“I credit my mentor James Dickey with convincing me that the best teaching is anecdotal. He told a rapt class that when Deliverance was being filmed, the body that Dickey as the sheriff uncrated was not the actor playing Drew, but Dickey’s son Christopher, who sat up and exclaimed, ‘Surprise!’ For years when I taught the novel, I told this and other Dickey-ian tales, and I sensed that they lent my comments an intimacy and gravitas they might not otherwise have enjoyed.”—Skip Eisiminger
Skip the B.S.
By Dr. Skip Eisiminger
I. “Good morning,” said the storyteller. “I fear I’ve just drunk some poison; does anyone have an anecdote?”—The Wordspinner
CLEMSON South Carolina—(Hubris)—September/October 2023—The more arthritic my thumbs grow, the less maintenance I do around the house, but I console myself thinking of the maintenance men my wife and I have attached ourselves to over the 40-plus years we have lived in our Clemson home. These men are excellent at what they do: Johnny Robinson is our country roofer, “Squirrel” Simmons is our country arborist, and Brian Scruggs is our country window and siding man. There are others, like our furnace and appliance men, both of whom are well educated and urban, qualities, I suspect, that have erased many of the traits that make their rural peers so memorable. Their stories below are true—even the parts I’ve made up, but to get their full impact and beauty, I would have had to put a microphone in front of them, and the result, I expect, would be embarrassed stammering. So, my reconstructions will have to suffice.
Unexpected Prescriptions in an Otherwise OTC World
In June of 2023, Johnny Robinson, our roofer, took his ADD son Ralphie, the family angler, to Orange Beach, Florida. He took his other son, too, and his best friend, but they just wanted to play Fortnite in the motel lobby. Since it was their vacation, and they didn’t fish, Johnny let them play “their vidiot games.” On the foursome’s first full day in Florida, Johnny paid $1,400 to charter a boat for a six-hour, father-and-son adventure with Cap’n Jack. About an hour out of the marina, the captain idled his engine and set Ralphie up with a rod, a reel, and a “bucket of trash.” He then turned to Johnny and handed him a pole.
“I don’t fish,” said Johnny.
“You paid to fish,” said the captain, “now fish.” While this good-natured dustup continued, Ralphie caught a 36” red snapper, and that’s no fish story because I’ve seen the pictures. It was, indeed, a heroic fish that was flash frozen and eaten at home.
A couple of days later, the cheapest charter Johnny could find was $2,400. Said Johnny, “I love you, son, but I can’t afford two more grand for a day of fishing.” So, off they drove to the Orange Beach public pier. After paying for a place to park, admission to the pier, the rental on two rods and reels, two “buckets of trash,” and Florida fishing licenses including a 10 percent sales tax, Ralphie was ready to angle.
As the boy was dropping his line, the pier boss told Johnny, “You need to fish.”
“I don’t fish,” Johnny said.
“You bought a license and rented a rod, now fish.”
“Inside, they made me buy the license and rent the rod or I couldn’t come out here,” Johnny said, “but I don’t fish.”
“You need to fish,” said the boss.
Meanwhile, a shark hit Ralphie’s line so hard, it bent his 8/0 circle hook straight and nearly sent the boy 20 feet down into the gulf.
While the boss was replacing Ralphie’s hook, Johnny dropped his unbaited line over the splintered rail.
II. “We majored in English, not because we loved literary theory, but because we loved the stories.”—Michael Dirda (And, I should add, we had stories to tell ourselves, but how best to tell them: like Hemingway, Faulkner, Welty, or someone we’d never heard of?)
The deeper I sally into my “anecdotage,” as H.L. Mencken called the age when people reprise stories from their sagging repertoire, the more concerned I am when I see two college students in a restaurant “building communities,” twittering on their cell phones with invisible parties while ignoring each other. Or three friends headed to the campus gym, each rolling to a different beat emanating from their iPods. Is the oral tradition in its death throes? I trust not, for I have many tales left to tell, but what are my tales to a self-absorbed audience?
I credit my mentor James Dickey with convincing me that the best teaching is anecdotal. He told a rapt class that when Deliverance was being filmed, the body that Dickey as the sheriff uncrated was not the actor playing Drew, but Dickey’s son Christopher, who sat up and exclaimed, “Surprise!” For years when I taught the novel, I told this and other Dickey-ian tales, and I sensed that they lent my comments an intimacy and gravitas they might not otherwise have enjoyed.
The interjection of self into a classroom presentation virtually assures attention will be paid, but nothing can guarantee quality. However, one test of a good story is how often it is misappropriated.
My friend Harold Woodell, a gifted storyteller, once found the perfect place to insert the bittersweet tale of his mother’s stroke in an American Humor class. It seems that his mother lost control of her car as she was driving in an urban-industrial area and ended up wedging her vehicle and herself between two telephone poles, leaving it, as Harold said, “like a tube of toothpaste squeezed at one end.” When she came to, bruised and embarrassed, a television cameraman was shooting through a broken windshield, and a reporter was thrusting a microphone in her face asking her how the accident happened. In words inappropriate for the news at eleven or any other time of day, she told the reporter where she could file her microphone. As Harold was winding up his tale, a student said, “That was Dr. Fraiser’s mother!”
“It was not!” exclaimed Harold, “I have pictures of the accident we took for the insurance adjustor.” After searching his memory banks, Harold realized he’d told the story in the faculty lounge when Fraiser was present. Apparently, his colleague had appropriated the tale and told it, slightly modified,
in classes of his own. Perhaps Fraiser “winked,” and the student missed it, or he’d told it so often, he’d convinced himself it was his own.
III. “Life’s a story, and we’re dying to find out how it ends.”—The Wordspinner
As for the three maintenance men introduced above, the few minutes spent waiting for my wife to write a check, while they drink a bottle of Gatorade, acts as a reprieve from the hours they’d just spent crawling about under the house, shredding some beetle-infested pines, or patching a sunbaked seam below the chimney. The stories my wife and I have come to expect from these three somehow make the tellers’ lives coherent and our lives complete. Not only do these men have the power to restore the heat, or level the stumps, or repair the roof, they have the power to make us laugh or feel. With every pause, I find myself urging the teller forward saying, “Aaaand?” because I’m as hooked as Ralphie’s red snapper.
Stories satisfy our hunger for human contact, bonding us in the process. Thus, I’m reluctant to deny the process even when a two-minute tale has been thinly stretched over half an hour. It took a few years, but I’ve concluded that it’s never a good idea to rush a storyteller out of the house. And in most cases, the assistant in the wings, who’s heard these tales before, is not urging his boss to “Come on!” These days, he just plays with his phone.
Squirrel Saves a Hawk
The last time we called our arborist, I started my usual round of questions, probing for a story. “Squirrel,” as this patched-eyed, nine-fingered, pulpwood cutter was dubbed in his youth, is well known in the greater Pickens County area for his tall tales. As we chatted over the hood of his old pickup while his two sons went to work on a dead pine, a red-tailed hawk appeared, wheeling and screeching between us and a pale moon. Immediately, “Squirrel” whistled back, and the two began a shrill dialogue that lasted a couple of minutes. When I managed to get his attention again, I said, “It appears that hawk recognizes you.”
“I saved his life a couple of years ago,” he said. “He was diving after a rabbit when he smashed into the grill of my truck. I stopped and pulled him free before driving to the vet. They patched him up, and my wife and I fed him raw hamburger for a few weeks until his wing healed. Ever since, he has followed me to every job I’ve worked. Hawks are ruthless loners with a taste for warm blood, but they never forget a favor.”
Maybe it happened, maybe not, but the way “Squirrel” told it, it had the endorsement of Bishop Truth. He may have lost an eye and a finger to a broken chain saw at some earlier time, but his hawk story was “narrative medicine,” as Oliver Sacks described it. “Squirrel’s” stories are his attempts to make the best of what life has given him.
IV. The anecdotist’s job is to find an antidote for the void of existence.—Paraphrase of Gertrude Stein
Oral tales lose so much in transcription that I wonder sometimes why I bother to transcribe them. My best answer is that despite recent technological threats to face-to-face conversation and storytelling, we are descended from narrative aboriginals just as chimps are instinctive groomers, and dolphins are playful. As I’ve said, we all want to know, “How did it turn out?” As early as 600 BCE, Aesop knew that his audience would not let him go without the moral or, at the very least, the rest of the story. Often the truth of a tale is immaterial because each, modified to suit the teller, the audience, the time, and the place, has its own truth. Most events in our lives do not have a neat beginning, middle, and
end, but we all have a right to structure the record even if it means stretching or shrinking the truth to express the point or maximize the humor. Utilizing “the creative possibilities of the lie,” as James Dickey called it, often is the difference between a riff and a melody.
The Face in the Window
When Brian Scruggs married Holly, she’d been a barrel racer for a decade or more. Soon, they were traveling to a rodeo two or three times a month, so Brian studied up and became a rodeo judge. Over the next eight years, they had two sons: Brad, who today operates “Bodacious Bulls,” and Miles, who’s an announcer on the Cowboy Channel.
Given the time Brian spent as a siding and window installer, it was fortunate that he was home when Holly took a near-fatal fall from Filly as she was cantering about the foothills of Pickens County. (A week later, the vet told Brian that an artery in Filly’s brain had ruptured, and she probably died before she hit the ground.) From the upstairs bathroom, Brian raced to his wife’s side, gently rolled her over, and placed his head on her chest. Unable to detect a heartbeat, he pulled out his phone and dialed 911 with one hand and started CPR with the other. The rest of the day was a blur, but ten minutes after “the Fall,” as it would forever be called, he found himself drafting on the ambulance doing 90 mph in his old Ford pickup down the winding, two-lane road to the Easley Hospital. Alternating between sobbing and screaming at the ambulance, Brian’s gaze was fixed on the EMS worker visible through the rear window compressing Holly’s chest. The last thing Brian wanted was to see him stop, so he alternated among sobbing, screaming, and singing “Stayin’ Alive” as he’d been taught.
Suddenly over the EMS worker’s head, Brian noticed a smiling female face framed by a halo of golden hair. “Who’s that, and where did she come from?” he wondered aloud. “She wasn’t there when they put Holly in the ambulance.” After his wife was wheeled into the hospital, Brian scanned the ambulance interior, but his angel was gone.
“I almost gave up,” the EMS worker said on returning from the emergency room, “but suddenly I got a pulse. She’s done come back.”
As the youth pastor at East Pickens Baptist, Brian has told this story a dozen or more times, and unless I miss my bet, he’ll tell it a dozen or more times, for harsh memories are easier to bear if one can turn them into a story. As the roots of “recollection” suggest, to recollect is to gather and rehearse what we remember of ourselves and those closest to us. The narrative we form, which continually grows and shrinks, is us, our identity, and to lose any part of it is a form of death.
Meanwhile, Holly has bought a new horse, returned to the rodeo circuit, thanked all those who prayed for her, but quietly wonders why God let Filly fall in the first place.
V. “An anecdote is the first draft of myth—a lump of cold steel awaiting its smith.”—The Wordspinner
Stories are also the first draft of the autobiographies that most will never record in graphite, ink, or pixels. My wife and I are not unique in that we don’t have one curated story from any of our grandparents. But even in their precarious oral form, stories help the tellers establish their places in a population of eight billion. Their selves are made whole by the stories they remember and share. They know that if they don’t turn their lives into stories, they’ll just be part of someone else’s, which, of course, we already are. Stories die in isolation and are among the few decorations many lives have. Heaven help us if they are replaced by AI, for they are too precious to lose.
To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522. For Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers, click on the book cover.