I am backstage, about to tell stories onstage. A man with a name tag and 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 suck.”

It’s easy to stink at storytelling because there is no school for such things, so you don’t know if you’re getting it right. 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 and wore their slacks up to their armpits.

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, and I never wanted to. This was only made worse by the fact that I was raised as a tee-totalling fundamentalist who was forbidden from touching NyQuil.

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 until they peed.

Thus, I was blacklisted from social situations. I was the old man of the group. During social scenarios, 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.”

Ah, but my truest friends were elderly men. What I liked about them most was that they had already gotten their petty teenage sins out of the way. They were more interested in major sins. For example, weekend trips to Biloxi. Or scratch-off lotto tickets.

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. I wanted to piece together a father figure. 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 just for kicks. The poems were miles above me, but I loved them.

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

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; who could not restrain themselves from telling stories.

Old men are not like boys. They don’t have big ambitions—if any. They’re past ambition, and they have only experience left. They are ready to integrate what they know into the world around them. And if you listen, they will help you.

After all, old men have 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, sure. Sometimes their joints get stoved up. Sometimes they can’t help telling it like it is. But other times, they will say something so profound, so incredibly put, that you have to write it down.

They are filled to the hairline with stories. And if you listen to them carefully, they will tell you one while they whittle a stick on the porch.

And when they are gone, you will miss the sound of Rhett’s voice.

“Five more minutes,” the man 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. Can’t say that I have.”

“Me neither. My dang wife dragged me here tonight, I sure as heck didn’t wanna come. I ain’t never heard of this joker before, all I can say is, I hope this guy doesn’t stink.”

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

He was wearing white Velcro shoes.

I sincerely hope I don’t let that old man down.

37 comments

  1. Lisa K Riley - January 28, 2022 9:13 am

    I will bet you didn’t. You haven’t disappointed this old lady yet either.

    Reply
  2. Carol Anne Keene - January 28, 2022 9:29 am

    Another good one Sean, thank you, have a lovely day and fantastic weekend with Jamie

    Reply
  3. Tim Todd - January 28, 2022 10:47 am

    I feel sure that old man became a Sean fan a few short minutes later.

    Reply
  4. Warren Larry Evans - January 28, 2022 11:29 am

    I would wager that what you consider a!n Off” performance is perceived as an excellent performance by your audience.

    Reply
  5. suzi - January 28, 2022 11:59 am

    Lovely, I hope every ol’ man, velcro shoes or not, who has lifted a young person spirits and sense of self will read this and say “dang, I done good”~

    Reply
  6. Pinny Bugaeff - January 28, 2022 12:13 pm

    Sean,Stories are ,for me, the one thing that helped me survive.Stories gave me shelter when family explosions rocked the walls. Stories are ..well -you’ve already said it way better than I. Still, your stories light my life and I thank you with all my heart.

    Reply
  7. Norman Turnipseed - January 28, 2022 12:22 pm

    Hey Sean
    You mentioned Rhett a couple of times in this story.
    If I could talk to you personally I got a true story about him in real life.

    Reply
  8. LauraD - January 28, 2022 12:44 pm

    I am sure you did not stink.

    Reply
  9. gwenthinks - January 28, 2022 1:02 pm

    Your descriptions are the best. We would love to hear you tell stories!

    Reply
  10. Shelton A. - January 28, 2022 1:23 pm

    You are blessed to be a great storyteller! You told one today. We all get butterflies before a public gig (except politicians and most of them lie anyway; anyone can stand in front of an audience and lie). Thank you for your gift that you so freely share with us. God bless you, Jamie, the hounds and may He give you all peace.

    Reply
  11. Jan - January 28, 2022 1:29 pm

    Since I have been fortunate enough to hear you speak and tell wonderful stories, I am sure you were great! Thank you, Sean!

    Reply
  12. Theresa Clark - January 28, 2022 1:43 pm

    Fantastic story, Sean. Thank you. My dad, who wears black Velcro shoes, has lots of stories, and is 85 now (you and Jamie helped us wish him happy birthday last November) sent this to me. And hey, you don’t suck or stink…you rock! ❤️

    Reply
  13. AlaRedClayGirl - January 28, 2022 2:51 pm

    My dad told lots of stories, but he died before he became an old man. I wish I had written the stories down because now I can’t remember most of them. Thank you for listening to these old men and telling their stories. And I’m sure you didn’t stink because I’ve heard your stories and songs…you were amazing!

    Reply
  14. Joy Chanin - January 28, 2022 3:12 pm

    Sean- you wrote for months about your mother-in-law. You even refer to your dad on occasion. But you rarely mention, much less write about your mother or your sister. Why? I think we would like to hear more about them.

    Reply
  15. Gayle Wilson - January 28, 2022 3:15 pm

    Sean, there are no schools for storytelling, not that I have found anyway. You sir were gifted to become a storyteller. And a very fine one you are. Keep telling your stories.
    And by the way, I went to a storyteller workshop one time and the lady told us that there is a gift to storytelling. That to tell a story you have to go beyond listening to what others have to say. She never told us what that step was, but recently I read a devotional by Dr Eugene Peterson. Now he is another storyteller. In this particular devotion he was talking about that people, especially older adults that repeat their stories over and over are holding on to a piece of themselves that they remember, and that we as the receiver need not listen to the communication, but come into communion with the person telling the story. Maybe that is the gift – really good storytellers, like you don’t listen to the communication, you come into communion with the person telling the story.

    Reply
  16. Helen De Prima - January 28, 2022 3:20 pm

    I grew up in my grandparents’ home, reading the books my mother grew up with, a whole generation out of sync. Thank God.

    Reply
  17. Cathy M - January 28, 2022 3:32 pm

    You are a raconteur. A master storyteller. I was CB lucky enough to hear you several summers ago at St. Stephens Episcopal church in B’ham. I parked next to you in the parking lot and when you got out of your car, I did not even have to think abt it. I approached you and we had a great visit. We entered the church and my son looked at me and his face said, Mom you didn’t really stop the speaker. Yep I did and it was one of the most wonderful evenings I.can remember. You played your guitar snd sang. Told some stories and I was hooked. Got to meet beautiful wife when you signed books. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. You are apart of my life. A big part. There are hundreds who join me in thanking you for telling us these marvelous stories. Never stop❤️🙏🏻

    Reply
  18. Suellen - January 28, 2022 3:39 pm

    I’ve always loved old people too. When my peers were into partying every night and sleeping all day I was visiting nursing homes and hanging out on my Grandma’s couch. Old women have some pretty good stories too.

    Reply
  19. Ruth Mitchell - January 28, 2022 3:51 pm

    My grandchildren beg my husband and me for stories. I feel it’s the purest form of flattery. I wish I had been more interested in family stories when I was growing up.

    Reply
  20. James willis - January 28, 2022 3:57 pm

    Good one!

    Reply
  21. Stacey Wallace - January 28, 2022 4:01 pm

    Sean, I’m not a man; I am a “Pooh-sized,” 59-year-old woman, but I am really proud of you. I know you did great. I’ve asked my husband to find out when you’ll be speaking near Auburn, Alabama. We both want to hear your stories. We’re certain that you won’t suck. Love to you and Jamie.

    Reply
  22. Mona Dixon - January 28, 2022 4:02 pm

    I wish you could meet my 93 year old Daddy! He has so many stories to tell about his little southeast Arkansas town and some of the “characters” who once lived there. He still works out everyday, mows his yard, does his housework, and most of all, misses my mother who passed away a little over a year ago. They were married just over 72 years.

    Reply
  23. Paul McCutchen - January 28, 2022 4:52 pm

    I’m sure you did a great job. I once sat at the end of a dinner table with an older gentleman that was a vet from the second world war. He was on a battleship. His daughter told him no one wanted to hear his stories during the meal. I told him I would love to hear them so we went and ate at the kitchen table. I was fascinated with his accounts of living on a battleship. Every chance I got I would sit and listen to him. I am 70 now and I really miss some of the stories my “older” friends told me. My wife says I am the “older” one now that no one wants to sit next to but she says one of these days someone will sit and listen to your stories.

    Reply
  24. Nancy Briski - January 28, 2022 4:55 pm

    Rest assured, you will definitely not let him down.

    Reply
  25. Linda J Hendrix - January 28, 2022 5:32 pm

    I totally enjoy all your stories, especially this one. There is wisdom to be shared by our elders & thankfully you were a listener. Do you have a sharable schedule? We would love to attend one of your storytelling events. God bless.

    Reply
  26. Susie Flick - January 28, 2022 6:07 pm

    “the world lost a library” – love that quote and the symbolism of your story….

    Reply
  27. Linda Moon - January 28, 2022 6:25 pm

    Moviemakers of “The Right Stuff” paraphrased the performers’ prayer when Alan Shepard said it. I won’t repeat here what the screenwriters wrote, but I do love the movie. The good professor taught you well. My old man still acts like a boy…even just now as I’m posting… and most of it’s fun and good. You’ve never let My Guy and me down. You don’t stink. So, what are you doing with your life? Answer: making me and others very happy to read or hear your words…and don’t you ever forget that! EVERYTHING from you is A+ ok.

    Reply
  28. Gary Nichols - January 28, 2022 7:25 pm

    Good one, Sean. I regret I didn’t engage my Father more prior to dementia setting in.

    Reply
    • Karen - January 28, 2022 7:53 pm

      Older people have so many stories to tell. God knew where you needed to be as a teen. Those seniors were gifts to you and you were a gift to them.

      Reply
  29. MAM - January 28, 2022 8:48 pm

    I”m with AlaRedClayGirl, my dad died when I was young and I didn’t have a chance to write his stories down. He was a very quiet man (Mom and I did all the talking!), but when he said something, I listened! He didn’t waste words. The ones he said were worth hanging onto. I wish I could have gathered them. I, now older than he when he died, remember bits and pieces, but not the way he said them. Someday I’m guessing in the not too distant future, I hope to hear his stories again. Do they tell stories in heaven?

    Reply
  30. Pingback: Sean of the South: Stories | The Trussville Tribune

  31. Glenda Williams - January 28, 2022 9:51 pm

    Well, how did it go? I am sure you didn’t stink.

    Reply
  32. Debbie g - January 29, 2022 8:52 am

    So true Susie. Love your stories every day Sean. Your my inspiration every day!!
    Love you and Jamie and love to us all

    Reply
  33. Terri Hinds - January 29, 2022 11:42 am

    love this. thanks🙏

    Reply
  34. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - January 30, 2022 4:47 pm

    Reply
  35. Melissa Mikkelsen - February 1, 2022 12:24 am

    Sean I saw you on Tybee a little while ago. You, sir, did not stink. At all. A very long time ago I was in an old Bards play and I will tell you a trick I picked up behind the curtain. Find a friend and play war – you know the card game where you slap down a card and the highest card wins? You go very fast and if you are smart you use two decks of cards. Something as simple as a card game can unclench that nerve before you go onstage. It’s magic, try it.

    Reply
  36. Lander - February 10, 2022 12:09 pm

    Yep, those old guys are good to hang around. Ok’ gals, too. I’ve learned a thing or two from them. I have a lot more to learn, too.

    Reply

Leave a Comment