The Storyteller Gene

March 15, 2010 06:25 AM

The first generation on our farm was an ancestor nicknamed "Lying Abe” to differentiate him from his contemporary, "Honest Abe.” He came by this title, umm, honestly, as his stories were famous throughout the country.

For example, he was a man of robust strength, and when he told listeners he once carried two 200-lb. flour sacks on his shoulders up the mill stairs, breaking every step in the process, many nodded with open mouths.

On my other side, I had a favorite uncle who told us how the government gave him a special driver's license that allowed him to drive 90 mph. Unfortunately, I never knew him to own anything that could top 50.

With those genes at work, the following account of a talk with my grandson, John, should not surprise you.

We sat on the steps one early spring evening, looking out over our back lawn.

"Grandpa, what are those tall green spots in the yard—like there?” My grandson pointed to the scattered tufts of "overfertilized” sod speckling the greening grass. I glared at our dog, who suddenly seemed to have noticed an imaginary squirrel and bounded briskly away.

"Well, John, that's where your grandpa had a very close call this past winter,” I replied.

"What happened?”

"You know Grandma's compost pail—the one she keeps in the garage for food scraps and stuff like that? One night last winter it was cold and dark, so she asked me to empty the pail on the compost way over there.”

"I thought Grandma always did that herself because you're all of the time dumping it in the wrong place?”

"Gimme a break, kid—she's got 57 different bins out there!”

"No, only six. I counted 'em.”

"Look, we're drifting away from the story. Anyway, I was walking out to the compost and I happened to glance up and notice a dark shadow blocking out the stars. It was like looking at a boat from underneath—an oval pointed on both ends. Suddenly, blue laser beams began firing down on me from the shadow!”

"For really? What was it?”

"It was an alien ship from the planet Snord! They were trying to blast me because I had caught them spying on me.”

"Huh! Why were they spying on you, Grandpa?”

"That's how they plan their invasion—they sneak down and listen to the smartest people on the planet to learn all about our weaknesses. Anyway, you know how the compost pail is real shiny—how you can see yourself in it?”

"What? You look at yourself in Grandma's compost pail?”

"Jeez—work with me, John. The point is I used the compost pail to reflect the laser beams, and wherever I deflected them and they hit the ground, you get one of those grass spots.”

He eyed me warily. "How do you know they were from Snord?”

"Easy, I read their license plate.”

"But wasn't it written in Snordish?”

"Exactly—that's how I knew where they were from.”

He pondered briefly. "Why was the ship pointed on both ends?”

"Snord ships can go forward and backward just the same. They don't have to turn around.”

"Won't the captain and crew be at the wrong end sometimes?”

"Nope—the ship's control room slides along a tunnel to whichever end is the front.”

"How do you know that?”

"Well it only stands to reason, right? Besides, I Googled it.”

"Oh. Yeah.”

He thought deeply for several moments, looking closely at the ragged grass. "Did Grandma see any of this happen?”

"Nah—she was in the shower. And it's probably best that we don't tell her since I'm pretty sure I scared them off, and we don't want her to be frightened.”

"Was it scary, Grandpa?”

"You bet, but the main thing is I kept my head and realized how to use my agility and brains to save myself and most probably all of the people on Earth.”

He fell silent in the evening sun as the imagined battle replayed mere yards away on the lawn. The signs were clear—a memory was being laid down that he would keep, despite the efforts of reason (and parents) to dislodge, just as I still can recall similar stories even though I'm not sure where my wallet is.

We walked in pensive silence to the house. Just before we reached the door, his brow furrowed and he blurted, "Wait, the Snords would still be facing the wrong direction half the time!”

Obviously, the engineer gene is also in there somewhere.

John Phipps farms in Illinois and is the host of "U.S. Farm Report.” Visit for station listings. To view past columns, visit or

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