“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

riley-hosp

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The Devil and James Whitcomb Riley by Jason Roscoe – selection #30 of Deal Me “IN” 2016

The Card: ♥10♥ Ten of Hearts.

The Suit: For 2016, Hearts is my suit for stories from “Indiana-related Magazines and Literary Journals”

The Selection: “The Devil and James Whitcomb Riley” from Mythic Indy, an anthology of “New legends, fairy tales, and myths about Indianapolis.” I have a couple copies of this anthology, one signed by many of the authors, which I received since Bibliophilopolis was one of many sponsors of the project, and another, now more beat up copy that I carry around with me, reading a story here and there… The story may also be read online at Punchnel’s Magazine where it was originally published.

The Author: Jason Roscoe. This story is the first of his work that I’ve read, and I don’t know much about him, but he operates a website http://basementrejects.com that includes reviews of many tv series and movies. It is where I found the mysterious gas mask photo of him(?) above…

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.

James_Whitcomb_Riley,_1913 (1)

The Devil and James Whitcomb Riley

“‘I must have my story.’

‘What happens if I refuse?’

‘Bad things. Very bad things.'”

Stories have power. That’s something I’ve come to appreciate more and more ever since I started blogging about them back in 2010.  Many authors have written or spoken about this as well. I remember in particular an author event at Bookmama’s Bookstore a few years back that featured Indiana author James Alexander Thom. He was there to talk about a book of his on the “art and craft” of writing historical fiction and talked about how stories around the campfire by ‘primitive man’ were the start of everything. Stories about what a hunter found ‘the next valley over’ (or whatever) were the birth of geography. Stories about certain plants that eased certain pain or injuries became the birth of medicine. And so on, and so on. I don’t want to spoil an upcoming Deal Me “IN” post, but I have on deck an interview with author Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) where he shows a respect for the power of the story as well. James Whitcomb Riley had a reputation as one of the greatest storytellers of his time. A reputation that also made him known, in this story anwyay, to the Devil himself!

Shortly after his death in 1916, Riley’s spirit, “at rest in crown hill cemetery” is accosted by a strange voice, one that he knows, deep down, is that of the Devil.  The Devil demands that Riley entertain him with a story and, perhaps for the first time in his life – er, perhpas I should say “existence” – Riley’s “got nothing” and can’t quickly come up with one. The Devil gives him a year to come up with one and he does. Satisfied, the Devil decides to make this a recurring contract, one that Riley eventually tires of, prompting the interchange quoted above.  The year he refuses, 1945, something bad happens. Something very bad. Nuclear weapons are used for the first time in human history. Riley’s ghost blames himself and keeps his end of the bargain up going forward, but to what end?

It’s not clear, but to this reader – by the end of this story – Riley’s annual storytelling is perhaps beginning to have a “good influence” on the nature of the Devil himself. Now THAT is powerful indeed! Maybe the denouement is best captured by the final paragraph of this story:

“Next time you’re in Crown Hill Cemetery on a cool spring day and you think you catch something out of the corner of your eye – a shimmer or an old man – and you feel a chill down your spine, remain calm.  Just lie back on the grass, and know that you are safe in the hands of a master storyteller. Close your eyes and listen closely and perhaps you’ll even hear a story that could charm the Devil himself.”

This is the final story from “Mythic Indy” that I’ll be reading for this year’s short story project, but there remain several stories in the collection which I have yet to read “at large.” Maybe I’ll save some for a future year’s iteration of “Deal Me In.”  I recommend picking up a copy of this book check out http://www.secondstoryindy.org/2015/09/pre-order-mythic-indy-and-support-second-story/ online for details or maybe check at Indy Reads Books bookstore Next time you’re in downtown Indy.

Indy_Skyline_Riley

Above: The burial site of James Whitcomb Riley, at the top of Crown Hill cemetery.  It’s the highest point in Indianapolis (for you trivia fans out there).

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♫ Personal Notes: The Indianapolis home of James Whitcomb Riley (above, from Wikipedia) is now a museum, in the downtown”Lockerbie” neighborhood.  It’s just a few blocks away from the location where one of my book clubs meets (the Rathskeller – you should try it sometime if you’ve never been) and after this month’s meeting, eight of our members adjourned to an afterparty featuring a walking ‘ghost tour’ of the area.  This event was sponsored by the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library in conjunction with one of the books (dealing with “haunted Indiana”)  in their summer reading program. The tour itself – though I found it very interesting – provided few true frights.  The Riley home was the last stop on the tour, and we learned that some visitors have reported seeing the ghost of “The Hoosier Poet” on the grounds.

(below: one of my awesome book clubs at a recent meeting at the Rathskeller; I think we set an attendance record that night) 

book club 08-11a