As the years scatter behind me like a box of spilled Cheerios, I reflect on the blessings of the storytellers I have known.
When I was 5, Aunt Ozelle kept me so Mama could work in a sewing plant. At five minutes to 12 every day, she called me to lunch. She was a woman of admirable mountain discipline.
A small radio hung perilously on the back of her stove so when she was in the kitchen, the radio was always playing.
At the tiny kitchen table pushed against the wall, covered in red and white check oil cloth, cluttered with salt and pepper shakers, ketchup and napkins, she set a plate before me. Sometimes, it was fresh vegetables or soup or a sandwich.
But always as I ate, I listened to the melodious voice of commentator Paul Harvey as he delivered news of the day in a captivating manner that even a child could understand. At 5 p.m., Aunt Ozelle turned the radio back on for Mr. Harvey’s stunning delivery of “The Rest of The Story.”
Whether I was in the cool mustiness of the root cellar or stomping through the woods behind their little white frame house with the screened-in front porch, I always knew, instinctively, when to head back for the afternoon’s storytelling. Enthralled, I sat on the straight ladder-back chair and listened intently as he built the story, then paused for a commercial, intoning alluringly, “We’ll be right back with the REST of the Story.”
I clung to the seconds until he returned to the airwaves and delivered an impactful final minute with a twist that left me wide-eyed and fully satisfied with what I heard.
My first lessons in the power of stories began at our own kitchen table. Usually on Sunday nights, after church, when Mama and Daddy invited friends to the house for homemade cake and coffee. With no one to play with, I sat at the table and listened as the adults spilled forth with experiences, memories and history.
Though little, I felt the emotions whether humorous, mournful or matter-of-fact.
Mountain people were intrigued by the real life murder of Little Mary Phagan in a pencil factory in Atlanta in 1913. Fiddling John Carson, in 1915, had immortalized the 11-year-old girl in a shuddering ballad that, for many years, hung over the Appalachians like the cloaking mist that shrouds the Great Smokies.
From time to time, Daddy would hold court with the telling of that story in a haunting, genuine voice that belongs only to those born in hard times and raised in desperation.
My sense of dramatic storytelling was probably jumpstarted with that legend.
As a teenager, in midst of a clattering news room, I sat at an ancient gray metal desk, pounding out obituaries and listening, with one ear, to the seasoned reporters who dragged in stories of murder, political deceit or moonshiners who had faced down the law with shotguns.
Spellbinding. I recall all their names and see them clearly as the guys leaned casually against desks, arms folded against their chests, shirt sleeves rolled up and ties askew. When the phone rang with a breaking story, they’d grab tattered sports jackets from the back of their chairs and run for the door.
It was exciting. Theatrical.
In the Appalachians, history, for centuries, was passed down through oral storytelling. It was a tradition brought from Scotland. Old men and women would teach children how to pass down history and legends by making them recite, word for word, the stories they had been taught by their grandparents. They practiced it until it was word and sentence perfect.
In this day when video reigns and attention spans are short, intense storytelling is becoming a lost art. This, though, I have learned in business and personal life: great power lies in emotional storytelling.
It makes both friends and money.