I doubt that any of us can say with certainty what the very first sentence was that we uttered, but that can’t stop us from trying. I would like to believe that mine was “tell me a story.” For as long as I can remember, I have been enthralled by a well told tale. I attribute this trait to the place and times in which I grew up, and I have a genuine sympathy for those who weren’t born when I was. Granted, most of those poor souls are a lot younger than I am now, but that hardly makes up for the fact that they missed out on an opportunity to be impressionable during the best of all times to be so. But, for those of us who managed to get ourselves born in small towns during the mid to late forties … oh, how we reaped the benefits of an era never to be repeated. And one of those benefits was that, though about to accelerate explosively, the pace of life was still slow enough for old fashioned storytelling.
The house in which I grew up would see many renovations during my parents’ period of ownership, but in my youth it was a basic two story, wood frame structure with three tiny apartments up top and us on the bottom. The rapid expansion of personal spheres of influence of subsequent siblings would eventually dislodge the upstairs tenants, but in the beginning the house held four households, and even more, it held the heat. Thus, when the good weather arrived, immediately after dinner my family would retreat to the cement porch adjacent to the kitchen, and there my mother and father would talk while we kids listened. There never seemed to be an end of things to talk about. The topic of the night would usually start with what was happening in their lives, and then branch out like a well-rooted apple tree to cover events in the lives of extended families, or even those of friends, neighbors, or relative strangers who also lived in our town. Events past, present, and occasionally future were ripe for picking, and each little story added to the pie that fed our curiosity to know more. Rest assured, I always wanted to know more. I’m quite certain that the second sentence I uttered was “what happened next?”
You would think that this early exposure to tale-telling would have led me to becoming a reader, but it didn’t. That trait took much longer to develop. Instead, I satisfied my “tell me a story – what happened next” urges with weekly doses of 25 cent movies on Saturdays. During the week, I would settle for chunks of the early evening spent in front of that wonderful new invention, the television, in rapt attention as the Old Ranger narrated one of his stories about “Death Valley Days,” but it was those weekly trips to the Saturday matinees that did the most to stimulate my imagination. Granted, having to wait through the obligatory singing of Happy Birthday to some poor kid whose mother had the lack of kid-sense to tell Movie Mogul Marvin about that particular birthaversary would delay satisfaction of my fable needs, and don’t even get me started on those twin torture devices, serials and previews, but eventually I would be able to lean back in those scratchy seats, put my PF Flyers within two inches of each ear of the kid in front of me, clutch my box of Milk Duds tightly, and drift off into the Tale-Telling-Zone. We would emerge from the theater two hours later, partially blinded by the light, and my buddies would claim that it was because we had spent so much time in the dark. But no, they were wrong. They didn’t understand that it takes time for your senses to adjust to reality when you come back from the Tale-Telling-Zone.
Eventually, movies and television no longer satisfied my need to revisit the zone. The trips were too brief, the characters too undeveloped, and the descriptions too vague. That’s when I finally became a reader, and I took to that habit like a pilot fish to a shark. As long as there was an interesting ride in front of me and my book, I wouldn’t let go. What followed, and still follows, were longer and more fulfilling trips into the T-T-Z. Depending on the author and book, those trips could be intense. Currently, I am particularly affected when I read a well-written book describing the times when I was a youngster, and last summer I found one that not only took me for a wonderful ride, but also led me to several more that were equally as rewarding. Since some of you readers may not have been lucky enough to experience those times first hand, I am of the opinion that you ought to have the opportunity to do so vicariously.
I am sure that there are many books that describe life in America during the period from the mid 1950’s through the early 1960’s from which to choose. Bill Bryson’s “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” is a hilarious depiction of that era, and though set in Iowa, the events could just as easily have happened in upstate New York. For a more serious depiction set closer to home, I often tell contemporaries that if they want to read about growing up in a mill town, on a river, in upstate New York, all they need to do is open Richard Russo’s “Bridge of Sighs,” and that master of dialogue will soon have them in their own Tale-Telling-Zone time machine. Yes, both of those books rang true to me, and would probably have been sufficient to satisfy my need for well-written nostalgia, but then I discovered one more quite by accident.
I was browsing in Barnes and Noble last summer when I spied a book titled “The Bartender’s Tale.” Well, I thought, that title sure is intriguing. Then I looked at the jacket, and saw that it was about a “bachelor saloonkeeper with a streak of frost in his black pompadour and the inquisitive 11 year-old boy who had been an accident between the sheets,” and the setting was 1960. That meant that the boy was born in 1948 or ‘49, depending on his birthday, and was close enough to my age that we could have similar insights and experiences. On the other hand, it was written by Ivan Doig, and neither Elizabeth R nor I had ever read any of his work. Though that might be an easily dismissed fact as to me, Elizabeth R is as close to being a professional reader as anyone I know, and Doig’s absence on her list of authors gave me pause. Maybe I shouldn’t spend the money … besides, it’s set in Montana … just where the heck is Montana … did Ben and I drive through there when we drove to New York from Oregon … oh, why not? I need to find a new author anyway. What do I have to lose?
In one of those moves I sometimes make that have absolutely no thought behind them, but for which I later claim an immense amount of credit, I purchased “The Bartender’s Tale.” In part, I relied on the “kid my age” aspect, but it was also because I have encountered my share of bartenders, and I have generally found them to be a likeable bunch. The very good ones occasionally surprise you with a well-crafted tale, one that transports you to a happy place without benefit of the wares they sell, so maybe this book would do the same. That it did … and more! “The Bartender’s Tale” reached out, grabbed me, and pulled me deep inside the Tale-Telling-Zone, and I was oh so happy to stay there until the tale was told. Only then did I reluctantly reemerge. Now bear in mind, folks, that I am no expert in any degree on the art of writing. I am not a critic, I have no writing pedigree … heck, I even majored in math in college … so I do not have the credentials to proclaim Ivan Doig a great writer. But, I do know what I like, and I like the way Ivan Doig writes. I have since read five more of his books, and each one of them has transported me blissfully into the Tale-Telling-Zone. Maybe you might want to take that same trip yourself.