13 Sep

Part II of The Great Wild North will come on Wednesday.  I wanted to post this now before I forget.

My father grew up in a town called Joseph, which is now being hailed as the ‘Switzerland of the Northwest’, but when he was there, it was less of a tourist attraction and more of a ‘place to be’.  We pass through every once in awhile on our way up to our usual camping spot, and as we whiz up the mountain, he’ll slow down and point.  “That’s where I bagged my first buck,” he’ll say, or gesture at the spot where he and his friends committed this our that act of law-breaking rapscallionry.  Apparently, one of the things to do in Joseph was “coon hunt’n”.

I’m not entirely sure what the hunters did with the raccoons that they caught.  I don’t think they ate them.  Dad has some colorful recipes (remind me sometime to regale you with terrible tales of Hobo Stew) but I don’t think any of them had raccoon in them, or maybe he just substituted clearance priced steak on the edge of expiration.  In any case, I sort of doubt that coon hunt’n had much to do with practicality.  It was more of a sport, where a bunch of guys would get together, wander up in the woods, and try to shoot something.

Well, one night my dad’s dad, Robert, and a host of Bagleys took several bottles of beer, a gunny sack, and a mess of guns up into the woods.  The way my dad tells it, they were ‘drunk as skunks’, and it’s amazing to me that they could find and shoot a raccoon at all, but they did.  Spotted it out there in the dark and BANG, poor little thing was on the ground.  They grabbed it by the tail, shouting and applauding each other, and Robert Bagley tossed it into the gunny sack and threw it over his shoulder.

The issue here is that the raccoon wasn’t quite as dead as they had initially believed.

After awhile of walking, drinking, fish stories, drinking, friendly ribbing, and a bit of drinking, that raccoon, jostled by Robert’s staggering, woke up, and did what any thing in a bag would do.

With an unholy screech, it chomped into the canvas.  The canvas was against Robert’s back, and so without any real warning, Robert found himself with an Alien like parasite clinging wildly to the flesh of his spine.  Whooping, he dropped his beer bottles and let go of the bag, but the raccoon held on tight, scrabbling like a little canvas ghost while Robert yelled and flailed.  His companions weren’t quite sure what to do.  They shouted suggestions.

“Roll on the ground!”

“Jump in the air!”

“Back up against the tree!”

“Shoot it!”

“Don’t shoot it, you idiot!”

“Stick a burning match end on it!  It works for tics!”

With a burst of initiative, my father’s drunken uncle Jack lunged for the heaviest log within reach, and swung it hard, splitting it over Robert’s back and sending the pair of them, raccoon and bellowing man, skidding to the ground.  The raccoon was still, stunned again, its vicious fangs still clasped around Robert’s spine.  The men stared around at each other in silence for a moment.

And then they laughed and had another beer.

When my father retold that story to me last night (I had called him to clarify a different story he told me once) he finished with a laugh and said, “Okay, well, it’s yours now.  Post it, do whatever with it.  Take some creative license.  All the people who were there are dead now, so they’re not going to care about the details.”

I was raised in of a culture of storytellers, and I’m just smart enough to realize how important that is.  That’s real history, you know.  There are facts and dates, and those give you the framework of The Way Things Were, but real history comes from varied and colorful perspectives.  I had the benefit of a number of those perspectives from people who were willing to share them with me.

That’s why I think what the StoryCorps are doing is so important.  StoryCorps are collecting people’s histories on tape, giving family members an avenue to interview each other and record the poignancy of their lives for other people to hear.  Instead of putting on the same ITunes playlist today, why not pick out somebody’s story to listen to?

A few of these interviews have been animated into short snippets, that I have watched and loved.  The longest is about six minutes.  The shortest is about two.  They’re all glimpses into what extraordinarily beautiful, sad, difficult, meaningful, wonderful lives that people live.

Danny and Annie:  A couple of old lovebirds in the waning years of their lives, recounting how they began, and how they will end.

Q&A:  A twelve year old boy with severe Asberger’s interviews his mother about the difficulties of raising a child like himself.

Germans In The Woods:  Joseph Robertson at the Battle Of The Bulge.  Haunting.

The Icing On The Cake:  Blanca Alvarez tells her daughter, Connie, about starting their new life in the United States.

The Human Voice:  Studs Terkel (best name in the universe) muses on the way we communicate.

Do you know your family’s stories?  Any favorites?  I’d love to hear ’em.


Posted by on September 13, 2010 in Uncategorized


9 responses to “storytellers

  1. lisa

    September 13, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    This looks incredible. I like listening to videos when I’m at work so I’m looking forward to these!

  2. Ashley

    September 13, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    I loooove hearing family stories. They mostly come from my dad and his cousins. My dad grew up on a dairy farm in Massachusetts which operated until the very late 70’s when his dad died. Needless to say, that means tons of awesome stories. I hear a lot of talk about what an expert hay thrower my dad was (they called him “the elevator”), how they trained a cow to stop kicking them while they were hooking her up to get milked by hitting it in the head repeatedly with a hammer, getting caught (and subsequently beaten) smoking IN A HAY LOFT (can you say “fire hazard”…), that one dude my dad delivered milk to that had a pet skunk (de-smelled of course), camping in a rodent/bat/insect infested cabin…. I could go on forever. My parents also have some pretty sweet nun stories since they both went to Catholic school for quite some time.
    So yeah. Family stories are the best. Thanks for the heads up about the StoryCorps thing.

  3. Terri

    September 13, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    I teach college level creative writing and we always begin with stories/memories. And, btw, I have eaten ‘coon–barbecued. Didn’t even know it until AFTER the fact.

    • Jessica

      September 14, 2010 at 10:13 am

      Wow, Terri! I’d love to chat with you about this sometime. As a creative writing major, I’d love to get a teacher’s perspective on this.

  4. Jen

    September 13, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    Oh my gosh, these stories are wonderful! Danny and Annie had me choked up a bit and then I definitely started crying with the Germans in the woods… Thank you so much for sharing these!

  5. supesukauboi

    September 14, 2010 at 2:47 am

    Danny and Annie pulled some tears outta me, and I admire Studs Terkel immensely after only two minutes.

    I keep meaning to go over to visit my grandmother and just ask to hear stories. It’s one of those things that I really can’t afford to put off, but I don’t quite know how to ask. I’m sure she has more than a yarn or two worth hearing and putting down to paper.

  6. knowoneyouknow

    September 14, 2010 at 6:32 am

    *bawling* over Dannie and Annie! I adore my husband! We are soooooooo Lucky to have each other.

    (okay, time to look at the rest of the stories now…) Thanks Jess!

  7. Vanessa

    September 14, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    The Germans in the Woods story made me tear up. I’d seen it around the internet but never watched it until now and something just really struck me about it. It’s such a simple story but it gets you right in the heart.

  8. amanda

    September 15, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    When I first saw the ‘Danny and Annie’ video I cried so hard, I had to take a nap afterward. I never did see any of StoryCorp’s other videos, because the deep love Danny and Annie had for each other just about did me in. I can’t wait to finally watch their other work.

    I studied cultural anthropology in college, which essentially amounts to a degree in “professional storytelling”, only the stories being told are not mine. I think I was drawn to — and still am — others’ stories because my parents never told me family yarns.


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