The Southerner's Handbook

How to Tell a Great Story

The secrets of a Southern orator

Illustration: Clint Hansen

Step 1: Have an animal in your story (or animal products).

Step 2:  Show that you are Southern, so people will know what you are doing. I neglected to do this once in an Ohio airport, on my way to see a man who claimed his rooster was able to predict the weather, which turned out to be only partially true. In cases of heavily overcast skies, the rooster would run up under something, and the man, whose name was Adair Treat, would say, “See there? Ten to one we get rain.” The rooster’s name was Roscoe. He just had a phobia about getting wet. I told Adair Treat, “I have come all this way, and this is all your rooster can do?”

“He can count,” Treat said. “Hold up some fingers, any number, I won’t look. Roscoe, see this gentleman here? How many fingers?”

Roscoe didn’t let on that he even knew he was being spoken to.

“Well, he’s sulled up, now. When he senses the presence of somebody lacking confidence in him, he gets into a mind-frame of ‘I got nothing to prove.’”

But before all that with the rooster, I was talking to these Ohioans in the airport, and I told them about the time I was traveling with a flying squirrel. He had kept chewing his way into our house and gliding from one piece of furniture to the next, and if you’ve never had that going on in your home periodically, you don’t know how upsetting it is. We would capture him, with difficulty, and take him way off up the road, and back he would come. So I was going to fly him to Memphis, where I had business—but while we were going through airport security, he slipped out of his carrier and bounded from one passenger’s head to another and on out of sight.

“Oh,” said one of the Ohioans, “that’s terrible. Can we help you find him?”

“We have a cat,” another one said, “but we’ve never flown with her. Are you sure it’s wise?”

And I realized I hadn’t switched into my Southern accent. As soon as I did, the Ohioans said, “Oh! You’re telling a story! That’s what you do, isn’t it? But don’t you wear a hat?”

I put on a gimme cap, and after that they interrupted only once more, to ask whether this story was a funny one. So I switched to the straw hat, with the bite out of it.