Author Archive

Telling Stories

Friday, July 4th, 2014

One of my enduring childhood memories was when a handful of relatives — maybe eight or ten adults — would descend on our small farm in northern Wisconsin for a family reunion. The men would congregate on one part of the lawn and talk; the women had their own area and alternated between exchanging news and taking turns in the kitchen baking apple pies and roasting chickens. In between, they’d bring fresh lemonade to the menfolk. I loved lemonade and so was careful not to stray far from those who controlled the pitcher, but at the same time kept a watchful eye on the male contingent.

Norwegians, our family heritage, are great storytellers and the men would position themselves in a circle on buckets or other makeshift seating. Except for my grandfather; Gramps would sit ramrod-straight in a wooden rocking chair that had been moved out of the house for the occasion, wearing a dark coat regardless of the weather, his robust mane of steel-gray hair framing his ruddy face, the unquestioned patriarch of the family.

The warm-up acts always came first — the weather, how the crops were doing that year, the sad state of political affairs. Then the stories began. I made sure my glass was filled with lemonade and would find a spot just outside the ring of men so I could hang on every word. The air resonated with stories about how someone had negotiated a near-criminal price for a used Model A Ford, how another had caught a trophy musky in a lake that no one else even knew existed, and how a third had saved the country from the Nazis by single-handedly building warships in Portland, Oregon.

Gramps nodded in appreciation at each story and then, following custom, the storytelling mantle devolved to him. He cleared his throat and began in his sonorous voice, “Well, sir, I remember the day at Wrigley Field when that fat guy from New York pointed toward the center field bleachers and then hit the home run.” He went on to describe in exquisite detail his train ride to Chicago, the weather the day of the game, and a blow-by-blow lead-up to the home run. Everyone was mesmerized.

When I got older, I found out that Gramps had chronicled Babe Ruth’s controversial “called shot” off Charlie Root in game 3 of the 1932 World Series. Had Gramps really been at the game? No one knew for sure. He was born in Spring Valley, Wisconsin, in the southwestern part of the state, that much was clear, but as far as anyone in the family knew, he’d never strayed more than fifty miles from his place of birth except when he came north to visit us. But along the way he learned to tell a helluva story.

I think about the tales Gramps and the others would spin in those days and am reminded of how lucky I am. I get to make stuff up (mostly), too, and have others read it.