The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

A Dad Joke in my darkest hour

There‘s a story behind this photo. But scroll down and read the joke first, enjoy it. Then come back!

So there I was, 1969. The summer of love. While many young American men were spending time in foreign countries doing foreign things, I was stuck back home, in grade-school. All the love must have gone to Woodstock, ‘cause there wasn‘t much in Loma Linda, CA that year.

And still! I have some battle stories to tell!

See, in 1969, my dad graduated from college, and we moved off away from all the family I‘d known living in Indiana and Michigan. We moved clear out west to southern California, where my dad had been accepted to medical school.

Me? Oh, I‘d been accepted to a very prestigious and prominent class myself. Mrs. Karmy‘s second-grade classroom.

So there I was, feeing my way through a new school, a new city, all without tge aid and comfort of my great-grandparents, whom I was very close to. At that age, such things matter. I had to figure out society without them it would seem, so I went looking for ideas.

And then along came Karl.

Now, Karl was a cool human being. Not everyone thought so, I guess. He got teased a lot, like me but about different things. But well! I just couldn‘t figure out what really was wrong with him that made other kids harass him. There was something about his ability to talk through conflict, especially with humor, that resonated with me. He had his battles because of being! yaknow. Fat.

Oddly for the times I suppose, I didn‘t just “yaknow” know. A scared kid in a new town is looking for something more important than body mass in his friends. Maybe Karl didn‘t fit 2nd-grader social norms well. But he could shut down a bully by making such good fat jokes of his own as to embarass the neanderthals, and then tell one on his assailant that mocked so far above their mental powers they could only coarsely intuit how badly they‘d been owned and slink away. That was a kind of person I could hang with. Someone who could shrug off the natural bias second grade can give a misfit kid – that he isn‘t good enough for others – and to stand proud upon his own value system. I didn‘t understand all this at the time of course. Karl and I just had a good time pranking the haters for four years. Life had enough problems of its own and neither of us needed the company of the Judgmentalists. So Karl and I became tight friends, and stayed that way for the four years of our fathers‘ schooling.

Karl was hilarious.

And of us 3 – along with Jimmie, whom I‘ll tell you about someday – Karl was always the level-headed one.

It was a cool crisp October morning when, for show and tell, Karl got up and told a joke. Holy cow it was riotous. The kids laughed, the teacher laughed – we all laughed. And you know, I kept on laughing all day. That joke stayed funny with me for almost a week. You‘d think with all the analysis I gave it I‘d remember it now. But let‘s not get hung up on that.

I say almost a week, because it was exactly at the same weekly show-and-tell time-slot seven days later, when I stopped thinking it was funny.

It all went down like this: I had stood up at my turn, prepared with a joke I‘d made up that was based on the same framework as Karl‘s. But somehow, in the telling, my joke came apart like a paper-mache‘ party hat when the sprinklers come on. I started ad-libbing nonsensical punch lines. Yes! I said lines, plural. I kept trying new ones until Mrs Karmy said it was time for me to sit down. It was that catastrophic.

I was mortified.

And I stayed mortified the rest of the day. Karl himself hugged me and told me he believed in me. Well no, he didn‘t do anything of the sort, nor would he have in a thousand years of 2nd grade. But what he did do is give me half a candy bar at the end of the day as I sat, dejected, waiting for my ride home. There is no higher affirmation available from a 2nd-grade fat kid. Karl was a friend.

By the time my dad finally picked me up, I was shifting from mortification to grim resolve that I would find those ungrateful bohemians a good joke, and they would laugh, come hell or high water. I was in a fine kettle, virtually in tears over my failure, and angst at the distance yet to the horizon of my comedic future. I told my dad the whole wretched tale.

And my dad looked at me, until the silence of his attention on me got my own attention to slow down and kill the motor. When I finally stopped ranting and looked up at him, he spoke pointedly at me.

He asked, “Glenn?” I thought his tone foretold great impending wisdom.

“Yeah dad?” I moped.

“What do you find when you lift up an elephant‘s tail?”

Wait! what?

2nd-grade boys have a special reaction reserved for scandalous body jokes. They also have a special reaction for impending great wisdom, and there is a huge commute between the two.

I made it in record time.

He had my full, undivided attention. And this joke right here – this the very one that you just read – was his gift to me that day, a good joke to tell. And of course, tell it I did. I‘ve retold this joke a million times in the 50 years since that moment. It always comes with a faith that original jokes of my own don‘t have. It came from my dad, and was therefore inherently trustworthy.

You‘ll never convince me that a mere joke is a trivial gift from one to another. The right joke, the right moment, for the right reason! brings a ray of light into the deepest of darknesses – for generations. This is what sets a dad joke apart from the the rest – every one of them is lame, off-the-cuff, and usually juvenile. But well! I shouldn‘t be telling you this, but that‘s how a father bridges the gaps along the highway of growing up. The ride isn‘t any smoother, but sudden, spontaneous laughter out of the blue can propel a young boy over the highs and lows of growing up. This is what dad jokes do. They aren‘t some epic feat of manhood. They are a subtle, nuanced off-the-cuff signal to remind a wee person in the heat of the battle of growing up that someone has their back. Someone who has been through and triumphed over the taunts and barbs 2nd graders excel at.

It‘s a good joke. It‘s my dad‘s joke. He gave it to me when it was important to have something funny. Karl‘s dad probably did the same. While they probably never met, I suspect my dad and Karl‘s would get along just fine.

And now I‘m giving it to you.


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2 Responses to “A Dad Joke in my darkest hour”

  1. Utterly, utterly, hilarious. I’m going to tell it to my kid. While we are short of dads in our house, the mom tells dad jokes with aplomb. And it’s paid off. My kid once referred to a dually pickup as having ‘nice wide child-bearing hips. Tell me that’s not hilarious, particularly when you think of the good old boys who drive them, thinking they look tough.

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