He was good with a joke. Real good.
Each Thanksgiving or Christmas, he had a pocketful of zingers. All the men in the family would gather in the den after supper just to hear the racy ones.
The boys did, too.
“It was his thing,” says the grandson. “Sometimes, his jokes were so good, we didn’t know whether to laugh or clap.”
His sense of humor came from a childhood spent during the darkest days of American history. When the boll weevil, the stock market, and war ruined the world.
One Thanksgiving, the grandson tells me the old man surprised everyone.
“He had no jokes,” the grandson says. “He had a story about his life. We didn’t expect it from a jokester like him. But you could tell he thought it was important.”
It was. After all, the man came from an era when things like storytelling and guitar picking were thought to be important. When front porches and living rooms were more valuable than, say, twenty-four-hour news networks.
That holiday, the old man sat, feet propped up, sipping corn liquor—which the doctor expressly warned against. The redder his cheeks got, the easier his memory ran.
He described a lonely childhood after his father’s death. About how his daddy died from bee stings—they swarmed him in the woods. It was a freak accident.
He talked about being so poor he shoveled manure for pennies. How suppers consisted of ketchup and water—they called it tomato soup. About stealing chickens from nearby farms to keep from starving. About singing in the living room to keep from complaining.
“It was sobering,” the grandson recounts. “None of us knew these things about him. Nobody dared interrupt him.”
The old man spoke of pumping gas when fuel was cheaper than Coke. He talked about country dances, where boys behaved like men. And girls expected them to. About the magic of a fiddle.
He talked about her—whose photograph stayed in his breast pocket while he was in Europe. About the War, Germans, watching nineteen-year-olds die, and the bullet in his armpit.
About hell on earth, hard work, family sacrifice, and how much fun he’d had doing it all.
When he finished, the den fell silent. A few people sniffled. Someone finally broke the silence, saying, “How about some poundcake?”
A sure fire way to empty a room.
The den cleared out except for one grandson. The boy sat criss-cross on the floor, asking the old man for more.
“More?” The man just shook his head. “In the name of God, boy. You’d rather hear old-man stories than eat cake? You’re just like your dummy grandaddy. You poor damn soul.”
It was his last Thanksgiving.
I am that poor damn soul.