Now and then, an incident in my life tickles people’s funny bones. It knocks around in my brain for a while or hides quietly in an unused synapse. When it comes back to mind, the question always arises: Can the humor survive the retelling, or did you have to be there? What follow are five such incidents.
At a writers’ group in the early ’90s, ten of us sat in the home of a man who was attempting his first short story. He admitted he had no idea where the story was going, but he knew for sure that a murder had occurred in the lobby of an office building not unlike his place of employment. Witnesses found the victim stark naked, lying face-down, “with an American flag sticking out of his ass.”
That certainly caught our attention, but the author didn’t know what to do with the absurd calamity he’d created. Over several meetings, he re-read versions of his story, each including the flag in the butt. Finally, as he droned on, I leaned over and whispered in a woman’s ear, “Americans have landed on the Moon.”
My brother Larry had been a guard at the county jail, and he liked working shifts no one else wanted, such as holidays and midnights. Often he had little to do but sit at a desk and read novels. He always told me he had a sweet gig. Then one day he died suddenly, leaving all who knew him in a state of shock. At his wake a tall uniformed deputy sheriff introduced himself to me, offered his condolences, and began telling stories about how Larry could make people laugh. One night the deputy walked in on Larry, who had fallen asleep face-first on his desk.
“Larry! What do you think you’re doing?” the deputy yelled.
Larry woke suddenly and sat up straight. “Oh, I was just praying,” he said.
Shortly after my stint in the Air Force, I accompanied a group of Jaycees to visit inmates in the county jail. Several of us spoke to an audience of about 30 inmates. When my turn came to speak, my story went something like this:
Guys, I can relate to being in jail. I just got out of the Air Force, where my last assignment was a year on Fire Island Air Force Station up in Alaska. Fire Island is this godforsaken little island about three miles long and a half mile wide in Cook Inlet, within sight of Anchorage. The inlet has the second highest tides in the world, and at low tide the inlet turns into a mud flat that moose supposedly cross over. There were about two hundred guys on the island manning a radar squadron that was on the lookout for Russian bombers. Wives weren’t allowed, so my wife stayed home in Massachusetts. We spoke on a radio phone once every couple of weeks. All my letters to her were the same: I love you, I miss you, nothing’s happening. Once I was so bored that I slept 17 hours straight.
One day an earthquake shook the windows and briefly woke me up. Another time there was a small plane crash on the island, and that was terrible. But that was all the excitement for the year. Outside in the winter you could feel ice crystals forming in your throat. Summer days were so long we played softball until almost midnight.
Anyway, I must have hiked every part of that island, down the dirt road to the shore line, hiking through the trees and bushes and around a little pond. So one day when I’d been there about six months I was walking alone back up the dirt road toward my barracks, and out from behind a small shack walked this moose. He—she—I don’t know—moseyed right up to me. It stared down at me with this bored look. Down, yeah. I’m six feet tall, and I only came up to its shoulders. I was a little scared of pissing it off, because it could stomp me to death or drown me in its drool. So I didn’t move, and eventually it just trotted off into the woods, and I was okay.
So that’s kind of why it felt like I’d been in jail too. I’ve gotta tell you, though, after six months without a woman, that moose looked pretty damned good to me.
My brother Roy was married for twenty long years to an abusive, alcoholic woman. A meek soul, he took whatever trouble she gave him. Any time he displeased her, which was often, she screamed or threw things at him and threatened him with divorce.
In time, she developed terminal cancer, but her rants continued all through her illness. Even on her deathbed she was threatening to divorce poor Roy.
She died friendless. At her wake she lay in an open casket, for once at peace. The room contained a half dozen rows of chairs, nearly all empty. Roy stood alone until our mother arrived and gave him a hug. Then he said to her with complete seriousness, “Well, I guess this settles the divorce issue.”
The Goddess Diana
Years ago, I took part in a writing workshop in which each member read a person’s story in advance and came to the next meeting with a detailed critique. One person wrote a lengthy story about a woman named Alice who had difficulty getting pregnant. She tried everything she could think of, but without success. She even purchased a replica of the Greek goddess Diana, described in the story as the goddess of love. Even that tactic was to no avail.
I always tried to critique thoroughly, so when it was my turn to comment on the story I went through the usual set of nits and suggestions. At the end I said, “Oh, and one more thing. I looked up Diana in the dictionary. She’s the goddess of the hunt, not the goddess of love—so that’s why Alice couldn’t get pregnant.”