“The Old Soldier’s Story” by James Whitcomb Riley – selection #38 of Deal Me “IN” 2016

The Card: ♣5♣  Five of Clubs

The Suit: For this year’s Deal Me IN, Clubs is my suit for “Stories by Legendary Indiana Authors.”

The Selection: “The Old Soldier’s Story” from my copy of “The Complete Works of James Whitcomb Riley” which I own as a “Nook Book. .”

The Author: Known as “The Hoosier Poet” James Whitcomb Riley is a towering figure in Indiana’s Literary History. In Indianapolis, his name is still “all over town” (including Riley Children’s Hospital) and his home is a museum in the heart of the Arts District downtown.

img_6202What is Deal Me “IN” 2016? I’m glad you asked! Before the start of each year, I come up with a list of 52 stories to read and assign each of them to a playing card in a standard deck. Each week, I draw a card, and that is the story I read. By the end of the year (52 weeks), I’m done, and ready to start a fresh deck. (For a more detailed explanation of the Deal Me In challenge, see the sign up post. For a look at my deck of cards/storylegacy project seal of approval 2roster click here.) Since 2016 is my home state’s bicentennial, in this year’s edition of my annual Deal Me In challenge, I’m reading only stories that have an Indiana “connection” of some kind. Deal Me “IN” is also now officially endorsed as a “Legacy Project” by The Indiana Bicentennial Commission.


The Old Soldier’s Story

“It is a story as told by a friend of us all, who is found in all parts of all countries, who is immoderately fond of a funny story and who, unfortunately, attempts to tell a funny story himself, one that he has been particularly delighted with.”

Okay, so this short story is really short. In fact, it’s just a small frame around an “old joke” (but I hadn’t heard it before, perhaps because I’m a child of the late 20th century). What charmed me about it, though, was how Riley sets it up. The old soldier, who tells the story (joke) within the story, is a character whose “type” we are probably all familiar with, even across the gulf of time between now and when this work was written. He is a poor story teller, stumbles over the order of the events in the story, and – what’s even worse – his audience has heard the tale many times before!

Yet this is a kinder, gentler audience of a bygone era. One that is described with tenderness by Riley.

*Spoiler Alert!* I’ll summarize the funny story below, but if you’d like to read Riley’s version first (which frankly isn’t that much longer) it may be found online here.

The story/joke the soldier tells is of another soldier who, in battle, has his leg “blown off” by enemy fire and appeals to a comrade in arms to carry him back behind the lines so that the doctors can help him. With shells bursting all around, as the comrade carries the wounded man in a scrambling frenzy, the wounded man is hit again, and this time his head(!) is taken off. In the chaos of battle, though, his rescuer doesn’t realize this and returns to the medical tent with his cargo and is greeted by an officer who asks him why he brought “that” (meaning the body) with him. The rescuer, still unaware, says the man’s leg has been shot off so he’s bringing him to the doctors. The officer corrects him and says his head has been shot off, upon which the rescuer exclaims, “Why, he told me it was his leg!”

♫Personal Notes: I dragged a few members of one of my book clubs along with me on a downtown Indy “ghost tour” a couple months ago, and one of the stops was Riley’s home in the Lockerbie Square neighborhood, where he is alleged to sometimes appear. We didn’t get to meet him that night, however. Coincidental that I drew this card the week of the Riley festival in the poet’s home town of Greenfield, Indiana. Also coincidental that I’ve drawn two poets in a row, since they are scarce in my short story deck for Deal Me IN 2016.
Have YOU read anything by James Whitcomb Riley? I’ve actually had another story in Deal Me “IN” 2016 that features him as a character, “The Devil and James Whitcomb Riley.

below (from Wikimaps) the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, Indiana


1 Comment

  1. Dale said,

    October 6, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    I laughed out loud at the joke! Also, that’s a nice picture of Riley (the hospital). My oldest, who is almost 21, was there for a week when she was first born. It’s a good hospital.


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