My dad had three puns that were so bad, they were only permitted on his birthday–and one was pretty challenging to employ on June 28th.
Jim Walsh would have been 76 years old today. He came from a long line of punsters and its with mixed emotions that his grandchildren also subject unsuspecting audiences to his legacy.
At his funeral, 19 years ago, we passed around two leather-bound green books for folks to jot down their favorite memories of my dad, a precurser to the amazing testimonial strings found on Facebook at the passing of a loved one.
My college buddy Dan added two of his favorite groaners from my dad’s visit to campus on his tri-state route, often in the South Bend area selling windshields to RV companies. (“I’m like Lenin–I’m in glass.”). He’d not only take me out for pizza, but invited me to bring along some pals–nothing like a new audience for an old joke, after all.
Before we caught a basketball game, we went to Godfather’s Pizza and the waitress asked us our preferred pizza shape. “You better make it square,” he winked, “I don’t get around much anymore.” On the way out of the basketball game, in a blizzard trodding around for 10 minutes looking for a barely remembered gray rental car in a parking lot of white mounds, he laughed, “We’re going to have to look ’til it Hertz.”
Two of my most favorites actually got more mileage this weekend at my sister-in-law Claudia’s wedding. There’s no better captive audience than a table of people waiting to be served food.
“Hey, you know the definition of a smart-ass?”
“What,” they asked cautiously.
“Someone who can sit on ice cream and tell what flavor it is.”
You let the head-shaking slow down then you hit them with the next one before they can pretend they’ve got an urgent phone call.
“Remember not to walk into a screen door. You’ll strain yourself.”
Someday, when they figure out what the other 90% of the brain does, they’ll be able to hook up electrodes to my kids’ grandkids and walk them through a series of photographs or conversation and actually track the rather sadistic flowchart that creates a pun. I suspect it begins something like flipping through a thesaurus…
The punster poses as an active listener, letting someone talk about their lives when in reality, fishing for that perfect word. We could see Dad doing that, even from two rows back in the station wagon while we were driving up north for four hours. My sister would be sharing her project from school, perhaps a nature project involving going into the woods to gather different kinds of leaves. We were trained early to start predicting the pun (trees, leaves, bark, roots, woods, etc.).
Consistency is one of the keys to effective parenting, so to have the reassurance that a terrible pun was en route was an odd blessing during long car rides, dinner tables, lines at amusement parks or even, eternal hours waiting for the call from my wife that the scare during our first pregnancy was nothing to worry about. My dad came over and stayed with his terrified son of 30–dropping bad jokes when appropriate.
“Did you hear about the midget fortune-teller who escaped prison? The headlines read, ‘Small Medium at Large.'”
I remember having a flashback to my stressed out 7th grade self being forced to memorize the 50 state capitals. I couldn’t remember Kansas until he held his hands in front of his eyes, peering between his fingers at me. I still can’t see Topeka on a map without seeing my dad.
The double-edged compliment that is the highest praise indeed for my sisters and me as well as all their kids is to say, “Oh my. That was a Jim line.” So on his birthday, we dutifully share the following trifecta of pain…
#3: It’s going to snow tomorrow. But that’s all white.
#2: She used to be a nun, but she’s out of the habit.
And my favorite, that I still may add to his headstone…
#1: Just because my head’s made of stone, don’t take it for granite.
Those groaners, while predictable and generally awful, get me through most days–and serve as my dad walking besides me daily.
Happy Birthday, Dad!
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