By Doug Neff
My Boy Scouting days are a long way off, but I keep finding little bits of learning from that time period lodged in the darker recesses of my brain.
I never thought that the cold evenings we spent huddled around damp, smoky campfires listening to each other tell stories would have had such relevance two decades later… but here we are.
The lesson I’m thinking about today has to do with puke stories.
Puke stories weren’t ordinary campfire tales. They weren’t ghost stories. They didn’t feature escaped murderers with hooks for hands, and they had nothing to do with werewolves or demons, or similarly nasty creatures. We told our share of those, but they weren’t puke stories.
And, strangely enough, they weren’t about puke. (Sometimes etymology fails us, I’m afraid. To this day, I can think of no earthly reason why they were called puke stories, except for the fact that boys of a certain age tend to favor certain words, regardless of etymology.)
Really, puke stories were just good stories, usually with some kind of funny punch line or twisted morality lesson that we would laugh about long into the night. But when I think back to the stories themselves, I have a hard time understanding why they were so utterly awesome. And the only answer I can come up with is this:
Their power existed in the telling.
This was definitely a case where almost wasn’t good enough. If you were going to tell a puke story, you had to have the ability to tell it right. And that was a rare thing in our troop.
In fact, none of us youngsters had the ability (or the right!) to tell puke stories at all. That role was left to one man, and one man alone. His name was Tom (our tough, gravel-voiced, mountain man of a Scoutmaster), and puke stories belonged to him.
It was a rare occasion when Tom would tell one of his famous yarns, which is to say that I heard maybe two or three in the handful of years I knew him. But I’ve never forgotten them.
Longevity is one sign of a good story, by the way. And Chip and Dan Heath can tell you more about why good stories stick. But puke stories had more to them than just longevity.
As boys, we craved them. We begged and pleaded for them. Every time we sat in his presence, we asked Tom to give us a rendition of “Kenji and the Snowball” or “White Radishes”. Every campout. Every weekly meeting. Every summer camp. We pushed and cajoled and teased. Once in awhile, we asked politely and maturely.
And Tom, in his wisdom, would usually find some reason to say no.
“Ask me later,” he would say.
So each time we actually heard a puke story—well, that was something to write home about. Because if we were listening to a puke story, then the setting was absolutely perfect for it. And no one was tired or hungry or in need of a restroom tree. And every single one of us would have given our life savings or (more valuable to us at the time) our flashlights and pocketknives to hear it.
So we sat, in rapt attention, for as long as the story lasted. And we carried those stories with us forever.
Desire can be a powerful thing. So can scarcity. And saying no. And an audience that wants to hear your story? Nothing is more powerful. Not even flashlights and pocketknives.
What was that, you say? What happened between Kenji and that snowball?
Ask me later.