Rodney The Storyteller


Rodney, my brother-in-law, is one of the South’s best storytellers.

He doesn’t tell stories in the typical Southern manner of embellishment, lyrical phrasing, or extreme expression. He tells them in such a casual way that the story becomes the king. Not the storyteller.

His tone is even while he meanders through the story, like a small mountain stream ebbing gently to a river. Then, a surprise punch line or plot twist springs forward, unexpectedly. Sometimes, it takes a few seconds to register how the story ended.

“What???” I’ll often exclaim.

Almost always, he will shrug casually, look off into the distance and say, “Yep, that’s what happened.”

His stories can have a stunning, gothic twist and even he does not realize how incredible they are.

I grew up in a family where gothic storytelling is as commonplace as a hot iron skillet of cornbread. But my folks practiced well the art of dramatic delivery.

A few years back, after Sunday dinner, some had left the table while a couple moaned over eating too much. A couple of folks had left while a few of us stayed for conversation about this or that. Talk turned to a small plane crash that happened many long years ago.

“Am I misremembering or were you at the crash?” I asked.

Rodney paused for a moment then nodded quietly. For several seconds, he looked at me, his mind, no doubt, gathering his thoughts. Finally, he spoke softly.

“Murder.” Another long reflection. “That’s what that was. No two ways about it.”

I firmly believe this about all storytelling masters: stories find them. So, it happened that Rodney had been on an errand, returning from town, probably from the Farmers Exchange, when he came up on a gathering of cars on the side of the road of a farm about two miles from his farm. Rodney quickly swerved his truck onto the farm’s graveled road which led him to plane wreckage.

His neighbor, a former commercial airline pilot, was dead, hanging upside down in the cockpit. Another neighbor, Charlene Christie, a registered nurse, was administering CPR to the pilot’s five-year-old daughter. Charlene had stopped when she saw two men carrying the unconscious child up an embankment. As she worked on her, the two men got in a car and sped away.

The crash would end the federal indictment for a man who had bragged recently to a television news crew that he had flown over 200 drug smuggling trips from the Caribbean. Rumors abounded that he was prepared to name co-conspirators.

The authorities came quickly. The ambulance carried the child away and surgeons worked successfully to save her life.

Still, her father hung lifeless upside down. “Don’t anyone touch him!” barked the agent hurrying off for a camera. Meanwhile, the pilot’s father, who had witnessed it, begged someone to help his son.

Rodney is a fine man. He subscribes to the law of the Lord over the law of the land. As soon as the agent’s back was turned, he borrowed a pocket knife and cut the safety belts that held the victim then gently lifted him out.

“Yeah, they were all pretty mad about it,” Rodney mumbled as he shrugged. Another day in his deceptively simple farm life. Another story that will long outlive him.

My sister added a coda that Rodney’s humble telling would never have included. “When we went to the funeral home, the moment his wife saw Rodney, she ran to hug his neck tightly and thanked him. “You,” she said, “were the only one who would help him.”

The tale ended with a sad sigh from Rodney. His blue eyes glistened with tears as he looked out the window.

Somber silence swallowed the air and for several minutes, no one spoke or moved.

Such is the power of Rodney’s humble stories.

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of the new novel, “St. Simons Island: A Stella Bankwell Mystery.” Visit to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]