Day Writing by Heather Hamilton Maude: The art of the story
“Merle and my dad would sit in that living room of his and laugh and laugh, and even if you didn’t have a clue what they were talking about you would still get caught up in the laughter. Eventually the whole house would be laughing; those two just had the best time together.”
Merle Hamilton passed away on Aug. 13, and this was my father’s recollection when I called to ask him to share a couple of stories from or about his Uncle Merle.
In addition to being a highly intelligent man and superb rancher, Merle and my grandpa Lyle shared a gift for storytelling. That gift seems all the more important now that they’re gone, and in an age where spending time with of friends and family recollecting the past and sharing the humor in life is largely going by the wayside.
“When they lived on North Grand River in North Dakota and were around six or seven years old, Lyle was about two years older than Merle, they went to visit Grandpa Chester’s sister Ruth Ovitz and her husband Otto.
“Being that age and bored, Merle and dad found their way up into the top of Otto’s barn. They had been reading about pirates, no doubt under their mother’s supervision, and doggone if Otto did have quite a few 100 pound, seamless gunny sacks full of alfalfa seed in the top of his barn. They were hung from the rafters so the mice wouldn’t get into them. Dad and Merle found a couple sharp sticks and commenced a sword fight with these gunny sacks. If you poked a hole in one of those things, the alfalfa seed would just run out like water, and they enthusiastically murdered several of them.
“After a while, Otto went up to see what the boys were up to, and he was pretty upset about his alfalfa seed. So, he told Grandpa Chester he thought he ought to come do something about it. Merle and dad thought they were dead, but Chester just calmly said, ‘Oh Otto, they’re just being boys. Your seed is still all here, you haven’t lost anything.’ Dad and Merle were good to go.”
“Another time, after they had moved to Skull Creek, north of Osage, Wyoming, dad and Merle went exploring. And doggone if they didn’t find and old still on the creek. Amongst their findings was a full, completely sealed jug of moonshine. They were probably around 12 and 10, and of course they opened this thing up and commenced to sample it. Well, the more they sampled the better it tasted, and when grandpa Chester found them they were staggering drunk. He informed them they better go find somewhere quiet to take a nap and kill some time before their mother found them, or they wouldn’t live through their current state.”
Another story that Merle shared with my dad a couple years back occurred while he was serving in the Navy, after WWII.
“They were bringing home all the munitions; bombs, bullets and whatever else, from Europe. Among Merle’s jobs was operating the crane. This crane would reach down into the hull of the ship, where someone would hook onto a bomb, then Merle would wench it up and set it on a barge. When the barge was full it would go way out in the ocean, then they would shoot it, causing it to explode and sink to the ocean floor.
“Well, Merle was chewing Beechnut tobacco while he was operating this crane, and he would wench and spit, wench and spit, wench and spit down the hole into the hull of the ship. He wenched and spit, just a white cap emerged from the hole. It was the captain, with beechnut juice unknowingly on top his cap. Merle said he suddenly realized it was time for lunch, and he left.”
If you knew Merle, you can now hear the infectious laughter he would have ended that story with echoing in your own head. And you are smiling.
That is the art of the story, of which he was a master.