“You have to promise not to tell this to anyone.” This was my grandfather’s lead in line for a particular story he used to tell. Once you heard that line you were immediately captured hook, line and sinker into the story from his youth. He was perhaps the best storyteller I’ve ever known and I miss the yarns he would spin every day.
The first time I heard this particular story I was in 8th grade and doing a report on the depression. I had interviewed both my grandparents and had to tell their stories as part of an oral report in history class. My grandfather had just told me about his experiences during the depression and I was finishing up and writing a few more notes. Then, after a long pause, he said, “Well…there is one more story…” and then he spoke those magical words:
“You have to promise not to tell this story to anyone…”
Captivated I was then transported back to the depression as he told how his brother and he were shining shoes in New York outside the cobbler shop their father worked at.Then this big guy walked out of the speakeasy hidden in the back and asked to get his shoes shined. The big guy asked how much my grandfather made from shining shoes. He replied to the big guy that he was allowed to keep a nickel per week. The man then proceeded to ask if he’d like to make a dollar – all he had to do was deliver a package to the butcher shop down the block.
So began the tale of how my grandfather and his brother ended up running packages for the mob and how this ultimately led to their father packing up the family and moving them to Massachusetts. I remember being completely shocked and in awe. I didn’t even tell my parents when I got home, I was so entranced with this and that he chose to share it with ME.
My grandfather, as maybe you can see, was a masterful storyteller. His stories were full of intricate details that made them shine. Some of his most memorable stories were his Navy stories.
He was so proud of his service in the Navy and he had a bevy of stories he would share from his service during World War II. There was the one about how his ship shot a whale at night in New York Harbor they thought was a German Submarine and the one about how he ended up parachuting wearing a 30 pound lead belt to keep him from blowing out to sea in the middle of a gale with 40 mile per hour winds. I must have heard these stories and other Navy stories hundreds of times, and every time I was captivated.
My grandfather passed away in July of 2013 and on this Veteran’s Day I fondly remember him for what a great man he was and also for the amazing stories he was so good at telling. I miss those stories. I luckily recorded him telling many of those stories a few years prior to his passing and it’s comforting to hear his voice spinning those yarns one more time.
And that “You have to promise not to tell this to anyone” Story? He told that to everyone the exact same way – to all my uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and family alike. Even to the nurses at the nursing home when his health was failing in his final days. Everyone felt like they were being let in on something truly special. And that’s because they were; even if they weren’t the only one to have heard that story.
If you are lucky enough to have a great storyteller in your life, be sure to make some time to spend with them. Whether they are stories of their days in the military, stories of adventure or even just stories of everyday life, great storytellers don’t come around very often and their craft should be treasured. No one will ever tell their story quite as well, you’ll miss them when they’re gone and a little part of your own history will be lost forever.