BAR HARBOR – Among the casualties of the pace that now passes for everyday life is the art and craft of telling a story.

Information has become a burden, not a refuge, in a culture dominated by cell phones, Blackberries, e-mail, Kindles, text messaging, Facebook and voice messages, not to mention the antiquities of newspapers, pagers, CDs, DVDs, junk mail and satellite radio and TV.

Nearly forgotten are the days when the spoken word satisfied a yearning for insights into whatever there was to know about the world, where words carefully chosen and artfully expressed carried us beyond the mundane demands of wading into the information tsunami we now confront every day.

My curious on-again, off-again career as a journalist recently found me in Ireland, teaching news reporting at Dublin City University. One night, in a fit of restless boredom, I took a long walk, winding up a pub far from campus.

I didn’t know a soul there; the conversations that surrounded me were someone else’s. I listened only with detached interest until a stranger took notice of my daze.

Had I heard about the plan to plant a row of trees along the Greenwich Meridian, from the North Pole all the way to Antarctica? he asked. I hadn’t, of course, so Jimmy, as he called himself, was eager to oblige. A glorious plan it was, he said, laying it out in fine detail, the facts heavily salted with his own approving opinions.

“Have you been to America?” I asked 20 minutes and a pint later, my first chance to speak. He had, he said, on a vacation to Florida.

“And what did you do in Florida?” I asked.

“Died,” said he.

Over the next 40 minutes, Jimmy unraveled in carefully paced detail his tale of being swept out into the Atlantic by a riptide while taking a swim. He wouldn’t be sitting here this night, drinking this pint, had it not been for The Whistle.

“When I was a boy, I was King of the Kids,” he said. “Didn’t want to be, but was, and I had this whistle that I always used in calling me mates, me gang.”

His three-toned whistle shrieked through the pub, bringing the cacophony of the barroom buzz to an awkward and momentary silence. “That’s the whistle that save my life,” he said.

Two hundred yards of more, he was, into the surf, going under for maybe the last time. Every wave, each higher than the last it seemed, took him farther out. Gasping for breath, seeing his wife dozing on the beach, seeing the dear woman for perhaps the last time, he had the wits about him to use The Whistle.

The next wave took him under, but coming up yet again he saw the wife in a panic on the beach. Down he went again, perhaps forever, amazing himself when he bobbed to the surface yet again, coughing and sputtering. In the distance he could see a man on the beach, kicking off his sneakers and heading into the surf — coming after him.

“I was unconscious when he got me to shore,” Jimmy said, “or I would have given him $100, or whatever he required, for saving my life.” The story lingered there, unspoken, for a minute. Maybe more. Jimmy took a long drink of his stout and finally gestured to me.

“And yourself?” he asked. “Have you ever nearly died?”

“Yes,” I said. “I was kicked in the chest by a horse. Had I been kicked in the head, I would have been killed.”

We looked at one another blankly, through an awkward silence. My tale of near death had required 22 words told in little more than a breath. The efficiency in the telling told it all. And none of it. The makings were there, but I had opted for economy, wasting the opportunity to weave my tale like a tapestry rather than blurting it out like the evening news.

I left soon after, thinking as I wandered back through the mist how it could have been a grand tale, embellished or not:

“The spotted beast sorting and bucking, me flying backward from the force of the blow, collapsing in the hot August dust, dazed and gasping, blood oozing from my chest, turning my white shirt pink. “

Whatever magic might have been found is my tale had been usurped by 22 mechanically chosen words, the alchemy stolen by a culture in which less is more, in which processing messages has become a cut-to-the-chase exercise in psychic economy.

“It was a hot afternoon in August, Jimmy. I recall it clearly,” I should have told him.

“The clouds were glorious, I remember, beginning to gather as they were above the timber, and just barely the scent of rain. “

– Special to the Press Herald


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