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.