When Ferroll Sams, one of the most beloved writers of Southern literature, was inducted into his native Georgia’s Writers of Hall of Fame, he did not let the moment pass without taking the opportunity to underscore one of life’s most enduring truths.
Sams, author of classics like "Run With The Horsemen," sauntered to the podium to accept the honor not in the slow gait of a man well into his 80s but in a humble stride, the kind of reluctant steps that if a walk could shrug, surely would.
This isn’t to say that he’s not appreciative of honor that comes with the words he pens to authentically reflect rural Southerners. He seems simply bemused that what comes so naturally to him — Southern storytelling — should be recognized, as it has time and time again, as extraordinary.
I, for one, cannot read Ferroll Sams. Not because he isn’t good but because he is too good. His words — especially character dialogue — are so strong, so enormously powerful that his voice — the literary referral to a writer’s delivery — rings in my head for days. It takes over and pushes away my own weaker voice.
During that time when my own literary voice retreats, I hear only his. No other writer has ever done that to me. But with him, I will find myself demanding of myself to write in Sams’ voice. So, I am resigned, albeit unhappily, to the fact that I will never have my world enriched by the stories of the recently retired physician from Fayetteville.
But back to the ancient truth he underscored in his acceptance speech.
"Well" — he drawled in that delicious Southern cadence before launching into a good-natured jab, but one deemed appropriate by the invitation-only audience of a prior speaker who had taken too long to say too little — "Brevity is the soul of wit."
With that, he held the audience in the palm of his hand. Laughter sprayed across the audience like a garden hose gone bananas. He said, in an enchantingly funny way, that which we all felt.
Firmly entrenched in the good graces of the small but appreciative audience, he continued.
"Now, do y’all want to hear something serious or something ridiculous?"
"Ridiculous!" hollered the normally sedate, scholarly group. So, he obliged, launching into a few short minutes of riotous, sublime tales of his own Southern life. When he left the podium, he left the crowd wanting more. That’s the gift of a brilliant orator.
On the rare occasion when someone seeks my advice on speaking, I always say, "Grab ’em with something funny first. If an audience will laugh at you, they’ll listen to you."
Too much of the world has lost their sense of humor, that valuable commodity that guides us through times that stink like hair burned up by a bad perm.
Sams gave the audience a choice: humor or drama. A chance to laugh — if just for a moment — won hands down. He reproved an ancient truth — that frivolity is much preferred over somberness.
I have a friend who spent years deflecting away any problem in his life with jokes. Admittedly, his quips were quick and hilarious. Then, one day the jokes stopped.
His problems had managed to punch his sense of humor to death. When his laughter took its last breath, it extinguished the light in his eyes. Seeing his light melt into darkness is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.
In a world where we are assaulted daily with seriousness in the form of tragedies, problems, heartbreaks and just plain minor aggravations, we need a reprieve where we can laugh and escape the constant pounding that our souls take. If just for a moment.
The human spirit needs a good tickling as surely as the body needs food, water and air. Humor, too, is life-sustaining.
Funny, isn’t it?
Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)."