The Last Laugh

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“You can stuff the hide of truth with anything. People’ll believe it, too, until they look long enough to see the stuffing coming out!”

Well sir, a couple of months back, I had the pleasure of attendin’ the three-day annual festyval of the Nation’l Association fer the Preservation an’ Perpetuation of Storytellin’ (it were held in Jonesboro, Tennessee). The event were an amazin’–an’ joyous–tale-tellers’ reunion, too . .. featurin’ all kinds of entertainin’ folks. An’ one of my partic’lar favorites were a minister name of Donald Davis from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Donald’s got hisself a relaxed nature, a honey-tongued voice, an’ a way of tellin’ stories what jist drags you right inta his world an’ holds you there tight until he’s done an’ gone. Lots of his tales are about the real-life experiences of his Uncle Frank Davis, a civic-minded relation what hailed from a town called Iron Duff, up in Haywood County.

After listenin’ to Donald tell tales fer an hour er two, I got the feelin’ thet I’d known both him an’ his Uncle Frank fer my whole life. As you kin imagine, then, I’m real tickled thet the gent has agreed to share one of his stories with us, so you kin have a chance to meet the two Davises yerselves . . . in a tale what he calls “The Electron Microphone”.
One day when I was out at Uncle Frank’s, we were standing in the yard when a pickup truck came down the road toward the house. After it stopped, two big old boys that looked to be about 16 or 17 years old stepped out. They had a couple of .22 rifles with them and were all dressed up to go squirrel hunting. The fellows walked right up to me and Uncle Frank.

“You Mr. Davis?” the bigger one asked. “My name’s Rathbone. My daddy said you might let us squirrel-hunt on your land if we was to ask you.”

Now I figured that the last thing Uncle Frank would want to see was two rough Rathbones tromping all over his personal hunting territory. But he just said, “Why, sure. I’d be glad for you to hunt all the squirrels you can find . . . if you’re going to eat them. I don’t want anybody to shoot my squirrels just for the fun of shooting.

” “Oh, we’re going to eat ’em, all right,” said the bigger Rathbone. “Me and my brother here’ll skin ’em and clean ’em, and Mama’ll cook ’em.

” “OK, then,” said Uncle Frank, “you go on ahead.”

The two Rathbones started to march right off towards the woods like they just couldn’t wait to plug holes through everything in sight. When they’d gone about a dozen steps, though, Uncle Frank called out, “There’s just one more thing, boys.

” They stopped short and looked back over their shoulders. “What’s that?” they both said.

“You see that little building standing up there?” Uncle Frank asked. He was pointing to the ridge above the Jolly Cove. Right up there on the peak was a small frame-covered-with-canvas structure. That was where Uncle Frank and I would lay out at night when we went fox hunting.

“Yeah, we see it,” said the bigger Rathbone.

“Well now, you can hunt anywhere you want . . . except don’t go in the cove below that building. And even if you’re out of that cove, you’d best check to see that the little hut’s not in sight when you shoot. We can’t take a chance on the noise.”

Those Rathbones turned full around and stared at us. You could tell they were beginning to wonder what in the world this was all about.

“We have to be sure to keep sudden loud noises out of the Jolly Cove and away from that building because of the sensitivity of the equipment,” Uncle Frank said seriously. (He was looking those Rathbone boys right straight in the eyes.) Well, they couldn’t stand it! They walked on back up next to the house, stopped still, and then the bigger one asked, “What’s this all about, Mr. Davis? After all, me and my brother don’t want to mess up anything.”Uncle Frank got right close to them. “Can you boys keep a secret?” he asked.”Sure, we can,” the littler one answered.

“I better swear you to it. Both of you raise your right hand and put your left hand on your heart.”They did. “Now do you boys swear, by the hand on your heart,

that you will not divulge or ever tell what you are about to hear, in the name and for the sake of Haywood County?”

We swear it! ” both boys answered.

“Then listen,” began Uncle Frank. “Nearly 200 years ago, several families of Jollys settled in that cove up there.

That’s why we call it the Jolly Cove. Several of those people had fought in the Revolutionary War, and one of them was an officer. After they settled there, other soldiers often visited those Jollys right up there.” “I don’t get it,” said the littler Rathbone.

“Well, hush up and listen! Last year, a team of government mapmakers came through here checking out all the measurements and elevations on their maps. They happened to notice that while they were up in the Jolly Cove, they could always hear one another talking . . . no matter how far apart they were. This amazed them so that they made precise geological measurements of the Jolly Cove, and calculated it to be a geologically perfect double-semi-hemi-spherical echo chamber! Of course, since you boys have been to school, you understand all that, and I don’t have to explain the details to you

.” The Rathbones just stood there and nodded.

“What that means, though,” continued Uncle Frank, “is that every sound ever made in the Jolly Cove-from the dawn of Creation even, on up until now-is still in there, echoing back and forth and getting softer and softer. And that, in turn, means that hours and hours of firsthand conversation about the Revolutionary War is trapped up there echoing!

” “Can you hear it?” asked the bigger Rathbone.

“You boys have been to school, haven’t you?” questioned Uncle Frank in a voice that implied they should surely be seeing the light by now.

” ‘Course we have, clean through the seventh grade,” the littler one popped up.

“Well then, you’re surely familiar with the electron microscope . . . the magnifier that’s so powerful it can take a gnat’s eyeball and make it look 20,000 times as big as it really is?”

Looking just a tad perplexed, the two boys nodded again. “What you might not have heard is that now they’ve invented an electron microphone, and it’s so powerful it can take sounds nobody can hear and make them 20,000 times as loud as they really are.

Well, boys, there are several electron microphones at key sites in the Jolly Cove and a whole bunch of recording equipment set up in that little house there. Those machinesthey were bought with grant money from the Daughters of the American Revolution!–are recording every sound ever made in the Jolly Cove . . . using special tape that has to be 18 inches wide to hold all of it.

“Every week, they take that recording tape to Washington, run it through a spectra-phonic voice separator, and then actually listen to firsthand conversations about the Revolutionary War. And now the Bureau of Indian Affairs wants to buy the sounds made before the Jollys got there, to see if there’s any Indian talk in there!

“So, boys, you can hunt all you want to, but just don’t make any loud noises in or around the Jolly Cove. They might interfere with our search for our nation’s past!

” The Rathbones looked wide-eyed at each other. Then the bigger one said, “Uh, thank you, Mr. Davis. I believe we better go hunt squirrels up on Guy Chamber’s place instead. I’d be scared to death we’d mess that thing up! ” With that, those two boys loaded themselves back into their pickup truck and drove away.

So the fabulous electron microphone saved the lives of a good many Jolly Cove squirrels that day . . . and saved Uncle Frank from having to say “no” to the Rathbone!

“At a certain age some people’s minds close up; they live on their intellectual fat. “

William Lyon Phelps