HOPE—It takes a certain amount of finesse to keep an audience rapt just by telling a story these days. On October 20, Sweet Tree Arts hosted its fifth annual Story Slam on the second floor of Hope Orchard’s barn with six tellers taking the stage. Given the location, the evening started with samples of more than 20 varieties of Maine grown apples and pears and the story theme of the evening was “Delicious.”
Hope resident Bill Jones was the oldest teller of the group and it was his first time on stage at this event.
“Everyone was supposed to get five minutes to tell their story and I was supposed to get eight minutes because I’m 80,” he said. “The first three people easily took eight minutes and so I told the audience I was going to take 20.”
Already, it’s apparent that Jones has the storyteller’s gift for grabbing the audience right off the bat and making them laugh.
None of the tellers read from their stories; they had to recount from memory.
“It’s important that a story have a beginning, middle and and end,” he said, “and that you’re not just rattling on.”
So what did he talk about? It goes a little something like this.
“In the summer of 1945, when I was an eight-year-old kid, my friend Jackie Brown and I were hired by Philip Alonzo Jones—no relation—a guy who rented summer camps on Hobbs Pond to people coming to Hope to rusticate,” he said. “They didn’t like the sound of bullfrogs. They wanted to rusticate, but didn’t like the sound of bullfrogs at night. So Philip paid Jackie and me a penny apeice to catch bull frogs. We had to go out in canoes at night, no life jackets at that time, but it was shallow and we both could swim. And the sternman would paddle up with a flashlight. So, when the bronking stopped...”
Here, it is necessary to stop the story for clarification. “Bronking?”
“That’s the word I used to describe the sound the bull frogs made,” said Jones. “Maybe that’s not a word, but I made it a word, and when the audience heard that, they started laughing. Anyway, there’s a whole technique to catching them by being stealthy and carrying a flashlight and a gunnysack.”
The story continued with a time jump.
“Switch to February, 1964. I’m 27 years old and in Bamako, Mali, which is in West Africa and I’m doing field work for my Ph.D, trying to find out what effect (if any) Malian economic development planning has on farmers and their villages,” said Jones. “Mali had taken the ‘socialist option,’ and there was a general paranoia about Western spies, the People’s Militia, the Chinese radio spots, etc. Those in the U.S. Embassy suspected I was an evil Communist. They opened my mail and resealed it. But the villagers of Ba Dugu Djoliba were very welcoming, inviting me to visit, and to stay. In the general paranoia, part of the defense of the Revolution had been entrusted to the People’s Militia. Anyone wandering around late at night or leaving or entering the capital faced ubiquitous People’s Militia checkpoints. There, an illiterate youth would painstakingly copy pages of my passport, often upside down.
“Ba Dugu Djoliba was 40 km. up the Niger River from Bamako,” he continued. “Along the river road, just outside town, was a militia checkpoint that was crucial for my Ph.D work. It controlled my access to the information I needed in Ba Dugu Djoliba and the neighboring villages. On my first trip, I took a country bus, then flagged down a truck on return. The next time, I drove my old Citroen deux chevaux, which caused a highly uncomfortable amount of interest at the Militia checkpoint. Returning at night a few days later, it appeared, not only that I was going to spend the night there at least, but also that access to villagers and village economy that I needed for my studies was just not going to happen.
“It was late February. The relative cool of the dry season was already giving way to unbearable heat and humidity. The militia post was right by the mighty Niger. Trying to establish empathy with my militia guard, I congratulated him on his great posting, able to escape the worst of the heat by the cool River Niger. ‘You must be crazy,’ he said. ‘The mosquitoes are horrible here. And besides, these miserable frogs keep us up all night. And, as you know, we are volunteers for the Revolution. Nobody pays us. We can’t even afford cigarettes.’
“In the background, I could hear the familiar sound of bronking— and that caused a light to go on. I told him: ‘You know the three Lebanese restaurants in town and they eat frogs, which is disgusting and ‘haram’ to Muslims and to all right-thinking Mandingos. But if have a rice sack, I’ll show you how to catch those frogs and sell them to the Lebanese for their ‘Toubab’ customers. That way, you can make some spending money.’
“We waded into the shallows, and I did. I had to sacrifice my flashlight, but, in return, I got free passage to Ba Dugu Djoliba, Dalakana, Krina, Sanankoroba and neighboring villages. I was the crazy foreigner, Monsieur Grenouille, but I was their buddy. We shared food and they let me pass. I got my Ph.D. They got sleep and the cash their entrepreneurship deserved. And what became of the frogs? They were, cuisse de grenouille appearing on the menus of Bamako’s fanciest restaurants. And they were delicious.”
Sweet Tree Arts’ director Lindsay Pinchbeck, like most of the audience, found Bill’s story to be enchanting.
“Every time we gather to tell stories some sort of magic happens,” she said. “I believe story has the ability to bring us together, put aside our differences and see one another as human beings. We were all transported from Maine that night to the Chech Republic, Mali, Greece, and New Jersey. We saw one another as children, met each other’s fathers, and friends and were transported through time and space. As I looked around the room I saw mouths half open, rapt attention, nods of agreement, tears in eyes, and appreciation for the courage of the tellers who told their personal stories. Thanks to all the tellers who told at this year's fall Story Slam — Bill Jones, John Cutler, Argy Nestor, Ian Collins, Laura MacKay —your stories are a gift to our community.”
Interested in telling a story for next time? Sweet Tree Arts’ next Story Slam will be March 23 2018. Send story proposals to Pinchbeck at firstname.lastname@example.org
Related: Story Slam fills Hope with courage
Kay Stephens can be reached at email@example.com