I’ve already told you about Roger, one of the NCOs in my small outfit overseas in England. Roger had a knack for saying the right thing at the right time — and usually breaking everyone up with it. One day Roger and I, two old master sergeants, were walking the busy sidewalk near headquarters. A high-ranking officer went by, one known to the troops as Stonewall because of his ability to function under fire like Stonewall Jackson. We each snapped a salute as he passed, but after he passed we heard, “Sergeant!”
We turned. Old Stonewall was staring at Roger. So were about 30 people who had been stopped in their tracks by Old Stonewall’s voice.
“Sergeant!” Old Stonewall asked Roger, “Where’s your name tag?”
Without so much as looking down, Roger rendered another snappy salute and said, “Sir! I memorized it and destroyed it!”
There was a hushed pause. Then, with an equally snappy salute, Old Stonewall said, “Excellent, Sergeant! Carry on!”
Everyone walked off as Old Stonewall rose several notches in the esteem of the troops, and no doubt in the esteem of everyone else who has ever heard that story. Why? It takes a hell of an officer to know when humor trumps a minor regulation! Actually, Roger’s name tag had broken earlier that day.
I knew another NCO with a special sense of humor. His name was Jerry. I didn’t know him well because he was one of the students in an instructor’s course I had been assigned to by some fussy old major who, seemingly not interested in the fact that I already knew how to teach, insisted that I go to his school before I began teaching others how to do the same. He sent me back to my home base halfway through the course, though; the instructors kept complaining that I knew more than they did.
And why not? I’d been teaching for 11 years.
Unfortunately, I never got to know Jerry well. We lived in separate quarters and I only saw him during class. So the best way I can show you how uniquely funny Jerry was is to tell you what happened the day the men in our small class of 15 NCOs had to give their first oral presentation. It sounded like a grade school writing assignment:
“Talk for 15 minutes on a subject of your choosing.”
I’d been teaching for 10 years. Getting in front of 15 classmates was so easy I didn’t even bother to prepare. I just chose a subject and winged it when the time came. Actually, when you come right down to it, teaching is not at all difficult if you know your subject. You just follow the old rule: Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them what you’ve got to tell them, and tell them what you told them. A little introduction, a lesson that is organized in some way — from the easy to the difficult, the known to the unknown, from left to right, from the past to the future, or whatever — and a short conclusion and summary, and you’re all done.
Well, I got up and did my thing, and that was that. Then came the next man, and the next, and everything was going fine — until Jerry got up. As he strode up to the podium he might as well have had his hands tied behind his back and a noose hanging around his neck. He looked that worried.
Haltingly, his long thin face topped by a deep frown, he began to talk in a low, barely audible voice. Instead of going into an introduction, he said, “You know, guys, you’ve all been talking about your wives the past couple of weeks, making comments, little jokes, saying things that were supposed to be funny, but — well, if you’d ever lost your wife you wouldn’t talk that way.”
Half of the people in the room looked ready to crawl under the tables as Jerry went on. “I-I’ve l-lost three wives,” he said, raising a hand with three fingers showing. “Th-Three. M-My first wife died from eating poisoned mushrooms. A-And my second wife died from eating poisoned mushrooms.”
He paused and looked at us, seated in a square around the room. You could have heard a fly walking on the ceiling that room was so silent.
“M-My third w-wife,” he went on, “d-died from a blow from a Sears and Roebuck ball peen hammer. Couldn’t get her to eat any mushrooms.”
Laugh? We laughed so hard and so long that no one else got to talk that day. And poor Jerry almost didn’t get to finish his talk either, which was on — what else? — What Makes People Laugh.
I’ll tell you what, Johnny.