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  • June 6th, 2018

TELL ME A STORY

By Joel M. Vance

People often ask me (well, one did, one time) “where do you get your ideas?” And I tell them that ideas are everywhere. You just have to let them flow over you like mudslide on a California highway or lava from a Hawaiian volcanic eruption.

There was a time when I was a tadpole wannabe fiction writer and my wife, Marty, was in a doctor’s office waiting for a prenatal checkup when she noticed a woman next to her cradling what appeared to be an injured arm. “How did you hurt your arm?” Marty asked. The woman mumbled something.

Then, embarrassed, she confessed that she had gotten her arm caught in a pool table pocket, shooting a game of eightball by herself when her husband was at work, her kids at school. She scratched the cue ball by mistake and reached in the pocket to retrieve it. But it kept scooting away from her grasping fingers and finally her elbow slipped into the pocket and she was trapped as thoroughly as a raccoon in a coon trap. She had to wait until someone came home to help her. Somehow Marty managed to keep from laughing but I couldn’t when she told me about it and instantly a short story began to form in my mind and it became a chapter in my first collection of Birch Lake stories, Grandma and the Buck Deer.

Other fiction pieces have been similarly inspired by the misfortunes of others. I am a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and that has been a fertile ground for story ideas. OWAA members attend the annual conference for a variety of reasons: to see old friends, to see new places, to get away from the humdrum for a while. But primary among those reasons is to gather material for outdoor communication that will result in bounteous compensation. (And anyone who believes there is bounteous compensation in the outdoor writing field is not an outdoor writer).

It’s a chance to pick the brains of more experienced members–tips, information and other valuable intelligence vital to amortize the cost of the few days spent away from the routine. Sometimes a few minutes spent with a grizzled old head can result in a virtual frog choker of dollars– see above comment about bounteous compensation.

The late and much revered past president of the outdoor Writers Association of America, Mike Levy, then outdoor editor of the Buffalo, New York, newspaper was one of those grizzled heads and in addition to cherishing his long friendship I will eternally owe him an unpayable debt of gratitude for a few moments of his time that not only padded my bank account, but also gave me a lifelong story for retelling time and again— and a good true story is priceless . Actually, some of the bullfluff which on the face of it is outright fiction makes for even better stories.

It happened this way. I was looking for material for a humor column for a magazine which shall remain nameless because they dropped the column to save the pitifully few dollars they grudgingly shelled out each time I sat at a word processor until beads of blood popped out on my forehead. It had to do with fishing and I got the idea that, since every angler I know has had one or more unpleasant experiences with fishing hooks. I should gather those unhappy moments and treat them with humor—after all what are friends for if you can’t exploit them?

So I polled my OWAA friends for their traumatic trials with fishhooks, among whom was Mike who came up with the capstone anecdote for the column. It seems that he and his son who was about five at the time, went fishing and the little one insisted on using a long plug equipped with three treble hooks—hardly the equipment for bluegills, but his tolerant daddy went along with it. Then the youngster tangled his fishing line and Mike helpfully started pulling at the bird’s nest but his son suddenly jerked the fishing rod and hooks on either end of the fishing lure neatly impaled Mike’s opposable thumbs.

While opposable thumbs are the one piece of human equipment that separates us from lower animal life, they aren’t much use when the only available help is a five-year-old with no idea how to separate his daddy from embedded fishhooks. “Did you ever try to drive with your thumbs hooked to a fishing plug?” Mike asked rhetorically.

Somehow, he managed to get the car started and get on the road steering painfully and awkwardly with his impaled digits. Then he spied a rural fire department with the lights on (it was getting dark now) and he knew that the firemen would have at least one EMT available who could separate him from the Pikie Minnow. It turned out that the reason the lights were on was that the firemen were having their annual beer and brats party and at least some of them were as lit as the fires they often put out.

While they tended to Mike, they hoisted his son on the fire truck and let him pretend to drive it which delighted the lad no end. And so probably did the language used by the intrepid firefighters which tended toward the salty.

When Mike and son arrived home, the kid raced into the house shouting “mom! Mom! You’ll never guess what happened. Dad got his thumbs hooked together and I got to drive the fire truck and what does @#$%%@!@ mean?”

Poor Cynthia, Mike’s wife, was bumfuzzled— she sent her husband and son off to fish and he comes home a wounded warrior, and the kid is shouting something about a fire truck and where did the little guy learn that kind of language!

So I used the anecdote in my humor column and got paid my usual pittance. But I thought it was too good to quit there, so I adapted the incident into a short story, sold that to a major magazine for a lovely chunk of money, entered the story in OWAA’s freshwater fishing contest, and took first place for what at that time was a nice winner’s bonus. When I told Mike about the bonanza his story had created (for me, not him), without a hint of shame for exploiting his misfortune, he grumbled, “I’m never going to tell you anything again!”

Later on I included the story as a chapter in a book— but I didn’t tell Mike about that.

Pre-and post conference trips are a gold mine of stories and on one of them the incomparable storyteller Marty Malin, a prolific and annual prize-winning freelance radio personality from Texas, regaled us fellow trippers with the story of how he and a friend sneaked in to see the exotic dancer in a tent at a county fair in his misspent childhood. For him it may have been just a story to tell amused buddies, but for me it was the inspiration of another short story and a chapter in a book. Thanks, Marty.

The fishing hook column also inspired, yet another short story and book chapter— Randy Vance (not my son and I’m not his father– we used to inscribe our nametags that way to avoid the inevitable confusion) told him someone he knew fell backward into an open tacklebox bristling with treble hooked fishing plugs. Inspiration blossomed and one of my hapless fictional characters became entangled with guess what? A situation involving an open tacklebox, fishing lures, and a painful encounter with them.

Then there was a casual mention by an old friend, another OWAA member, George Mattis— a fishing buddy from Birchwood Wisconsin, who wrote a book titled Whitetail, which turned out to be the biggest seller of the Outdoor Life book club ever. Anyway George told me about stopping in the woods once to sit on a log and smoke a cigarette, only to have a buck deer walk out of the woods over to him, take the cigarette from him and walk off chewing it with gusto. “Apparently deer have a tobacco addiction,” George said, “so strong that once they get the taste they’re hooked.”

Story idea! I turned it into the title story of Grandma and the Buck Deer, combining the fact that my real life uncle, Roy Finnell, raised tobacco in Missouri, some of which made its way to my fictional Birch Lake, and a confrontation with my fictional rowdy uncle Al, and my also fictional but formidable grandma.

Back in World War II there was a poster saying “loose lips sink ships.” Good advice during wartime but when it comes to paying attention when others are telling outrageous stories, some of those loose lips mean story tips….and money in the pocket.

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