The Power of Character

One of the things I loved most as a kid was my Grandma Ruth’s collection of 45-records, passed on to her from her dad’s jukebox and pinball machine distribution business in Oregon.  She would “ride the route” from customer to customer (taverns, arcades, roller skating rinks, etc.), and change out the records in the jukeboxes.  That was years before I ever came along, but those records would become an important part of my childhood.

I was drawn to music and storytelling from the beginning, so my discovery of the old 45′s was thrilling, to say the least.  A few were old jazz and 70′s disco, but the vast majority of them were country songs, trucker songs, and obscure story songs from the 60′s and 70′s.  Songs of humor, danger, tough characters and outlaws.  Songs depicting bad guys as heroes.  Trains, knives, guns, booze, diesel smoke, and girls.  As Joe Piscopo says in his role as Danny Vermin in the film Johnny Dangerously, “these are a few of my favorite things”. I’m talking stuff like Red Sovine’s Big Joe and Phantom 309, Johnny Paycheck’s Colorado Cool-aid, and Cledus Maggard’s The White Knight. Songs in the vein of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”, but not as well known.

“Where the hell are we headin’ on this saunter down pothole-riddled memory lane?” you’re probably asking yourself now (in the voice of Sam Elliott) while stroking your handlebar moustache and squinting beneath the brim of your ten-gallon hat.  Just settle yer spurs, Lefty – I’m gettin’ to it.

One summer my dad took me to meet his dad – a retired shrimper named Buddy – in Florida. I was eleven or twelve, I guess.

“Grandpa Buddy’s gonna tell you that you gotta be tough, and that gettin’ old ain’t for sissies,” my dad told me.  For a country boy from Oregon who’d never really been anywhere, it was a big adventure.  Flying in a plane across America, I stared down in amazement at the “circles and squares” of farmland, and the silver ribbons of winding rivers.

“What kind of name is ‘Buddy’,” I thought?

Imagine my delight and surprise when Grandpa Buddy turned out to be a retired version of one of the tough characters right out of those songs I loved so much.  He’d lived a life full of adventure and danger as the captain of his own shrimp boat; he’d lived out a slice of the Americana I’d come to idolize, and so I instantly idolized him.  He had enough stories to fill not just a book, but an entire shelf, and he embellished those stories just right when he told them to me, in his deep southern voice that sounded like Johnny Cash.  He talked about a different world then the one I knew, but I identified it as the same world being sung about on those old 45 records: heroes, villains, tough guys, mercenaries, pirates and prostitutes.

“You gotta be tough,” he said over and over again.  Most of the stories ended with that sentiment – it was the takeaway, the moral, his mantra.  And in my mind, he was the coolest, toughest guy I’d ever seen.  He lived in central Florida on a river full of gators and snakes.  He made shrimp nets by hand out in his workshop.  He had tattoos, a jeep, nine machetes and an earring.  Okay, it was probably more like two or three machetes, but in my imagination it was definitely nine.

It turned out that my Grandpa’s real name was Marvin, a name he never liked. He quit school as a young boy and worked as a helper on fishing and shrimping boats. The fishermen would say “Hey buddy, get me the so-and-so”, “Hey buddy, I want you to do this or that, or “Thanks buddy”. And so his new name was born.

After that trip, I returned to my familiar life with my mom in our little house surrounded by farms and fields in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Depressed and bored, I stayed in bed all the next day, tears rolling.  When my mother asked me what was wrong, I told her I wanted to go back to Grandpa Buddy’s house. I was just a kid with an overactive imagination. I didn’t yet have the understanding that my grandfather was just a man, just a vulnerable person with fears and desires like anyone else. In my head, he was way larger than life.

I spent the rest of the summer hating myself, because I had learned that – when it came down to it – I wasn’t tough, and probably never would be. But I had also learned something of immense value, something I would carry with me from then on, something that tied the old 45 records and my grandfather together in a more cohesive way.

I now understood the magic of storytelling, and the power of character.

 

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