Monthly Archives: September 2014

A telling of “The Golden Arm” by Mr. James P. Harte

Good Thursday morning, G.R. Wilson here!

As I mention in my telling of The Golden Arm in Right Behind You: Tales of the Spooky and Strange, I first heard the terrifying story as a young boy in Cub Scouts. I’ll never forget the fear I felt going to bed that night, once the campfire had died down to softly glowing embers, and the trees shivered in the dark. The man who told the story was Mr. James P. Harte, a leader in my Cub Scout Pack.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting up with him to chat, and for him to provide a new recording of The Golden Arm. You can download the audio file from the Dropbox link below. (Don’t worry, you don’t need the Dropbox program: just click the blue “Download” button.)

Golden Arm Recording

It was wonderfully nostalgic for me to hear the story from him again, for the first time in many years. I’d like to thank Mr. Harte for scaring the hell outta me, and therefore giving me inspiration to go scare the hell outta other people.

Below is a great guest post he wrote for the blog, on his own storytelling experiences. Enjoy:

I learned storytelling from my father.  He was a great storyteller and told stories as if they were true based on his own experience or from research he learned.  He was a businessman who often flew on trips.  One of his reoccurring stories was about Helicopter Pilot Joe.  On a trip with Helicopter Pilot Joe the helicopter would suddenly develop mechanical trouble and Joe would have to make an emergency landing to fix it.  In one story just as he was about to get it fixed they saw trees starting to come through the trees at them.  They escaped just in time to see that they’d landed on a giant’s head and what they thought were trees was the giant’s comb moving through his hair.  In Helicopter Joe Stories we knew they were on some part of a giant’s body or clothing though Dad never revealed it until the end.  We tried to guess what part they were on or in, a pocket, collar, his head; there are many places to get lost in a giant.  Rarely did we guess until Dad told us.

Dad was a Boy Scout in the 30s and a Scoutmaster in college after WWII.  He was my Cub Scout Committee Chairman, Committee Member of my Boy Scout Troop and an Indian Guides leader.  He was a painter and craftsman and created a prop to go with one of his campfire stories, a weathered looking sign that read, “Old John’s Mine”.  Before the Indian Guides arrived at the campsite he buried the sign in the ground with the tip of one corner poking out of the ground covered with leaves.  That night around the campfire he began his story as he did all of them by saying he had done some research on the area and discovered some interesting history.  About a hundred years ago there was a man named Old John who discovered gold and built a mine there.  As he worked the mine himself he became obsessed that others would try to steal his gold to the point that he killed anyone who came near.  When police came to arrest him he fled into the woods and was never seen again.  Strangely, people still disappear from the area and some say that Old John is still there.  Others say it’s just a story but I guess we’ll never know.  At the end of the story and the campfire the boys formed a line to “police the area”, walking through the campsite picking up any litter before going to bed.  Eventually one of them stepped on the buried sign.  Announcing that he’d found something they pulled and dragged it from the ground.  Astounded, they said it was proof that the story was true, except for one boy who said it was fake who was promptly dared to sleep with it in his tent, which he was bound to accept.  The boys went in their tents, the doubter taking the sign in his as the men stayed up.  In a few minutes Old John’s sign came flying out.

Dad’s version of The Golden Arm came from Mark Twain’s.  Every year Hal Hollbrook portrayed him in a one man show on TV called Mark Twain Tonight.  On one he told The Golden Arm as he heard it from a slave growing up in pre-Civil War Missouri as related in his essay, “How To Tell A Story”.

In Dad’s version it was of course something he learned from research and happened right at the campsite we were staying.  He told it as history and we believed him.  When he got to the end we jumped.

I followed the same pattern on my version to my scouts adding elements of my own.  The key of presenting it as fact remained and contributed to the effect of scaring the crap out of boys many of whom have not recovered.  Of course after one telling to any group the surprise is gone but it is fresh, coiled and ready to go for any new listener.  When a new scout came on a campout I was summoned to tell The Golden Arm with the new boy sitting at my side.  The other boys would try to conceal their grins knowing what was about to be unleashed on him.  I was always quick afterward to let the boy know that the same thing had happened to all his fellow scouts and he would see it happen to new ones.

My joke about boys not recovering from The Golden Arm is at least partly true.  I’ve been told by several who have grown up over the years that I scared the crap out of them in a way they will never forget.  For most it’s a pleasant memory but for a few it’s a haunting one they can’t escape.  To them I can only say I’m sorry and WHOOOOOOOSSSSSSEEEEE GOOOOOOTTTT MYYYYYYY GOLDEEEEN ARMMMMM ? ! ! !

Some storytelling tips I’ve learned are to use visuals in your story that create pictures in the listener’s mind.  One I used in this recording is what I called finger clouds over the moon.  This is the way clouds were portrayed in the monster magazines I read as a kid and how I drew my own.  Asking the listener if he has ever seen clouds like that is more effective than just telling him about them.  It makes them remember, oh yeah, I’ve seen that, and create a firmer image in their imagination.  Giving the outline and letting the listener fill in the picture brings them into the story and makes them a participant in it.  It’s important and effective to know what not to describe too much.  That’s what I did in my description of the young man removing the Golden Arm from his dead wife’s body.  Saying, “I don’t want to go into detail” creates a more frightening image than if you spelled it out which would be inappropriate for young listeners and unnecessary for any age.  It’s essential that the audience be quiet and attentive.  If the kids start asking questions, making jokes, talking to themselves, poking sticks into the fire, roasting marshmallows or anything other than looking at the storyteller, the fire or, when you really have them, into the dark beyond the fire, the spell is lost.  The same goes for adults.  If they are moving around, building and rebuilding the fire or performing noticeable audible tasks in the background the distraction will take the listeners out of the story.  Many kids and some adults haven’t learned how to sit still and quiet for a story so the storyteller should politely but firmly lay the ground rules before starting.  Never let the audience know if you hit a snag.  Never reveal error.  If you draw a blank make it look like a dramatic pause until you get your thoughts together and continue.  Never say, “Wait, I forgot a part”.  You’re an actor on a stage and actors never say, “Wait, I forgot a part”.  Make everything look as if you intended it like a cat that falls off the bed then walks away like, “I meant to do that.”  Keep the story going no matter what.  When I tell The Golden Arm or any story I don’t tell it the exact same way every time.  I have a template that I fill in as I go along.   I make a lot of stuff up and change it to suit the occasion.  One reason is that I can’t remember exactly how it went last time.  If I did and told it the same way every time it would become a recitation and not a telling.  Remember, you are TELLING the story and it’s 100% true.  In a college writing class a student read a personal essay that had no spark or life.  When the professor critiqued it she said, “But that’s how it happened”.  His answer was, “Truth is no excuse for bad storytelling”.  Telling kids that there was a saw mill and an old mansion in the field where they were just playing dodge ball isn’t lying.  It’s poetic license the same as any entertainment but better because they make the pictures in their minds.  Don’t take that away from them.

I’ve always loved monsters and scary stuff.  When I was a kid I had a year-round spook house in our basement I led neighborhood kids through for ten cents.  I first used friends as costumed monsters but they were useless so I did it myself leading kids through props embellished by my storytelling.  Like my dad’s stories my spook house was presented as the way our house was when my parents’ bought it.  I told the kids that the realtor warned my parents about the haunted basement but they decided to buy it anyhow.  The tour was a buildup to the surprise ending.  As we came to a wooden door I told them that the realtor said to never open it then I asked if they wanted me to.  Most did but one kid didn’t.  Opening the creaking door revealed a towering monster illuminated by candle light raising a bloody dagger.  The kid who didn’t want the door opened ran out the back door screaming without paying which taught me to always get the money up front.  The monster was my toy robot on top of a closed toilet seat covered with a white sheet and a rubber monster mask.  A rubber monster glove at the end of his flexible arm held a rubber dagger. Heavy fishing line tied to the hand running over an above water pipe tied to the inside door made it raise when the door was opened.  The candlelight was an electric Christmas candle. The whole tour was a long story leading up to a surprise ending similar to The Golden Arm.  It made me a lot of dimes.

My first movie was a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde filmed with my father’s 8mm movie camera staring me when I was 10.  I entered it in my boy scout hobby show and won first prize.  In high school I was the president of the Drama Club and majored in Theater at Ithaca College before switching to Film and Television and transferring to New York University.  After college I worked on several low budget horror films including Maniac where I assisted Special Effects Artist Tom Savini who worked on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead films.  I became a film editor in advertising, documentaries, stock footage and research.  Some of my favorite jobs were working with archival film.  I’m currently an Archival Projectionist at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography in Rochester NY.

I’m honored that Geoff was inspired by my telling of The Golden Arm to write his own version and ask me to record mine.  I hope people enjoy it.

Sweet dreams.

James P. Harte