This subject has been incubating in my mind for a few years. I am quite qualified for this subject because I was reared in the midst of old men. My Dad was forty when I was born so by the time I could listen with good reason, I was saturated with the wit of “The Greatest Generation”. I am further qualified because now I am looked at, as that once revered title of, “Old Man”. I have been a “hoary head” since my forties.
I was fortunate to be surrounded by great story-tellers, my Dad being chief among many. Our old green farmhouse had an east-facing front porch which was a refuge from our hot, southern summers. This old front porch was the stage for some humor-spun stories only interrupted by laughter, tobacco spitting, and an occasional ‘squalling youngun’. It had concrete bannisters all around which was a perfect perch for youngsters not yet qualified for ‘rockers’ or gliders. (The above photo from 2001 is on this old front porch with my oldest brother, Thomas Van Whitt and our father, T.V. Whitt; both are now gone from earth but their stories live on. I would pay money to be interjected back in that scene for a few hours!!)
On this old front porch were a sundry of story-tellers. Some were preachers, peddlers, war vets, vagabonds, uncles, and some were almost all of the above. Some told jokes, but most told stories that were funny. Many could tell true-to-life stories not necessarily funny but were humorous nonetheless. My Daddy could re-tell the stories of his friends and kin and make them funny by the way he re-told them. He could make a new story, retelling their story.
My clan members are great imitators. I think Mother sometimes thought we were making fun but “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” We didn’t imitate to dishonor anyone but we (myself included) rarely related someone’s story without mimicking their tone, gestures, choice of words, and even their voice. We never strained at this technique, it just came out without us really being conscious of it. It makes for funny storytelling. I can still sound like my Daddy and Momma when they were aggravated at each other. I can still say “Frances, now listen here!!” in the same voice, tone, and inflection of my Dad who has been gone for fifteen years and I can do her frustrated, high-pitched tone of “T.V., I told you…!!” (my Daddy’s only name was T.V.). By the way, they were married for 67 years; I guess they got over their spats and never got over their first kiss.
Old men forget they’ve told you their funny stories at least twice in each of the last forty years. It is the curse and blessing of the great storytellers of the ages—it is in their DNA. Stories especially the funny ones, must be told over and over; it is what makes it a genuine story. Once-told stories die in the dust. Young men groan when the old timer gives it another go, their wives wall-their-eyes or else go back to the kitchen, but the old man goes after it as if it’s his first time to tell!
One day when the ole story teller is gone, those old stories will be told again, as if they have never been told. This time with a glimmer of anticipation in the eyes of a young man, who is becoming old.
Happy Father’s Day!!
Harry L. Whitt (aka Papa Whitt)