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1940 Armistice Day Storm: Language Arts



A good storyteller constructs a story and delivers it in ways that follow identifiable patterns. These patterned elements can range from the kind of language used to the way the storyteller structures the story, and how the teller may change the story to suit the setting. In this lesson, students will learn about narrative and storytelling skills by investigating Harold Hettrick’s narrative and telling their own severe weather story.

“When I hear someone using heightened sayings to talk about specific people, in a specific place, working through a specific problem, I know I am hearing a story” (Wagler 1998: 37). Personal experience narratives fill everyday conversations. Careful listening allows us to recognize them. We learn to cue into the characteristics of oral narratives: stylistic wordings, identified characters who meet a challenge of some type, in an identified place.

Harold Hettrick duck hunting on Mississippi River near Ferryville, WI, November 1997

Photo by Ruth Olson

Focus Questions

What are the qualities of narrative that a good storyteller might use?

How does the context in which a story is told affect the particular version the storyteller tells?

Learning Objectives

  • To build an appreciation for the art of storytelling.
  • To recognize the qualities of a well-crafted story.
  • To increase proficiency in oral communication skills

Suggested Activities

1. Lead a class discussion on storytelling experiences that class members have had. Begin with a story of your own about a favorite time and place in which you heard a story (At Girl Scout camp from an older camper? At Hebrew School from a rabbi? At bedtime from a parent?) Have students share their personal experiences about hearing stories. Draw out statements about how the students felt as listeners.

Ask students to think about whom they know among their friends, family, community members that is a good storyteller. Have them write two paragraphs about this person, their storytelling skills, why the student likes to listen to that teller. During a group discussion, draw out qualities of what makes a good teller and create a class list of these traits.

2. Play Hettrick’s story. Have your students read along with the audio by giving them copies of the transcribed text. How does Hettrick’s telling compare with the list of good storytelling qualities that your class created? Add to the list if needed as you draw out these points in discussion:

Hettrick’s opening, “When I was a young lad in high school…” serves as a stylized opening akin to “Once upon a time.” He sets the stage by identifying the hunters and the members of their community as the characters, the Mississippi River as a specific place, and the hunters stranded in the elements as the specific problem. Having introduced all of these factors, Hettrick sets out the ways in which the people involved tried to solve the problem. The hunters sought higher ground and shelter. Townspeople “responded to the riverbank, seeing if they could help hunters get in.” Commercial fishermen tried to go out in their boats to rescue the hunters, but the wind was too strong. The next morning a local pilot flew over the river to locate stranded hunters and alert rescue parties to their location.

Hettrick draws his listeners in by presenting the first part of his narrative chronologically; the day dawned calm, the storm moved in, the hunters were stranded; people worked together to rescue them. Having provided his listeners with a solid background on the storm and its effects, Hettrick now has free reign to reflect on the storm as a whole, and to relate the tales of others he knew who experienced the storm. If Hettrick had done this before his chronological account, the story would have seemed jumbled, but since he waited the listeners now have a context in which to place these more general and more specific parts of the narrative. If Hettrick had begun his narrative with the death toll rather than a description of the storm and the people it affected, it would have been but a number, a statistic. Instead, listeners are able to picture the ninety-three hunters who lost their lives in the storm. We see them crossing a calm river at the day’s beginning, enjoying good hunting as the storm moved in, realizing their predicament and trying in vain to reach shore or make a shelter as the storm reached its peak. We can picture the families and friends who waited anxiously on the riverbank, helpless against the gale force winds. Hettrick’s skill as a storyteller allows him to take us back into the storm with him.

Hettrick’s narrative carries the irony of combining best hunting with worst weather. The Armistice Day storm offered this narrative potential. As the barometer and thermometer fell, and the waterfowl sought relief from the growing gale, the hunting became the best, the weather became the worst, and the stage was set for the devastating loss along the entire Mississippi river valley. The beauty of this narrative doesn’t lie in fanciful wording or complex imagery, but rather in the teller’s ability to imbue his words with the power and gravity of the event he’s describing.

Studying a transcript of oral speech allows us to visually identify typical elements that we hear in oral speech but may not actually notice. In Hettrick’s case, these include:

false starts--The next morning, a pilot…well, I’ll tell you just a little bit more.
colloquial speech and pronunciation—“’em” rather than “them.”
Others might be interjections (for example, “um,” “hmm,” “well”), incomplete sentences, or illustrative sounds.

Personal experience stories may contain cultural content embedded in the language. In the case of this Armistice Day storm narrative, Hettrick sprinkles regional duck hunting jargon throughout his speech, such as "Marv was a good river rat," or "… when the weather is really building up a blow…"

Such phrases pique the interest of outsiders who don’t know what “river rat” or “building up a blow” really mean, and assure insiders that the teller shares important in-group knowledge key to regional duck hunters. Such phrases add to the verbal imagery created by the skilled teller.

Accomplished storytellers use repetition as an aid for listeners. This might be literal repetition of key words or phrases, or repetition of information presented in varying ways. “Repetition does not need to be the exact duplication…it moves by similarities and opposites, anything to which a listener responds, ‘I’ve heard something like that before’” (Wagler 1998: 78).

Within the first few sentences of his narrative, Hettrick uses this repetition to cement the day’s details in the listeners’ minds.
“… The weather started out very beautiful. Got up to 72 degrees along the Mississippi river and other waterfowl places…the weather at noon was still warm and quiet. Hunters had gone out in broadcloth or canvas shirts and canvas jackets.”

The repeated profession of the day’s apparent mildness has its “opposites” in the description of the weather as the storm moved in.
"The weather started to deteriorate. The wind came up first…the wind was bringing waves over these islands and these marshes, and as 6 o’clock came it was sub-zero. They were freezing. There were sheets of ice.”

The stark contrast in the weather is made more powerful by the similarity in the descriptive form. Both the weather and the hunters are described (“[They’d] gone out in broadcloth shirts.” “They were freezing.”) The temperature and the wind are noted (“warm and quiet;” “bringing waves over these islands,” “sub-zero”) Hettrick keeps his story focused on duck hunters. By maintaining that tight focus, he avoids creating a narrative that wanders to a more general account of the storm.

Every teller makes adjustments to his basic tale every time he tells it. No story is ever told exactly the same way each time. One factor that affects the teller’s choices at a particular time and place is the audience. A performed story is an interaction between the teller and her listeners, and a skilled teller makes adjustments accordingly. In the case of this narrative, Harold Hettrick was an invited talker on a panel entitled “Hunting Stories.” He was sitting on a stage with two other people, using a microphone to speak in a noisy public outdoor setting (the National Mall in Washington D.C.). He was talking to people who were probably not Wisconsinites, probably not from the Upper Midwest, probably not familiar with the Upper Mississippi, probably not duck hunters, and probably not familiar with the 1940 Armistice Day storm. This particular setting required Hettrick to gauge his audience and respond by adding or deleting information to the narrative, thereby creating a unique version of his personal experience story. Consider how Hettrick’s version might be different if he was telling the same story to a group of fellow duck hunters in a more intimate setting, such as around the evening fire at duck camp.

3. Asking them to keep in mind what they’ve learned about personal experience stories and storytelling, have your students identify a memorable weather event.
Then they should write out the main sequence of events in their story. Working in pairs, have each student tell (not read!) their story to their partner. Listening carefully, the partner will help the teller identify elements in the telling that can be improved. Tellers should evaluate the listener’s suggestions, try some of them, and tell the story again. Pairs can use the Partner Critique Sheet (PDF). Return to the large group to discuss the process. Have a volunteer tell their story to the class.

Videotape students telling their stories so that they can self-critique. Record a version that you can send to Wisconsin Weather Stories for posting on the website. Invite parents and members of the community to attend and/or participate in a storytelling concert put on by your students.


1) What are the qualities of a good narrative? Provide three qualities, and explain how each can be used to make the story more effective, and to improve the audiences’ understanding.

2) Tell the class the story of a severe weather event that you or someone in your family experienced. Then name two storytelling techniques that you incorporated in your telling.

Sample Proficiency Task (Language Arts Grade 12):

Weather affects nearly every aspect of human life. Over the past weeks, you’ve learned about the interplay between weather and folklore, and about historic Wisconsin weather events. Citing examples of relevant weather lore and/or historic Wisconsin weather events, discuss the way in which at least two different cultural, ethnic, recreational, or occupational groups (for example, farmers) are affected by the weather, and what the stories, sayings or lore you choose to include can tell us about the group, their region, and their culture. Imagine the members of your class are your audience. This paper will NOT be graded on the number of weather sayings and/or stories you include, but on your understanding of the ways in which stories and folklore can provide insight into the lives of individuals and groups.

Sponsored by:
Wisconsin Arts Board CIMSS UW Folklore Program