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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

No. 46 “Lying Willie”

One of the storytellers I came to know best while waiting in line at Louie’s Barbershop (post No. 35) was an old man whom everyone called “Lying Willie.” As might be assumed, there was a reason for the name. He would have been well into his seventies by the time I got to hear his stories. He lived in the same neighborhood as Louie’s shop, and would stop by to visit and  share with others the exciting events he had seen or heard of — if only in his own mind. Beyond that I don’t ever remember seeing him take his place in the barber’s chair. Wearing ragged bib overhauls and worn out canvas shoes, he would discourse on the issues of the day. Pausing only for a chronic cough that sometimes had him bending over in his chair, he always, always, made his point by recounting something fantastic.

Willie was as mild mannered and gentle a person as I ever knew, and was just one of the many men and boys who shared their tales to the group who waited in line for a haircut. But his stood out from all the others for two reasons. First, they were so outlandish that there was hardly any way that they could ever be true. Lots of folks told stories that might have been a stretch or an exaggeration, but with Willie’s yarns each twist and turn of the plot made them more and more bizarre.

The second reason why Willies’ stories were so unique was even more significant. They were told without his ever betraying their implausibility. Willie rattled of his accounts with the same demeanor as if he were describing something as real as the rising of the tide or the setting of the sun. His stark and sullen expression never changed, even when he delivered the final punch line that rendered his tale as totally unbelievable. Then, with only the hint of a smile that must have hidden a bulging internal belly laugh, he would move on to the next story. Usually, that one would turn out to be just as incredible as the one that preceded it. “It may have been a lie, but it was told for the truth,” someone would say as he recounted one of Willie’s many yarns, no matter how outlandish. Almost always it was the former.

Reflecting back on his stories through the prism of almost half a century, I have determined they all had a common strain and message. Willie’s tales seemed always to be about how a poor and simple man can, with enough imagination and ingenuity, turn almost anything to his advantage. Just two examples might illustrate these qualities.

According to Willie, one Spring day he was sitting on a marsh in Banks Bay hoping that a loon might fly by close enough that he could venture a shot. After several hours of waiting without a single sighting Willie was just about ready to head home. Just then he caught sight of a loon flying along the shoreline of Bell’s Island towards the horse pen on the landing of Diamond City. The bird was so close to the shore that Willie knew he would never be able to reach it with the small birdshot he had loaded in his shotgun. But rather than give up on his chance to carry home something for supper, Willie quickly came up with a plan.

In the blink of an eye and in rapid succession, he pulled his pocket knife, broke off the blade, peeled open a gunshell and poured out the shot, and then placed his knife blade in the shell and sealed it before loading it into the barrel of his gun. With hardly a second to spare, he took aim at the loon that was now almost directly between him and the waterline. Still thinking, he waited for the exact moment that the bird came in line with an oyster rock that was just off the shore and pulled the trigger. Then, according to Willie, the knife blade he had used to replace his birdshot sliced cleanly through the neck of the loon, killing it instantly, and then smashed on the exposed rock where it opened a half a peck of oysters before lodging into a stray piece of driftwood! By using his head as well as his talents, rather than going home empty handed he had both some meat and some shellfish to share with his family.

A final tale is less far-fetched but evidences just as much ingenuity. Willie once told of an especially thrifty farmer from Straits who had a favorite “white mule” that had served him well for over twenty years. (I’ve never been sure what the color of the mule had to do with the story, but Willy took great pains to emphasize that every time he mentioned it.) One morning, as he inspected his barn, he found out that his mule had unexpectedly died during the night. Rather than just dispose of his animal, the farmer came up with an idea to use the mule for a “final service” to his master. He decided to raffle off the mule for 25¢ a ticket.

When his wife learned of his plan, she begged him to give up his ruse rather than run the risk of angering his friends and neighbors when they learned that their intended prize was not just useless but dead. “Not to worry,” the farmer explained, “the only one with a reason to be mad will be the one that wins, and I’ll give him his money back!”

So it was with Willie and his stories. Even if you didn’t believe them, because you had been so entertained, you had nothing to complain about.

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