I spent my teenage years in the small town of Sumner, Illinois, a town of around a thousand people. Before that, except for the six years my family spent in Oak Forest, a southern suburb of Chicago, where my mother taught third grade, I lived on a farm ten miles southwest of Sumner in Lukin Township. In the country, we could get two television stations—WTVW in Evansville and WTHI in Terre Haute. Sometimes late at night, we could draw in snowy pictures from stations in Harrisburg, Champaign, Decatur, St. Louis, and Indianapolis. It was big news when Terre Haute added a second station, WTWO.
I was surrounded by farmers and people who worked in the oil fields or at the refinery, and people who worked at the shoe factory, the garment factory, the poultry house. I grew up with die cutters and welders and house painters and truck drivers and oil field roughnecks. This is all to say, I grew up in a time and a place where entertainment options were limited. We might catch a movie at the Arcadia Theatre in Olney, or the Avalon in Lawrenceville, or the Idaho in Sumner. We might go to a high school basketball game or to the championship wrestling matches at the National Guard Armory in Lawrenceville. And there were ham and bean suppers and fall festivals and the county fairs, where folks could watch the demolition derby or the tractor pull or the harness races. We did what we could for diversion. At all of these gatherings and events, we did what we did best. We told stories.
My father or someone else would start in. “Did I ever tell you about. . . ?” There in the pool hall or the barber shop or the grain elevator or the gas station or the welding shop—there in the armory or the high school gym or in the grandstand at the fairgrounds or at the theatre before the show began—people would entertain themselves by telling stories. There were stories about love gone wrong, mistaken identity, questionable sanity, revenge, hunters and the hunted, legends of the supernatural and the haunted. There were stories that took place in the farm fields and the small towns and the steel mills of Gary and Hammond. There were stories of the naive and the uninitiated paying their first visits to St. Louis, Indy, Chicago, Detroit. I sat in hayfields, on front porches, in people’s kitchens, on car hoods, on upturned buckets and pop cases, on bleachers and church pews, and I listened to stories.
I remember a few. I’ve forgotten many, many more. But what I remember most of all is the way a good story moved. “Did I ever tell you about. . . ?” someone would ask, and the name of a person would start to build a character. It might have been Snap Piper or Slim Wetzell or Harold Roderick or Fern Henry or Viola Gassert or any number of names that still stick in my head. We were a town of nicknames. We had Snap and Slim and Spit and Speck and Grinny and Dog and Corky and Putt. We were a town of characters, and everyone had a story.
“So one day. . . ,” the storyteller might continue, and I understood that stories were about specific actions that took place on days unlike any other days. That’s what made the events worth narrating. Something out of the ordinary happened, something deserving of a story.
“And then. . . ,” the storyteller might say, and I understood that there was always a point of tension or conflict in a good story, something that made a listener wonder what was going to happen next.
“It was hard going there for a while. . . .” The storyteller’s voice might get hushed or brim with excitement, and I knew something was at stake for the people in the story. The events still to be told—the complications—held something of consequence for the future of the people involved.
“And then you know what he did?” Here, a silence would fall over the listeners. Time would appear to stop. Often, I’d find myself leaning forward, trying to get physically closer to the final event of the narrative. I knew there was about to be a resolution. I knew that when the storyteller began he had a moment toward which he was heading and now that moment was nearly here. But he lingered. He let us wait. If only for a few moments, there was that delicious not knowing just before the end.
Then it would come, the final words, often told for comic effect, but sometimes the world would shatter, people’s lives would splinter and head off in unforeseen directions, and I’d find myself thinking about them later. Often, I wouldn’t be able to get them out of my head. I’d replay their stories again and again, tell them to myself, practice the beginnings, the immediate problem to be solved, the tension to be resolved, the conflict to be confronted, the rising line of tension after a chain of complications, and then the moment of climax, that moment where everything hung in the balance—that pause—just before the turn at the end, that pivotal moment beyond which nothing would ever be the same.
In a way, I suppose this post is an homage to those men who taught me how to tell stories—men who for the most part weren’t readers and certainly not writers, men who remind us of the elegant structure of a good narrative: a simple opening, a move toward tension, an increasing intensity, a pause at the climax, a memorable and graceful end. “I believe that the writer should tell a story,” says Ernest Gaines. “I believe in plot. I believe in creating characters and suspense.” The men I grew up among knew this, too. They knew how to get a story started with little effort, how to make it interesting, how to make it matter.