Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Serious Humorist

My father was a serious man. Three things were paramount for him, his faith in God, his interest in politics, and his concern for the health of all the cars on the road. He was an amateur in all three areas but approached each of them with the seriousness of a professional. There is a sense in which all three blended together creating a sort of seamlessness in his thinking. I’ve always thought of him as a man of integrity. And when I use that term I’m not thinking just of honesty and truthfulness, although those were things he was known for. I’m using “integrity” in the sense of things hanging together, making sense individually but each adding to and helping to define the whole of who he was.

But Dad was not humorless by any means. I don’t think I ever recall him “telling a joke.” He may well have done so from time to time but it was so rare as to not be a part of my memory of him. What I remember are the little “setups” he would create to play with our minds.

When my brothers and I were young we were builders like our father. And like him we struggled to maintain our projects with limited resources. Any rumor of materials for the taking was good news to us. So, one winter evening, when we were gathered in the living room around the wood stove, Dad asked if anyone would like some large nails, we all indicated an eagerness for them. “There are some nice ones on the stove board,” he said, indicating the metal-clad asbestos pad that lay under the stove, keeping its heat from setting the floorboards on fire. One of us made a dive for the floorboard and then emitted a disappointed groan. They were, indeed, fine nails; those recently trimmed from Dad’s toes.

Or there was the time that he told me he had drawn a picture of me “on the range.” One of my desires was, like most other boys, to be a cowboy. I ran to see the picture and found a crude drawing (crude was part of the fun for Dad, although it may have been all he was capable of too). It showed a boy sitting on a kitchen range. Inscribed on the drawing, in Dad’s simple printing was, “James on the range.” When I complained, he offered to make amends by drawing a picture of me on the ranch. I agreed to give him a second chance. When he was finished he handed me his drawing, again a crude creation showing a boy sitting astride an open-end mechanic’s wrench, with the caption printed below, “James on the wrench.” “Oh, isn’t that the way you spell “ranch,” he asked when I objected.

Most of the time Dad presented his serious side, arguing about points of religion or Biblical interpretation with his Southern Baptist brothers, or defending Franklin Roosevelt against those who depreciated the value of his New Deal programs, or bending over an ailing automobile, diagnosing its problem and prescribing the remedy. It is that side of him that most people came to know and appreciate. Those are strong memories for me too. But the humor is the thing I miss most. The quiet smile of satisfaction when he had pulled one over on you.

There may not be a place in heaven for politics, auto repairs, or even religious disputation. I’m hoping though, there will be a place for joy. It was joy, after all, that Dad's humor was intended to create and share.

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