Gather around the campfire or dinner tale and swap some “ripping yarns” this fall. Photo by Rick Tate.
My father always knew how to spin a crafty tale.
He would share these stories around the dinner table when he returned from work, on the porch on summer evenings, in the car on long family trips. These stories were sometimes a little spooky, oftentimes hilarious, but always told with a twinkle in his eye. He continues to share them enthusiastically with his grandchildren when he visits.
The best part was that these stories didn’t come from beautifully illustrated picture books, nor were they professionally produced one-man dramatizations. However, to my brother and I, our cousins, and our friends, they were the greatest.
With the weather cooling off and the haunting season upon us, now is a good time to rediscover the simple art of telling a story. No technology or visual aids are needed, just imagination, enthusiasm, and healthy sense of humor.
For those who still don’t know where to start, I’ve includes three “skeletons” of stories I’ve gathered from family gatherings, late night radio theater, and college road trips.
I call these “skeletons,” because they are just the bare bones of the story. It’s up each storyteller to make them as still, imaginative, spooky, or detailed. I’ll start with one of my father’s favorites I remember him telling me on rainy afternoons, after finishing all the Uncle Scrooge comics to read for the day.
The Mad Scientist and the Bloop Machine
There once was a city high in the hills. The leader, an egotistical man, wanted something no other leader in the country had. Inventor after inventor came to the leader’s desk with new ideas, but no one had anything original enough to please him. One day, a crazy-haired, wild-eyed mad scientist came to his desk and said, “I will make you a Bloop Machine. You will be the only one in the world to have one.”
“What is a Bloop Machine?” leader asked.
“You have to let me make one to find out,” the mad scientist said.
The leader was so curious, he agreed, and gave the mad scientist the job. Unfortunately, they saw no progress one month later, so he summoned the scientist for an update.
“I still need three helicopters,” he answered.
The leader reluctantly granted him the helicopters, but three months later, there was still no progress. He summoned the scientist once more.
“I need three long cables to finish,” the scientist demanded.
The leader once again gave the scientist what he wanted, because he had to see what type of machine needed cables and helicopters. Six months later, there was still no progress, so the leader, now very angry, demanded the scientist finish the machine.
“I can only finish if you find me a large lake,” he answered.
The leader, against his better judgment, found a large lake, surrounded by trees and hills, and one month later, the scientist called and told the leader to gather everyone in the city at the lake to see his wonderful Bloop Machine. The leader declared the day a national holiday, and everyone turned out to the lake to see this one-of-a-kind-machine. Everyone waited and waited to see what would happen and finally, late in the afternoon, they heard the sounds of three helicopters. They looked up in the sky and saw the helicopters carrying a large, elaborate machine, suspended on the end of three cables. It was covered with blinking lights and gadgets of all kind, and everyone, especially the leader, couldn’t wait to see what it did.
The helicopters centered the machine high over the middle of the lake and released the cables. The machine fell down, down, down, and when it finally hit the water, it made a loud “BLOOP!”
My dad always referred to stories like these as “shaggy dog” tales; a type of story that seems to go on and on to a rather pointless ending. He excelled in this genre, and all we kids loved it. Oh, the blank stares and awkward laughs that met the end of that story were priceless, but the more we would think about it in the future, the more it made us laugh.
Both my girls have taken to the storytelling tradition, and they love to tell stories. My daughter’s favorite is one we heard over a late-night radio show of Halloween music and stories. She has retold this one in her own way several times.
“Grandpa,” sharing one his many stories with the grandkids.
One fall afternoon, a family had just sat down to the dinner table, when their daughter returned home from school later than usual. She hugged all her family, pet her dog and cat, and apologized for her tardiness. All through dinner, she sat quietly with a concerned and confused look on her face. After dinner, when everyone was relaxing in the sitting room, the mother asked the girl why she was late and why she had such a strange look on her face. The girl stopped from playing with the dog and sat down in a big chair. The cat jumped up on her lap.
“I was bored with my usual path home, so I took a side trip through the woods. It was there I saw the strangest thing,” she said. “There was a large hollow tree off in the distance, and it appeared to have a glowing light coming from it.”
Everyone listened politely. The cat even perked up his ears, but the dog just sighed. The girl continued her story.
“I carefully looked down in it, and saw I was peering down into a great, vast ballroom,” she said. “There looked to be a huge ceremony, with rows and rows of soldiers and spectators standing on either side of room. Somber, beautiful music was playing and I saw a group of six soldiers carrying the body of what appeared to be royalty on a large flat platform. He was dressed in purple, with a silver crown and holding a sword. It was then I realized, I was witnessing a funeral for a fallen monarch.”
By now, she had everyone’s full attention. The cat had even lifted up his head and looked directly into the girls eyes. She hesitated slightly, before finishing her story.
“Here’s the strangest part. Everyone appeared to be,” she paused slightly as if unable to believe her next words. “Well, they appeared to be….cats!”
“At last,” said the cat as it jumped off her lap. “Old George is finally dead. I am king of the cats, now!”
At that, the cat ran from the room and out of the house. The dog just sighed.
This final tale is one I learned in college and is just as fun for a group of adults at a fancy dinner party, as it is for kids. The only rule is that it has to be told in the first-person.
The Escaped Madman
I was driving down a creepy side road one night when I came across a sign that said, “White County Asylum For the Criminally Insane.” About a mile down the road, it was beginning to rain and I saw a hitchhiker, soaking wet on the roadside. He was carrying a large black bag. If felt bad for him and pulled over to offer him a ride. When he got in the car, he had a desperate, slightly deranged look on his face, and I remembered the asylum nearby. I glanced nervously at the black bag and asked him nicely what he was carrying in it.
“That’s none of your stinkin’ business,” he growled.
I was slightly worried, but didn’t want to press the issue. A few miles down the road, the man, who had been staring straight ahead, suddenly reached for his bag and peeked in it. He quickly closed it up, and tossed it in the back seat.
“Are you sure you won’t tell me what’s in that bag?” I asked.
“That’s none of your stinkin’ business,” he snapped.
I was getting more and more nervous, and was soon pretty scared. Was this man a doctor? Maybe he was law enforcement. Perhaps even, an escaped madman. I realized I couldn’t go on anymore, so I pulled the car over.
“You need to tell me what is in that bag, or I am not taking you any further,” I demanded.
He looked at me pointedly.
“That’s none of your stinkin’ business.”
That was when my anger and bravery kicked in. Madman or no madman, I leaned across him, pushed open the door, and kicked him out of the car. I drove off and could see him in my review mirror standing by the road, shocked.
When I reached home I looked in the backseat and realized, I still had the bag. Finally, I could get to the bottom of things!
Remember, it is in the personal details, the right setting, and most appropriate timing that is the essence of storytelling. Make some stories seem like a real event or make sure everyone is occupied with a fresh batch of cookies or s’mores before sitting down to tell the tale. Swap genders around (it doesn’t matter in any of these three stories if the people are male or female) or set it on another planet. Give them names, maybe a little back-story if you have to fill time.
Even if the story itself produces a few rolled eyes and groans, the experience itself will be what is remembered and cherished.
As for what was in that black bag left behind by the escaped madman, when you are inevitably asked that question, you look the person right in the eye with a smile and say:
“That is none of your stinkin’ business.”