We three were too poor to travel much but occasionally the need to get out of town was overwhelming. At those times, both sons recognized the importance of humoring me. My irresistible event was a Storytelling Festival heard about through a library newsletter. We had never been to such a thing before, but we were up for something new so we made plans. Dan was 16 and Chris was 12—old enough to enjoy tent camping so we thought we could go fairly cheap.
We would take Dan’s ’63 Chevrolet. The Chevy was larger than the Honda for comfort and more importantly, had the best stereo system. When Dan’s Chevy was rocking and shaking, it was the music. The engine started later. I took the Chevy to the station and filled the tank then drove past the Little League field to see if Chris was ready to come home. He wasn’t there. I checked at home. He wasn’t there. I drove back and forth three times before meeting him at home. We were equally angry and rightfully so since he had been waiting inside the three-sided shelter while I had driven by on the road where I could not see inside the shelter. Neither of us had done anything wrong so we had to calm down and concentrate on the trip.
On the last run to find Chris, Dan’s Chevy began to make a terrible sound. I told Dan after Chris and I calmed down. Dan could not afford psychologically or financially to have anything wrong with that car and so we finished packing it and began the trip, only four hours later than planned. After about 8 blocks, it was evident that we could not take the Chevy. We returned home to move the tenting supplies and all into the ’73 Honda Civic. That little Honda had been wrecked front and rear, making it smaller still, and we could not take all that we had planned to take. Still, we packed the tent and what we could and took off.
Dan was rarely sick but said early on that he did not feel well. I thought the car problems might be worrying him sick. We made it to the Wisconsin camping grounds we had selected only to find no building above ground—only a sign. No outhouse, no office, nothing. I said “No way am I staying in the Wisconsin wilderness without any other campers and with a sick kid.” We kept driving. At about 3:00 a.m. we reached Mineral Point, WI. There were two motels and one said “Vacancy.” I stopped in the parking lot and said “I cannot go up to the door at this time of night, knock, and ask how much the rooms are for one night. They’ll say $40 and I’ll have to say we cannot afford that. I just cannot do it.”
Dan, who was feeling really ill by now, played out a little scenario to encourage me. He said “Mom, you can pound on the door and when they open it you can pound on their desk while you say ‘GD car broke down, had to change to another, don’t have much money and one of my kids is sick! How much are your rooms!’” He continued, “or you can step in and say very softly and politely ‘I’m sorry to wake you like this. We’ve already had car trouble and my little boy isn’t feeling well. We don’t have much money but we saw your Vacancy sign and I wonder how much a room would be?’”
I laughed and went to the motel door. I knocked and no one came. I knocked again and still no one came. I went back to the car. I said “I cannot do this.”
Dan said “Mom, I’m really sick. You can…” and he replayed his two scenarios and then he added a third. He said “Mom, you could realize that these people are in this line of business expecting to be awakened by travelers asking about rooms. You can do this.”
I went back and pounded and waited. When the woman opened the door, I used the gentle option. She said the room sleeps 5 and would be $20 for a night. I said we would take it—for two nights.
In the morning, before breakfast, we filled the tank with gas. Then we had breakfast at the Red Rooster with the storytellers although we did not know these were the storytellers at the time. We picked up our registration materials—all three of us were fully registered. Together we attended one of the 5 concurrent sessions. It was Larry Johnson telling the story of “The Closed Circuit Garden Hose.” We were so enthralled that later on that story became the one showing me how open adults are to storytelling.
For the second set of 5 concurrent sessions, Dan and Chris were free to attend any as long as they would agree not to leave the building and to meet me for lunch. Dan went to one session while Chris and I attended August Rubrecht’s session. His particular text that day was “Pissing in the Snow.” Dan slipped in to join us about half way through. He said the other presenter, Loren Niemi, had a necklace of rocks around his neck and was talking about being grounded and such. Dan said he would rather be with us.
We found lunch but also had to find a doctor as Dan’s eyes were swollen almost shut and he was not well. I asked the druggist to tell me of an emergency room or a doctor on call and he said there was no one in town but that he could call a doctor and see what could be done. He made a call and then took by phone a prescription for drops for Dan’s eyes and I paid for that.
Now we assembled with the others on the courthouse lawn for the Liars’ Contest from 1 to 3:00 p.m. When that ended at 4:30 p.m., Maren Hinderlie was awarded a lion for her “lyin’” story about a Water Closet.
Now there were 5 more concurrent sessions and we chose one. I believe this one was where we heard a troubadour sing his ballad of the freshwater whale or “Farewell Superior Sperm” with its rousing chorus of:
Colorado’s got the Rockies
Boston’s got the sea
LA’s got the people
Minnesota’s got to be.
And the sad report that the troubadour’s grandfather had died in a whaling accident. Decoy fell on him.
For supper, we needed to be careful about money and thought we might go to a grocery store for cheese and crackers to go with the Oreo cookies in the car. The grocery store was closed but there was a convenience store. When we finished buying supper things, we had 37 cents left but we had supper and that full tank of gas so we could go home in the morning.
The storytelling concert in the theater was from 7 to 9:00 p.m. and Larry Johnson was MC. He kept up a monologue of German-sounding (we thought it was German) stories and such as teller after teller came to the stage. Dan had one handkerchief for his eyes and one for his nose but we stayed until the full concert ended at 11:30 p.m. then went out to the hill to listen to ghost stories in the night.
We slept in the “sleeps 5” room and left early for home. We did not know that coffee, juice and rolls were served free to all on Sunday morning during the spiritual stories and we did know that with no money, breakfast for us was about 4 hours away at home.
We had experienced almost 20 hours straight of storytelling. Dan was driving and as usual, reached to turn on the music before beginning to drive. We listened to one song as we crossed the parking lot and then he turned off the radio and we retold stories all the way home.
Dan used storytelling in his final in Spanish. Chris went with me to Jonesborough and The National Storytelling Festival. When a teller asked for volunteers, he stepped up. She asked him for a bucket of maple syrup. He eyeballed the trees, selected one, put the tap in place, hung the bucket, watched the drip, removed the bucket and handed it to her. She said she had never had one done quite so thoroughly—usually the volunteer just grabbed a bucket in the air and handed it to her.
I began to use storytelling beyond my puppetry then. I continue to tell today to adults and children although I enjoy the adults more. Children expect to be entertained while adults are so surprised. I continue to love and share the live art of narrative performance dynamically shaped by audience response because people want to experience the beauty and rhythm of language; just as we did so long ago.
That First Festival left a lasting impression.
Patricia Rose Ballard Coffie (C1981)