Wednesday, October 29, 2014

One Eye Open

© Linda Goodman, October 2014

            In January 7, 1978, two days after my daughter’s sixth birthday, I invited my parents to dinner for a late birthday celebration. I took them to my father’s favorite place to eat, the York Steak House at Tower Mall in Portsmouth, Virginia.
            A good meal and a good time were had by all… until the waiter brought the check. The amount was about what I had figured it would be. What I had not taken into account (because I did not know) was that the York Steak House did not accept credit cards, and I had no cash on my person.
            My father said it was no big deal. He would take care of the check. My mother, however, felt differently. She was angry and accused me of purposely not bringing any money with me. I could see that she was on the verge of creating a scene, so I stepped outside to wait, as my parents and my daughter stayed inside until the check was paid.
            As I waited, I noticed a man approaching me. I guessed he was in his mid thirties. His black hair was plastered back on his head with Brill Cream. He was of medium height and weight, and he was wearing a thin, tan jacket and khaki pants. His right arm was in a sling.
            “Hi,” he greeted me, “I’m wondering if you can give me a hand? I have some packages I am trying to get into my van, and this bum arm is giving me a problem. Will you please come out to the parking lot with me and give me some help.”
            Normally, I would not have hesitated to help this man, but two things occurred to me: he spoke in a monotone, with no inflection at all in his voice; and why hadn’t he asked the man standing across from me for help? That man was certainly much bigger and stronger than me.
            Then I looked into the man’s eyes and my blood ran cold. His pupils were dilated to the point that his eyes looked black. No emotion, good or bad, shone through them; only a dead, remote stare. My instincts told me to beware.
            But what if my instincts were wrong? I did not know how he had hurt his arm. What if he had hit his head at the same time? Could that be the reason behind the emotionless voice and the dazed stare?            
            I found the perfect compromise between my alert instincts and my soft-hearted compassion. “My father is inside the restaurant paying our bill,” I told the man. “Wait here with me for a few minutes, and we will both help you.”
            The man who had been standing across from me had walked away by this time. The man with the sling took another step toward me, but stopped suddenly, turned, and walked quickly away as he saw my father coming out of the restaurant door.
            “Who was that?” my father asked me.
            “I don’t know,” I answered, “but you can be sure that he was up to no good.”

            I shared this story with people as the years passed. I saw it as a cautionary tale and used it to warn naive, unsuspecting girls (like myself) to pay attention to their instincts; to keep one eye open for suspicious signs, while pondering compassion for a stranger.
black-and-white photo of a man with piercing eyes            In 2006 a friend gave me a copy of Ann Rule’s book The Stranger Beside Me. The book was about serial killer Ted Bundy. I read with interest that was spiced with terror as Rule painted a picture of a man who was a master at finding clever ways to lure women into his death traps. One thing that worked time and time again was to put his arm in a sling and ask for help.  His prey of choice was young women with long, dark hair parted down the middle.
            I remembered that evening as I stood outside the York Steak House, my long, dark hair parted down the middle. I remembered the brooding man with his arm in a sling. He could not have been Ted Bundy, I told myself. Bundy was incarcerated in Utah in 1975.
            But as I read on, though, I discovered that Bundy had escaped from prison twice. The second time was on December 30, 1977. By January 2, 1978, he was in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Five days later he stole a car and drove it to Atlanta, where he boarded a bus and arrived in Tallahassee, Florida on January 8.
            Bundy could very well have come through Virginia as he drove from Michigan to Atlanta. Could he have been the man who approached me on the evening of January 7, 1978? I turned to the headshot of Bundy at the back of the book. The photo was black and white, and thirty-eight years had passed. He looked like the man, but I could not be sure. One thing I do know: the black, dead, remote eyes were identical. Could two men have had those same eyes? I do not know; but I have learned to always follow my instincts, which tend towards the paranoid these days. On January 7, 1978, I believe, those instincts saved my life.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

2014 National Storytelling Festival Redux

I had a great time at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN this past weekend (10/3-5). I carpooled with Martha Reed Johnson and Faye Fulton. We arrived late on Friday, due to an accident that turned I 40 into a parking lot for 1 1/2 hours, but the company and the festival made up for that. 

            It was lovely to experience performances by Tim Tingle and Kevin Kling with my minister, Steve Rembert, and his wife Betsy. Tim shared Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom, a favorite of all Tingle fans. Kevin shared a personal story about a school snow day gone bad. Suffice it to say that it was not a pleasant experience, but Kevin made it darned funny, in spite of that.

            I was late making it to the Exchange Place, so I did not get to see Linda Gorham and Pete Griffin perform, but I heard that they were both wonderful. Cathy Jo McMaken did a great job updating an old folktale about how easily men can be fooled by the wives they love. I loved Catherine Conant’s personal story about auto accidents and changing relationships. John Thomas Fowler’s story of his Appalachian grandmother and her marriages was both entertaining and enlightening. Will Hornyak had the audience in stitches. He certainly knows how to command the stage, as well as tell darn good story.

            The Friday night ghost stories were chilling, but so was the night air. I was never quite sure from which source my shivers were coming. I do know that Leeny Del Seamonds’ telling of  The Jersey Devil is the stuff that nightmares are made of. Connie Regan Blake began the night with some much appreciated comic relief from a story that did not end as expected. International New Voice Daniel Morden’s rendition of Mr. Fox was enthralling.

            On Saturday, I got to hear Susan O’Halloran for the first time, and what a treat that was! Pot of Gold: Irish Stories and Songs allowed listeners to get to know Susan, her family, and Ireland itself; with laughter, wonder, and tears along the way.

            Carol Birch told two chapters from Grapes of Wrath. Her telling of this John Steinbeck classic resonated with me in a way that I cannot describe in words. It opened up a Pandora ’s Box of emotions for me. Two days later I am still thinking about the kind waitress, the starving children, and the compassionate truckers to whom Carol introduced us. Even if it had been the only story I had heard all weekend, it would have made the travel glitches, the expense, and the time from home worthwhile. Since I began telling stories in 1987, there have been four stories that have haunted me, that I have thought about every day. Now there are five.

            Regi Carpenter’s Snap, the story of a teen’s descent into madness and her subsequent recovery, was ELECTRIC!!  The standing ovation she was given was well deserved. Tim Lowry also received a standing ovation for his performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which was pitch perfect, train and all.

            New Voice Kate Campbell said that there were “three things about the South: place, religion, and race,” and then proceeded to sing about those very things in a voice so sweet and clear that I entered a state of tranquility that I did not want to leave behind. I especially enjoyed the song she wrote as a tribute to To Kill a Mockingbird. Favorite Kate Campbell quote: “It’s not who you know, it’s who you know that knows somebody.”

            Other than a tiny bit of gray in his hair, New Voice Tom Lee seemed not to have aged at all in the 20 years since I last saw him. He still moves gracefully and easily on the stage, and he still has that deep, rich voice I remember so well.

            Tickets to Megan Wells’ performance of Bram Stokers’ Dracula sold out before I could buy one. My bad. Everyone that I know who saw it said that it was phenomenal. I did not go to either of the midnight cabarets, as I did not bring clothes that would keep me warm in 37 degree weather. Again, my bad. Martha and Faye said that Antonio Sacre’s The Next Best Thing was “amazing.”

            Sunday morning found me at Jonesborough United Methodist Church listening to a powerful story sermon delivered by Geraldine Buckley. Boyd introduced Geraldine, saying that she was “cute as a puppy dog, but twice as lovable.” Favorite quotes from Geraldine: “If you want to hear God’s laugh, tell him your plans;” (when explaining to her Catholic mother why she wanted to be a Pentecostal minister) “I was called to preach, and I can’t afford a sex change.” Vintage Geraldine.

            I heard a second story sermon, delivered by Tim Lowry, at the Sacred Story olio. His story The Manger Scene took listeners on a hilarious trip down memory lane that demonstrated just what the faith of a child, and some small sacrifices, can do. I can still see the image in my head when Tim realized that the Christ child slept where the rats had eaten. Chilling.

            After that, I started running into friends, some of whom I have not seen since I left New England in 1998. I also ran into several of my Virginia friends. I had such a good time catching up that I did not attend performances again until the latter part of the final showcase olios. I found a seat just in time to see Donald Davis take the stage and transform himself into a young boy who falls into mischief. He does this so well that I honestly saw a young boy, not a man from my own generation, on the stage. I have been listening to Donald tell stories since 1989, and his stories are just as fresh now as they were then.

            I wish I could have heard more of Megan Wells. I loved her story about a family trip with a father who “went out of his way to go out of his way.”

            There were some tellers I did not get to see and hear, so I cannot write about them. Maybe next time.

            One final thing about the festival: for the first time is my life, I ate a piece of funnel cake, then another, and another. I ate seven pieces of funnel cake. It was so good I almost bought a whole funnel cake. I have been thinking about funnel cake ever since.

            We left the festival at 5:30 and ran into heavy traffic on I 26 East. I did not arrive at my house until 1:00 a.m. Was the festival worth that aggravation? YES!!!