Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Leroy's Christmas

I don’t expect many of you to believe this story. Most of you (up to and including my friend and editor) will probably dismiss it as nothing more than a flight of fancy or a dream brought on by an overactive imagination and/or too many Christmas cookies before bed (like some people seem to think!). All I can do is hope that my friends will believe me when I say that what you are about to read absolutely happened to me.

It was one year ago, on Christmas Eve. I was staying with my good friends, the Moss Family in their home in Kentucky, the Duck House. It was, as all Moss Family Christmases are, a wonderful holiday and I was having a terrific time with the music and the food and the seventy-eight different versions of A Christmas Carol they had on DVD…okay, maybe not that many, but it’s a lot. And I was very excited when they said I could spend the night of Christmas Eve in the living room, sleeping on the couch. It was very comfy and the decorations were the best nightlight a penguin could ask for…but I had a special reason for wanting to sleep in there.

“You won’t see Santa!” Templeton said.

“You don’t know that,” I argued. “Maybe I’ll wake up just in time and see him just as he’s going up the chimmney!”

“It just doesn’t seem likely.”

“Well…maybe there’ll be a Christmas miracle!” Hearing this, he just sort of shook his head and gave me the kind of smile I always imagined Christopher Robin giving Winnie the Pooh when he called him a “silly old bear.”

For a guy who hangs out with a talking penguin, he’s surprisingly skeptical.

Anyway, that night I was curled up all cozy and toasty warm on the couch with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head…which was a little disconcerting, since I don’t actually know what sugarplums are. But then, something happened. I’ll never know what. Something woke me up. I sat up with a start. I looked around the room. The digital display on the cable box read “12:00.” It was midnight, Christmas Eve: The most magical hour of the year. The one moment when the world holds its breath and, for an instant, nothing is impossible.

(I may have stolen that bit from someone else, if so, I’m sorry)

The world outside the window was covered in snow and lit by a beautiful silver moon. The lights on the tree sparkled like multicolored diamonds. In fact, everything was very much the way it was when I went to bed…or couch…except for the undeniable fact that I was not alone.

Someone was sitting on the couch next to where I was curled up!

He was…ya know? I had this whole thing planned where I was gonna describe him and slowly reveal who it was, but let’s not waste everyone’s time. You know who it is! It’s Santa! I woke up and Santa was sitting slumped on the sofa with his eyes shut.

I thought he had fallen asleep, for which I could hardly blame him, with all the work he has to do. Then I thought of how awful it would be if he slept through Christmas and little kids didn’t get their toys. So I poked him with a flipper and he opened his eyes right away.

“Oh! Oh, Leroy. I hope I didn’t wake you when I sat down.”

“No, sir, Mr. Santa, sir,” I said, wanting to show the proper respect to one of my all-time favorite humans. “I just thought you had fallen asleep and I…”

“No, I wasn’t sleeping. Just resting, and thinking…” his voice trailed off, and there was a strange quality in his voice.

“Are you all right, sir?”

“Well…to tell the truth Leroy, I’ve been thinking about giving it all up.”

“What? What do you mean, Mr. Santa?”

“I mean coming down here and flying around handing out gifts every year. I’ve been thinking it might be time to call the whole thing off.”

“But why?”

“I started giving out presents at Christmas…oh, more years ago than I can even count. I always thought I was doing a good deed. Being generous, charitable. I never thought it was about the things  I brought, but the spirit in which I gave them. But now I think maybe I’ve just been kidding myself. Maybe I haven’t been doing anybody any good after all.”

“How can you say that, Santa?”

“Well, just look at the state of the world! Brotherhood, faith, charity, benevolence and optimism are at an all-time low, while greed, deceit, selfishness and cynicism flourish. I try to look for the good in the world, but every year things seem to get worse. With all the problems in the world today, maybe people don’t even need Santa Claus right now.”

“Santa…with all due respect…that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!”

“Beg pardon?”

“Maybe there are a lot of problems in the world. Maybe people are greedy, selfish, cynical and all that other stuff you said. Maybe we aren’t treating each other as well as we should. But the solution isn’t less Santa Claus. It’s more Santa Claus! Don’t get me wrong, we really appreciate the presents you bring us, but you do something every year that’s way more important than toys and candy: You set an example. You show us how to be better people. And I promise you, sir…it’s working! Because every Christmas, people like me, who believe in you, and who love you, follow your example. You know whose house you’re in, don’t you? These people don’t have a lot of money, they have to struggle sometimes. But they always have a good Christmas because they care about each other and they do for each other. They know that it’s not the gifts that make a merry Christmas, but the act of giving! So, for heaven’s sake, get up off your big, red butt and get out there and do what you do best!”

For a moment, Santa just looked at me, and I was beginning to regret what I had said. But just when I was starting to think I’d be getting a stocking full of coal every year for the rest of my life, he smiled, maybe the nicest smile I ever saw, and laughed. “You’re right, Leroy! You’re absolutely right. I will keep coming back every year. But only on one condition.”

“What’s that, Santa?”

“That you help me.”

“Me? Help you? How can I do that?”

“By doing your part to keep the spirit of Christmas alive all year round. Will you do that for me, Leroy?”

“I sure will, Santa!”

“Well, I guess I’d better get going. Got a lot of stops to make and…oh, I almost forgot. I haven’t given you your Christmas present yet.”

“Oh! You don’t have to give me anything, Santa! Honestly, just getting to talk to you is the best gift I could’ve gotten.”

“Come on, Leroy, isn’t there anything you’d like?”

“No, no, no, no, no, no…well, there is one thing…”

The next morning, I awoke with the sun. It was a beautiful Christmas morning. For a moment, I thought I had dreamed the whole thing…until I looked down and saw what I was holding in my flippers. It was the present I had asked Santa for! It was real! It really happened! Of course, the family didn’t believe me. They thought it was a dream, just like I did…but none of them could explain how I got that limited edition box set of Creedance Clearwater Revival autographed by John Fogerty!

Thanks Santa, and Merry Christmas!


With Special Thanks to Red Skelton

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


I stumbled on this little known legend from the South Pacific and was enchanted by the first sentence: “Two brothers went to sea.” I revised some of the details, added more depth to the characters of the brothers and (as usual) made it just a little bit sillier than it probably needs to be (let’s just say it was a slightly different animal that featured so heavily in the later part of the story than the one I chose), but I think it still captures the spirit of that ancient tale from once upon a time and long ago.

Two brothers went to sea. They built their boat out of the trees that grew on their island home. They stitched the sails from old clothes and tablecloths. The rope they borrowed from their neighbor. But all their sweat, blood and borrowing paid off and their boat was ready to set sail. They cast off one morning, vowing never to return…except to give their neighbor back his rope. But other than that, never!

For three days they sailed. It was slow, it was a little dull, but at the same time exciting, not knowing where they were going or what adventures awaited them. After three more days on the water and a truly epic game of 2,020 Questions, they finally spotted land and took their little ship in to port…Well, I say “port,” but, actually, a great big wave just washed them up onto a beach. The point is they weren’t sailing anymore.

The brothers left their boat on the beach and proceeded into the dense jungle that lay before them. After a lot of walking and birdwatching (which is always fun) they came to the interesting and inescapable conclusion that they were lost in the jungle (which is hardly ever fun). The eldest brother, Vincent, thought it would be a good idea if he and his younger brother, Thomas, stood back to back and each took one hundred paces in opposite directions. That way, all they had to do to find each other again, was turn around and walk one hundred paces back. This would also double their chances of finding something…er, something…well, heck, when you’re lost in the jungle in a strange country, you’ll pretty much take anything!

And so the two brothers stood back to back and, wishing one another good luck, they set off, one hundred paces into the unknown…

Vincent set off in what he judged to be a Southern direction, based on the position of the sun in the sky, barely visible over the tops of the trees. He counted his paces carefully, but was not going as quickly as perhaps he should have because he was enjoying the scenery. After all, there are worse places to be lost than a lush, green jungle. And, anyway, there was no fear of starvation in this jungle as the trees were full of ripe, succulent fruit. Indeed, Vincent was beginning to think that he could be perfectly happy living here for the rest of his days.

Unlike his brother, Vincent longed for the quiet life. He would love to spend all his time sitting on a porch with a cold drink and a good book, no sound but the wind rustling through the trees and the songs of the birds. That’s why he had been so keen to leave their home: Too many people, too much activity, too much noise!

Just as he was wondering whether their boat could be taken apart and rebuilt as a hut on the beach, he came upon a large cave. This, thought Vincent, might make good shelter for the night, so he stepped inside and took a look around. It looked structuraly sound, not too damp or too cold and though it was dark, he could feel the back wall and judged it to be about ten feet all around (deep, wide, high). Not luxurious, but good enough to pass the night. Vincent was just about to continue on with his hundred paces when he heard a faint sound from inside the cave. He listened carefully:

“Help! Help!”

It was very, very faint, as though it were coming from very far away, but Vincent was certain it was a woman’s voice calling for help. He was quite sure of the size of the cave, but he thought perhaps there was a crack in the back wall, beyond which might be someone in need of assistance. Wasting no time, he took out some tinder and lit a fire with which he made a torch and entered the cave. He was surprised to discover that the cave was much larger than he had estimated. Indeed, with the torch in front of him, it seemed to go on forever. Finally, to test a theory, he put out the torch and felt with his hands. There was the wall, right in front of him but much, much further from the mouth of the cave than ten feet. He relit the torch and held it out where the wall had so recently been: The tunnel stretched on beyond the reach of his light.

Vincent was confused, but knew that it was his torch that was making the tunnel visible. Taking this to be an enchantment of some kind, he kept moving forward, following the calls for help, which grew ever louder the further he walked. Finally, after far more than a hundred paces, the tunnel opened up into a large, empty cavern. Now the calls for help were so loud Vincent would’ve thought they were coming from right in front of him, had it not been for the fact that there was nobody there. He was entirely alone in the cavern.

“Where are you?” Vincent cried out, his voice echoing all over the high walls of the cavern. “I want to help you, but I can’t find you!”

“Over here!” said a voice from behind him. He spun around and was face to face with a cute little old lady in a brown cloak who was smiling fondly at him.

“Are you the one who needs help?”

“No,” said the littled old lady. “But I was calling for help, if that’s what you mean. You see, I am very wealthy and somewhat magic and I like to test people. When they come to the mouth of my cave, I call for help to see if they answer. And if they do, and they get all the way to this chamber, I reward them with a sogabah! Would you like a sogabah?”

“Er…what is a sogabah?”

“It’s this!” and the little old lady held up a Sack Of Gold As Big As a Human (see?).

“Well, that’s very generous of you, ma’am, but I don’t think I really need that much gold.”

“Oh, see? That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about! That’s integrity you got there, kiddo! Here, at least take a handful of gold. After all you’ve come all this way. And, hey, if you change your mind, just rub two of the coins together and say ‘sogabah, sogabah,’ and one will appear at your feet.”

“All right. Thank you, ma’am. Now…is there a way out of here?”

“Oh, yes. Just extinguish your torch and walk back the way you came. You’ll be back in that tiny cave you started in.” Vincent thanked her again and did as he was told. Sure enough, he soon found himself outside the small cave with twenty gold pieces in his pocket. He saw how late it was getting and decided not to bother with the rest of his hundred paces and just headed back to meet his brother…

Meanwhile, Thomas had set out to the North. Unlike his brother, he was not taking in the sights nor was he eager to set up housekeeping in this beautiful jungle. He despised the quiet life his brother longed for. He wanted adventure and excitement, wealth and glory! He wanted to spend the rest of his life at sea, battling pirates, riding storms, falling for and ultimately marrying a really hot girl who was just as eager for adventure as he was. That was the life Thomas longed for.

As he was walking his hundred paces, desperate for something exciting to happen, he heard a faint voice, as though it were coming from far, far away. When he strained to hear, he could make out what sounded like a woman crying for help. Thomas followed his ears and came to the edge of a big cliff (which would’ve made finishing his hundred paces pretty tough anyway). The voice was coming from below him and he saw an opening in the side of the cliff. He climbed down carefully and proceeded into the cave.

Thomas soon found himself inside a great big cavern which seemed to descend into an inky black abyss. A steady stream of water fell from an opening high above and formed a waterfall into that selfsame abyss. He was frightened, but he knew that whoever needed help was down there somewhere, so he courageously began to climb down into the abyss. But after a very difficult descent, he found himself getting weary and his fingers couldn’t grip the rock anymore. Soon, he lost his grip entirely and fell off the side of the cliff and into the stream of the waterfall which carried him down, down, down…

When he opened his eyes, Thomas saw that he was in…well, he could only describe it as an underground city. There were houses and streets and gardens and even traffic signs. All very small, of course, because the people who lived here weren’t really, in the strictest sense, people. By which I mean, they weren’t human. Or, to be really quite accurate, they were…well…platypuses.

Yes. Platypuses…Platypi…Platypeople. Never mind, you know what I mean.

“Hi there!” said a voice from behind. Thomas turned around and was face to face with a duck-billed platypus. “I’m Oliver! Welcome to our fair city. Are you feeling any ill effects from the transformation?”

“Transformation?” Thomas asked. But as he was saying the word, it struck him that he was face to face with a platypus. A look in a conveniently located reflecting pool confirmed his suspicions: He had been turned into a platypus!

“Yeah, that’s the magic waterfall for ya,” said Oliver as though this were the most natural thing in the world. “Lemme guess, you heard someone calling for help? Yeah, I know what that’s all about. See, there are these two sisters who live on this island and they have these special powers which they like to use to, I guess, test people. You followed the voice calling for help, even though you were in danger of falling to your doom, so you passed the test.”

“I see. But why am I a platypus?”

“Oh, well that’s sort of your reward. You see this is a quiet, peaceful community where a lot of people come to retire and relax for the rest of their days. The only catch is, you have to be a platypus to live here.”

Thomas explained as patiently and politely as he could that he did not want to be a platypus, did not want to live here and most certainly was not ready to retire. So, Oliver pointed him to the exit which, he promised him, would turn him back into a human as he left. “But take this with you,” he added, handing Thomas (somehow) a small vial of water. “This is water from the magic waterfall. If you drink it, it will turn you into a platypus. You know, in case you change your mind.”

With a curt “thank you” to Oliver, Thomas was on his way out when another platypus came up behind him. “Take me with you!” she said. “I got here the same way you did and I’ve been trying to get out ever since!”

Thomas and this new platypus, who was called Ashley, proceeded to the exit. A moment later, Thomas found himself back at the cliffside where this whole mess had started, in his own human body again. Standing next to him was Ashley, in her own human body…which, it must be said, was awfully nice…very nice…quite nice…in fact, Ashley may have been the hottest ex-platypus in the world. They walked back to the brothers’ rendezvous point, talking about their mutual love of adventure…

When Vincent and Thomas were reunited, they shared their strange adventures. “It’s too bad I didn’t go South,” said Thomas. “I would’ve taken that sogabah in a heartbeat! With that much gold, I could buy a big ship, hire a crew and spend the rest of my life sailing the world looking for adventure.”

“Yes,” said Vincent. “And I wouldn’t have minded living the rest of my days in peace and quiet.”

“Even if it meant you were a platypus for the rest of your life?” asked Ashley.

“Well, maybe not if I had to live among other platypuses…platypi?...platy…whatever. I mean, platypuses can talk to each other, and I hate boring conversation. Now, if I could be a platypus but live among humans, then I could just relax, eat, be taken care of, and nobody would try to make small talk with me.”

It took the brothers a surprisingly long time to figure out the painfully obvious solution. But, curiously, it struck them both at the same time. Without having to speak a word, Thomas handed the vial of magic water to Vincent and Vincent handed the gold coins to Thomas. As Thomas rubbed two of them together and said “sogabah, sogabah,” Vincent drank every drop of the water. The Sack Of Gold As Big As a Human appeared and Vincent turned into a platypus.

Which, admittedly, might not strike the majority of you as a particularly happy ending, but trust me: Vincent was very happy as a platypus. He even went to sea with Thomas and Ashley who did indeed buy a big ship, hire a crew and spent the rest of their lives together sailing for adventure.

And that’s the story of how two brothers went to sea.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • …the knowledge that I played a little trick on you. This is not based on an ancient story from the South Pacific at all! I made the whole thing up myself! You see, one night I had a series of exciting, adventurous dreams involving, among other things, Disneyland, Doctor Who and piloting my own helicopter (though I had a hard time maintaining any kind of altitude. Cheap dream-chopper!). Also, there was apparently something about me and my brother on an island setting to sea and, at the time, I was vaguely aware that the situation was like some old story. I woke up with the phrase “Two brothers went to sea” in my head, along with the knowledge that it was the premise of some long forgotten legend. This, it turns out, was not true. I have yet to find any such story anywhere. But I liked the phrase, so I set myself a challenge: Write a new story that sounds like it’s an old story. Sorry to pull a fast one, but I’ve been doing this for almost three years now. I gotta keep myself entertained!

For More Great Stories Click HERE


Many of you may be familiar with the title under which this story was published in 1938: The Five Chinese Brothers. Since that time, the book has become somewhat controversial for its stereotypical depiction of Chinese people and the idea that they all “look alike” (though that’s not really a racist comment, that’s just the only way the story works). Believing Claire Huchett-Bishop’s story to still be an entertaining and valuable one, I have rewritten it without mentioning the brothers’ ethnicity. In your mind, they can be Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Indian, Mongolian, African, French, Welsh, Martian, Mexican, Canadian, Robots…well, you get the idea.

This is a story about brothers. Or, to be more specific, it’s about five brothers. Or, to be even more specific, it’s about five identical brothers (quintuplets, that’s called). OR, to be ludicrously specific, it’s about five identical brothers named Jon, Don, Ron Han, and Larry, who caught his parents by surprise as they were expecting quadruplets, and didn’t have a name ready for him so he ended up being named after the doctor.

But the curious thing about these five brothers…well, I should say another curious thing because identical quintuplets is pretty rare to start with so that’s awfully curious right there…but not only that, each brother had a strange ability and each one was different from the others. The first brother, Jon, could swallow the sea. The second, Don, had an iron neck. Ron could not be burned. Han could hold his breath forever. And Larry could stretch his legs for almost a mile.

Why? I don’t know, it’s a story! Just go with it.

One day when Jon was out by the seaside, a little boy who knew about his special talent asked if he could help him gather oysters from the seabed. Jon was hesitant at first but he agreed. “But,” he said to the boy, “You have to do exactly what I say when I say it. When I tell you it’s time to come back, you have to come back. Agreed?”

The boy agreed and Jon swallowed the entire sea, holding it inside himself. Now the little boy was free to walk along the empty seabed and pick up oysters. After a while, Jon was straining to hold the sea in so he called out “Okay, time to come back!” But if the boy heard, he didn’t answer, and just kept gathering shells. Jon thought he might burst and he called out again for the boy, but he didn’t come back. Finally, Jon could take it no longer and he released the sea, which rushed out of his mouth and covered the seabed as it had before…the little boy was nowhere to be seen.

Jon did what he thought was the only honorable thing, and went to tell the boy’s mother. She did not entirely understand all of what Jon said, but she did understand the part about Jon and her son going to sea and only Jon coming back. She at once called for the authorities and Jon was arrested and condemned as a murderer! The judge said that on the following morning, he would have his head cut off.

“What is your last request?” said the judge, which gave Jon a great idea.

“Please allow me to go home and say goodbye to my mother,” said Jon. The judge agreed and two large guards led Jon to his home. They waited outside to escort Jon to the execution the next morning. But, what they didn’t know was that Jon lived in this house with his mother and his four identical brothers, and when he told them all what had happened, they agreed to help him.

The next morning it was not Jon, but Don who accompanied the guards to the executioner’s block. With a cheery smile, which perplexed everyone who saw it, he allowed himself to be led up to the chopping block, his head covered in a black bag and placed on the block. He whistled as the executioner raised his axe and brought it down on Don’s neck…off of which it unceremoniously bounced. Of course, they had no idea that this was Don, the brother with the iron neck, and they tried for hours to cut his head off. The executioner resharpened his axe so many times that he soon wore it down to almost nothing!

Finally, the judge decided that if they were going to execute him, they’d have to try something else and he decided that the next day, he would be burned at the stake. Once again, he was allowed a last request and, once again, he asked to go home to see his mother. So it was that the next morning, Ron was taken in place of his brothers, tied to the stake and surrounded by dry wood and straw. The fire was lit and the flames surrounded him. But Ron, you may recall, could not be burned by any fire, so he just sat there humming Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave” as the flames licked higher.

When it became apparent that fire wasn’t going to cut it, they had to put their heads together again and ultimately decided to smother him to death. As before, his request to spend his last night with his mother was granted, and, as before, Ron traded places with one of his brothers inside the house. The next morning, Han was taken to the courthouse where he was strapped down to a table and a heavy pillow was placed over his face, completely covering his nose and mouth, making it impossible to draw any breath. Fortunately, Han was the brother who could hold his breath indefinitely, so he was quite comfortable during his execution.

The judge was beginning to get very annoyed now, so he came up with one last plan: The accused (who the Judge still thouht was Jon but was, at this point, Han, in case you’re having a hard time keeping up) would be placed in a boat, taken far out to sea. His arms would be tied behind his back and a heavy stone would be tied to his legs. Then he would be thrown overboard where he would sink to the bottom of the sea and drown! And even if he didn’t (the judge was thinking of the botched smothering), he would certainly starve or die of thirst trapped in the sea for the rest of his life.

It was with some reluctance this time that the judge granted the prisoner’s last request. But grant it he did, and Han went home and explained everything to Larry who, I’d like to remind you, was not able to hold his breath indefinitely regardless of what the Judge believed. The next morning, Larry was led to a boat, taken out to sea, had his arms tied and the stone attached to his leg, and was dropped into the ocean where he did, indeed, sink to the very bottom…at which point he stretched his legs so that they were as long as the ocean was deep and he stood there, his head above the water which only came up to his hips…though it was still very hard to walk with that heavy stone around his ankles. Larry started to think that maybe he would die of thirst or starve to death.

“Hello!” said a voice. Larry looked around and saw the little boy who had started all this rowing over to him in a little dinghy. “Sorry I didn’t listen before,” said the boy, still thinking this was Jon from the beginning of the story, “but I was having so much fun walking around in the ocean. I thought I was a goner when all that water came rushing toward me. But when you swallowed the sea you also swallowed everything in the sea, including this dinghy that capsized and sank to the bottom a couple of years ago. Since then I’ve been trying to get back to shore. Hey, when did you get so tall?”

Larry explained the situation to the boy who felt very guilty about causing Jon, Don, Ron, Han and Larry so much trouble. The boy at once untied Larry’s arms and Larry was then able to untie the stone from his feet, at which point he climbed into the boat, returned his legs to their normal length and helped the boy row to shore.

Everyone was happy that the boy was alive and they reasoned that their inability to kill his “murderer” must have been a sign that he was innocent all along. Larry was released and returned home to his family, who lived very happily ever after.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Hutchett-Bishop (1938) In this version, the brothers have no names and the little boy at the beginning actually does drown. I figured that if we were wiling to believe the incredible abilities of the brothers, there’s no reason we wouldn’t believe that the boy could survive being hit with the entire ocean.
For More Great Stories Click HERE

Monday, September 24, 2012


We all know that America was built by big, strong men. Men like John Henry, Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan. But you don’t have to be big in stature or strong in sinew to be a great man. That’s why this story is about a little guy who was just as integral to the building of our nation as the men who swung hammers and shot rifles.

He was born John Chapman and he was a farmer. Just a humble farmer who worked on his family’s apple orchard. Johnny, as his friends called him, genuinly enjoyed his work. Planting, harvesting and tending his apple trees. It may not have been impressive or glamorous like some vocations, but Johnny always felt that everyone had something they were good at and the best thing was to do it as best you could…

At least, that’s what he thought for a while.

For, you see, while John was working at his apple trees, the big push west was on and every day more and more pioneers would pass his farm on their way to tame the wild frontier. Somehow, compared to what those men were doing, Johnny’s apple trees didn’t seem all that important. He would’ve loved to be a pioneer too and help America grow…but Johnny was a small, puny sort of guy, and he knew that only big, strong men survived out west.

One night, however, while Johnny was cooking his humble, evening meal, he had a visitor. An older man with a thick beard and a coonskin cap walked up and asked to share his meal. Johnny figured this man must be a pioneer, stopping for a rest on his way out west, so he was more than happy to welcome the old fellow. Of course, Johnny had no idea that he was really an angel, who had come down from heaven to send Johnny on his path.

“It must be exciting,” Johnny said, “going west with the pioneers.”

“Why don’t you see for yourself?” the angel replied.

“Me? Oh, no, I couldn’t go west. That’s for big strong men with guns and muscles. Besides, what could I do to help? I can’t chop down trees, I can’t hunt, I can’t build anything. All I can do is plant apple trees.”

“I think you’re selling yourself short,” said the angel with a kind smile. “There are lots of men going west to chop and hunt and build. But men need more than meat to live. Who knows? Maybe what the pioneers need more than anything else right now is a man to plant apple trees.”

“I hadn’t thought of it like that. Do you really think I could?”

“Sure. You wouldn’t need to bring much. Here. Let me help.” The angel picked up a big bag of apple seeds, and slung it over Johnny’s shoulder. Then he took an old tin pot and told Johnny to wear it on his head like a hat. “Protect yoru head and you can cook with it!” he said. The last thing he handed Johnny was his Bible. “There. You’re all set.”

And that’s how, without truly understanding why or how, John Chapman became a pioneer and headed west that very night. When he turned around to thank the old man who had helped him, however, he found his guest had vanished.

From then on, Johnny traveled west. Everywhere he went he would find open areas of land and plant apple trees there. He left apple orchards behind him like footprints. They would grow and blossom and sprout fresh, delicious apples which the settlers would eat as they headed out west. It seemed like everywhere they went, there were apple trees waiting for them. And it would remind them of their homes in the east where they could pluck fresh fruit right off the trees, unlike in the wilderness where such trees were rare.

As Johnny traveled so did the stories about him. Everyone knew someone had to be planting these trees. Some thought it wsa an angel or some other magical, powerful being. They might’ve laughed if they’d known it was just a skinny, scrawny little man with a bag of seed over his shoulder and a pot on his head. But that’s how the legends about him grew, and how he came to be known as “Johnny Appleseed.”

For years and years, Johnny shared his bounty with the pioneers, never stopping, always traveling. Until one day, he was resting under one of his trees, when a familiar voice came to him: “Hello, Johnny. I see you’ve been busy.” Johnny looked up and there was the same old man who had convinced him to go west all those years ago. “I’ve got a job for you, Johnny,” the angel said. “I know a place that’s in dire need of your help. A wonderful place, really, but they’re missing one important thing.”

“What’s that?” asked Johnny, who was a little surprised to hear how old and raspy his voice had become. Living in the wilderness, Johnny hadn’t spoken to someone for a long time. He hadn’t noticed how much he had aged.

“Apples, Johnny,” said the angel, sharing that kind smile again. “Not nearly enough apples. Will you help?”

“Of course I will. Lead the way.”

And that’s how Johnny Appleseed left this world and followed his guardian angel into the next. But you can still see his work. Sometimes, you may look up at the sky and see the clouds all fluffy and pink. Well, those aren’t really clouds: They’re apple blossoms from Johnny’s heavenly apple orchard.


If You Liked This Story, You Might Enjoy:
Melody Time (1948) In this musical rendition of John Chapman’s story, popular Irish tenor Dennis Day provides the voices of Johnny, his angel, and the narrator. The short includes a song entitled “The Lord is Good To Me” which recently was featured in an episode of TV’s American Dad by a character who idolized Johnny Appleseed.

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It has been said that America was built by big men. Generally speaking, that’s a figure of speech meaning that they had big spirits or big ambitions. Sometimes, however, they meant “big” quite literally. And they don’t come much bigger than the subject of today’s story: Paul Bunyan.

As I’m sure you all know, babies are delivered by storks. Ordinarily, one stork can bring sevearl babies at once. In Paul’s case, however, it took about ten storks just to get him to his parents’ doorstep. As a baby, he was bigger than most full grown men! Obviously, this made taking care of the boy into quite a task, and the whole town had to pitch in. Two whole herds of cattle were milked to exhaustion just to feed him. An entire forest had to be cut down to build his cradle. And it took every voice in the community singing in perfect harmony to lull him to sleep.

As he grew up, so did his problems. Being too big to fit in the schoolhouse, he had to sit outside and look in through the window. He loved playing with the other boys, but it wasn’t always easy. For one thing, you never wanted to be playing catcher when Paul came sliding into home! But even though he was (to use the term loosely) a handful, Paul’s friends, family and neighbors loved him and were more than happy to take care of him.

Now, in those days it was customary for boys to take up their fathers’ professions. In Paul’s case, his father was a lumberjack. So, every day since Paul’s birth, his father had the town save up all the scrap metal they could, so that by the time Paul was old enough, they had enough to melt down and make into a giant, double-bladed axe. Paul was a natural lumberjack and could cut down a whole forest with just a few swings of his axe.

Of course, Paul couldn’t stay in that little town all his life, and on his eighteenth birthday he decided it was time to go out into the wilderness where there were plenty of trees (and elbow room) for a big man to cut down. He traveled all over the Americas, joining logging crews and then moving on. That’s how the legends about him grew. For instance, he spent a lot of time in Minnesota right before the rainy season. It’s said that his water-filled bootprints are the reason that state is known as the “Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.”

But poor Paul could never stay in one place for very long. Once all the trees were down, cities started to spring up and he started to feel crowded by civilization. It was ironic that his great skill as a lumberjack, so integral to the forming of the country, was the very thing that kept him from being able to settle down. Paul didn’t really mind, of course. He liked traveling and everywhere he went, he always made a lot of good friends. The sad part was that, because he was so much bigger than everyone else, he never had any friendships that lasted…

Until he met Babe.

At the time, Paul was staying up north where it was so cold, even the snow was blue. The blue snow was so thick he could barely see, so it’s not surprising that Paul tripped over something which was just as blue as the snow. In falling, he caused the earth around him to rise into what, to him, were small mounds of dirt and rock. To the rest of us, however, they  became  known as the Canadian Rockies! In any case, Paul looked back to see what he had tripped over and was amazed to see a giant blue ox! Frozen solid in the snow. Being an outdoorsman, Paul had compassion for all living creatures and quickly started a campfire to warm the beast up. After being rescued from freezing to death, the ox became very affectionate toward Paul and snuggled him the way a babe snuggles with its mother, which is why Paul named the ox “Babe.” From then on, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox were inseperable.

Just about everywhere you go in North America, you’ll see Paul’s work. One day he and Babe dug the Mississippi river so that they could float logs down from the north. They built Pike’s Peak to survey their work. And, when he felt like he needed a shower, he created what today we call Niagara Falls.

And whatever happened to Paul and his trusty blue ox, Babe? Well, no one knows for sure. Some say that when they ran out of wilderness, they just took two big steps and left the whole world. Some say they went up to Alaska, and their playful wrestling is what causes the Northern Lights in the night sky. But even though they’re gone, they’re not forgotten nor are the many marks they left on this continent.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • Paul Bunyan (1958) A Disney short in which Thurl Ravenscroft voices the big man. You may have noticed my story has very little in the way of a climax, which is why the Disney storymen created a contest between Paul and an electric saw (similar to the contest John Henry won in his own story). The difference, of course, is that Paul lost his contest and retired up North where, the story tells, the Northern Lights are created by Paul and Babe roughhousing.

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This is a story about freedom. This is a story about doing the impossible. It’s a story about faith and courage and the willingness to sacrifice everything for what you believe in. In other words, it’s the story of John Henry.

John was born a slave and, for most of his life, he and his people toiled in heavy chains for their masters. Then came the war and when the dust had settled on that terrible ordeal, John and his fellow slaves were free. Having lived so long without freedom, John knew how valuable it was, and swore he’d never be a slave again. So saying, he took the very iron chains he had worn on his wrists while in slavery and had them melted down and made into a twenty-pound hammer which he would use to make his way in the world. His hammer became his prized possesion and he was often heard to say “I’ll die with this hammer in my hand.”

After the civil war, the nation needed to be healed, rebuilt. One way that this was achieved was with the building of a railroad from coast to coast. But building a railroad takes hard work, and strong men to do it, so every man was told that if he finished the line, he’d be given fifty acres of land to settle down on. That was the good news, of course. The bad news was that the line was barely halfway done and most of the men were already worked to exhaustion.

That’s when John showed up.

For John was a big, strong man, and not just on the outside. For under his callused hands and powerful muscles, a fire was burning inside John Henry. The fire of a man who would do anything to preserve his freedom. And fifty acres of land all for himself was a kind of freedom he wasn’t about to give up on. And that’s how John started swinging that big hammer of his for the railroad company, and helped the other workers to finish the line.

But then, just when it looked like the line would be completed and every man would get his reward, the owners of the railroad decided that the men working on the line weren’t doing it fast enough and they sent in a ringer: A steam-powered drill which they said could pound in nails faster than any man…but they hadn’t reckoned with John Henry. And he wasn’t about to let his fellow workers walk away with nothing. So he challenged that steam drill to a race: Whoever could lay the most track the fastest would win.

The other workers cheered for John as the race began. With a strength that some said was greater than any human could possess, John pounded those spikes as fast as he could, and by the time he got to the foot of the big mountain, he was well ahead of the drill. The men cheered, but soon they saw that the race was not yet over. For as John leaned against the rock, exhausted from the effort, the drill was actually able to dig through the mountain itself, creating a tunnel and passing John Henry in the process.

Well, most men would’ve given up…but John Henry was not most men. He called to his fellow workers and they tossed him another hammer. And with one twenty-pound hammer in each hand, John started beating away at the mountain until both he and the drill were lost to sight. Quickly, the onlookers raced to the other side of the mountain to see who would come out first…

It was John Henry!

Again the men cheered and hailed John as their hero staggered out of the tunnel ahead of what was left of the drill. But their cheers died down when they saw John fall to his knees. The hammers fell from his hands. He lay prone on the ground. His wife, Polly, ran to him and called out for water…but it was too late. With his last ounce of strength, he reahced out a mighty hand for his hammer. And, as he always promised he would, John Henry died with his hammer in his hand.

Ever since that day, people have been telling stories about John Henry. You may have heard that, when he was a boy, he ate six dozen eggs and five loaves of bread for breakfast every morning, or that he pulled the moon down to earth so his mother would have more light to sew by. John became more than a man to the people who told his story. They shared legends and sang songs about the man who died with his hammer in his hand.

But the truth is John Henry was no god. No mythical figure. He was just a man. A man who believed no price was too high to pay for freedom. And, because of his sacrifice, his fellow workers did finish the railraod and they got their fifty acres each. And there wasn’t a one of them who didn’t thank John every day for the gift he gave them. The greatest gift of all. A gift that many of us were born with but manage to take for granted every day:



If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • John Henry (2000) In the 1940's, the Disney Company created animated shorts about Pecos Bill and Johnny Appleseed, and in the 60's there was a short about Paul Bunyan. Then, in 2000, there was a theatrically released animated short based on another American legend. Narrated by Alfre Woodard, it was animated in an old-fashioned style to make it look like a classic film from the 40's. 

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The next few stories are based on American Tall Tales and Legends. I've created my own versions of these stories based on several different retellings from several different sources. In this case, I looked at a few filmed and animated versions along with many written accounts only to find out that this story really isn't "folklore" at all, it's something else. Something called "fakelore." Fakelore is when you make up a new story and just pretend that it's an old story. Pecos Bill was originally created by a man named Edward J. O'Reilly which he claimed to have heard from old cowboys. I included it here anyway, partly because it's such a well-known example of a tall tale, but mostly because regardless of where it came from, it's just a good story.

Wellsir, seems jest ‘bout ev’ry time I see that thar full moon and hear them ky-oats a-howlin’, I think of the high-ridin’est, rootin’-tootin’est varmint ta ever rope a…er…

Yeah, no, I can’t do this. I know it’s a cowboy story, but I just can’t pull off this dialect. It just doesn’t ring true coming from me. Let’s start again, shall we?

Everytime I hear coyotes howling at the full moon as it shines over the prairie, I think about the story of the greatest cowboy to ever live. Now maybe you’ve heard tall tales about bigger-than-life men who did things you would’ve thought impossible. You might know the story of the cowboy who dug the Rio Grande with a stick, or rode a cyclone like a bucking bronco or who painted the painted desert. Well, I’m here to tell you that all those stories are about the same man:

Pecos Bill.

Bill’s story starts with a wagon train that was making its way west. Just a whole slew of good folk seeking wide open spaces and new opportunity in the new territories. Of course, when you have that many people all in one wagon train, someone’s likely to be overlooked. Especially a small someone, cuz that’s what Bill was back then. And, sure enough, his wagon hit a big rock and poor little Bill was thrown out and landed with a  soft “bump” on the desert sand.

And by the time anybody noticed he was missing, the wagon train was miles away. Bill was lost.

But there’s an old saying I just made up that goes “Nothing is really lost; just waiting to be found” (catchy, huh?). And it wasn’t long before little Bill was found by a kindly mother coyote (pronounced “ky-oat”). You might think that a coyote would see a little baby like Bill as a meal, but you know how mothers are. She didn’t see Bill as being any different from her own pups. Just another scared, hungry little child who needed someone to take care of him. So, she took him home and raised him as one of her own.

Many years later, a cowboy was riding through the desert. He stopped by the Pecos River to water his horse and wet his own whistle when he happened to look up and see the strangest sight any Texan had ever seen (and if you’ve been to Texas, you know that’s saying something). It was a full grown man, with a full beard, walking around on all fours like some kind of dog.

He was also stark naked.

“What in the blue blazes do you think you’re doin’, son?” cried the cowboy. “Why ain’t you got no clothes on?”

“Clothes? You ever heard of a coyote who wears clothes?”

(And if you’re wondering how Bill learned to speak when he was raised by coyotes, then maybe you’d better stop reading the story right now cuz it’s only gonna get stranger from here)

“Coyote? Son, you ain’t no coyote.”

“The heck I’m not! My momma’s a coyote, my brothers and sisters are coyotes. What else would I be?”

“I hate to break this to you, but you’re a human being.”

“A what?”

“A human. Like me…sort of.”

“Really? You mean I’m…I’m not a coyote?”

“I’m sorry to bust yer bubble, pardner, but it’s true. You might be stinky and hairy and nekked as a jaybird, but as a real life coyote? I’m afraid you don’t quite fit the bill.”

“Bill? Why does that sound so familiar?”

“Maybe that was the name your momma gave you before the coyotes found you. Funny thing is, it’s my name too. Course, it might get confusing both of us having the same name...” Then Bill the Cowboy remembered the name of the river where they were standing. “How about we call you Pecos Bill?”

Pecos Bill caused quite a sensation when Regular Bill brought him back to town with him. But he was quickly fitted with a new suit of clothes. And the minute he got them on, you’d never have guessed he had ever been a coyote. He was just like an honest-to-goodness-gracious-gosh cowboy. And so, Regular Bill and his cowboy friends taught Pecos Bill all about being a cowboy. That took about twenty minutes because, back in those days, cowboys didn’t know very much about cows except that you put hay in one end and got milk out the other end, and that before you tried it, you had to be reeeeeal sure it was a lady cow.

I mean, let’s face it, that would be embarrassing for everyone involved.

So from then on, Pecos Bill started showing the cowboys a thing or two. Have you ever wondered why cowboys tie their handkerchieves around their necks? Well, it was Bill’s idea. Figured it made sense to keep it closer to your nose. And, back in them days, cowboys used their hats mainly for drinking out of when they had to stop by a river or a spring. But Bill had such a powerful thirst, he needed a ten-gallon hat to satisfy it. And when he tried to teach the other cowboy how to howl like a coyote, the best he could get out of them was a warbly kind of singing, which is how cowboys learned to yodel.

Being raised by coyotes, Pecos Bill was just more rugged than his new cowboy friends. So when a wild stallion came running through town, spooking the cows, Bill was the only one who wasn’t scared to death of the animal. He asked for a length of good, strong rope, and the cowboys watched as he tied a special knot in one end. They didn’t know it yet, but Bill was invinting the lariat, or lasso. He swung that rope in the air and hurled it at the horse, catching it around the neck. Then, he dug in his heels and pulled on that rope until he was close enough to the horse to climb on his back. Of course, the horse tried to throw Bill off, but the king of the cowboys would not be thrown. After riding that bucking bronco for three days and nights, Pecos Bill had finally tamed that ornery beast. From then on, Pecos Bill wouldn’t ride any other horse, and the horse wouldn’t let anyone else ride him, which is why Bill named him “Widdowmaker.”

One day, while Bill and Widdowmaker were enjoying a leisurely ride in the desert, something happened that would change not only their lives, but the entire history of cowboys in the wild west. They were coming up on the Rio Grande, the river that Bill had dug to keep a particularly nasty band of Mexican banditos out of Texas, when they saw a most unusual sight: A girl riding a giant catfish.

Now, of course, Bill had seen more giant catfish than he’d had hot dinners, but the other thing was brand new to him: A girl! See, cowboys didn’t spend a lot of time with womenfolk back in them days, so in all the time he’d been living among human beings, Bill had never looked at a real live woman before…and he never looked at any other from that day on.

Yep. Pecos Bill had fallen in love.

The girl’s name was Sluefoot Sue, and she had heard all about the famous Pecos Bill. That’s the reason she’d come to Texas in the first place. Her family wanted her to be a polite, demure, obedient little housewife who cared about things like doilies and thimbles and having babies. But Sue wanted to play in the dirt with the boys and climb trees and other stuff that girls were just not allowed to do back then. So she resolved to run away and become the first ever cowgirl.

Of course, Bill’s friends were hesitant to let a girl into their group, but when she roped six steers with one throw of her lasso, they welcomed her gladly…that is, the men welcomed her. Widdowmaker did not like that someone else was taking up all of Bill’s time and attention. That silly old horse was jealous of Sluefoot Sue.

But Bill didn’t know this, and probably wouldn’t have cared if he had. All he knew was he was in love and just about the happiest cowboy to ever live. And when the world’s greatest cowboy falls in love with the world’s greatest cowgirl, you can bet it’s going to be one heck of a courtship. The first time they kissed, Bill got so excited that he started firing his guns into the air all night and by the time he stopped, he realized that he had shot out every single star in the sky, except one. Which is why, even today, Texas is known as the “Lone Star” state.

Naturally, Bill and Sue wanted to get married and have lots of little cowbabies…not, I mean, not like baby cows. They’re not gonna have calves or anything, that’d be weird…anyway, before they could get married, Sue had one request: She wanted to ride Widdowmaker.

Even without knowing that Widdowmaker had it in for Sue, Bill knew that this was a terrible idea. And, frankly, was surprised that he had to explain that to Sue since he felt the horse’s name was enough of a warning. But Sue was convinced that she could do everything Bill could do, only backward and in high heels (look it up) and felt that his refusal to let her ride his horse was a sign that he didn’t think she was as tough as him. The last thing Sue wanted to be was coddled, so she insisted and, in the end, Bill relented.

The wedding day was a big affair, as you can probably imagine. Sue was dolled up in the prettiest wedding dress ever seen in those parts, complete with that recent invention that had swept the nature: The bustle! Don’t ask me why, but back then, women weren’t considered fashionable if they didn’t have a big wire…well, butt, frankly. It was a big wire frame that they wore under their skirts that made their butts look really big. I don’t know why, it’s part of the story. The point is that Sluefoot Sue was wearing a wire bustle under her wedding dress...a decision she would live to regret.

The deal was that Sue would actually be riding Widdowmaker during the wedding ceremony, which is why it was held in the street outside the courthouse as opposed to inside. While the minister was saying the whole “Dearly beloved” bit that you’ve heard a thousand times in movies and shows, Bill was nerously watching his bride-to-be straddle Widdowmaker (side-saddle would’ve been more appropriate for a lady in those days, but the record will indicate that Sue was no lady). Meanwhile, six of Bill’s strongest cowhands were trying to restrain Widdowmaker, but he was fighting them at every turn. He did not want anyone riding him except Bill, least of all Sluefoot Sue!

Things didn’t really start going wrong until they got to the vows. By the time Bill had said “I do,” two of his men had lost their grip on the horse. The other four soon followed and when it was Sue’s time to say it, it came out more like “I doooooooooo!” because now Widdowmaker was bucking for all he was worth, trying to throw Sue off his back. But Sue was just as tough as her new husband of about four seconds, and she refused to be thrown. And, it’s likely she would’ve ridden him out just as Bill had done…had it not been for that bustle.

Now every time Widdowmaker kicked, Sue started bouncing, thanks to all that steel and wire in her bustle. Widdomaker kept kicking harder and Sue kept bouncing higher. Finally, with one well placed kick, Sue was thrown high into the air. She came down, landing on her bustle and bounced back up. With every bounce, Widdowmaker kicked harder and Sue kept gaining altitude. Now she was bouncing up and down like a rubber ball, higher and higher every time. Even after Widdowmaker had been subdued, Sue kept landing on her bustle and kept bouncing higher! It was beginning to look like she’d never stop.

Now, I don’t know if this kind of thing is really covered by “for better or worse” or “in sickness and in health,” but Bill felt he had an obligation as her husband to do something about this. It was just lucky for her that she had married the world champion…lassoer? Lassoist? Lasso-artist? Lariateer? What would you call that. Anyway, he called for five miles of rope, tied the single biggest loop in roping history and (with the assistance of three other men) threw it to Sue…and caught her right around the middle!

That was the good news. The bad news is that Sue’s bouncing was stronger than Bill and, rather than pulling her back down to earth, she pulled him up to the sky! Now Bill and Sue were bouncing together until their last bounce took them all the way up to the moon...which is where they stayed.

The Cowboys of Texas mourned the loss of their native son, though they were comforted by the knowledge that his beloved Sluefoot Sue was with him up there on the moon. But, somehow, the loss seemed to affect the coyotes greater than the men. And every night, from that day on, the coyotes would sit in the light of the moon and howl, in mournful tribute to their beloved Bill. A tradition they continue to this day. So now you know why the sound of coyotes howling at the moon makes me think of Pecos Bill, the greatest cowboy who ever lived.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • Meldoy Time (1948) This was one of Walt Disney’s “package features” which consisted of several short subjects, among them was an animated version of Pecos Bill told and sung by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. The song “Pecos Bill” was used years later as the finale of the Golden Horseshoe Revue at Disneyland, when it was performed by the late, great Wally Boag and Betty Taylor. Boag recreated the number for his appearance on “The Muppet Show.”
  • Shelley Duvall’s Tall Tales and Legends (TV) After her acclaimed “Faerie Tale Theatre” series, Ms. Duvall produced a series of television shows honoring American folklore. Steve Gutenberg palyed the titular cowboy and was joined by Rebecca De Mornay, Martin Mull and, in one of her first television appearances, Megan Mullally.
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