I’m back home today – Elba, Alabama, the neatest little town on earth – with my new book. About four thousand people live here, and that’s about what it was when I was growing up in the 50’s. It was, and I’m sure still is, a village that nurtured its young. And it was a great place to learn to be a storyteller: a small stage on which the same people interacted with each other day after day. If you were smart enough to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut, you could learn a lot about what makes human beings tick. You could see people accommodating each other despite their differences. And there were just enough oddballs of various stripes to make it intriguing.
As I drove into town, I remembered the exact moment when I became a storyteller. It happened in the attic of my grandmother’s house, which is still standing. The attic was a large room, added by my grandfather after Elba flooded in 1929 so his family would have a dry place to seek refuge if the river got out of its banks again. When I was a kid, it was a sort of family dumping ground.
My father and three uncles were in World War Two, and one of them, Uncle Bancroft, was a fighter pilot. He flew P-51’s out of England, supporting the Allied march across Europe. Part of the rich family lore was the story of how Uncle Bancroft was shot down and lived to tell about it. He was escorting bombers when his plane was crippled by anti-aircraft fire. Somehow, he managed to nurse the plane back to the English Channel, where he bailed out and was rescued by a British ship. As a youngster, I thought that was about the coolest thing I had ever heard.
When Dad and the uncles came back from the war, they stored various items of their memorabilia in my grandmother’s attic, and in Uncle Bancroft’s footlocker, I found a parachute. It had a silk canopy about four feet across, which I later learned was used for a flare. But in my fevered 10-year-old imagination, I got the idea that this was the very parachute Uncle Bancroft had used when his plane got hit. I could just see him there in the cockpit, getting the last bit of juice out of the smoking, dying engine, managing with great skill and courage to make it to the coast, throwing back the cockpit, climbing out on the wing, and leaping into space. Dang!
Propelled by terminal foolishness, I tied that parachute to my skinny shoulders, climbed out on the attic roof, and got ready to emulate Uncle Bancroft’s death-defying leap. It was at the moment my feet left the roof edge that it dawned on me I had done a very dumb thing, and that I should probably tell stories rather than act them out. Luckily, I crash-landed in the nandina bush below with nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises. There was no British ship to pick me up.
In the considerable years since, I have done any number of foolish things. But mostly, I have written about other people doing foolish things. It’s a lot safer.