Too Close To The Tree

I have often been accused of having a wacky sense of humor. No, let me rephrase that. For wacky is too kind a word. Actually, at various and sundry times my sense of humor has been called weird, morbid, macabre, silly, strange, odd, or bizarre. Indeed, I have repeatedly heard the comment: “You’re just not normal.”

Now such comments would hurt and sting, except for one very important fact. All these statements are basically true. My sense of humor tends to the unusual. But I come by my perverse way of looking at life legitimately. You know that old saying… the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Well, in my case this is true, because I think I get my sense of humor from my father, who had his own unique brand of humor. (By the way, both apples from this tree are a tad odd… my sister, Connie, is every bit as bizarre as I am when it comes to what tickles our respective funny bones!)

I got to thinking about this recently. If you were to talk to someone who knew my father, you might not hear about his sense of humor right away. In truth, this is not what comes to my mind at first. Thinking of Daddy… (Shades of John Boy Walton! Yep, being a good southern boy, my father will always be “Daddy” to me.) As I was saying before some subterranean part of my brain kicked in with its own quasi-Freudian comment… thinking of Daddy, I think of his being a plumber, a good provider, and a hard worker. I remember that he was a country guy who lived in the suburbs yet made his home very rustically homey, like a little bit of the country itself. He was a kind-hearted man who allowed his family to take in stray cats as well as stray cousins. He never objected to masses of people for Sunday dinner, as was often the case. And he lived in peaceful and amiable contentment with his mother-in-law in permanent residence for many, many years. He was basically a good man. Yet, the more I have pondered his life, the more I have realized what an amazing sense of humor Daddy did have. Let me give you some examples.

Daddy was good at telling stories. And he could embellish them as well as any other spinner of tall tales. For instance, there is the story of his trip to Harrisonburg. Now, for all loyal Trogo readers who may not be from the hills of Virginia, allow me to give you a brief geography lesson. My father was from Albemarle County, Va., which is in the Piedmont, the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. Albemarle is home to Th. Jefferson, James Monroe, UVA, upper crust snobs, home-grown rednecks, moonshine, Morrises, and their near kin, the Shiffletts. (You will also find Morrises and Shiffletts who are rednecks and make moonshine, and even some Morrises and Shiffletts who think they have risen above all this and now urbanely live as upper crust snobs.) The county seat and most prominent urban center in Albemarle is Charlottesville (locally abbreviated C’ville). Daddy lived in or near C’ville for much of his life. When very young, he and his brother (I think it was Richard, but I’m not positive) decided to take a trip to Harrisonburg, a town about an hour away, in the Shenandoah Valley. They spent the day there, cruising around in Richard’s convertible, the top down, with their traveling companions. These two traveling companions happened to be a couple of hunting dogs, good ol’ hounds. Stopping for a bit, they noticed that a storm was brewing. Thus, they thought it wise to head home immediately. So they hopped in Richard’s convertible, loaded their dogs in the back, and attempted to outrace the storm. Daddy says that they were just barely ahead of the storm the entire trip. Over the mountains, through the hollows, around the hairpin curves they dashed along—with the top down, the cool air blowing through their well-combed coiffures. The storm was so close that it seemed to be chasing them. They were barely ahead of the flashes of lightning and the pouring rain. Behind their speeding car, they could hear the pounding of huge raindrops pelting the pavement. But on they rushed, relishing the fresh breeze. Finally, they made it back to Charlottesville. And it was only then, Daddy would say, that he and Richard realized just how close the storm behind them had been. For when they finally came to a stop, they looked in the back, and lo and behold, the back seat was full of water and both hound dogs had drowned.

Remembering this tall tale reminds me of another weather related anecdote. After I was grown, Daddy moved from Richmond back to Charlottesville. On one visit to see him, my wife Sue and I noticed something that seemed a bit unusual. At that time, Daddy was living in single room. Outside his room there was a small porch. Hanging from edge of the porch roof was a rock. This rock was about 6 or 7 inches long, 4 inches wide, and about an inch and a half thick. It had a bent piece of metal driven into it. A chain was attached to this metal ring, and was used to hang the rock from a nail at the edge of the roof. Daddy noticed us looking at the rock. His face lit up, and a flash of pride spread across his face.

“You see that? That’s my weather rock,” he exclaimed.

“Weather rock? What’s a weather rock?” I asked.

“You don’t know what a weather rock is? I thought sure you would. Why, it’s a rock that predicts the weather,” he said.

Okay, I was hooked. He had me. “Daddy, how does it predict the weather?”

“Well, all I have to do is look out my window at that rock, and I can tell what the weather is going to be. If the rock is dry, then it’s sunny. If the rock is wet, then it’s going to rain. If the rock is white, then I know it’s snowing. And if the rock is swaying back and forth on the chain, twisting and turning about… well, then I know a tornado is coming!”

While growing up, Daddy was by his admission a scrapper. His eyes would twinkle as he told us mirthful tales of the fights of his youth. Time would now fail me to tell you of the most infamous tale of all—the notorious church bazaar scuffle, which further resulted in the “Lawn Party Blues” being a hit song on the local juke box. But there is one incident that will convey to you, dear reader, the flavor of these juvenile, good-natured brawls. I believe that in the chain of events that resulted from the aforementioned church bazaar affair, my father and his brothers became embroiled in an ongoing dispute with the youthful citizens of Boonesville, Va. You should understand that the “guys from Boonesville” thought that they “were mighty mean” and were as prone to engage in gang-style fisticuffs as were the Morris boys from Free Union, Va. Indeed, Daddy, several of his brothers, and a friend named Fred Dean, ended up in several free-for-all fights with the guys from Boonesville. One occasion stands out. Indeed, it must have been some battle, for at the end almost everyone present had been knocked completely unconscious. During the fight, someone sent word for the sheriff to come. By the time the sheriff was able to arrive, the fight was over and everyone was lying on the ground, dead to the world. Everyone that is, except for my father and one of his companions. (I can’t remember if this was Fred Dean or one of the Morris brothers.) The sheriff rounded up both groups of young men, and carted them all off to jail. Later, when they were brought before the judge, Daddy acted as spokesman for the group. He honestly and forthrightly explained all that went on. Since this incident had no truly innocent parties, the judge had quite a situation on his hands. Finally, he decided that to be fair, he would release everyone… that is everyone except Daddy and his friend. The judge said that since they were the only two left standing, and everybody else was unconscious at the end, that he was going to fine the two of them $20 each and sentence them to 30 days in jail. Daddy would always comment, “And how do you like that. We were found guilty just because we were the only ones still standing!”

Sometimes as kids we couldn’t tell when Daddy was joshing us. Being young, and gullible, we took his tales for the gospel truth. Like, when he told us about how poor he was growing up. (In reality, he did grow up pretty poor, but not as a result of what you are about to hear.) You see, he would tell us, he grew up on a farm. There was a lot a hard work and not much money to be made in farming, especially the kind of farm Daddy grew up on. Because Daddy grew up on a spaghetti farm! Oh, the wonderful tales he would tell us. Going out to the fields to check on the spaghetti bushes and trees. Cultivating. Weeding, Watching the little buds of spaghetti start to grow. The excitement of seeing the spaghetti getting longer and longer until each piece of spaghetti came to full maturity. And then the intense, hard labor of harvesting the ripe strands of spaghetti. Gathering it in bunches, bundling it together, and preparing it for market. We would sit enthralled by the amazing process of growing and harvesting spaghetti. It made those mounds of pasta swimming in Mama’s homemade sauce taste even more interesting, because as we ate we wondered if these spaghetti noodles might have from some Morris family spaghetti tree!

So next time you hear me laugh out loud at the latest M & M commercial, or see me roll in the floor overcome by the hilarity of a Serta sheep ad, or you shake your head in wonderment at some strange Trogo I have written, or you hear me addressing an audience and you are not quite sure whether I am telling you the truth or pulling your leg… well, just remember that I grew up as the son of a poor spaghetti farmer. And that fact means that there is a good reason why I am the way I am.

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