In the Corps, everyone had a nickname. You either created your own, or you were anointed with a name that would hardly depict your best interests. Mine was “Lt.”
There were two boys in the regiment from Arkansas. They joined the Corps on the buddy plan and were inseparable. They called themselves “Butch” and “Sundance.” They were tough, competent sergeants with iron wills, undaunted when things went south.
Butch and Sundance had a penchant for yarning. They’d captivate the Marines for hours telling tall tales from the Ozarks.
“You guys should write a book,” I’d say.
“Lt, we can’t write more than a sentence,” one of them would reply.
The boys never finished the sixth grade. They grew up in the Ouachita Mountains, where everybody was a storyteller. Nobody wrote anything down. It was a storytelling tradition: Everyone had a yarn at the bar, on a swinging porch, or sitting in a fishing boat. Butch and Sundance were magic. They could reach others on an emotional level.
Shepherds were among our early story tellers. They created myths and orchestrated unimaginable tales. They brought drama to the sky and kept man wondering and digging for the secrets of existence. They explained the perplexities of life and tied us to the universe.
I remember the pledge that Butch and Sundance made. If they got out of Vietnam intact, they were going to open a bar.
Butch and Sundance survived the war. A few years later I received a letter from them. Enclosed in it was a photo. “Lt, this is a picture of our bar,” the note said. They called it the Tall Tale Bar and Grill. It was located between the Ozark and Ouachita mountains on the Pig Trail Scenic Byway.
I couldn’t wait to go.
I too have a penchant for story. I’ve keep detailed journals recording moments, circumstance and triviality. They would be the seeds for stories that one day I would write. It’s agonizing to hear the constant echo of an untold story inside you.
Some of my fondest memoires are listening to the tales of the men who hung out in my dad’s delicatessen on cold winter days. I recall visiting my Uncle Joe in Western Pennsylvania and sitting around a potbelly stove, listening to the hardships of the coal miners. Oral history came first and is foundational to civilization.
During summers, I’d often travel the blue highways of America writing about people, the land, and old country barns. My travels always took me down the Pig Trail Scenic Byway, straight to the Tall Tell Bar and Grill. My reunions with Butch and Sundance were filled with laughter, burgers and beer.
There was always a bluegrass band, local harlots from the hills, and lots of Jerry Jeff Walker on the juke. However, what I remember most about the Tall Tale Bar was an old timer who called himself Okefenokee Joe. I didn’t know much about him. When I was there — and I was there a lot — so was he.
Okefenokee had the best stories. For the price of a shooter of the local hooch, he would spin a yarn, and those who listened would find themselves in a foxhole in the Pacific, in a bar fight in Waxahachie, Texas, or fishing on the Bering Sea.
Telling stories just for the heck of it is a lost art. Maybe families should spend more time sitting around the dinner table passing down personal history to the next generation.
Life in Ozarks was almost heaven. I wanted to stay. I was offered a job as a teacher. I could have even hung out at the Tall Tale, trading stories for shooters.
At the end of each of my visits there, when it came to leave, I’d think of the words of Robert Frost, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at email@example.com.