Looking through some old family photos for a project I’m working on, I came across one that made me laugh out loud. It’s of my Dad, and it’s at the bottom of this post and you’ll understand why it’s there and why I laughed if you finish reading this.
My father had many wonderful qualities, among them genuine kindness, keen intelligence and a deep well of tolerance for diverse ideas and people. He also had a unique sense of humor that some would call off-beat, while harsher critics might deem it just plain weird.
For example, when the four of us older kids were 4, 2, and 1, Dad taught us to line up at the door, hold our chubby arms up in salute and shout “Heil the Father!” when he arrived home from work. Occasionally, he would give the signal when guests were present, and we would immediately go into formation and perform. We had no idea what we were saying or why, but it made him laugh and that made us do it even more enthusiastically. The custom faded fairly quickly, however, because my mother did not find it as amusing as he did. It wasn’t until years later that we realized we’d been mocking a Nazi salute and why Mom had felt that his ironic humor in this instance was, at best, ill-considered.
Although she had a more conventional sense of the funny than Dad, she was always pretty tolerant of his. She didn’t object beyond a roll of her eyes and an “Oh, Fred!” when he put a life-size poster of a horse looking out from a stable stall, on a door that was the first thing startled visitors saw after they entered our house. Dad named the horse “Old Trotter,” and had a number of photos taken of himself and various grandchildren standing in front of the “stable.” He then sent them out randomly to old friends, who were perplexed about why Fred had bought a horse.
When my sister Barb was in college and in need of some quick cash, Dad answered her call for $20 by mailing her a bucket of pennies. Only after she had rolled all the coins did she discover the $20 bill at the bottom, along with a picture of a cow. No note, no explanation, just the cow.
During a year when the vacation resort Club Med was heavily promoted with the tagline “Welcome to Paradise,” we decided to give Dad a special gift for his birthday. We had a bright blue sweatshirt custom-printed for him. On the front, it read Welcome to Paradise. On the back was the headline Club Fred, and underneath were the names of all the local and the famous Freds we could think of: Fred Hunter, Fred Hunt, Fred Ewing, Fred McDonald, Fred MacMurray, Fred Dryer, Fred Flintstone. We expected that he would laugh, and then use the shirt to wear for working around the house. We should have known better. He wore it all around town for years, without explanation or embarrassment, a 60-something bald, bespectacled and not very trim guy presenting himself to the world with the introduction, Welcome to Paradise.
He followed the beat of his own humor drummer all through his life. When he was well into his 70s, he snuck into my sister Tricia’s apartment while she was at work. His mission: plant a motorcycle alarm clock, complete with a wake-up signal of bright flashing lights and roaring engine sounds, under her bed, timed to go off at 3 a.m. Even though he was far removed from the scene of a sleep-dazed daughter jolted from slumber by the sound of a motorcycle racing through her bedroom with lights flashing, just knowing it was going to happen provided him with endless hours of amusement. Long after the actual event, he could still crack himself up recounting the story.
Dad always laughed at his own jokes, and we did, too, because it was impossible not to be amused by his amusement. When something that he said or did was more groan than laugh-worthy, someone would invariably say, “You’re such a Fred!” and then we’d all end up laughing anyway. We still do, when we reminisce about Dad.
So, maybe the best gift he gave us, in addition to each other, is the gift of laughter.