Tales from an Old Storyteller

By Jim Elliott

Thornton Stephens, Annapolis, says he's lived within the sound of his own voice for most of his more than 90 years. For 66 of those years he's lived with his wife, Mabel. Like a lot of things, he has a story about that.

"Now my wife and I, well, we grew up kinda together," Thornton says. "She moved into the neighborhood when she was eight years old and weighed about 40 pounds at about that high.

"We went to the same school and learned the same things and were so near alike that we thought maybe we could hit it up together. Well, it just so happens that we've been around together, we've been married 66 years.

"Some guy at Oblong, fella that runs the flower shop down on the corner, asked me how long me and my wife have lived together. I told him then it was about 60 years, and he said, 'Say that's a long time to just have one woman.'

"'Well,' I said, 'she sure as thunder wouldn't a allowed me to brought anothern’ in there."'

He slaps his legs, laughing and goes on to another story. This time it's about smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey.

"Now then I've smoked for 65 years," he says "and in doin' that I inhaled all the smoke. I had pneumonia about five times and sore throats many a times.

"One morning my throat was ahurtin' worse than ever, I said to myself, 'I'm not gonna smoke til I have to,' and I moved my tobacco 'round here to the other pocket so I wouldn't just automatically be fired up and agoin'.

"That's been long years ago, 20 or 25 years ago. But the doctor had told me about that sore throat. He said, 'Now it's virus sore throat' and . . . a . . .he said, 'I've not got any medicine that'll do a virus any good.'

But he said, 'You go ahead with your hot salt-water gargle and Your whiskey treatment and maybe you'll get after it a bit.' Well, I said, 'Ain't you afraid I'll get the whiskey habit?' 'No, not at your age,' the doctor said.

Thornton pauses and goes to get a small medicine bottle filled with whiskey for the treatment he takes about a pint of a year. Then he says his family came to America on the Mayflower with the Pilgrims. Well, not exactly.

"My grandfather," Thornton says, "was a British soldier during the War of 1812. Somewhere around Washington, D.C., he deserted. They called that goin' over the hill. Now he probably went over two or three hills before he stopped runnin'. And then maybe changed his mind.

"But he married a woman, I hear my dad says was a Low Dutch. He thought that meant dirty Dutch. But it meant Holland Dutch, and they were know as the cleanest people in Europe.

"Anyhow, he married a Low Dutch woman, and they had a family of six children. He had a lease on a track of timber there in southeastern Indiana, Decatur County, Indiana when he decided to leave with a wife and six kids.

"Well, they immigrated here to this country. But this lady's ancestor was with the Mayflower. You know, the Mayflower and the Speed Bell? They had been over to Holland and picked up this woman's ancestor.

"But they didn't want their kids to grow up to be Holland-Dutch so they came back to England and . . . a . . . they couldn't get the Speed Bell repaired or any other ship, so they all piled into the Mayflower and started.

"Well, you know the story about 'em a comin' across the ocean. They'd go about so fer one day and the storm would blow 'em back. And there was that young man from Holland, he was on there and he'd prance around over the deck at night and he'd say they'd never make it, they'd never make it, they'd never make it.

"One morning he didn't come up for breakfast so they went down to investigate, and his bed hadn't been slept in. They hunted the ship over and didn't find him. And well behold ye, he was gone.

"Well, the guard that was on deck said about eight bells he heard a big plunk in the water and he supposed it was a big fish. 'Well, we just as well divide up his stuff,' one man said. 'I want his axe,' one said. 'I want his gun,' another said. And when they hunted around for them and, behold ye, they was gone.

"Yes, well, you know the story. After a long trip across the ocean one evening late the watch man on deck hollered, 'Land ahead!' And they all run and looked, and behold ye, there was land.

"Well, it was too late for them to make a landing that evening so the next morning Miles Standish and his six soldiers thought they would go. They had seen a smoke on shore. They would go and find' out what it was, if it was some natives that they'd have to fight.

"But they pulled up under some brush and tied their boat up, and they got out on land in military formation. Miles Standish was leading them and they seen the strangest building they'd ever seen in their lives. It was built out of logs and the roof was clapboards.

"They got right up close and there set a man a readin' a daily newspaper, smokin' a corncob pipe. They got right up close to him, and he heard 'em and dropped the paper down and, behold ye, it was that guy that had disappeared off a that ship.

"He said he'd seen they wasn't gonna—or so he thought they wasn't gonna—make it, and he took his gun and axe and plunged in and took a dead reckoning on the North Star and headed for New England. 'And here I am,' he said. 'I built this cabin and cut ten cord of wood.'

"Just then the door opened and he said, 'And I married the old Chief's daughter.' She stepped out of the door, the most beautiful woman you ever seen, with hair braided up and hangin' clear below her waist. Oh, how they did love each other there and rejoiced that they'd found him safe and sound.

"Now he was an ancestor of my Grandmother Stephens."

Thornton laughs again and goes to another story related to the weather. This summer has been wet, but Thornton remembers one not so wet.

“The summer of 1901 was the driest summer I ever knowed," Thornton says. "I was ten years old that summer and was learnin' to swim. But along about the first of July the creeks dried up, and I had to put off my swimmin' lessons til the next year.

"And ya know the green frogs, they climbed the trees and built nests up there like squirrels and raised their young ones up there. And the fish dug holes in the sand down about eight inches and raised their young ones down there. It was fun to creep along there on the sand and listen to them old fish agruntin' to the young ones as they nursed them like an old sow nurses her pigs.

"Well, when the rains finally did come in the fall of the year, the . . . a . . . frogs they brought their young ones down out of the trees, and the creek was just full of fish six inches long that had never learned to swim. Their mothers had to stay with 'em fer about a month to train them fish how to swim.

"And that was the driest year I remember."

That's one of his favorite stories. But he likes dog stories, too. Many of us have owned dogs and had strange experiences with them. So has Thornton, he says.

"Now Old Bugle isn't all of it my story," Thornton says. “I read enough of it in the "Cappers Weekly" that gave me the inspiration of usin' it and enlargin' on it.

"Well, a good many years ago when I was much younger than I am now, it was my good fortune to own one of the finest hound dogs that ever lived. Old Bugle was his name. And on a clear cold night you could hear him for miles away by the most melodious voice that any dog ever had.

"Well, I hadn’t hunted but two or three times that fall and I was alistenin' on the radio and the weatherman said, ‘Ya better put on yer longhandled underwear tonight because it's gonna get real cold and frosty.'

"Well, I done that very thing. I put on longhandles–they had a row of buttons up the front and there was an opening behind for convenience with a button to close it, but it seldom ever was. Afterwhile my wife and I went to bed, and I don't think I had snored but three or four times til she hit me in the ribs with her elbow and said, 'Wasn't that a hen squall?'

"Well, l hadn't heard anything. Presently, I did hear a hen squall and then I remembered I hadn't shut that chicken house door. I bounded outta bed and grabbed at my gun and shells and took off down the frosty walk with my barefeet. And Old Bugle followed along as though he thought he might be needed.

"I peered in the chicken house as best I could. I didn't see anything. Then I stooped over to better look under the roost and just then something as cold as Greenland gouged me in the rear through that opening in my underwear. Whatever it was caused that gun to go off. I had it all ready cocked and at attention.

"Well, that was Old Bugle's nose. Just then my wife come with the flashlight, and I looked around over the roost and, behold ye, there was 13 dead and dying hens.

"Well, we set up til three o'clock in the morning aputtin' them hens in the freezer. Then after the chores were all done the next morning, Old Bugle went with me to the woods on his last trip; he never came back.

"I never again wanted to hunt after night or own a hound dog. Could you blame me?"

Thornton tells a lot of other stories, too. But they'll have to wait for another time.