Ch. 5. Story Tell

Editors and friends asked me why I decided to write this book, and what took me so long to start it. I guess I’m trying to figure out if I have fulfilled some of my childhood goals, and what my motivations were and what they should be today. Consequently I am sometimes telling a story so you can follow what I’m trying to delicately thread together, and other times, I’m sort of talking to myself and you’re along for the ride. For the longest time I viewed storytelling as merely a means of delivering information to my students, or a form of entertainment; I never thought about storytelling in the larger context. Upon reflection, I think there’s more going on than simple one-way communication.

Stories, it is said, can sometimes come alive. I believe this to be true. Not in the fantasy sense where a mythical creature can appear in your driveway and lead you to an enchanted forest, but in the sense where a story itself becomes a kind of living creature, reproducing itself through retelling, and evolving to become part of a cultural history. A living story influences the development of other stories, and minds, and lives. A story you tell yourself, repeated often enough, can even influence your own behavior, beliefs, and memories.

It’s also said that everyone has a story that’s simply waiting to be told. When a story can’t wait to be told any longer, it emerges, unbidden, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes humorously, and sometimes tragically. I’ve held mine in me as long as the story will allow, and now it wants out to see the larger world of stories, to see if it can hold your attention, and be related to others, and perhaps have a small influence in the world.

This next part gets a little metacognitive and perhaps a bit preachy. Sorry about that; there’s just some stuff I need to get off my chest that will help you understand the motivations for why this story exists and why I have to write it this way. Just bear with me, and it’ll be over soon, I promise.

Our world today has changed almost without our noticing. The connected threads of our lives and the events beyond our own personal experiences have become interwoven into the daily cycles of our lives. In the past, it might have been possible to live in a town so isolated from the rest of society that there would be differences between our cultures so dramatic as to be startling.

That is no longer true. Continuing a process started with the town crier, the newspaper, radio and television, the internet beckons us to reach beyond our grasp. Almost every house has a television; finding one without is newsworthy and notable. Stories of multiple families sharing a phone line are now several generations in the past for many families; indeed, the entire concept of a party line must usually be explained to modern students by their grandparents, if they hear of it at all.  Outhouses, drinking gourds, home canning, hand-dug wells, applesauce made from apples you picked yourself (cooked then squeezed through a clean cotton pillowcase), patchwork quilts, coal-fired furnaces and hot water available only from a stovetop all seem to be inventions of the distant past, as far removed from the experiences of today’s youth as musket rifles and log cabins.


I am only 44 years old, and yet I once lived in such a time and place.


Even as I did, I knew my experiences were so rare as to be uncommon at the time; a subject of derision, of ridicule, or worse.  Southerners of my generation were sharply aware that the division in the nation started in the Civil War extended into the mid-20th century and beyond. The most visible sign understandable to people not from the area is the fact that it is still politically correct to laugh at the antics of rural Appalachian white men. Of which I am one. As has been pointed out to me by African American friends, I can lose the accent, but they can’t lose the skin color. Losing the accent, though, turned out to be a little more traumatic for me than almost anyone who knows me would guess.

As I have grown and had the opportunity to travel across America, it is obvious to me that the disassembly of our small towns continues, with town after town essentially decapitated–when its school is absorbed into a larger unit, when the post office closed in the face of efficiency, when the mom and pop “peanut” stores too expensive to compete even with the cost of driving fifteen miles or more to the nearest Wal-Mart close.  We’re in the process of losing something vital as we continue this process. In part, this book’s purpose is to remind those people who read it, just a little, of what it was we once had. Our school was so small that there are many concrete, tangible, and financial reasons that it made perfect sense to consolidate it into the county school in the 1990’s. The intangible things we had, a sense of friendship, of family, of history and purpose, now lost or forgotten, can’t be measured quantitatively but they were nonetheless real.

There is, however, a price to be paid for having a small school. Our school was too small to wield a football team, and even our mighty basketball team did not even have its own enclosed basketball court–only half an asphalt basketball court with a single hoop, the other end occupied by the portable special education classroom that I don’t recall entering in four years of high school.

Daily practices were sometimes held on this half-court, but the team regularly got on a bus and drove to the nearby town of Hazard, Kentucky to practice in the old Memorial Gymnasium. This is also where the team played (and lost) basketball games. There was a team back in the 1950’s, I think, which had actually made it to the state championship in our division, but as far as I knew the team of my era never came close to winning anything except permission to run up and down the hallways without passes. Not that I paid that much attention to the basketball team. They didn’t pay much attention to me, either. No one else did either, except in drama class, as far as that went.

In fact, my only real exposure to organized sports had come in the 5th grade in Ohio. I went out on the football field as instructed on the first day I attended that school and found my new teacher, the middle school football coach, organizing the team. I sat on the sideline.

“Get off yer butt and get over here, son,” he grunted.

“Uh, Coach,” I stammered. “I don’t know how to play football.”

“That’s why you’re here, son.”  Despite this promise of lessons and explanations, none ever came. In fact, the ability to quote that line is the only tangible benefit I remember gaining from that particular teacher. By 5th grade in north central Ohio, where we lived at the time, I suppose it was just assumed you knew how to play football through osmosis. Eventually, I and another physically inept boy were assigned the task of repeatedly crashing into each other, primarily to keep us busy while the real football game moved off elsewhere.

Eventually I started figuring things out. We didn’t watch football, or any other sport, in my home. I’d never seen a game. But through simple observation it was pretty straightforward to see what the point was. The boy starting with the ball gives it to another boy, the quarterback. The quarterback, now possessing the ball, runs, and tries to avoid the other team, to deliver the ball to the goal post. Sometimes he throws it to another person, who carries it for him. If you touch the ball-carrier with both hands, play stops, and that is a desired outcome. Even in football-mad Ohio we didn’t play tackle football in 5th grade.

One day, the star quarterback, an entire head taller than I was, decided to keep the ball and just flat out outrun the rest of the class. We were all well aware he was capable of it. To gain room to maneuver, he inscribed a wide, circular path from the center of the field around to the edge. All the other boys, except me and my erstwhile opponent, took off running after the quarterback, all following along in a large, circular pattern that would, if the quarterback continued on his present course, lead him within just a few feet

“Excuse me,” I said to my opposite, and stepped aside to watch him miss our synchronized collision, and fall on his face on the ground with an oomph!

I trotted over to intercept the quarterback, who was looking anywhere but in my direction. Every other player on the team was pounding turf, trying to catch him.

As I approached the quarterback, the same boys who were trying to tag him– even the ones on the opposite side of the temporary teams formed for class play–were screaming at him to look out! look behind you! but he thought this was a trick and kept his focus on the nearest pursuers. For the most part, his own side was being singularly ineffective at stopping anyone from reaching him.  The only thing saving him from being tagged was the other boys were all equally matched and all equally slow; no one in class could catch him, and he knew it.

Except, just that one time, me.

I ran toward him to intercept. He still approached me, facing backward and watching the boys from the real football game chase him. At the last moment he saw me, attempted to change course, and almost stumbled.

I adjusted course and tagged the quarterback solidly in the chest with both hands.

I wanted there to be no question that I managed to actually do the dirty deed. The larger boy squealed in surprise, leapt aside, tripped, and fell down out of sheer astonishment. The ball fell to the ground. A whistle blew to stop playing. He had, in fact, lost a yard or two overall in the maneuver.

Everyone stopped running, still spread out in an elongated crescent curling around the field. Several of the boys gaped at me in amazement. The fellow I was assigned to “keep from moving from this here spot,” my erstwhile opponent, still sat on the grass where I had left him. Our quarterback cast panicked glances at me, and at the grinning boys scattered downfield.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he yelled at me, leaping to his feet.

“Tagging you,” said the coach, who proceeded to ream out the quarterback for not being aware of his surroundings, yelling as coaches are wont to do, gesticulating wildly and stomping back and forth.

A few of the smaller players in the class came over and clapped me on the back. “He’ll never get over being tagged by the slowest kid in the class,” said one. I didn’t know whether or not that was actually a compliment, but shrugged. Why hadn’t any of the other boys cut across the arc? They could easily have boxed him in and tagged him first, I thought.

The next day, the coach said it would be O.K. if I sat out on the practice if I wanted to, and I cracked open a book and took advantage of the free time. The quarterback glared at me, outran the rest of the class repeatedly, and never spoke to me again.

If they’d give both sides one of those funny shaped balls then they wouldn’t have to fight over the one they’ve got, I thought. That was effectively my last voluntary participation in organized sports. My attitude has matured, and I’ve known many fine student athletes and coaches who teach the value of teamwork, who keep themselves in good physical shape, and who try to motivate as many people on the team as can legally play to give kids purpose in school. But for me, at that time, at that age, it seemed pretty pointless; if you couldn’t use strategy to defeat your opponent, I was essentially bored and not interested.

I didn’t miss participating.  I never did well with sports, lacking the coordination to hit, dribble, throw or catch the ball well. I have no idea if I was incapable of it or merely lacked opportunity and practice time. I didn’t run fast, wasn’t terribly strong and was probably a little under average height. I succeeded at dodge-ball only because I was considered a target unworthy of attention. I never won, but came in 2nd regularly, winning meaning you dodged all the balls and were the last one eliminated. The only sports I ever enjoyed in high school were dodge-ball and kickball–kick a ball I could do, sailing it over the arms of even the tallest boys in the class. I couldn’t run fast enough to beat anyone in a foot-race, but if I kicked the ball hard enough and high enough, I didn’t need to.

My father made no effort whatsoever to get me to participate in sports. His attitude was, all that energy could be better spent working to make money for the family. He would have called it a waste of time and effort.

“Must be nice to have the energy to run up and down the field like that,” my father would have said. “I been working in real fields since I was 12, and I never had no time for such like that.”

It was in this context that I sat through my winter physical education class my freshman year in high school, unable to go to a gym to play indoor sports because we didn’t have an indoor gym and because bus rides to town were reserved for our basketball team. In all of my high school career I think I witnessed one basketball game–a girl’s game, at that, and the only reason I was there was because one of my friends was playing. Not that I’d do anything other than what was required even if we had a real gym.

So, in the late fall and wintertime we studied health. A little anatomy, a little stuff about communicable diseases (worms spread through the use of outhouses was illustrated in our book, which advised us to build the outhouses downhill from or at least a good distance away from the house and to never run barefoot in the dirt near the outhouse).  At my home, we didn’t have indoor plumbing (other than cold water from a ground well, which was deposited unceremoniously on the hillside after passing through the sink drain), so we dutifully built our outhouse near the edge of our property line, as far from the house as possible. Read into that whatever you will.

If you look at this minor digression in our larger tale in the context of storytelling, you can see that this relatively minor event in the life of a certain fifth grader was one of the many small influences that seemingly reached into his life and guided him, nudging him this way and that, choosing the path less travelled, as it were.

It made a difference in that it helped me to be ready for drama class, in that place, at that time. Sports held no interest for me, so drama filled the void.

All of us can point to events that would have changed their lives significantly had they turned out differently. There were many disparate threads that led our little troupe together for a few weeks in the fall of 1977, and none of us were quite the same afterward.

I’m still trying to figure out exactly how it happened.

© Jeff Adkins 2014