A campfire, the South Alabama woods. I was spending time with a Little League team. My bloodhound (Thelma Lou) was sleeping on someone’s lap.
The campfire smoke was the only thing keeping the yellow flies from sucking the flesh from our bare bones.
And I was telling a ghost story. It was about a one-legged man.
I come from a long line of storytellers and chicken thieves. I suppose you could say that much of my ancestry happened around campfires. That’s what folks did before iPads, iPhones, and shoot’em-up video games. We talked.
The Little League team sat in the dirt. A boy named Chris was petting Thelma Lou’s coat. Thelma snored.
I slapped yellow flies for dear life.
Long ago, my childhood Little League team would sit around campfires like this, eating weenies and beans from tin plates.
Boys on the team would emit smells from their hindparts potent enough to kill most small woodland creatures.
My father would build campfires big enough to be seen by Sputnik. And he’d tell stories. Wild, lavish, sometimes true, stories. And when he told them, people listened. He was a master if ever there was one.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, but this isn’t another boyhood daddy-worship column where I tell you how downright spectacular my father was. No, I wouldn’t waste your time with that sort of thing.
My father was downright spectacular.
It was the way he used his voice. It was a sing-songy kind of tone. Whenever you heard him use that voice, you knew he was either going to start a ghost story, or a four-hour sing-along of “I’m Henry the Eighth I am.”
His signature story, however, was the tale of the one-legged ghost. He always finished it the same way:
“…And EEEEVEN now, the old man wanders the forest, calling, ‘Where’s my leg?’”
Then Daddy would turn to some poor unsuspecting shortstop and shout, “GIMME MY LEG!”
And that child’s pants would be ruined forever.
A classic Daddy story-ending.
I have memories of him rocking in porch swings, telling stories to fellas who laughed at his inappropriate punchlines. I have memories of Daddy, standing on church steps, telling funny tales to several men waiting for the women’s Bible study to let out.
The cadence of his words did something to me. I wanted to be my father.
After he died, I wanted to do things he’d do and say things he’d say. That’s how it goes when your father dies. You try to keep him alive by becoming him. It’s instinctual, and at times a little pathetic.
I wore his eyeglasses, for instance, for a long time—even though I don’t need glasses. I wore his clothes to his own funeral. They were a hundred sizes too big. I was twelve.
And I told his stories. I still do. I can remember each one, word for word.
But, you can’t become your father. Eventually, you grow into yourself. You have your own face, your own big nose, and your own life tales.
I’m not the storyteller he was, I am only the second edition.
Still, somewhere along the way—by accident, maybe—I became a professional storyteller. For years now, I’ve been telling stories in front of generous audiences, on small-town stages, or around a campfires just like this one. It’s a strange line of work to be in.
When fellas my age ask me what I do for a living, I usually say, “I’m a storyteller.” Usually, they take a sip of their beer ask me if I’ve ever met Captain Kangaroo.
Anyway, a few weeks ago, I spoke in North Alabama. A man shook my hand after my performance. He’d driven a long way just to see me. He said he graduated high school with my father a lifetime ago.
And it moved me.
Then, he told me a few stories about Daddy. Tales about a man I once knew.
“You know,” the man said before he got in his truck to leave. “You closed your eyes the whole time you told stories and sang songs. Did you know your daddy used to do that when he sang?”
How about that.
Anyway, every story needs an ending, so here’s one:
Where is my leg? GIMME MY LEG!
Daddy did it a lot better than I can.