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Our State | Humor | April 200

Stories That Make Us Smile

The Old North State may be geographically diverse (after all, our license plates once bore the phrase "Variety Vacationland") and even culturally separated from one end to the other (can the folks from Murphy really claim that much in common with those in Manteo?), but our oral tradition unites and binds us. From the ridges of our majestic mountains, the High Country's Orville and Ray Hicks engage audiences with their Appalachian antics and Jack tales while on the fringe of our Atlantic shores, Harkers Islander David Yeomans tells tales of life on Cape Lookout. We are a state of stories and of storytellers.

A good dose of humor permeates many of the stories told in our state. We North Carolinians seem to appreciate few things more than a good laugh, or at the very least a subtle smile, at the end of a well-told story. And we've been blessed with an abundance of folks who can tell a funny story. If space permitted, in fact, we could fill this issue (and probably a year's worth of issues) with amusing stories spun by North Carolina's storytellers and humorists. For now, though, we hope you'll sit back and enjoy just a few of the stories that make us smile.

Carl Goerch

Founder of the magazine you're holding (called The State from 1933 through 1996), Carl Goerch was born in New York state in 1891 but came to North Carolina in 1913 as a newspaper editor. Goerch's anecdotes appeared throughout the pages of The State and in his half dozen books. Here's a story you may remember from the magazine's March 1, 1969, issue.

This lady in Raleigh was having a bad time at the bridge club. She trumped her partner's ace, reneged twice and passed an informatory double. She seemed confused and uncomfortable. Finally she excused herself and went to the powder room.

When she returned, her playing picked up and she and her partner made the rubber. "What happened to you?" asked the partner. "You're really back in the game."

"Took off my girdle," replied the lady calmly.

Orville Hicks

Orville Hicks was raised in Beech Mountain, one of 11 children. With no radio or television at his home, young Orville listened nightly to his mother, who told stories that had been handed down from Orville's grandfather, the legendary Council Harmon, the earliest known teller of Jack tales in Western North Carolina.

Orville travels the state•the country, in fact•amusing audiences with his Appalachian antics. During the week and on Saturdays, he manages a container site, located on U.S. 321 between Boone and Blowing Rock. The dump and recycling station has become a virtual tourist attraction, as those who use the facility stop to listen to Orville's tales, like the one that follows. Orville's cousin, by the way, is Ray Hicks, one of the most famous living American traditional storytellers. 

Well I had two uncles back in the mountains 'ere. They went out and bought 'em a horse apiece. We got the horses home and got to lookin' at 'em, and that one says, "How we goin' tell these horses apart?"

 That other one said, "Let's measure and see which one's the longest."

They got their ruler out and measured the horse and both of 'em was the same longness. They measured them this other way and both of them was the same tallness, and they still couldn't tell 'em apart. That one said, "What we gonna do?"

The other uncle said, "I know what I'll do, I'll take the scissors and cut a piece out of my horse's ear."

He got the scissors and cut a little piece out of his horse's ear and said, "Now we can tell them apart."

Well, that night the other horse got hung in a barbwire fence and tore a piece out of his ear. They went down 'ere the next morning to get 'em and they couldn't tell 'em apart. That one said, "What we gonna do now?"

That other one said, "I'll cut part of mine's tail out." He cut about three or four inches of the horse's tail out. He said, "Now we can tell them apart."

But that night that horse got hung in a barbwire fence and pulled part of its tail out. They got down 'ere lookin' at 'em. That one said, "What we gonna do now? How we gonna tell 'em apart?"

That other one said, "The only thing I know to do is you take the white one and I'll keep the black one."

Jerry Bledsoe

Best known for his gripping chronicles of true crimes, Jerry Bledsoe's first true-crime book, Bitter Blood, spent six months on The New York Times 1988 best-seller list, half of that as No. 1. But Bledsoe also is known for his humorous writing. You may remember him as a columnist and reporter at The Charlotte Observer and The Greensboro Daily News & Record. He also served as contributing editor of Esquire magazine from 1972 until 1975, and his work has appeared in other national publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and New York magazine.

As a journalist, he twice received the National Headliner Award and also the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award. His work has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize four times. Bledsoe was born in Danville, Virginia, but grew up in Thomasville. He and his wife Linda live in Asheboro and in Carroll County, Virginia, where he does his writing.

I didn't intend to buy ham when I went to the supermarket, but I noticed  it was on sale as I was passing the deli section, and I'm a sucker for anything on sale.

"I'll have four ounces of that ham sliced thin," I said to the young woman who came to help me from the bakery department, where she had been negotiating the sale of a Mickey Mouse birthday cake.

"You mean you only want one slice?" she said, looking puzzled.

"No, I don't want it sliced thick," I said, thinking perhaps she had misunderstood me. "I want it sliced thin."

"Still that won't be but about one slice," she said.

Now it was my turn to look puzzled.

"A quarter of a pound?" I said. "That would have to be a thick slice."

"Oh, you want a quarter of a pound?" she said.

"Yes," I said, relieved that we were now getting on the same wave length.

"Then you want 25 ounces."

"No," I said, again befuddled, "I just want four ounces."

"But that won't be but one slice," she said.

It was clear we'd reached some sort of impasse, and I wasn't sure how to proceed. Suddenly, her face brightened, as if she'd seen a way out.

She was holding a thick red marking pencil and she placed it on the scale.

"See, that weighs five ounces right there," she said.

"No, that weighs point zero five of a pound," I pointed out. "Five hundredeths of a pound."

I was trying to figure out how many ounces that came to but my mind wouldn't calculate that fast.

"A pound is 16 ounces, right?" I said.

"No a pound is a hundred ounces. See, we have computers now," she said, indicating the digital scale.

"Oh," I said, flabbergasted at what computers had now wrought. "Well, I just want a quarter of a pound."

"So you want 25 ounces."

"I guess so."

"Sliced thin?"

"Sliced thin."

"I see how you're looking at it," she said, attempting to offer solace as she handed me the ham, but it was clear that she was only feeling sympathy for an old codger that the computer age had left behind with 16-ounce pounds.

From The Bare-bottomed Skier and Other Unlikely Tales (Down Home Press, October 1990)

Betty Ray McCain

Faison-native Betty Ray McCain was the secretary of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. She has served as president of NC Democratic Women and became the first chairwoman of the NC Democratic Party. Once called the funniest woman in America by actor Alan Alda, McCain is a natural-born storyteller.

Hal Crowther

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, of American parents, Hal Crowther is a graduate of Williams College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was a staff writer at Time and an associate editor at Newsweek, where he was television critic and editor of the media section. In 1981, he began writing his syndicated column for Spectator magazine, where he was executive editor from 1986 to 1989.

Since 1989, his column has originated at The Independent Weekly in Durham. In 1992, it received the Baltimore Sun's H. L. Mencken Writing Award, the first weekly column so honored. The column is syndicated to weeklies and Sunday newspapers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Kentucky, Virginia, Arkansas, and Tennessee.

Crowther also writes a column on Southern culture and literature for The Oxford American and contributes regularly to the book section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has published two collections of his essays, Cathedrals of Kudzu: A Personal Landscape of the South (LSU Press, 2000) and Unarmed But Dangerous (Longstreet Press, 1996). He lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and is married to novelist Lee Smith.

Not long ago, my wife and I moved into a house in Hillsborough, North Carolina, that was built before the Civil War. It's of no special interest to historians, as far as we know. But it has an aura. It belonged to a family of undertakers, for one thing. My bedroom overlooks an eighteenth-century cemetery, where a signer of the Declaration of Independence is interred along with Confederate officers, antebellum governors, and the like. We own a decrepit red carriage house from a previous century and an ancient freestone wall halfburied under honeysuckle, and out back a brick summer kitchen, older than the house, where someone's slaves cooked supper when Andrew Jackson was president.

Crooked trees, stripped and maimed by the hurricane, give the place an Addams Family atmosphere. A friend, only half joking, tells me I've come to rest where I belong-in a decommissioned mortuary with a view of the graveyard.

History has tightened its grip on me. Don't look for me on horseback next spring, dressed for a Civil War reenactment. But those accountants brandishing bayonets don't seem quite as silly as they used to.

History lives in the bricks and stones. For a price, established by a realtor, you can listen to those stones day and night. In the South, as so many writers have noted, they never shut up . . .

From Cathedrals of Kudzu: A Personal Landscape of the South (Louisiana State University Press, August 2000)

Sidebar: Rah, Rah Carolina!

As a journalism student at UNC, I remember picking up a newspaper on the Chapel Hill campus that parodied NC State's student newspaper, The Technician. The bogus paper was titled The Tachnician, so that pronouncing the title would make one sound as though they had a wad of tobacco wedged in the cheek. The paper contained front-page articles about farm issues, cow milking and the like, all silly stuff but a good poke at our rival NC State. I'm sure the students at the Raleigh campus responded in kind.

Jokes and prods between university rivals represent perhaps what most distinguishes North Carolina humor from Southern humor - or even from our national humor, if there is such a thing. While many of our puns may resonate throughout the South - especially those jokes about farmers, traveling salesmen, rednecks, religion and other topics - it is our universities and the rivalries they spawn that create a humor that arguably could be claimed as distinctly North Carolinian.

Sure, every state has its share of college jokes, but the abundance of universities in our state, and their proximity to one another, provide the fodder for many a good joke. After all, most of us claim allegiance to at least one of our state universities, whether or not we are alumni. There are avid Duke fans who have yet to set foot in Durham but love leveling a joke at Carolina, State and Wake Forest.

Of course, we Chapel Hill alumni respond in kind, as in the following joke reprinted in Tar Heel Laughter (University of North Carolina Press, August 1983).

A young Chapel Hill foursome . . . were burying a pet bird that a cat had killed. One little girl was telling her mother about it all. "We put it in a box and we dug a hole under the crabapple tree," the youngster said wistfully. "And Tommy prayed about the bird, and we covered it up then. And then we sang a song . . . "

"What did you sing?" asked the child's mother.

 "We sang 'Don't Give A Damn for Duke University' because that was the only song that all four of us knowed," she replied.

Asheville-based writer Ralph Grizzle is a graduate of School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

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