How do you become a writer or a storyteller? In my case how could I not. My family was filled with storytellers. In conversations we did not just hear what happened. There had to be a cast of characters, and the story would dance from one to the other, drawing a word picture that would hold this child in rapt attention. My dad was a champion with such stories. Often they would be woven around actual events, but on occasion, imagination would reign supreme. Who needed television when he was around. Those stories are as crystal clear today as they were then. I can't say the same for most of the programs on the boob tube we watched back then.
Ever so often I think I will visit one of his stories, for aren't tales made to be retold? Not all memories of childhood are great, but my memories from the tapestry formed in each tale became a critical part of the person I am today.
Daddy (that's what we called him) got home Friday night. He was a surveyor for the oil industry, and would leave home Monday morning and often not get back home till Friday evening. Mom would have a big meal prepared. This particular evening it was round steak properly beaten with a meat hammer, mashed potatoes and white gravy, green beans picked from the garden, and later we would fill those tummies with home made peach cobbler. Round steak was a common fare, since money doesn't grow on trees and frugality was a mitzvah. Mom and dad were true children of the depression.
Right on schedule, daddy arrived right at dinner time. He unpacked his survey instrument and maps, then his suitcase. Rather than come right to eat though, he beckoned momma to the restroom. Curious, my brother and I went as well. As he removed his shirt, there were four angry bloody lines down his back. The blood had clotted, but from my perspective, I could not escape a shutter. "How'd you do that daddy?" Momma washed his wounds, then applied rubbing alcohol as we all winced, him from the pain, us because we knew that had to hurt.
"Wait till we get to the dinner table. We can talk about it then."
Momma taped a gauze over the now cleaned scratches. She said, "Cmon now y'all. I'm hungry." Together we all headed for the kitchen. The kitchen. IN a time before families ate in front of the television, the kitchen was where everyone gathered. Often friends would come over to play dominos on the kitchen table. Family would meet and tales were woven over. There were two parts to the kitchen. Towards the back was the sink, refrigerator, stove, Here is where the work was done, food prepared, hands were washed, dishes cleaned and inspected. Forming a natural divide was an island with porcelain tile cover, with storage built in below. In front of it was the natural gateway to the true living area for this house. There was a door out the side to the drive. This was before air conditioning, so in the warmer months the door was always open, a screen door letting in fresh air pulled by an attic fan in the hallway. Our real friends never came to the front door, but to the side where the kitchen table was waiting. Here plans were made, stories told, homework completed, bread broken... when I speak of home, I mean the kitchen.
The table was not that large, but we did have a leaf to insert as needed. It was one of those retro dining tables common in the fifties steel and aluminum like you found in diners with matching chairs and seat covers to match the design of the table, a white with a brown design imbedded. It had to be durable, ready to handle the slamming of dominos, to buffer the pushes and shoves of hundreds of guests over many years. We had a dining room which was also the back half of the living room in the front, but we only used that when we had a large crowd. The kitchen was the true home.
Around the table we sat, and each dish was passed around and we filled our plates. Daddy began with small talk, about the week. Momma recited the litany of our sins of the week, an act we dreaded because it often meant more punishment. She got him up to date about the calls for new work. She served as his secretary, receptionist, and whatever else he needed in the office which was a converted bedroom adjacent to the kitchen. My brother and I sat eating and squirming, dying to hear the story of those scratches on his back.
Finally I asked, "daddy, you going to talk about those scratches?"
He smiled. "I guess I'm lucky to be here you know. It could have ended very differently." Our eyes widened."I was working in Cherokee county, west of here. We were staking a location in some pretty thick timber. Was watching the ground close. You know how those snakes are and between the rattlers and the copperheads, a fellow just needs to step careful. We were maybe a mile or so from the car in the middle of this forest. We'd been cutting a survey line and I'm guessing I'd sweated a good ten pounds out of me. Seems I recall, what I really wanted that moment was a nice cool drink of water. I was thinking about heading back to the water can that we dragged along with us. The rodman was back maybe a hundred yards or so further cleaning out the survey line. Then I heard a rustling of branches above and behind me."
"What was it?" I was holding my own breath.
"Frankly I thought it was just a bird or something. But it seemed kind of loud for a bird thrashing about. Well I glanced over my shoulder just in time to see something that made my heart stop" He paused for dramatic effect. "I thought it was over for me that moment." He paused again.
This time my brother and I cried out in unison! "What was it!"
He leaned back to enjoy more fully the story. In barely a whisper, he said, "Wildcat."
"What?" This time it was me, my brother and my mother."
"When I glanced back, that cat was making a leap for me. Way out there I think both of us were startled. Everything slowed down in my mind's eye, though I'm sure in real life it didn't. I moved to the side, one paw with claws bared left the scratches you saw. What saved me was my instrument box which was strapped over my shoulder. As that cat hit the ground, I swung that box at the cat with every bit of strength I had. That wildcat let out a crying howl like I never heard before. Think of an alley cat when it's fighting, times ten. Then it ran off into the brush."
We all stared in amazement. I could see momma searching his eyes to see if he was telling a story or not.
"Did that really happen?" I asked. Another pause.
He smiled. "Well it could have. Or maybe it was that thick brush that did it." I loved that he gave us a choice of what to believe.