Don’t ride The Octopus. That might be one lesson taken away from this past weekend’s 17th annual Azalea Storytelling Festival hosted by LaGrange College.
This year’s event hosted five storytellers from different areas of the country, once again emceed by Carol Cain.
“It can be cold outside, but it’s warm and wonderful in here all weekend,” Cain told attendees at Friday’s kickoff of the three-day event.
The Callaway Auditorium was packed with attendees for the event.
Donald Davis of North Carolina, whom Cain said she has introduced to the stage more than any other storyteller, kept the crowd laughing with his recollection of childhood mishaps. He told the group about the time he and his brother rode The Octopus at the annual carnival.
Previously, the pair’s mother had forbade them from riding anything more than the non-moving bench in the merry-go-round, but when their father took them one year, they got to go a swirling new ride, The Octopus. Much to their dismay, they left the ride with their brains scrambled, barely able to walk.
Later, when their aunt brought two kittens to their house – their mother hated cats – to keep until she could give them as a present to someone else, Davis’ younger brother offered to keep up with them. One day, after being given Easter baskets to keep each cat in, Davis’ brother let the two cats “ride The Octopus,” swinging them around with his arms, resulting in their mom caring for and naming the two brain-scrambled cats Pitiful and Unfortunate. Their mother ended up keeping the cats.
Ed Stivender of Philadelphia introduced himself with a banjo strapped across his chest.
“People always say, ‘cool, a banjo. Play Dueling Banjos,’” Stivender said, as he strummed the first notes then echoed back the tune by mouth. He then had the crowd become his opposing banjo players, which became of a challenge as the tune became more complex.
Moving into a story, Stivender began a first-person account of a 19th-century man who opts to get a burglar alarm for his home, only to be continually thwarted by burglars, false alarms, accidental alarms and mishaps. Describing how the contraption was designed with a gigantic gong at the head of he and his wife’s bed, the alarm was loud enough to propel them from the bed at 5 a.m. every day when the cook accidentally set it off.
He eventually discovers a pack of burglars were hiding out in his home, because the last place they thought the police would look was the home with the most notorious burglar alarm in the country. After everything of value in his home is taken, he finally trades the alarm for a dog, finally achieving home security after nine long years of sleeping with burglars.
Carmen Deedy, who emigrated from Cuba as a child and grew up in Decatur, told of her uptight elementary school principal, who was so contained “if she turned too fast, you’d hear her girdle snap.” Channeling voices and painting vivid pictures of her principal and the school staff she remembered from childhood, Deedy recounted the time she saw the principal smash a cracked window with her shoe because the school system was reluctant to fix it, then, noticing Deedy, hissed, “you saw nothing.”
Later, when Deedy was talked into pulling the fire alarm as a graduating fifth-grade prank, her father marched her back to the school to face the principal. She was surprised when the principal let her off with less of a punishment – writing her name 500 times – than she feared. It wasn’t until 20 years later, after Deedy returned to Decatur for a book store signing of her first book, that she found out why.
After seeing the principal at the book signing, she told her that once the uptight southern woman had also been talked into pulling the fire alarm to join a sorority. Deedy said the woman had known just how much torque to apply to a young girl who could have gone down the wrong path.
“Maybe it’s part of the journey, the people that you meet who radically change your life,” Deedy mused.
Eric Litwin of Atlanta, guitar in hand, narrated his book “Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes.” Litwin told how the story had evolved from one originally involving a boy at one of the previous Azalea Storytelling Festivals, to become Pete the Cat after Litwin saw the character, created by James Dean, and recorded the song to send to Dean. They published the book, which has since been followed by more collaborations.
Litwin had the audience sing along and respond as the titular cat steps in several things that change the color of his shoes, but doesn’t change his happy-go-lucky attitude.
“No matter what you step in, keep walking along and singing this song, because it’s all good,” Litwin said.
Connie Regan Blake told about the time she flew, part of an experience parapenting, which she spontaneously decided to do while vacationing in New Zealand with her husband. The usually timid Blake said she and her husband both were surprised with her spontaneity, but she had the most wonderful experience that she smiled for days.
Switching to a more serious topic, she told about her visit to Uganda, where she met a young woman named Rose. The girl, who used to walk the roads looking for a stray coin to feed her starving children, experienced a life-changing event when she was diagnosed with AIDS. Despite seeming to be a negative event, being diagnosed meant receiving medicine, and food for her and her children.
A doctor showed Rose how to make paper beads for jewelry, some of which Blake sells to raise money for Bead for Life, an anti-poverty initiative. Blake was in Uganda to interview women about poverty, and after talking to 17 women, Rose came to tell Blake goodbye before she left.
“She told me, ‘Bead for Life brushed the dust from her my heart,’” Blake said. “‘My basket is now full.’”