I have always had a soft spot for old men. From my childhood, I believed that I was an old man trapped inside a kid’s body.

I am backstage, about to tell stories onstage. A woman with a clipboard announces, “Ten minutes to showtime.”

I am tuning my guitar, hoping I won’t stink tonight.

This is what all performers think about before they go onstage. They say silent prayers that all go, more or less, the same way.

“Dear God, don’t let me stink tonight.”

It’s easy to stink at storytelling because there is no school for it. There are no credentials, either.

Which leads me to ask: “What am I doing with my life?”

I am still unclear on how I started telling stories for a living. The only education I have in storytelling came from elderly men who wore Velcro shoes.

I have always had a soft spot for old men. From childhood, I believed that I was an old man trapped inside a kid’s body. I never fit in with peers. This was only made worse by the fact that I was raised fundamentalist.

As a young man, I would find myself in a crowd of teenagers who were smoking cigarettes, sipping longnecks, far from parental eyes. And for some reason, nobody ever offered me any real chances at sinning.

I would have appreciated the opportunity, but they viewed me as different. It was as though I were elderly.

Once, as a joke, my friend Jordan handed me a lit cigarette in front of everybody. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a wimp, so I took the biggest drag I could. I almost died from a coughing fit.

My friends howled when they discovered that I had peed my pants a little from hacking so hard.

I can’t believe I just told you that.

Thus, I was blacklisted. I was the old man of the group. During social situations, I would generally hang in the corner, drinking prune juice, adjusting my Velcro footwear, holding everyone’s car keys.

People called me “D.B.,” which was short for “Designated Baptist.”

My truest friends were elderly men. What I liked about them most was that they had already gotten their petty teenage sinning out of the way. They were more interested in major sins. For example, weekend trips to Biloxi.

After my father died, I looked for anyone with white hair to pay attention to me. I just wanted someone to be proud of me.

When I found the right person, I would follow him around like a Labrador until he took me home.

There was Ben. Bless him. He has Alzheimer’s now. He was a Mississippian who talked like Rhett Butler. We spent nearly every afternoon together.

He was retired and had nothing to do but tell stories. And he told some doozies. Some I can’t repeat here. Some I have told on stages.

When Ben came down with dementia, the world lost a library.

And there was the retired Auburn University professor. He was a man who chain-smoked Winstons and read Wordsworth.

He would loan these books to me and encourage me to read them. He would ask me to summarize them.

I don’t know if you’ve ever read British Romantic poetry, but back in those days everybody was always saying things like “heretofore” and “whithersoever” to each other for kicks. The poems were miles above me.

So the good professor would help me. In his ratty apartment, he taught a high-school dropout to appreciate literature.

After he died, I recited Emily Dickinson over his headstone.

So maybe this is how I started telling stories. Because my life has been spent in the company of old men who loved to tell them.

Old men are not like boys. They don’t have big ambitions—if any. They’re past that. They know a lot about life.

They’ve seen their mistakes get worse over time, and watched their qualities get better with age. They’ve lost those they care about, and discovered that success is nothing.

Sometimes they are grumpy. Sometimes their joints get stoved up. Sometimes they can’t help telling it like it is. Other times, they say something so profound you have to write it down.

They are filled to the hairline with stories. And if you listen, they will tell you one while they whittle a stick. And when they are gone, you will miss the sound of Rhett Butler’s voice.

“Five more minutes,” the woman with the clipboard says.

I hurry to the bathroom one last time. When I am at the sink, there is an old man beside me. White hair, thick glasses.

He dries his hands with paper towels and says, “You ever heard of this storyteller guy, Sean Dietrich?”

I keep my head down. “No sir,” I say.

“Me neither. My dang wife drug me here tonight, I sure as hell didn’t wanna come, I hope this guy doesn’t stink.”

He tosses his paper towel into the garbage and leaves the bathroom.

He is wearing white Velcro shoes.

I hope I don’t let that old man down.

25 comments

  1. Cathi Russell - May 24, 2019 10:30 am

    I’m pretty sure you didn’t, Sean. As in stink or ler him down. You probably made him laugh and/or get a little misty and folks with Velcro shoes love that. Heck, even those of us who don’t wear Velcro shoes love that. And you.

    Reply
    • Linda Deamon - June 24, 2019 3:11 pm

      Youngsters could gain a lot of wisdom if they would only take time to sit down and talk to old people. After all they’ve already lived and made mistakes. I worked as a nurse for 35 years. Loved to listen to their stories. One lady was 98 . When she saw me she thought I was a long lost friend she had went to school with. She told me about the 1 room school she went to and where it was. How her parents had died. She and her brother were taken in by 2 different families to work the farms. This all happened in the middle of Cleveland Ohio.

      Reply
  2. Connie Havard Ryland - May 24, 2019 10:52 am

    I’m pretty sure you were awesome. I’m looking forward to seeing you for my 3rd time when you come to Fairhope this summer. You are always funny and entertaining; you make me laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time. This old lady thinks you’re awesome. Love and hugs.

    Reply
  3. Elizabeth - May 24, 2019 10:54 am

    Lol, that’s great! You’re a true gem.

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  4. Marilyn - May 24, 2019 11:10 am

    Your story made me laugh! I would love to see you perform and i am sure you would not stink!

    Reply
  5. Sue - May 24, 2019 11:58 am

    You definitely are a winner and never forget that.

    Reply
  6. Jack Darnell - May 24, 2019 12:16 pm

    Well I am sure you didn’t ‘stink’. But I did enjoy the read.
    Sherry & jack over in NC

    Reply
  7. Carol Heidbreder - May 24, 2019 12:33 pm

    Oh,you didn’t let him down! Not a chance!!! And you’re coming to Fairhope this summer? WHEN? This is my hometown!!! Want to try to come! And bring family! Where is this info?!

    Reply
  8. Naomi - May 24, 2019 12:38 pm

    I want to know what keeps people from being happy. Very few people are happy today; no one laughs anymore (at least no one I know). Going to church doesn’t make you happy because it seems like everything you like is a sin, wearing makeup, cutting your hair, going to a movie, having a glass of wine (The list goes on.) Other people don’t make you happy; all they want to talk about is the news, politics and the stock market. It seems like once you are grown, the world wants to suck the life out of you. Sometime you get the life sucked out of you when you are a child, like you, and like me who had to care for a mentally ill mother from the time I was a child. She died many years ago, a miserably unhappy person. I certainly couldn’t make her happy no matter how hard I tried. Now my younger brother, who has everything to live for, a loving wife, 3 grown sons and a 5-year-old grandson who love him hundreds of friends and a lot of money, has sunk into a deep depression. He has cut himself off from everyone; his doctors have told him there is nothing wrong with him and there is nothing they can do to help him. I’m not even allowed to talk to him. Maybe it’s genetic; our aunt and one uncle committed and our mother attempted suicide a couple of times. A few years ago, I had cancer. Among the questions my doctor asked me about my family’s medical history is what they died from. I wanted to say suicide but thought better of it; I didn’t want him putting me in a mental hospital.

    Reply
  9. Joe Patterson - May 24, 2019 1:01 pm

    Thanks I am one love your stories

    Reply
  10. Camille - May 24, 2019 1:15 pm

    Sean, I am so excited about your new novel coming out this summer! Every single day I start with a story from you and it sets the tone for the rest of my day. Thank you for tempering the bad news with so much good news. You are a Gem!

    Reply
  11. Shelton A. - May 24, 2019 1:28 pm

    You didn’t let them down…just have a feeling. You’re a fine storyteller and old Lewis would be proud he helped influence someone to follow in his footsteps.

    Reply
  12. MermaidGrammy - May 24, 2019 1:59 pm

    You didn’t. I doubt you’ve ever let anyone down. The world loves you. As your world gets bigger, more of it will love you. Thank you

    Reply
  13. Carol - May 24, 2019 3:51 pm

    You never let anybody down. But sometimes I think you don’t know your own worth.
    Your a writer a storyteller a author and a damn good man!!
    Love ya!

    Reply
  14. Emjay - May 24, 2019 3:51 pm

    Bet that old man went home and subscribed like the rest of us so he could hear your stories every day. He may have even ordered some of your books.

    Reply
  15. Chasity Davis Ritter - May 24, 2019 4:03 pm

    I’m sure you didn’t Sean. Wish you could come to Oklahoma sometime so we could hear your stories too. Until then your pod casts will have to suffice

    Reply
  16. Linda Moon - May 24, 2019 4:36 pm

    I am someone with white-ish hair who pays attention to you, and I am proud of you. My old man is, too. He would tell you LOTS of stories about Sand Mountain, Ohio accents, and a dozen siblings. Just ask him…..anytime……anywhere…… and he will oblige you….over and over again. I’m glad we heard of you.

    Reply
  17. Edna B. - May 24, 2019 8:03 pm

    I’ll bet that old fellow had quite a good chuckle when he saw you come onto the stage to tell your stories. You have a great evening, hugs, .Edna B.

    Reply
  18. throughmyeyesusa - May 25, 2019 12:07 am

    How many columns have you written, Sean? Take a fistful on stage with you, every time. If you even think of stinkin’, just start reading your columns; they never “stink”! But….who says old LADIES can’t have good stories too?
    I know you admire women, Sean; is this just a tiny bit of male chauvinism peeking out?

    Reply
  19. Robert Chiles - May 25, 2019 6:25 pm

    They have discovered that….”success is nothing.” Boy, that will preach.

    Reply
  20. Judy Snyder - May 26, 2019 9:12 pm

    I am certain you did not!
    Thanks for caring whether you did or not…is important!

    Reply
  21. Jack Sparks - May 26, 2019 11:51 pm

    Great story of life my grandfathers had passed when I was born I missed them and cherished time with older men as you did I gained great wisdom as a result of sharing time with them.

    Reply
  22. Martha Martin Black - June 24, 2019 7:01 am

    I believe what sealed the deal for me in my choice of my husband was his love of keeping company with old men and a good story telling. He grew up trying his best to overcome being the important influencle person his mother insisted he be by spending time with his dad at the city pool room, watching and waiting for his shot in the game & listening to old men telling tales or singing a few naughty ditties.
    After we married he would sometimes join me as I watched the Gaither shows and I was surprised how much he enjoyed them. I finally figured out, as it turns out, #1 He was a closet Pentecostal that didnt have to wait for the spirit to hit him to dance,(he just naturally loved to dance & I loved watching him) #2, it was the old men singer’s (especially the bass ones) that he enjoyed hearing sing and maybe talk a little. They were his Moses’ that led him out everyday.
    In all his mother’s pushing & prodding to be prosperous & important, I found it amazing that he tended to lend his ear to the love and care he got from his Aunt Evelyn Scroggs who was somewhat of a pioneer as a female evangelist in the Church of God; And, he loved my mother, Christene, who fell for him at first sight, in spite of his partying ways (surely all the prayers she laid on him surely effected him). He never failed to get his hugs and kisses from Mamma Christene before heading home.
    There are those that might be in doubt about where he landed when he left this world, but I lived with him for thirty years and saw his heart and his struggles. And when I laid him to rest, I had no doubt about a man that loved his babies, old men from the pool room, the Gaither singers, danced with his wife in the kitchen by the evening breeze and loved the two older Holiness women that adored him & he admired right back; surely deserved every note of his favorite gospel song – “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad”.
    Of course, his favorite secular song was “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog”.
    Good night to my sweetheart, Jerry Stephen Black.
    And thank you Sean Dietrich for writing about “Wise & Wonderful” old men, we sure do them: It blessed my heart and brought me comfort……….

    Reply
    • Martha Martin Black - June 24, 2019 7:09 am

      My favorite picture of my husband is on my refrigerator door. He sitting in the middle of some old wooden risers at the City Pool Room with his pool cue in his hand. He’s in a red t-shirt at about 25 yrs old with a great big smile under that handsome handlebar mustache and surrounded on all sides by old men 50 & older.

      Reply
  23. Debbie - June 24, 2019 9:02 am

    I am a sucker for a well told story. Keep doing what you’re doing.

    Reply

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