Selma, Alabama—county sheriff deputies have blocked the streets with barricades. Blue lights flash. Cars park along the road. This is a storytelling festival. I am here to tell stories. After all, I have lots of them.
I arrived early. I’m carrying my guitar—a 1950’s piece of junk that has survived six major hurricanes, and one disagreement with a truck tire.
A large banner hangs over the door of the Carneal Cultural Arts Center. The sign reads: “Kathryn Tucker Windham Tale Tellin’ Festival, with Sean of the South.”
All of a sudden, I’m the richest man alive.
You don’t get over seeing your name in print. No matter how old you get, no matter how many lower back surgeries you succumb.
The first time I ever saw my name in letters, my baseball team had won the Little League Championship. I was ten. I was a chubby boy with an overbite, and big feet. My picture was in the paper.
The caption read: “Peavelers boys pull off a miracle. Sean Dietrich (1b) completes double play.”
“1b,” that was me. I was a round first-baseman. I was not a particularly attractive child. I was long-limbed, and some said I looked like a Herman Munster with cleats.
My mother clipped the photo from the paper and l flashed this photo to all her Bible-study friends. Her friends would usually remark: “Aaaaawwwwww.”
This is not the reaction that manly first-basemen hope to get from the fairer sex. But we are what we are.
I arrive backstage. I am waiting here before performing. It’s a brick room with a picture window. There is a view of the mighty Alabama River. Straddled over the river is the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge where Martin Luther King completed his five-day march and changed the world forever.
I peek at the audience. The chairs are starting to fill up. I am a little nervous. Which stories will I tell? Will I tell a funny one about my cousin, Ed Lee? Or will I tell a serious one? Will I even REMEMBER my stories? Or will I freeze up? What is the name of the twenty-ninth president? Who won the Spanish Civil War? Why is there braille on drive-up ATM keypads? These things are important.
The music starts—I hear it vibrating through the walls. Then, applause.
A man comes into the dressing room. He brings me a bottle of water. He hands me a microphone. He shows me how to turn it on. After nine attempts, I finally figure it out.
My wife comes through the door next. She is here to give me a peck on the cheek and wish me luck. She notices something about me.
“Are you ready?” she says.
“No,” I say.
She pulls back. “What’s the matter?”
What I mean to tell her is: “I feel like the richest man alive, darling.” But all I can get out is: “Do I really look like Herman Munster?”
Truth be told, I can’t get over the way my name looked on that sign. And I can’t believe it is inscribed beside the name “Kathryn Tucker Windham.”
When I was a boy, I read Kathryn’s words aloud in school and revered her.
When I was sixteen, someone gave me a cookbook written by Miss Windham, and I attempted to bake something from it. When I removed a bundt cake from the oven, it looked like a steaming horse log. I never baked again.
Anyway, when I began storytelling for a living, I had no idea what I was doing. I told stories at Rotary clubs, Kiwanis meetings, Baptist fellowship halls, fairgrounds, and cattle auction warehouses.
Since then, I’ve told lots and lots of stories. Hundreds maybe. And I still don’t know what I’m doing.
But I have admitted to audiences that I am a high-school dropout, and a self-educated schmuck. And I’ve swallowed a lot of pride by sharing this.
I have shaken hands with seven-year-olds who have read all my books. I’ve spoken at schools. I’ve talked in nursing homes, and sang hymns in the cafeteria. And once, in Brewton, Alabama, I even filled in for a Methodist preacher. Don’t ask.
But this. My name, on that sign. In this town. It’s too much.
My wife kisses my cheek. “You’re gonna do great,” she says.
I don’t make much money. I live in a trailer. My truck is on its last leg. I’m wearing the same pair of boots I wore when I laid tile for a living. My dogs get away with murder. I have high cholesterol.
Our lives aren’t exactly what I thought they’d be. And I am still just an ordinary man with a junky guitar.
Stories. I have plenty of those. So do you.
And I am the richest man alive.