Please welcome guest author Janene E. Nielsen. Nielsen is the co-author, with her late father Cleudis Robbins, of the Appalachian coal mining novel The Burying Man.
My Appalachian father always began his stories with “Now, this is a true story.” In honor of him, I would like to begin my tale in just this way.
Now, this is a true story. Something magical happened in Bell County, Kentucky, this past October. The first ever Cleudis Robbins Memorial Storytelling Contest was held in the auditorium of Bell County High School in honor of a man who nearly 68 years earlier had won a similar contest. In winning, the course of his life had been changed.
That man was my father Cleudis Robbins, who was born and raised in the coal mining camps of southeastern Kentucky during the Great Depression. His young life was one of poverty, loss, and despair. Nevertheless, his spirit was strong. He recognized the importance and value of education, although he struggled to go to school. He sometimes didn’t live close to a school and his family situation didn’t always permit regular attendance. Yet, he persevered, graduating from Bell County High School at the age of twenty-one. He went on to obtain a master’s degree in education and human resources, become an officer in the United States Air Force, a newspaper columnist, novelist and photographer.
Despite his success in life, my dad never forgot where he came from, visiting often and giving generously to those in need. His great love for Appalachia is what spoke to us, my sister and I, when my dad passed away unexpectedly last November. In recognition of the significance of his winning that storytelling contest as a youth, we created the Cleudis Robbins Memorial Storytelling Contest. We hope other children in similar circumstances may also be inspired to dream big.
By all indications, they are doing just that! Nearly a hundred children submitted original stories, hoping to be chosen to compete in the storytelling contest. They were all wonderful. The task of picking the finalists was torture. Nevertheless, the jury chose sixteen, equally divided between the junior and senior divisions.
On the day of the event, one thing was clear as the children told their tales: The Appalachian storytelling tradition is alive and well in Bell County, Kentucky. In fact, it is thriving! Stories were as diverse as spine-chilling ghost stories to modern day adventures, tales handed down through generations to new stories spawned for the coming ages. We were swept up in sad tales of miners lost in cave-ins, funny stories about adventures in the mountains and whimsical narratives about every day life in Appalachia.
The first place winner in the junior division was Bronson Goins, a charming third grader from Yellow Creek School. He seemed as surprised and delighted by the audience’s reaction to him as it was by his humorous tale titled “The Mule Story.”
The first place winner in the senior division was a dark horse. If judging were based solely on the written submission, Corey Fuson’s fondness for defying the laws of grammar would have told against him. But his story was essentially a good one and this is, after all, a storytelling contest. We suspected if Corey could tell the story well, he had a very good chance of winning.
His submission, “Lesson Learned”, was a laugh-out-loud tale of the consequences of a young boy’s disobedience. His confidence and humor won him the honor. He told his tale in a confiding sort of way, with a twinkle in his eye, like each member of the audience was one of his good buddies with whom he couldn’t wait to share his latest exploit.
Lest you conclude boys are better storytellers, it might be advisable to withhold judgment until you have heard the 3rd place winner in the senior division Madison Hensley tell how her grandpa’s finger came to be buried alongside a prominent road in Bell County; or 2nd place winner Sarah Howard’s “Barely Left Harlan Alive”, a tale of terror and suspense in the Cumberland Mountains which just might make you reconsider your next camping trip.
As the last tale was spun, I couldn’t help but wish we’d allowed for more finalists. Better entertainment is hard to come by. Without doubt, my father was with us in spirit that day in the Bell County High School auditorium. He always said, “A good story takes some telling.” The finalists of the first ever Cleudis Robbins Memorial Storytelling Contest proved him right.
And that’s the truth.