In the South we tell stories. The ones that we find most compelling, those that as children we begged to hear again and again, are universal and speak to the human condition. They find their inspiration in fables, myths, the Bible and history.
I come from a long line of storytellers, such as my great-grandmother. She was a genteel Southern lady who never left the house without makeup, high heels and her White Shoulders perfume. Every day at 5 p.m., the world stopped for happy hour, when she would have bourbon, extra-sharp Cracker Barrel cheese and peanuts. I would sit at her feet and listen as she talked about flirting with boys, living on a train, growing up in Mississippi, and raising five children in the Depression.
Change the setting to a front porch or a hunting camp, and most will say that they have similar memories. Spaulding Grey once said, “One of the ways to reincarnate is to tell stories, ” and he was right. Narratives passed down through generations keep memories alive and remind us of where we came from. Here, meet five people who are gifted in that art.
Father Dane's Tale of the Rabbi in the Woods
There was once a monastery. And in this monastery, there were 6 monks. At one time there had been 40 or 50, but over the years, there were fewer and fewer. So these monks were getting anxious about getting new monks, or else they were going to have to close the monastery.
Well, at the monastery, there was a hut in the woods. Every once and a while a local rabbi would come to the woods to pray, and whenever he was there, the monks would say to each other, “Oh, the rabbi is in the woods! The rabbi is in the woods!”
So they got together with the abbot, the head of the monastery, to figure out what were they gonna do to get new members. The abbot said, “The next time the rabbi is in the woods, I’ll go talk to him. Maybe he’ll have some advice.”
A few weeks later, all of a sudden, everybody said, “The rabbi is in the woods! The rabbi is in the woods!” And so they sent the abbot out to talk to him.
He said, “Rabbi, we have a serious problem. Our young people aren’t joining monasteries anymore.”
The rabbi said, “We’re having a problem with our young people coming to the synagogue.”
“Let’s pray together, ” they said. “Maybe we’ll find a solution.”
After they prayed, the rabbi said, “I think I have an answer, and the answer is … the messiah is one of you.”
And the abbot said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “The messiah is one of you, but you can only tell your monks this one time, and you’re never to repeat it again.”
The abbot returned to the monastery, and the monks were working, but they were keeping an eye out for the abbot. When he started coming, they all went to the chapel to meet him. They said, “Abbot! Abbot! What did the rabbi say?”
“He said I can tell you this one time, and I’m never to repeat it again: The messiah is one of us.”
Well, of course, they all thought, ‘Which one of us is
And they said, “You know, brother Thaddeus, he couldn’t be the messiah. In church, he’s always mumbling under his breath, and the messiah wouldn’t do that. But what if he is the messiah?”
And then they said, “Brother Matthias, he couldn’t be the messiah. Every once and a while he uses curse words, and the messiah would never. But what if he is the messiah?”
They discussed each of their members. There was some reason each one might not be the messiah. But what if he was the messiah? And so they started treating one another as though each was the messiah.
On Sundays, people would come from all around to picnic on the grounds. Eventually, a few of the young men, asked, “Can we come and stay the weekend and find out what it’s like in the monastery?” A few came and stayed a month. Eventually, some of them wanted to start joining the monastery. They never again said, “The messiah is one of you, ” but they kept treating each other like the messiah. And that’s the story of the rabbi in the woods.
FATHER JIM DANE Currently the priest at St. Thomas by the Sea in Orange Beach, Pensacola-native Father Jim Dane says, “Stories are a good way to illustrate a point. Homilies can be better than simply preaching theology.” Father Dane is hesitant to call himself a storyteller; however, his narratives from the pulpit are so inspired and entertaining that he has been invited to participate in many storytelling events along the Gulf Coast. According to Father Dane, “Stories can take people to a deeper, more human level than simply sharing an idea. It gives them a common ground.”
Connie Cazort’s Story of John and the Birthday Cake
Do you know that we are tuning your ears to the music of our language? Yes, we are.
And you are so lucky that you’re here today, that your mommy or daddy brought you here, because you’re not at home in front of the television or a computer screen. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you’re listening to the music of language.
Now, if you can hear this sound, raise your hand, and that way, I’ll know you’re ready. If you can hear this sound (pop gun), I’ll really know you’re ready. Show me your hands. Good.
Someone told me once that if you sing a song before you tell a story, it opens up your heart and lets the story go in. So, we’re gonna sing a little song first. It goes like this:
Let everyone join in the game
Let everyone join in the game
Come on, join into the game.
You’ll find that it’s always the same (clap clap),
You’ll find that it’s always the same (clap clap).
Put your hands up!
Put the rhythm in your hands, ding dong, ding dong,
Put the rhythm in your shoulders, ding dong, ding dong,
Put the rhythm in your toes, ding dong, ding dong,
Hot dog! (clap clap) Hot dog! (clap clap)
I think you’re ready for the story. As long as you’re sitting next to someone who will help you learn and listen, you are ready. Oh, I can tell she’s ready, she’s looking right at me. I can tell he’s ready, because he’s got a smile on his face. Alright, here we go:
This really happened. When I was a little girl, and it was my mother’s birthday, my dad said, “Don’t tell your mommy, but I’m gonna order her a birthday cake.” We were so excited!
I was about 6 years old, and my brother and sister were about 3 1/2. They were twins. Well, we were waiting all day for the cake to arrive, and pretty soon we heard a knock on the door. And when we heard that knock, we knew it was the baker. We opened the door, and there he was, with a great big baker’s hat on his head. And he said, “I’ve got a cake for your mother!” And we said, “Oh, it’s a birthday cake!” And he carried it right in, and he put it on the kitchen table.
We just stood there, looking at that cake. And then my mama said, “You want a taste of that cake, don’t you?” And because my mama was so nice, she said, “Each one of you can have a little piece of the cake, just a little piece. Then, promise me you won’t touch it again.”
“Okay, ” we said. So each one of us took just a little piece of the cake. I took a pink rose, my brother took a purple rose, and my sister took an orange rose. And then we waited for my daddy to come home.
Pretty soon, we heard someone at the door again, and it was my daddy. And we said, “Daddy! Daddy! You won’t believe it; the birthday cake is here!”
And he said, “Oh, show me the cake!” And my brother ran into the kitchen as fast as he could, and he threw himself on the table in front of the cake.
And he leaned forward and said, “Look!” When he said, “look, ” there was the cake on the floor. “Oh, no!” said my brother. “I’m sorry!” And he ran out the door.
My mother said, “It’s okay! Your feelings are more important than a cake on the floor. We’ll just pick it up.” But my brother was gone. He was gone, and we couldn’t find him anywhere.
We looked upstairs in his bedroom. We looked in the closet. We looked under his bed. We looked in the basement. We looked in the yard. But my brother wasn’t anywhere, and we began to worry. So all the neighbors came out to help us, because you know, people help people when they’re having trouble.
And they said, “John! John? Where are you?” And we couldn’t find him. It got darker and darker and darker, and we knew what we had to do. We had to call the police. And so the police came, and they had their squad car, and they had their lights on and they were yelling through the megaphone, “John! John! It’s okay. Come out wherever you are.” Nobody could find my brother.
And then we looked again in the backyard, and there way back into the dark, we saw this little, shaking, red lump. And it was my brother. Oh, he was crying and crying. “I’m so sorry!” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
We said, “John, it’s okay! You just made a mistake.”
My mom picked up his little hand, and it was all wet with tears, and I was the big sister so I got to take his other hand, and we walked back to the house. He was wiping his tears. We got back to the living room, and my mom said, “Guess what? We picked up the cake, and we are going to have cake for dessert.” So my mother gave us each a plate, and we ate that cake.
And we always remembered that with that cake we learned something. You know what we learned? We learned that everybody makes mistakes. It’s okay. All you have to remember is not to do it again. And if you do it again, I bet you’ll remember the third time. You remember what happened, and you try not to do it again.
And that’s the story that really happened about my brother knocking over the birthday cake. And sometimes people will say, “Well, does your brother still remember?”
And I say, “My brother lives in Colorado, and he climbs mountains. And I visit him, and say ‘John, sometimes I tell the story about you and the birthday cake.’”
And he says, “I hope you tell everybody that I was just 3 1/2 years old, and I learned that it’s okay to make a mistake.” So that’s the story about my brother.
CONNIE CAZORT When she was in kindergarten, Connie Cazort’s teacher sent a note home saying that young Connie “thrives on telling stories to the class.” She has been entertaining ever since.
Cazort is quick to explain that what she does is very different from simply reading out loud. “It is a performance.”
“When I tell a tale, I look at my listeners and respond to what I see. I keep eye contact with as many children as I can. It gives them the feeling that I’m talking to them, individually, and that keeps them engaged.”
Cazort relocated to Fairhope from Orlando four years ago and is now a regular guest at Page and Palette and the Fairhope Public Library. Her audiences have changed over the years, but, says Cazort, “Kids may wiggle a little more than they used to, but I can get their attention pretty fast.”
Wanda Johnson’s Cool Glass of Lemonade
When I grew up, I lived in a house filled with people, all kinds of noises, all kinds of move-ment, conversation going on. And when I was a little girl, I really loved the movement, the conversations. But when I became a teenager, I found that I didn’t like that. I just wanted to find peace – my own space.
Now one Sunday … You know, Sunday was a time when people came to visit … So one Sunday, I was looking for my place of peace. Well, I went to the kitchen, and my mom and her friends were sitting around the kitchen table. And they were talking and giggling and carrying on like little teenage girls. The most disgusting thing I’d ever seen.
So I went to my bedroom, sure I’d find my place of peace, but my sister Brenda was in there with her gossipy friends. And her friends were sitting on my bed. But I didn’t say anything. I kept my mouth shut, ‘cause I didn’t want to get in trouble. I just walked out.
So I decided that I would go to the living room where my dad and his friends – and my brothers Michael and Ronnie, sitting on the floor – were glad to be watching the baseball game. Well, something happened on the television, and one of those men said one of those four-letter words, and Mama said, “Alright, it’s children in this house!” And all those men froze.
I said, “Wow! Mama’s got the power!” And they fell out laughing!
Then I thought I’d go to the den. Well, my little brother, Derrick, joined by Michael and Ronnie and his friends , were down on the floor with their clinky-clanky toys. “Choo-choo! Chugga-chugga! Choo-choo! Beep! Beep! Beep!” I thought I’d just go to the front porch.
There sitting on the front porch was my oldest sister, Teresa, who was a majorette. And she had one of her boyfriends with her.
So I walked through the house, through the den, out the backdoor, and across the yard, to the grapevine.
Now my dad had built a bench, and he built a trellis up over that bench. And my mama, with her green thumb, she had planted a grapevine, and it grew up and in and up and around and over. And any time, middle of the day, you could find a shaded area there in our backyard. So I went out there, and I sat on the bench, hoping here I’d found my place of peace.
But then the back door opened, and my dad came out the door, down the steps, holding two glasses of cold lemonade. Now we were poor, but we always had lemonade in our refrigerator. He handed me that glass of lemonade, and I took a sip, and I felt that lemonade go down my throat and then that cool Southern breeze float over my body. (Taking a deep breath.) Hmm …
And my dad said, “You look like you got something on your mind, Little Mama.”
I said, “I’m just looking for peace, Dad. I’m just looking for peace.”
“Ahhh, ” he said. “Well, let me tell you a story.
“Once there was a king, and he wanted the perfect picture of peace. And so he sent out around his kingdom for all the artists to come in and paint this picture of peace. He received a lot of pictures. But he decided that he was torn between two. Now one was of a beautiful lake, and it had beautiful mountains and a blue sky. It was just the perfect sense of peace. The second picture: well, it had water, but it was rough. And it had jagged mountains and lightening and rain coming out of the sky. Which picture do you think he chose?”
“Hmm…” I said, “I would’ve picked the first one, but knowing you, he picked the second one.”
“Good job, Little Mama. Good job.”
So I sipped that lemonade and felt it go down my body and that cool, flowing breeze. But curiosity got the best of me, and I asked, “Why did he pick the second picture?”
He said, “Ahhh.” He knew that he had caught me and all he had to do was reel me in with the rest of the story.
“You see, Little Mama, when the king looked closer at the picture, there was a hole in the mountain, and in there was a mama bird sitting on her nest in perfect peace. The king realized that peace is not a place without conversation or movement. Peace is to be in the midst of all of this and still have that calmness in your heart. And so, Little Mama, if you are looking for peace, you should not go out the back door and down the steps.”
He said, “If you are looking for peace, look inside yourself, Little Mama.”
Sure enough, the back door opened up. Out came my mama with all her laughing friends, and my sister and her gossipy friends, and my little sister who had been playing in the bathroom, she came out. And here came my brothers all talking about the baseball game. And my little brother came out with his clinky-clanky toys. And wouldn’t you know it, the door opened and here came my sister Teresa with another boyfriend.
I looked at my dad. He looked at me. I looked at the crowd. And then we took that lemonade, and we sipped it. And I felt that cool Southern breeze flow over my body. And I knew what my dad meant about that real peace, right in the midst of all that noise, movement
WANDA JOHNSON In Prichard, where she grew up, “stories were everywhere, ” says Wanda Johnson. “Most of the storytellers in my life hadn’t finished high school, ” she explains, “but they had great wisdom.”
For 10 years, Johnson taught at Spanish Fort Elementary, where she told stories to keep students’ attention. But it wasn’t until she had an opportunity to meet famed storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham that she became serious about the craft.
She initially began telling stories in Mississippi, but the Alabama Arts Council quickly embraced her. She has now traveled with their rural school touring program three times. “You go into these high schools where the kids don’t expect to like it, but you end up capturing their attention.”
When asked what makes a great story, Johnson says, “First, you have to get in touch with the characters and hear their voices.” Most of her stories are personal narratives. One of the most popular is about getting in trouble as a child for accidentally decapitating her mother’s prized statue of Jesus. “Every time I share that incident, people come up to me and say, ‘You know, there was this one time when…’ It’s all about finding the human element that helps people relate.”
Jo Graven’s Account of Miss Farah’s Quilts
I’d like to share a story with you about a person that was in my neighborhood that I learned to appreciate. Her name was Miss Farah, and every day you’d find Miss Farah at the kitchen table working on the pieces of her puzzle, a puzzle that was colors and scraps of materials put together to create quilts.
Miss Farah was frail, but she could work hard – twice as hard as most people half her age. She worked on quilts every single day. She had to. You see, $368.95 was all that she got from the Social Security. And, you know, that wasn’t much to live on. She made do, but things are expensive and she needed something more to help her.
On her table, she pieced together material in this maze of colors, the reds, the blues, the greens, the yellows. And then she saw that blue check pattern.
She picked it up, put it in her hand and felt it. She remembered it was the blue check that she had used to make a dress to wear when her son Calvin was graduating from high school. She remembered the smile on his face when he went across that stage. Why, it lit up her face, too! She was so proud of her son.
She recalled all the arguments they’d had along the way. When he was 14, he wanted to quit school. Quit school and go to work because things were tough for him and his mom. She said, “No, Calvin, I value an education. No one said life was going to be easy.” Then she told him this story:
“When I’d finished the sixth grade, things got really tough for my family. And if everybody in the family hadn’t worked, we wouldn’t a been able to stay together.
“So every morning, when the blanket of darkness was lifted and the sun of the day came out, I dressed and I ran down that dirt road to the town square to Mrs. Mallory’s boarding house. I went in the back door, in this musical squeaking door, and tied on my pink flowered apron first thing. Then I reached high and got down that gray, earthen bowl, put in flour, shortening, baking powder, milk, and stirred up those biscuits, patted them out and set them in the oven. I fried up some ham and eggs and opened some of that blackberry jam that I had helped make and put it out on the table, started the coffee. And when the men and women came down, they said, ‘Oh, this is the best food I’ve ever eaten.’ It was better than anything anywhere within 15 miles.
“Now, I couldn’t eat anything until after everyone else had finished and I’d cleaned up the whole kitchen. Then I’d take that one single biscuit that was left, put a half a slice of ham in it and a heaping spoonful of blackberry jam. As I ate, I thought about making that blackberry jam and how we took the berries and cooked ’em and added the syrup to the water and let it sit and ladled it and put it on the shelves for use. Whenever I looked down at my pink apron, it was speckled with that purple berry juice.”
Miss Farah looked at that quilt she was putting together and saw she had a piece of that little pink material. For you see, one time, when she was going home, it was a bone-chilling night. It got colder, and the rain began to come. She ran as fast as she could, and her apron caught on the wire fence. And as it did, it ripped. It was too pretty a piece of material not to keep, so she washed it and put it aside, thinking someday she might find a use for it. And today she did. Right in this quilt.
On the third of the month, Miss Farah always sat by the window and through her lace curtains she could see the postman coming up. She knew that the Social Security check he was bringing to her was all she would have for that day, for that week, for that whole month. It had to last her.
She would go down to the corner store, and buy the dented cans and the day-old meats, and she’d look at the vegetables. Miss Lena would say, “Now Miss Farah, you don’t have to buy that, you see that bunch of turnip greens over there, it’s got a few leaves startin’ to turn, why don’t you take that home? I’ve already cooked a mess of turnip greens for my eight children.” Well, Miss Farah would do that. Now, when Miss Lena would add up all of those groceries, which was a neat little amount now, I tell you, she would skip a few and skip a few, so that it never came to more than $10. Then she’d leave Miss Farah with a bag of vegetables as well; things that would have gone bad.
Miss Farah’s neighbors understood she was having a hard time, and they understood they had to work around her pride to help her. So they’d drop by with a slice of leftover meatloaf or a pie they had baked that day. And they’d bring material scraps and thin bedding and a box of No. 8 spools of thread, 10 spools, in fact. They’d say, “Miss Farah, I want you to make me a quilt with these scrap memories. I want these on my bed so every time I see this beautiful quilt, I can see the memories of my children.”
Now, Miss Farah made me four quilts, one for each of my children. I wanna tell you about one of ’em. You see that red satin that’s in different places on that quilt? Well, that was the lining for Aunt Yara’s cape. The inside was red satin, and the outside was black wool, and when it got too old and tattered lookin’, she took it apart, and I’ve got the red.
You see that white and green and yellow polka-dotted material? That was my little girl’s jumper. She had the prettiest blue eyes and blonde curls, and she would twirl around in that jumper. She was so happy with it. I’m glad I saved that piece of material. It reminds me of my little girl and the dress I stitched for her a long, long time ago, one stitch at a time.
You see that brown and green check? When I was in seventh grade, everybody had to make a jumper. It was the first dress I’d ever sewed. I put in stitches and took out seams up and down, until finally I thought that material was gone split before I got it togetha’.
And then, you see that green and white and gold border around it? That was my grandma’s kitchen curtains when I was a child. When she got tired of ’em and made some new ones, she gave that material to my mama. And my mama had a regular garbage can, brand new, that she put her material scraps in. Miss Farah picked out those old curtains to make a border all the way around my quilt.
I love the quilts Miss Farah made, stitched with memories and love.
JO GRAVEN When Jo Graven and her husband moved to Louisville, Ky., they joined a storytelling group as a way to become involved in the community. They would often present in tandem to add to the excitement of the listener’s experience. As a retired teacher now living in Fairhope, Graven shares her craft with other educators. She frequently conducts workshops for Delta Kappa Gamma, a national sorority of teachers. She also shares her passion with her grandchildren, whom she frequently takes to listen to others. “They are always impressed when the storytellers know me!”
David Bagwell’s “Legend of Outlaw Rube Burrow”
Rube Burrow was a famous railroad outlaw in the 1880s and 1890s, from Vernon, Ala. He moved to Texas right after the Civil War and married and tried to make a livin’ as a rancher. But it was hard work, and it was hot.
Sooner or later he and his brother made it into stoppin’ and robbin’ trains. He had a gang of about five men. They would wait until a train stopped at a station to take on cold water, and they would get on the train and surprise the engineer. They would tell him to move his train on down to a trestle and stop.
With the engine just past the trestle, the passengers cars would be on the bridge and the people couldn’t get out. Folks ridin’ trains in the 1880s, 1890s were armed people. All the men would have guns, and Burrow knew that, but his gang was not there to rob the passengers, but what they called the Southern Express car.
The Southern Express was kind of an early version of Federal Express. The express car, kind of like a Federal Express airplane, would be carrying packages, and in the 1880s most of those packages in the Deep South contained cash money being sent to the Louisiana lottery.
Now the Louisiana lottery was a giant, magnificently corrupt organization. The lottery was illegal in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, and so there would be vast amounts of cash money in the Southern Express car, and that’s what they wanted to rob.
On the train, there would be one guy sorting out mail and packages, and he would be armed. But these outlaws would overwhelm him and threaten to kill him. They would get all the cash packages. Then they would tell the train to pull up a little bit, and they would get off at the spot where they left their horses. They could ride away into the swamps so they wouldn’t be caught.
They were very successful, but the railroad detectives eventually captured one of the outlaws and got him to snitch. This outlaw fella’ snitched and said, “All these people live in Vernon, Ala., and between robberies they go back and hide out in a cave over there.” The sister of Rube Burrow was named Aunt Eliza. (He called her Analyzer.) And Analyzer would take food to the caves until everything calmed down.
Little by little, they began catching the outlaws, but Rube Burrow managed to get away. They nabbed the main sidekick of Burrow’s, a guy named Leonard Calvert Brock from New Brockford, Ala., in the wiregrass. He actually was my grandfather’s brother-in-law’s first cousin, though I didn’t figure it out until days ago. My grandfather used to tell me stories about Rube Burrow, but he never told me that his brother-in-law’s first cousin was his first sidekick. When Leonard Calvert Brock was in prison in Jackson, Miss., he killed himself, jumping off the top floor of the prison onto his head.
Burrow and his brother were coming into Montgomery, and Rube took out a big, huge pistol he had stolen in his first train robbery from some Buffalo Soldiers. It was a giant Colt revolver with a long barrel, the type that they had only in Texas and the army.
Rube took out his pistol on this train going from what is now Birmingham, into Montgomery. He wanted to make sure it was loaded, so just like they would do in the movies, he twirled the cylinder and said, “I think we’re ready now.”
The black pullman porter realized that there was fixin’ to be some kind of a train robbery or something. He got the conductor to get off at the little station and telegraph ahead for the police to meet the train in Montgomery.
So the engineer drove the train wide open into Montgomery, so fast the Burrows couldn’t jump off. When a plainclothed policeman came up to Rube Burrow at the station, the outlaw said to him, “Can you recommend a good hotel, a good second-class hotel?”
I don’t know what a good second-class hotel might be, but the policeman said, “Sure, they call it the Gerald House.”
Well Gerald was the chief of police of Montgomery, so they took ’em to the police station. But just before they got there, the police wheeled around the outlaws and said, “You’re under arrest!”
Rube Burrow, said, “I reckon I’m not!” Both brothers ran away, but they caught Jim, and he went to jail.
Now Jim, he loved the attention of being in jail. The newspaper reporters come up to him. He had a huge sombrero hat. They said, “Hey Jim, where’d you get the hat?”
“I guessed for it.”
“What do you mean, you guessed for it?”
“Well I went into the store, and I put on the hat, and the store owner guessed that I would pay for it. I guessed that I wouldn’t.” Jim stayed in jail a while, but ultimately he got out.
Rube, meanwhile, was in the woods, making his way to cross the Alabama River in Monroe County. They knew that he was headed that way. The police detectives were just behind him.
A landowner there was the father of a man who became a federal judge, John McDuffie, in Mobile. This was in the 1890s, about 1894, I think.
As Rube Burrow crossed the river in a rowboat, they picked up his trail. But he was armed. He had a .38-revolver, two big .45s, and what you might now call an early assault rifle, a Marlin lever-action rifle, what we might call a Winchester. It held 16 bullets, more than any other rifle then. They had to trick him somehow into giving up his guns.
It started raining, and they got two big, strong, black sharecroppers, who are really the heroes in this tale, to build a nice, warm fire in this sharecropper’s little house. It was raining and cold, so Rube Burrow came in. Pretty soon, one of the sharecroppers said, “Here, let me clean your rifle for you.”
He got an oily rag and he started cleaning the rifle, and he dropped it deliberately on the ground. The outlaw reached down to pick up the rifle. Meanwhile, the two strong sharecroppers, grabbed him and tied him up.
About that time, the white men came in and tried to get all the glory out of the deal and did, and they took him to the jail in Linden, Ala. The sheriff there in Linden was out of town, and they didn’t have the keys to the jail, so they locked him in what they call a bull ring in the floor with a chain. They were just going to have to spend the night there.
In the middle of the night, he said “I’m hungry.” There wasn’t anywhere in Linden, Ala. in the 1890s to get food. There was no McDonald’s or anything, and he said, “Well, in my carpet bag I had when I was arrested, I have some gingersnaps and candy.”
“Where is it?”
“It’s back at the store, and if you’ll go get that, then you’ll have some gingersnaps and candy for everybody.”
Meanwhile, they telephoned a railroad detective. (There was a public telephone in Linden, Ala., in the 1890s.) He said, “Now, wait a minute, what kind of guns did
“The Marlin rifle and two big Colt revolvers.”
“He also had a .38-caliber, smaller revolver that he got from the station chief from the railroad on the last train he robbed. Where is it?”
“He told us he sold it.”
While this conversation was going on, Rube started handin’ out the gingersnaps and candy. Then, he pulled
out the .38-revolver, and said, “Let me go. I’m a free man. Let me go.”
He got the sharecroppers to chain up the white man guarding him, who said, “Rube, you got us fair and square.”
Rube replied, “Where is my rifle?”
“Still back at the store.”
There was a druggist at the store, Jefferson Davis Carter. His nickname was Dixie. That would have to be your nickname, of course, if you were named after President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy.
When Rube went after his rifle, Dixie Carter came out with a little bitty, Saturday night special. It was a Smith & Wesson hidden, shrouded, hammer revolver. Dixie Carter had his tiny pocket pistol and Rube Burrow had his giant pistol. They shot at each other four or five times. Rube hit Dixie and paralyzed his left arm for life. But with his right arm, he fired all five bullets out of his gun. With his last shot, he took careful aim and killed Rube dead. Dixie Carter was a hero. He lived until around 1911 or so.
So they took Rube Burrow’s body on the train to Birmingham, where they built a casket. There is a famous photograph, which I have and which is in various libraries including the University of Alabama library, of Rube Burrow, with his arms crossed, clearly dead. His wooden casket is leaning against a railroad train, his rifle is against him and his two pistols are there in front of him.
His rifle today is in the Alabama Department of Archives and History. The folks there made me put on a pair of white gloves when I held Rube’s early assault rifle in my own hands. The pistols have gotten lost over the years. One of the railroad detectives apparently ended up with them, and one of his descendants, who is now dead, said that he thought the pistols were given to a man in Michigan. I couldn’t trace it beyond that.
The police and railroad officials were going to deliver Rube’s body back to Vernon, Ala., where he was from, but they were afraid they would be killed. So they got the train going pretty fast through Vernon, Ala., and they just shoved the casket out of the train. It tumbled onto the station platform. His body looked as though he’d been beaten up, but it was probably just damaged when they shoved him out the train.
They buried him in Vernon, Ala. Over the years, people have regularly stolen his tombstone, and now they have a new modern tombstone at his grave that misspells his name. Rube Burrows, it says. But it has no “s.” B-u-r-r-o-w is how you spell it.
You don’t have to be much of a storyteller to talk about Rube Burrow. These stories just tell themselves basically. Don’t you think?
DAVID BAGWELL He may identify himself as a “boring 67-year-old lawyer in Fairhope, ” but David Bagwell is well known for his interesting speeches, which he qualifies as being tales told to a large group. Real storytelling, for him, is something else entirely.
“Storytelling cannot be forced or preplanned. It has to be in the right place and the right time to work. You cannot say ‘Billy, why don’t you stop by and tell us a story?’”
Instead, Bagwell prefers to exchange lore in a more convivial environment. “For men, the best time and place seems to be – or so I have found it anyway – with friends in some old hunting camp or other, on a cold day … around a fire with a modest amount of good whiskey and a wind-burned face.”
To the younger generations, he has this advice: “Relax. Turn off your iPhone. Have a nice drink, or a glass of red wine or port. Sit in front of the fire, near some old man. Old men tell good stories, on the whole. Listen to old men, and tell stories yourself. The entertainment will flow naturally.”
Perhaps, the most important thing a story offers in our fast-paced, high-tech lives is the opportunity to sit down face to face with another person and listen. Alabama’s much-revered Kathryn Tucker Windham said it best, “Storytelling is a way of saying ‘I love you. I love you enough to tell you something that means a great deal to me.’”
For the past decade, the nonprofit organization Gulf Coast Storytelling has been dedicated to promoting the art form in our area. According to president and founder Barry Little, who claims to be “a professional listener, not a storyteller, ” the group hosts events and documents yarns. Little, for example, produced Wanda Johnson’s first CD.
“Storytelling is going through a renaissance because people need to know who they are, ” Little says. “The past two generations don’t know their stories.” But fortunately, Little is changing that. gulfcoaststorytelling.com
text by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder • photos by Matthew Coughlin