That first year, several of us took a five mile hike in pursuit of the next highest rank. Although it seemed like it was taking forever to make the trip, we were not unduly upset by this. Along the way, we saw any number of wondrous sights. It being East Texas, there’d been a lot of rain earlier in the summer. As we came around a bend in the trail, we saw a small pond ahead. On the far side of the pond, we saw a most astonishing sight…a cave! None of us had ever even seen a cave before, let alone had the chance to explore one. We raced up to the edge of the water. Unfortunately, as we surveyed the scene, we saw that the pond was surrounded by barbed wire. There was no way we could get to the cave unless we swam across the pond. Reluctantly, we decided against this course of action. We’d heard too many stories about water moccasins and didn’t want to have a chance encounter. Wistfully, we went on our way. Later that night around the campfire, we regaled the younger scouts with tales of what we’d seen.
The next year, I went back to the jamboree fully intending to explore that cave come hell (in the form of water moccasins) or high water (in the form of high water). My compadres and I set out again on our grand trek. It seemed to take even longer to get there this time around. When we finally came around that same bend in the trail, our hearts were a’thumping as we strained to catch a glimpse of our cave. It’d been a much drier summer and the pond had shrunk down to a small drainage ditch. On the other side of the ditch, we saw our cave. Sadly, it was not a cave at all. It was a culvert; a drain pipe going underneath a road. We were dumbfounded. We KNEW we’d seen a cave in this spot last year. Maybe we’d been in a parallel dimension in the universe? Whatever the case, this time around we saw very clearly that there was no cave. Needless to say, we regaled no one around the campfire that night with tales of our cave.
I don’t like liars and I am especially put off by the political practice known as “spin.” I try to tell the truth as I know it and I expect the same from others. That said, I must add that there is an entirely different set of rules when it comes to storytelling. You NEVER let the facts get in the way of a good story. How many times have you heard a cowboy poet say, “This really happened,” then proceed to tell a whopper you know for a fact didn’t happen? Who cares, though, if the horse didn’t really sprout wings (Chris Isaacs)? It makes a great story. One of the greatest Western storytellers of all time, J. Frank Dobie, had this to say about storytelling. “I am a teller of folk tales, and as a historian I have not hesitated to use scraps of folklore to enforce truth and reality.” Well-said.
One of my personal favorite storytellers was the late, great Texas songwriter, Steven Fromholz. Although I loved his music, I probably could have just listened to him tell stories all night long. His story of Aunt Minnie and the bear back in the Arkansas woods during World War I was one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard in my life. I laughed until I cried every time I heard Steven tell it. Every SINGLE time. I also heard Fromholz tell some stories when he was off the stage that were probably even funnier than the ones he told on stage. The man could spin a yarn. We miss him.
Some of my favorite humor writers are storytellers. Outdoorsman Pat McManus takes everyday events from our childhoods (first campout, first deer we shot, the size of the first…or for that matter, last…fish we caught) and makes the re-living of the experience even more fun than the living of it. Great storytellers don’t focus so much on what actually happened, they home in on what should have happened in a perfect world. They invite us to use our imagination…you remember the imagination…to create events that are memorably happy, poignant, or funny. I love it when I read a Dave Barry story and I get to the part where he says, “if you know what I mean and I think you do!” I always do.
This brings me full circle to where I started today. In my mind’s eye, I still see that magical cave, just beyond reach, waiting to be explored. What might we have found if we’d only been able to reach it…maybe treasure, maybe a dragon, maybe a sword in a stone? We’ll never know for sure but we can always imagine. Or we can go with the second version of the story…the drainage pipe. I don’t know about you but I know which story I’M telling!