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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Coffin Story

In case it hasn't become pretty apparent in a lot of my posts, I love a good story. I also love wordplay. Puns and double entendres are two of my favorite uses of the English language in writing. Mix that with a good story and even greater storyteller and you've got one of the greatest gifts that we have as human beings, the power of speech. When I was a sophomore in college I had finally broken into the ranks of the acting realm among my peers. It was a workshop production of Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuna. It's a tale based on the historical account of a village that turned on its tormentor and while under investigation ordered by the King of Spain, all the villagers proclaimed that "Fuente Ovejuna did it!" Kind of a 15th century version of "I am Spartacus."

The play was directed by a very talented and funny grad student who is now teaching at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He's also been in a few movies and has written a book entitled Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion And Rebellion in the Star Wars Films.
He's a truly gifted storyteller and has even on occasion performed the entire Star Wars saga using props from a McDonald's. Being from New England, he has that ability to tell a story with a certain flair of speech. Now, I'm going to butcher the hell out of it since it was 14 years ago, but the buildup is still there. So, these are my words you're going to read.

Growing up in a small New England town we have a lot of old Victorian homes in the area. A lot of them had that Gothic look to them with the metal work around the roofs. As kids growing up in any small town we were all subject to certain hazing and initiation rituals by the older kids. In order to be considered cool, you had to bend to their whim. They usually consisted of perform some sort of task that required you to do something humiliating or even slightly illegal. If anything else it was something that was meant to scare a child, leaving them completely vulnerable to ridicule by other kids their age. Fear was something you didn't show as a youth. Fear got you marked for life.

During the summer on one such occasion it was my turn to prove myself to the cool kids. My task was to venture into an old house on the hill up from my house. The story went that Old Man Johnson and his wife lived their for years. Every so often, the old man would be seen driving his antique car into town for supplies. His wife didn't get around much and he tended her all of the time. Eventually, she died, and by some sort of weird allowance, he was permitted to take the casket home. It's said that they never spent a night away from each other since they were married and he made sure to keep his promise by bringing home her casket and placing it in the basement of their old Victorian home. After that the old man was barely seen leaving the house. They had no other family so it's unclear whether or not he had died and the house was cleared of all belongings, including said coffin. It became the stuff of folklore to the kids in my town. In order to be in the club, you had to go into the basement and touch the coffin.

This years initiates included myself and two other equally frightened kids. We made our way up to the cellar door of the old house and opened it with a creak. Carrying only a flashlight and all the courage we could muster we filed down into the dark and dingy basement full of cobwebs and whatever our imagination could scare up. We reached the bottom of the rickety steps and turned to the left. In the far corner we made out what looked to be a work bench. As we moved closer it appeared to not be a bench but an altar. There it was. Old Mrs. Johnsons' coffin lie in state for all to see. It was black and immense. Our throats tightened. The legend was true. We had to go touch it or branded cowards by the eighth graders.

We crept closer to the coffin as our flashlight beam became more visibly erratic. It was like some weird and Gothic rave with a strobe light for ambiance. Just then, there was a sound like something being dragged on dirt. We looked all around the basement but could not find the source of the noise. Then it happened again and we shook with a start. On the next sound we noticed that the coffin had visibly moved position towards the edge of the slab of which it was laying. Perhaps, one of the older boys had snuck down into the basement ahead of us and was hiding behind the coffin making it appear to move. I held my ground with that thought as the other two boys quaked in their shoes. With that thought, the coffin reached the edge of the slab and tipped on to its end straight up in the air. Ok, now I was scared.

All three of us began taking steps backwards towards the stairs, never taking our eyes or our only source of light off the coffin as it began to slide, no bounce towards us, making the most horrific of sound. This was too much for my companions and they tripped over themselves and me trying to get out of the basement, knocking the flashlight from my hand. As they ran up the steps I reached for the flashlight but the coffin had bounced closer yet, now closing the distance between us, leaving the flashlight in a position nearer to it. Had I reached down to grab it, I would have been in a prime spot to be grabbed by the bony hand of Old Woman Johnson if she decided to fling open the casket lid and do so.

I crept backwards tripping on my fear towards the steps. Without my flashlight I had no weapon available to defend myself. Another bounce. I quickly searched my pockets for anything to use. Lint was definitely not a great idea as anyone will tell you that only a fool brings lint to a coffin fight. Another bounce. Here I was at the base of the steps, frozen in fear. My feet had left the situation and my brain was just about to grab the door on its way out as well. Still searching my pockets for anything. Another bounce! Now, the coffin stood a couple of feet away from me. The sunlight was just a few steps away, but I can only see the darkness of the ebony lacquer with my own frightened expression looking back at me in the reflection. The coffin was in position to strike, another bounce and I would be its next victim. Just then my thumb and index finger located something in my pocket. From my pocket I pulled out a Smith Brothers' lozenge. Not giving Old Woman Johnson the satisfaction of feasting on my flesh I did the only thing I could do. I threw the lozenge at the coffin with all my might. It with such intensity that it shattered into a million pieces and suddenly......

The coffin stopped.

Ok, somewhere by the third paragraph, I'm sure you knew where that was going. Of course, this particular story is an old campfire tale for Boy Scouts but it was the first time I had heard it and he had me at every word. My father is just as good at pulling you into a story that has a silly ending. He has a way of making something sound so legit, that you dare not question its foundation in reality. Once we all got over the forced laughter at such a dumb story, we moved onto our rehearsal and to this day whenever I get a group of people that need instruction or direction, I pull out that old story, dust it off, and give it a whirl. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Either way, the look on some one's face as you have them fooled is enough to make me appreciate a good tall tale. That's something that we don't have anymore in this society, for good or bad, storytelling is a lost art. Flashy CGI and other computer trickery has made us lose perspective when it comes to storytelling. The magic is in what big things you can do with very little in your pocket.....even a cough drop.

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