Letters . . .

Jul14

My Grandfather’s Old Ram

During his long and very successful career on the lecture circuit, Mark Twain had one story that was his favorite. It was the story he heard in the Nevada Territory.

Twain was told that he must not miss hearing a story told by an elderly gentleman named Jim Blaine. He would only tell the story if he was drinking whiskey. When Blaine was sufficiently drunk he would begin to tell the story about his grandfather’s old ram. But his memory was so good, it would divert him into telling details that had nothing to do with the story! As a result, he never finished the story, as the whiskey would always cause him to fall asleep. Nobody ever got to hear what happened to the old ram.

When Twain’s wife Olivia attended her husband’s lectures, she would always eagerly await the “ram” story. There was one line in the story that she particularly liked. In the story, an Irishman would fall three stories from a building where he was laying bricks. He landed on a stranger and killed him. A dog named Jasper was nearby and people wondered why the man didn’t fall on the dog, thus preventing the stranger from being killed. The answer was simple, “The dog would have seen him coming”.

Olivia Twain would always judge the success of the lecture by how well her husband delivered that line. If Twain paused for the proper length of time before delivering that line, the audience would laugh hysterically. If the pause was not timed properly, the joke would fall flat.

Twain did not agree with his wife on this point, but it was not in his interest to dispute the matter. Twain first related this tale in his book Roughing It. But on the lecture circuit, he made significant changes to suit his audiences. Nobody heard him tell it as many times as his wife, and she never tired of hearing him tell it. The Grandfather’s Old Ram story is a classic Mark Twain humorous tale. The audience is caught up in the unrelated stories and is entertained throughout.

I told this story to six different audiences last month and each reacted a little differently. This experience gave me just a taste of what Mr.Twain related about his having told it hundreds of times. I look forward to practicing the story on another audience soon.