whole other world stuffed between covers. I was pretty sure there were no such a things as wizards, elves and hobbits, but Tolkien convinced me that there ought to be. I discovered a new meaning for dysfunctional family in the pages of The Prince of Tides, and I would have given anything for one day’s ride with Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae.
Today, when I chance to see a raggedy, dog-eared copy of The Sacketts, vivid images instantly return, images that I constructed in my mind three decades ago. They make me feel young again; make me dream of a time when I hoped I’d grow up to look like the Marlboro man. That’s the power of reading, and that’s why we need to make darn sure that our kids fall in love with books.
When I was a just a little boy growing up in North Georgia, the sun did not shine. Instead it bore down into our skulls, heating our brains to unhealthy temperatures, which in retrospect may explain a lot of things. Sweat turned the dirt on our faces to mud and our clothes clung like loose skin to our bodies. We didn’t know any different, had never experienced anything different so we played on. Shade trees did not provide a refuge like they do out west where the heat is dry. Sweat did not drip, it drained down our shirtless torsos and collected like a sponge in our underwear where it turned Fruit of the Looms into sandpaper that chaffed our thighs with each stride, yet we played on with no hope for refuge. On those summer days, days when a front yard baseball game was more important than the World Series, since the Braves were already out of it, we walked to my momma’s little store and she gave us each a Push-up. That orange sherbet was manna for the soul – a gift from the very God that put that ole sun in the sky to cook our skin and turn our sweat to salt. It made me happy, as happy as a boy could or should be. Satisfied we wiped our faces with the backs of our hands and returned to the game. That memory, and countless more like it make me smile.
by Jimmy Blackmon
Mouth agape I stared in wonder
At the charismatic dance
Of blended culture and religion.
Entranced they stomped with conviction
To music that transcended place and time.
They were simple people shaped by a life
Carved out of hard Appalachian ridges.
All around me they swayed and moved
Eyes closed heads turned Heavenward
Clapped their hands or patted their legs
Gripped by a Spirit I could not see nor understand.
An evangelical revival a physical gospel
The only reference for a boy my age
I was intrigued, enthralled, fascinated
By a musical dance that took them
To a place only they had seen.
In fall they danced the Gold Rush jig
Elbows cocked their hands flailing
Knees lifting shoes smashing
They pounded the earth with violent grace
The dance of a caged mountain bird
Yet more – a therapeutic ballet
To lift the burdens of this life
Renew hope of better days
If not in this life, their faith tells them –
In the one to come.