A little restaurant. The men in the booth behind me are old. They are telling jokes to one another. They are loud men. They have white hair, mugs of coffee, hearing aids.
One man wears overalls. Another wears suspenders with bass fish on them. Welcome to Rural America.
Whenever one man finishes a joke, the others slap their knees and say, “Hooooo boy!”
My waitress tries to take my order, but she can’t concentrate, we’re both eavesdropping on the old men.
An elderly man says:
“So a fella and wife go to Heaven. There’s a BIG CROWD, standing around. And Saint Pete says to everybody:
“‘Men, listen up! Whichever men wore the pants in their household, form a single-file line over HERE! And all men who were henpecked by their wives, stand over THERE!
“And almost every man went to the henpecked line. Except ONE guy, who stood alone in the other line. So Saint Pete shook the man’s hand and said, ‘Sir, I just wanna congratulate you.’
“‘For what?’ the guy said. ‘I’m only here because my wife told me to stand here.’”
The punchline hits like an atom bomb. One man laughs so hard he almost ruptures his gallbladder.
When I was a boy, my father had hundreds of jokes like this. I would overhear him tell these anecdotes to his roughneck friends and I wished I were like him.
The men I come from speak the language of humor. They gathered on the courthouse steps, or at barbershops, not to discuss feelings or family issues, but to tell funny stories.
As a boy, I wanted to be my father. I wanted to know his stories and tell his jokes. Some kids did math homework, others went to football practice. I memorized the one about the farmer’s daughter and the preacher.
My father would place me on a fencepost for the pleasure his pals, and I would recite all the one-liners he taught me, and I believe he was genuinely proud of me.
There’s the one about the man and the doctor.
Doctor says: “Sir, I got some good news and bad news.”
“Gimme the bad news first, Doc.”
“Okay. During your operation, we amputated the wrong leg.”
“What?” they guy shouts. “What’s the good news?”
“Well,” the doc says. “Turns out your other leg won’t need to be amputated after all.”
Yeah, I know. It’s not exactly the best joke you’ll ever hear, but when told by a six-year-old, it’s not bad. At least, that’s what my father thought.
My Sunday school teacher, however, felt otherwise. My elderly teacher, Miss Jordan, did not care for my jokes. She was especially irritated by the joke about Adam and Eve and Mick Jagger.
It’s a classic.
Anyway, on the day of my father’s funeral, my uncle John arrived driving his beat-up Chevette. He was wearing overalls, a necktie, and a sportcoat.
He found me on the front steps, dressed in church clothes. I was a mute that day.
He asked me to go for a walk with him while we waited on my mother to get ready. We strolled through a big field and didn’t speak for a long time. Only the sounds of our footsteps could be heard.
Finally he broke the silence. “Did you hear the one about the Pentecostals who formed a bowling team?” he said.
“Yeah,” he said. “They called themselves the Holy Rollers.”
I didn’t laugh. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. Even so, old men do worry about what’s appropriate and what’s not. They move with the wind. They do things nobody understands.
“Hey,” my uncle went on. “I bought the world’s worst thesaurus the other day. Not only was it terrible, it was terrible.”
And I started crying. He held me. I let out a low-pitched howl. And he told more jokes while I sobbed. One joke after another. Stupid stories. Ridiculous tales about when he was growing up. And I was grateful for this.
I finished crying. He straightened my jacket. He tousled my hair. He said, “I love you, buddy.”
The old men in the restaurant are like him. Good men, who forget to shave sometimes. They are our history books, and our poetry, and our joke-smiths. They are everything I want to be one day.
When the group in this restaurant stands to leave, they place cash on the table. The man in overalls walks past me. I get a good look at him and he reminds me of someone I once knew.
The waitress refills my coffee and says, “Those men are a something else, I’m sorry they were so loud.”
If you ask me, they weren’t nearly loud enough.