Telling Whoppers for the Fun of It
By the luck of the Irish and the grace of God, I was blessed to have a wonderful lying uncle.
His name was Carson Jewel, and he was every bit that.
A rangy Irishman with a quick wit, a gloriously profane tongue and a leather bellows for lungs, Uncle Carson worked at the Kelly Tire Factory near Baltimore Harbor by day and worshipped the Baltimore Orioles by night and on every weekend between April and October. He and my Aunt Leona shared a row house in the center of the city.
It was Uncle Carse who took me to my first Major League Baseball game about the time Brooks Robinson was the team’s all-star third baseman. He had a pair of season-ticket seats a dozen rows up from first base, strategically selected so he could hurl invectives at visiting teams, reserving his choicest abuse for the hated New York Yankees. These were the salad days of Mantle, Maris, Murcer and Pepitone.
“Listen,” my uncle said the first time he took me to old Memorial Stadium, which he reverently called the Bird House, “your Aunt Leona is worried I’ll damage your delicate little ears with my language. I promised her I’d be careful. But we’re at the ballpark now, kid. What Aunt Leona doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Understood? Good. Now let’s have a drink.”
He bought me a large cup of National Bohemian beer. I was 13. His massive Irish hands flew to his mouth and made a megaphone:
“Hey, Mantle! Why don’t you put a skirt on! You run like a &%$#@-ing girl!”
I drank my beer and thought: Truly, I am in &*@%#!- ing Bird Heaven.
Never Mind Columbus
Exactly one year ago, I told this story to Brooks Robinson at a special dinner called the Mackenzie Cup — so named for a great amateur golf star who happened to be one of Bob Jones’ best friends — where I was being honored for my golf writing. As a special treat, my host, Clark MacKenzie, invited my baseball hero Brooks Robinson, and we sat together at dinner. After I thanked him for signing my Rawlings fielder’s glove, which I still have somewhere, I told him about Uncle Carson’s bird mania and leather lung.
“I think I remember your uncle, or at least a couple hundred like him,” Robinson said with a chuckle. “Some of those guys in the stands had lungs like a public address system. They could really get on you if you screwed up. Fortunately they got on the Yankees more.”
Not surprisingly, among his other social attributes, Uncle Carson was an outstanding storyteller and gifted liar. “Your uncle never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” was the way Aunt Leona summed up his talent for verbal embroidery.
He was the one, for example, who assured me that the Irish actually discovered America long before the Italians arrived, pointing out that Ireland was actually the closest of any European nation to North America and that an Irish fisherman named Mulligan discovered the New World 50 years before Columbus set foot on Hispaniola.
“By the time that %$&*& -ing [insert slur here] arrived here,” Carson said, “hell, Mulligan had opened the first Irish pub in America down by the East River in New York. You don’t read that in the history books, but every word is true!”
Sucker for a Story
During our family’s big summer family reunion on a wild western branch of the Potomac River in West Virginia, Uncle Carson convinced several of us barefoot cousins that we were actually Indian orphans that our various mothers and aunts — the famous Kessell sisters, eight of them strong — had plucked from the backwoods of West Virginia and “and raised as Christian white children.”
He pointed out this was why we preferred to go barefoot and half-naked and refused to settle down like civilized children at bedtime. A couple of my girl cousins burst into tears and ran to find out if this was true, though I secretly hoped it was.
Uncle Carson was minding the picnic keg at the time and offered my brother Dickie, cousin Mike and me a cup of draft beer each, pointing out that National Bohemian was better for you than a glass of milk. He also told us that our Uncle Webb, a pale, quiet type who rarely had anything to say, was actually a Nazi spy who’d been the run for years. He urged us to watch Uncle Webb closely because he was always slipping off to the bathroom to send secret coded messages to his superiors.
Turns out, he just suffered from an irritable bowel. I know this for a fact because, being the smallest boy, I was chosen to hide in the bathroom wicker clothes hamper to catch him in the act and was, well, suitably horrified.
These were just a few of the tall tales my jewel of an uncle could spin with a straight Irish face that made you somehow believe every word came directly from the Bible, which of course the Irish wrote.
Bottom line is, just as every spring brings renewed hopes that this year the hapless Baltimore Orioles will somehow finally recover the championship form that made the Birds one of the great franchises of the late 1960s and early ’70s, I’m still a sucker for an outrageous story or bald-faced lie told with a convincing mug, Irish or otherwise.
My Kind of Event
That’s why I’m looking forward to hosting next Saturday night at the “Night of Glorious Lies and Other Tall Tales,” a celebration of the traditional art of storytelling (and lying) sponsored by PineStraw magazine and The Country Bookshop as our contribution to the 2012 Palustris Arts Festival.
The family-friendly event — meaning no &%$#*@-ing profanity or language unsuitable for delicate ears — will kick off at 6 p.m. on Saturday at the Poplar Knight Spot, 114 Knight St. in Aberdeen. Cost is $10 for adults, kids under 12 free.
The stars of this fun evening are four gifted story-spinners named Ed Duke, Martha Reed Johnson, Tyris D. Jones and John Chappell. Duke is a past award-winner at the Bald Face Liars Competition that’s annually part of Laurinburg’s popular Storytelling Festival of Carolina (scheduled for March 29-31). Johnson is the 2011 winner of the South Carolina Toastmasters Humorous Speech Contest and other laurels. Jones is a rising star and former winner of the Bald Face Liars Competition and a veteran of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tenn.
The trio will be joined by local barber and bluegrass banjo impresario Bryon Morris and The Pilot’s own John Chappell, former TV star, actor, preacher, raconteur and current journalist. It’s not stretching things a bit to predict it’s going to be a fine evening of poetic license and lovely lying.
“All good stories come from somewhere — usually an experience in your own life that’s funny or moving or just somehow instructive,” Ed Duke, a former teacher turned professional storyteller, explained not long ago. “If you do it right, you can touch something real in your audience, often reminding them of their own lives and experiences.
“There’s nothing more rewarding for a storyteller — a bald-faced liar like me, if you will — than to spin a tale and watch an audience get caught up in the telling. To see them laugh and cry means you’ve really connected with them. Brother, that’s magic to a storyteller.”
Somehow I think my late Uncle Carson — leather lung and all — would greatly approve and probably even feel right at home among these all-stars of glorious prevarication, though my Aunt Leona would certainly watch him like a hawk. Truth is, I miss my crazy old lying uncle and kind of regret the fact that I didn’t turn out to be an Indian orphan.
For the record, though, I predict the 2012 Baltimore Orioles will rise from the ashes and slaughter the miserable Yankees and run away with the American League pennant and capture the World Series this season in a record-setting sweep. They’ve just signed three former Cy Young Award-winning pitchers, after all, and picked up a pair of batting title winners on waivers and a Golden Glove shortstop.
I swear on a stack of Irish Bibles that every word of this is true. Don’t believe me? Pass that cup of National Bohemian beer, kid, and I’ll tell you more.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
More like this story