I am a story teller. It is an art I learned from my late father. A magician in the late 30’s and early 40’s, he was one of the “tall grass magicians”, so named because they worked in the United States Midwest. He had a circuit through Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois that took him most of two years to complete. Deep in his heart of hearts he was a shy man but when he walked onto a stage in his tails and top hat he became the master showman. He held his audience enthralled as they waited for his next trick. But held them so gently and carefully they never felt that magical moment when they turned from skeptics into believers. One of my favorite photographs of him on stage shows him early in his showbiz career. There on the front row of the audience a man sits leaning forward, his head cocked and his eyes wide. That man would someday be my wife’s grandfather.
As he aged my father’s manual dexterity began to fail. He could no longer handle the cards as well as he had. Instead of disappearing into thin air the coin might slip from his fingers and fall to the floor. He refused to do a trick he couldn’t do well so he gave up the most of his magic. He could still do a card trick though, on the phone. Later in his years he would call a friend on the telephone in the evening, ask them to get a deck of cards and then pick a card. “Don’t let me see it,” he would add unnecessarily. After several shuffles, lay-downs and rearrangements he would tell his friend to turn over such and such card. It was always “their” card. Several times his phone rang about 2 AM with someone on the other end yelling, “Damn it Bob, if I can’t sleep you won’t either. How did you do that trick?”
In 1979, long after his career on stage, my father owned a small wholesale paper and printing store. One day he asked all the employees to meet him in the press room. When everyone was there he looked at all the nervous faces and without any introduction or fanfare recited from memory Robert W. Service’s poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” He then walked back to his office leaving all the people who had earlier thought they might be losing their jobs shocked and silent. In the next few years his repertoire of poems and stories increased. He memorized material that put on paper measured about three quarters of an inch thick. He started entertaining the Rotarians, the Lions, church groups, parties. It was very much like the old days. The master showman returned to the stage.
He told stories about his youth, of when he and his best friend at age 12 learned to fly an old WWI Jenny biplane a neighbor farmer had in his barn. Their highest solo was about 10 feet off the ground, but for a few magical moments and one gallon of fuel they did slip the bonds of earth. He told of the day when his mother was looking for him and one of her friends said she had seen Robert running the ferry from Owensboro across the Ohio River to Indiana. The regular boatman paid my father a part of his ferryman’s wages so he could spend the rest of his pay at the saloon overlooking the landing. My father’s career as a riverboat man lasted not quite that one whole day.
When he was 19 he rode his Harley Davidson to Texas and joined the carnival at the 1936 World’s Fair and Exposition. He “rode the walls” with two other cyclists. This is the act in which a motorcyclist starts riding at the bottom of a large bowl shaped container and gradually lets speed and centrifugal force pull him (or her; one of the riders was a girl) up the wall until he is riding at a 90 degree angle to the floor. Straight pipes and a lot of smoke -- the crowds loved it. He left Texas, one saddlebag full of money from the Exposition, and rode south to see the Panama Canal. The Mexican federal police told him to camp well off the road at night in order to avoid the bandits who preyed on travelers. When he finally reached somewhere just north of Yucatan the road that earlier had become just a trail finally became a jungle path. After pulling his bike up a steep creek bank for the second time he realized he really didn’t have to see the Canal that year and rode north. On the way back he suffered -- without dying -- an appendicitis attack in front a cantina in a small Mexican town that had no doctor. By the time he reached Oklahoma he was broke and hungry. Times being what they were (the end of the Depression) he would panhandle a pint of gas and maybe something to eat from town to town all the way back to Kentucky. When my grandmother heard that unmistakable sound of his Harley she rushed out to hug him and kiss him and then spent the next several days beating him. In the two years he was gone to Texas and Mexico he had never once written. She had given him up for dead.
I was 40 years old before I learned about my father’s affair with the motorcycle. He had forbidden everyone in the family to tell those particular stories in hopes that neither I nor my brother would follow in his tracks. Now I am 64 and still every God’s bright new spring day I lust with a young man’s passion for a motorcycle – an old Harley Davidson with a wide leather seat. And boots. I want high, thick leather boots. Preferably brown.
Many of my father’s stories were true. The rest were partly true or at least had a kernel of truth in them. In our family embellishment was neither a lie nor even something to be frowned upon. It was then and still is a way to hold an audience (or perhaps a reader) in the palm of your hand so gently and carefully that for a few magical minutes they no longer care about the truth but only about your story. For at least a moment they sit enthralled and they believe.
My brother is cut from exactly the same cloth. Even with my practiced ear I don’t know when he is telling nothing but the truth and when he is taking some liberties with the exact facts. But I sit there with my head cocked and my eyes wide waiting for the next part of the story. He is an excellent teller of jokes. That is something I have never been able to do. I keep forgetting the punch lines.
My wife can tell a pretty good story herself. Her stories from her time in radio remind me of episodes from WKRP (“As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”) I think she still relies a bit too much on the absolute truth but she is a little younger than I am and still learning her craft. Three years ago she and I traveled to Ireland where we had an opportunity to visit Blarney castle. I told her we already had the gift and this world was not ready for either one of us to kiss that stone. We passed and went on. You really can see 30 different shades of green over there. That's a fact.