Laughter’s Legacy

People ask me where I get my sense of humor. Without a doubt, I know that story-telling comes from my dad’s side of the family. There’s never been a single one of them that couldn’t paint a vivid picture with words and put you right in the middle of the action. My irreverent sense of humor, however, probably comes from my maternal grandfather who was always making fun of something. Chick had had throat cancer before I was born, so I only knew him to speak with a hoarseness that was not always easily understood. He was also hard of hearing and refused to wear his teeth, and this combination led to a lot of confused communication, which guarantees humor even when things aren’t meant to be funny.

He was an avid sports fan and though he died before technology was developed to provide multiple outlets for catching as many games as possible, he did manage to have the TV in the living room positioned so that he could watch it along with the TV in the dining room while a transistor radio blared away at his left hand during his 4:30 p.m. supper.

My grandmother was the perfect straight man for his punch lines though I don’t know if she ever caught on. She always did the driving, and one day when I was seated next to him in the backseat of the car, Granny was barreling down a country road with the windows halfway down.

“I had a teacher who lived over that way,” she said. “A Miss Hunt. Now, what was her first name?” She was in the front seat with her best friend Elsie, my cousin Charlie seated between them. I was in the back, between my grandfather and Elsie’s husband Pete. I was probably 11 at the time, and though I didn’t care to be sandwiched in between two old men who couldn’t hear and talked over me, I couldn’t help but laugh when he offered a suggestion.

“Let’s see,” said Granny. “She taught at the Diamond School. Miss Hunt…Miss Hunt…”

“It was Helen!” came Chick’s raspy reply.

“Are you sure? That doesn’t sound right to me.”

“It was Helen,” he insisted. “If you’ve got a question, go to hell and hunt!” Then he elbowed me in the ribs, the impact almost knocking the wind out of me. I gasped for breath and laughed my head off while Granny raced to the next stop sign with a puzzled look on her face.

Chick wasn’t exactly Noël Coward, but for a kid who loved to laugh, I thought he knew how to hit a punch line with the best of them. Just make sure that you didn’t walk in front of a TV during a game, keep talking during a breaking news bulletin or jump on the beds. You’d also be in for it if you turned on the hose outside or lit a firecracker too close to the house.

He was always offering someone a chew of tobacco, and I remember one Saturday night when I was about five that I was tired of being asked after I’d said no so many times. I’d not figured out that he was only joking, so I got it into my head to accept a piece just to keep him from bothering me. I had no idea what a foul tasting thing I was putting in my mouth. It seemed to be the color and texture of a cricket, and it burned terribly. I gave it a try for about five seconds and spit the stuff out. I don’t know if he thought I was going to be sick, but he raised a fuss and seemed a little put out that I’d wasted a perfectly good mouthful of his favorite tobacco. Then he started to laugh.

When he laughed at something you said or did, you always had the sense that he was laughing at you rather than with you. He was amused by a great deal, and then there were the times that he sat with his brothers at family gatherings. They would call you over, and Chick would ask some questions. Because of the hoarseness or lack of context, you never failed to get the question wrong. He might’ve asked you about school or why you’d chosen to wear that brightly colored shirt. I’d never understand what or why he was asking, and when you gave an answer, he and the uncles would laugh like you were Don Rickles playing Ceasar’s Palace. You never knew what you’d said to set them off, so you slinked away and hoped that they found someone else to pick on.

The brothers: Wheeler, Doc, Chick and Marion. They stopped laughing only long enough to take a photograph.

The brothers: Wheeler, Doc, Chick and Marion. They stopped laughing only long enough to take a photograph.

I was never upset by being the butt of the joke. Somehow I figured out that the attention was good, and then there were the times that you were in on the joke and someone else was the foil. My cousin Jill is six months younger than I am, and Chick decided that she needed to learn to drive. I’d been driving some, so he didn’t see the need for teaching me. As a city girl come to visit, he felt that Jill needed some practice. He rounded us up and we went for a ride on the back roads in his new blue Ford pickup. After he got us to an unpaved road, he pulled over and told her to drive.

I haven’t ridden with her in years, but I hope that she got better than her driving debut. It was hard enough to drive a pickup when she couldn’t sit high enough to see out that well, but to put her on a gravel road with the dust flying in through the opened windows while he barked commands, the scene could only deteriorate from there.

“Shift it into drive, Sissy!” he yelled. Jill took the gearshift in hand and moved into drive. Automobile technology was not such in those days that your foot had to be on the brake before you could shift, so we moved forward before she was ready. She slammed on the brakes, and without seatbelts, Chick and I lurched forward. He cussed and grabbed the gearshift. We started again…and again.

Finally we were moving, and then a bird swooped down from the sky and glided across our path. Jill hit the brakes again though harder than ever before. We fish-tailed and Chick yelled something else. I know he probably didn’t say what he wanted to say, but then he started to laugh. He looked at me with an expression that indicated there was no hope for the girl, but he turned back to her and wanted her to continue. I wanted to get behind the wheel because I wanted to drive, and I thought I could get us home faster than five feet at a time. We were out there for hours, and finally he’d had enough. He knew it was almost time for dinner, and he was never late for a meal.

There was one incident when I laughed and he didn’t. If there wasn’t a game on somewhere, he could be found playing dominoes with his friends. It was late in the morning, and Granny was in the kitchen. They were living in town by then, and she was looking out the window.

“Ride your bicycle over to the domino hall and tell Chick that the man is here to haul that stuff away in the alley.”

The ride didn’t take me long, and I walked in where there was all manner of tobacco being smoked or chewed or dipped. Four men were bent over a table studying dotted tiles like scientists study the growths in petri dishes. Without the proper reverence for the game, I pranced up to Chick’s right side and yelled “The man is here to clean up the alley!”

I’d startled him. “What?!?”

Chick (in the middle) playing dominoes. This was always serious business.

Chick (in the middle) playing dominoes. This was always serious business.

“I said that Granny said to tell you to come home because the man…is here…to clean out…the alley. The alley man!”

“Oh, that sh*t-a**!!!” He was furious that he had to leave the game. “Tell her I’m on my way!”

I rode back, parked the bike by the door and went to the kitchen. Granny asked me if I’d done what I’d been told. Yes, I had told him and he’s on his way.

“What did he say exactly?” she asked.

“He said, ‘Oh, that sh*t-a**!’ and said he’d be here in a minute.”

“Oh! He didn’t have to say it like that!” And I didn’t have to tell her either, but I knew it was the only opportunity that I’d get to say what would one day become my favorite swear and not get my mouth washed out. She had no further reaction, and I walked away roaring with laughter inside my head.

30 years have gone by since the phone rang that October morning, informing me before 6:00 a.m. that he had died the night before. He had collapsed after supper while feeding his animals. A neighbor had seen him go down, and my aunt and cousin rushed him to the hospital. All of our lives were changed at once. The patriarch who expected decent behavior in public and respectful silence during sports broadcasts was gone. For over ten years, I never forgot the anniversary of his death, but as time passes the layers of life insulate us from the sting. I think it was the combination of it being 30 years along with learning that two friends and their daughter had passed away that caused me to remember his passing so vividly this year.

The important thing to remember is that while there is that period of sadness, eventually you have to let the laughter return.

© 2014 by Patrick Brown