Donald Davis – American storyteller
I’m Donald Davis, and I tell stories. If you come to see me at a festival, you will meet me as a performer. But a great deal of the most important work I do is help other people find the stories from their lives that are most important to them. And because the theme today is reflection, it gave me an opportunity to think back about how I began to work with other people’s stories, and how I learned a few things about those stories. But to do that, I must tell you a story.
I want to tell you a story that my father told me only once more than 50 years ago. And then share his reflection on that story, and then at the very end, a tiny reflection of mine. My father’s name was Joe – a very common, ordinary name. Our name is Davis, even more common, ordinary name. And even in the town where I grew up, Waynesville, North Carolina, there were three Joe Davises. So they all had community nicknames so people could tell which one were we talking about this time.
There was Joe the photographer. Not my dad. There was a farmer named Joe, who always used his middle name, Joe Silas, so people could tell him apart. And there was my father, who was the one-man loan department in our little county seat First National Bank. His community nickname was ‘Banker Joe.’ I was 13 years old, when one day, my mother was on her way to the ‘Lady Fair Beauty Parlor.’ She didn’t want me to go, so she dropped me off and left me at the bank with my dad.
My dad would always have things for me to do at the bank. He’d give me an adding machine, and the phone book, and tell me he needed all the phone numbers added up, and I’d spend all afternoon adding them up – But that day, it was his day to close up at the end of the day after the bank closed. We went out the door, he turned and he locked the door, and as he turned around, Mr. Pitt McCarroll across the street was just locking the front door of McCarroll’s Furniture Company. They saw one another, and my daddy said, “Well, hello, Pitt! Have a good night.” And Mr. McCarroll looked across at my dad and said, “Well, Cripple Joe, you have a good night, too.”
And we went around and got in the car, and 13 years old, I turned to my dad and said, “I didn’t like that.” He said, “You didn’t like what?” I said, “That man called you Cripple Joe. He’s supposed to call you Banker Joe.” My dad pulled the Plymouth back up into the parking space, turned off the key, and quietly said, “Let me tell you a little story.” And I knew we were going to be there for a while.
Well, the beginning of the story I already knew, about how my father, number eight of 13 children, was born in 1901, on a farm way in the north mountains of Haywood County. In 1906, when he was five years old, he was out behind the barn watching his father and his older two brothers split cedar shingles to put a new roof on a little building. He was fascinated watching them, watching all the tools: the big froe and wedge, and the drawknife, and especially a little short-handled ax that was very, very sharp so they could clean off the shingles with it. He wanted to help, he wanted to help, and they kept saying, “You’re only five years old. Get out of the way, you’ll get hurt.”
When in a little while, my grandmother called them all to come to dinner – dinner on the farm in the middle of the day – and my granddaddy and the two older brothers headed inside to eat, and my dad thought, “This is my chance.” And he stayed behind so he could touch the tools he had been banned from messing with. He went over and pulled that little sharp ax right out of the end of a log where it had been left, and he told me he’d gone around just chopping everything.
At about that time, his mother called, “Come to dinner!” because Little Joe hadn’t come, and he realized, “I’d better get in there or I’ll get caught.” And he went back over in a big hurry to chop the little ax back into the log, and he swung the ax … missed the log, it glanced off the edge, and the blade buried itself deeply through his kneecap, right into the center of his leg. And that’s the way they found Little Joe on the ground when they went to see why he hadn’t come back.
Well, my granddaddy called to my grandmother, “Bring a clean bedsheet while I saddle the horse!” They got him up on the horse, my granddaddy got my daddy in his arms and rode to the nearest country doctor’s house. The doctor looked at his leg and said, “I’ve never seen anything like this. I don’t know what to do! I guess … I’ll just have to take his leg off.”
My granddaddy got him back on the horse. They rode 16 miles, all the way to Waynesville, and went to the train station and asked the train agent, “When’s the next train coming, and where does it go?” The next train coming was not going to Asheville, it was going west to the end of the southern line in Murphy. But you could ride to Murphy, get a carriage around town, get on the L&N line and go to Atlanta.
So my granddaddy bought two tickets, put my dad on a wooden bench, went out the door, and in about 5 minutes, he came back with a quart of homemade corn whiskey. And my dad said, “He began to give me medicine.” And he gave him medicine, and gave him medicine, until finally my daddy said, “I went to sleep or somewhere.” And he remembered nothing about the 172 mile train ride.
But once in Atlanta, somehow my grandfather found the brand new 1906 Grady Hospital, and they saved my daddy’s leg. They took off the kneecap, left him with a knee that would barely bend, and instead of a kneecap, a deep scar that a man’s thumb could disappear into.
Well, when they finally got back home, my daddy discovered he could not do work. Especially farm work. And as he described it, he said, “I became one of the girls.” His mother, my grandmother, taught him to knit, and he became the family sock-knitter. And later on he learned to spin flax, and he could spin flax better than his four sisters. By high school he began to realize he was going to have to find a way to make a living that didn’t involve work. And in the papers the family had, he discovered that down in a place called Charlotte, North Carolina, there was a little school called King’s Business College that would teach you how to make a living without working.
So he sold socks and he spun flax and saved his money, and when he was graduating from high school in 1918, he rode the train to Charlotte, found the little school, and told them he wanted to enroll. They counted his money and told him he didn’t have enough for one term. But he begged them to let him stay and learn as much as he could until the money ran out. And he began studying, he began school, and before that term was over, they came back and told him to go home and not waste the rest of his money. Because they explained to him that in less than one term, he had learned all of the business, bookkeeping, typing, and shorthand they normally taught in two years.
He said, “I had to learn. The money was running out.” So he got back home without even a piece of paper to show that he had ever been to school, but with skills. And he was hired to be the first professional business manager ever hired by two old men to run a wholesale grocery company. The very next year his father died. Leaving him five little brothers and sisters to finish raising, and a widowed mother, and an aunt who was a member of the household, to care for.
For the next 20 years he raised the children, took care of his mother, took care of his aunt, raised the children, worked, saved his money, raised the children, worked, took care of his money, got to be 40 years old, and he told me he’d forgotten to do two things. He forgot to get married – I don’t think he had time – and he forgot to spend money. And when he was 41 years old, the old man who had started that little bank in Waynesville decided to sell it. And my dad entered into the deal, and when he met my mother, when he was 44 and she was 25, he was Banker Joe.
By now it was dark in the Plymouth. And my dad looked at me in the dark, and he said, “Son, don’t you get it? Don’t you get it? If I hadn’t gotten to be Cripple Joe, I would never have gotten to be Banker Joe. If I’d never had gotten to be Cripple Joe, I would be plowing with mules on Iron Duff, and you’d be in trouble with every teacher you had who ever borrowed money from me.”
He said, “You must learn that it is never, never tragic when something people think is bad happens to you. Because if you can learn to use it right, it can buy you a ticket to a place you would never have gone any other way.” After that day, it was okay with me if people called my dad Banker Joe. But what I really liked was when people knew his whole story well enough to look at him and say, “Hello, Cripple Joe.” Now that’s the story I heard once when I was 13. And years passed without my really thinking about it, but of course, never forgetting the story.
About 30 years later, I was already doing storytelling and beginning to work with people on stories, when I was visiting my father, now in the latter half of his 80s. And as we were visiting, all of a sudden for some reason that story came back. And I said to my dad – this is his reflection part now – “How did you get to be able to tell the story the way you told it to me? Had you told it before that?” And he looked at me and he said, “Only about 200 times.” And I got to hear a little story I almost missed. He said, “When I came back from Atlanta, five years old, now with a crippled leg, mama” – my grandmother, who died before I was born so I never met her – “Mama sat me down at the kitchen table and she said, ‘Joe, now it’s time for you to tell the story.'”
And he said, “I said I didn’t want to tell the story, because telling the story wouldn’t change anything, I was crippled.” And she looked at me and said, “You’re not telling the story to change what happened. You’re telling the story to change you.” And she made me tell it over and over again, and every time I told it, she gave me a different agenda. She said, “Now Joe, this time, tell the story and tell what you learned by living through that.”
And then another time, “Now tell the story and tell what you think your daddy and I learned from living through that.” And eventually it was even, “Tell the story, and tell what you think the doctors in Atlanta learned from living through that.” And we went on and went on, and one day she said, “Now Joe, if you don’t tell this story enough, when you’re 50 years old and you look at your leg, you’ll be five again, and you’ll be pitiful. Because when something happens to you,” she said, “it sits on top of you like a rock. And if you never tell the story, it sits on you forever. But as you begin to tell the story, you climb out from under that rock, and eventually you sit up on top of it.”
He said, “One day she said, ‘Joe, today tell the story, and tell what you get to do now that your brothers don’t get to do.'” And he said, “I told the story, and all of a sudden I was smiling because I realized I get to stay in the house and read while they work on the farm. And she had me tell that story, and tell it, and tell it, and tell it, until when I was about 15 years old, I decided that chopping my leg was the best thing I’d ever done in my life. And all of a sudden I realized she was right! The story doesn’t change what happened, but the story has the remarkable power to completely change our whole relationship to what happened.”
I almost didn’t hear that part of the story. And I realized that I have two degrees from respectable educational institutions, I will not name them in this audience because they’re in North Carolina. And yet, I learned more about what I do, helping people discover the stories that are sitting on them and crawl out from under them, from listening to my grandmother’s story, than I ever learned in school.