The Tales of Uncle Charlie
Tall tales are part of folklore around the world.
They are told to amuse, to tease, sometimes to illuminate a personality. Sometimes they illustrate how people persevered in the face of adversity.
They are, of course, not history in any real sense of the word. But the fact of their existence, and the uses to which they were put, makes them part of our history. We can’t ignore them, any more than we can ignore any other facet of our past.
For 100 years or more, the tall tales of Canada’s Prairie West often involved a fictitious character named Johnny Chinook.
Johnny was constantly getting in and out of tight spots, finding ingenious solutions to difficult problems, worrying about his family, moving from job to job, district to district, looking for better opportunities.
But as the last century passed its midway point, the tall tale became less popular, perhaps because there were fewer and fewer storytellers. Like Uncle Charlie.
Like Johnny, Uncle Charlie was Everyman, and to some folk of a certain age, his stories have a timelessness about them.
When someone was faced with a problem to which there seemed no solution, Charlie was likely to relate the story of the time, while he was trapping in the north woods, when he was pursued by a pack of hungry wolves.
He had been headed back to the village, and with a day’s travel remining, he stopped for the night and built a fire. Before long, he saw the flames of his fire reflected from several pairs of eyes surrounding his camp.
With no ammunition left, Charlie quickly decided his only chance was in outrunning the pack in the deep, fresh snow. He had snowshoes, after all, and the wolves might flounder. Seizing a couple of brands from his fire, he threw them at the wolves. As they scattered, he took off.
But the wolves gained on him, and Charlie’s chances didn’t look good. Then ahead of him he saw a tree with one stout-looking branch sticking out about 30 feet above the trail. Charlie had to get up onto that branch.
Still running hard, he leaped — and made it. The wolves sat around howling at him for a while, then left in frustration.
But the branch was 30 feet up. How did Charlie catch something that high?
“Simple,” he said. “I just stuck out my arms and caught it on my way down.”
At least, that’s the way Uncle Charlie told it.