My imagination bloomed in the shade of a chinaberry tree.
The time was the late 1940s and early ‘50s after the great World War II. The place was a long front porch shaded on one side by the chinaberry tree. The tales were from my grandfather and my great-uncle, and they were colorful and memorable, somewhat akin to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and the tales of Uncle Remus.
Some were short, some long. At times very long. That’s where the shade paid off. The tree provided good canopy, but its tiny berries that ripened in the fall smelled and tasted awful. Only the birds ate them.
Granddaddy Paul and Great-Uncle Buck were storytellers extraordinaire. Their colorful pictures of people and animals and events, real and imagined, filled the ears of this attentive and eager child, while sitting wide-eyed and alert on the porch as the chinaberry’s foliage blocked the sun’s rays.
On the long porch in that breezy shade were two old wooden rockers and a swing on the left and flowers and shrubs on old wooden planks held up by blocks on the right. This was the outdoor classroom where the tales came alive.
The stories flowed from Paul and Buck, both heroes of the two great wars in Europe, like refreshing spray from water tumbling over a dam. Both, too, had a love for the bottle. The more they sipped the more inflated their stories became.
There was the story of Big Mary, the owner of the Little Bama Club, a booze and gambling joint near our home. Big Mary was big, so large in fact the funeral home had to put her extra-large casket in the back of a pickup truck to get it to the cemetery.
And then there were Elmer and Prather, cool brothers who were drunk painters. The more they sipped the demon wine the more accurate and precise their work. The brothers went from job to job with their painting gear in the rear of an old emergency ambulance.
And then there was the story of the three brothers who owned a nearby grocery store. One ran the cash register, one stocked goods and one was in charge of the meat department. They were known to press their thumbs on the weighing scales to up the price.
Some of Paul and Buck’s stories were too long for an active little guy like me. Some were too short, and I wanted more. But all the stories were fascinating. There was also the hint of a lesson in them.
Among the stories were tall tales of hunting and fishing with old buddies, wartime situations and characters, tradesmen, teachers, old lost loves, phony politicians, crooked cops. The more they swigged on the bottle the longer the stories grew.
There was also the one about Billy Hill. In school during roll call each day, the teachers called out the last name first and first name last. It was always Hill Billy, and all the students giggled. They had many stories about him. Billy, however, went on to become a successful and rich homebuilder who got the last laugh.
And then Paul and Buck made phone calls using fake names. They called the grocery store once to see if it had Prince Albert Tobacco in the can. When the answer was yes, their line was, “Better let him out before he suffocates.” Then they would light up rolled cigarettes and talk about famous smokers, including Ike Eisenhower and Churchill.
Amid all the vivid storytelling there were bottles of Thunderbird wine and tall cool ones of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The more they sipped, the longer the story sessions.
There were tales of hauling in the world’s biggest carp just below the old Eagle and Phenix textile mill dam on the Chattahoochee while angling at night with friends. That one ended up in the record books, they claimed. I’ve never seen any proof.
Carp was difficult to clean. The fishermen had to boil the fish all night long just to break down the bones so the meat could be eaten. Plus, it was a scavenger fish that trolled the bottom.
Paul and Buck bragged of winning big in Phenix City’s infamous gambling clubs, though there was no one to back up their claims. Nor any money. One story they told had them winning thousands of dollars at the roulette wheel at Ma Beaches’ Swing Club. Believe me, if they had won, the pair would have spent the money on showy things just to rub it in the noses of the naysayers.
They also loved to tell about their observances of local prostitutes picking up innocent-looking soldiers from Fort Benning. The loose women got the soldiers stone drunk. When they passed out, the ladies of the evening cleaned out their khaki pants and their wallets.
Of course, Chaucer’s tales described more colorful characters and situations. But the stories offered up by Paul and Buck were just as bright and interesting. Most of the time, I sat spellbound.
Did I mention that a single story could run on for a half hour or so? And each story had a theme, characters and situations. Lots of time was spent on details.
Later, in school, when I was reading Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” I thought of those two rascally imaginative storytellers of my early years.
The “chinaberry tales” contained the same excitement and enthusiasm as Chaucer’s stories. He would have been proud of the abilities and imaginations of Paul and Buck.
Each of their stories had its own situation, its characters and plot. Each ending, though, was pretty much the same. The scoundrel always was exposed and his or her family and relatives were shamed.
Just like Chaucer’s, Paul and Buck’s stories were of ordinary people caught up in ordinary situations in an extraordinary time. Chaucer’s characters were holed up to avoid the Black Death Plague. Paul and Buck’s stories came back to me during Covid-19, a deadly plague of our time.
And also like Chaucer, Paul and Buck’s stories possessed the Midas touch of imagination — the gift of all good storytellers.
Ralph Morris is a retired newspaperman who lives near Auburn. His email address is email@example.com.