Monday, 9 November 2009

My grandad's naughty joke

My maternal grandfather was very much a man of his time and place. Humble and soft-spoken, he had grown up with nothing in rural Georgia, but was imbued with religious faith and a respect for learning and self-improvement. He was very affectionate to me, and I have very fond memories of him from my childhood. He was typically pretty reserved, and I can't ever remember him swearing or making off-color remarks of any sort.

In the early 1980's, however, he had to have heart bypass surgery, and something happened while he was on the table - something we couldn't ever really work out, and which he could never really articulate. We think he might have regained some level of consciousness while they had him opened up, because he seemed to be very traumatized by the experience. Whatever happened, he was never the same, and his health deteriorated over the years which followed.

But in the months after the surgery, he underwent a fascinating change of personality, partly, I think, due to the cocktail of drugs and steroids he was on, but also, I believe, due to some sort of organic change in his brain resulting from the operation. During this period, he actually became talkative, funny and irreverent in a way we had never seen before. He was dis-inhibited. He told me stories about working in the shipyards on the Gulf Coast of Texas during the war, building destroyers for the Navy, and other adventures he had during his younger life.

He also told a few risque jokes, which was certainly a new twist. These often involved a fictitious character, called "the country boy," who was forever getting into situations he didn't understand and embarrassing himself. I have always assumed that this was an idiom of joke-telling from a time when migrants to the cities from the country were keen to distance themselves from their greener cousins back home. Anyway, one day he told me the following joke, which I still struggle to grasp came from the mouth of my mild-mannered, tee-total, Bible-reading grandfather:

The country boy was in town, and he went to a saloon to drink some beer. After a while he had a powerful urge to go to the bathroom, so he went to the men's room, but the saloon was crowded and there was a long line of guys ahead of him. He noticed the ladies' room down the hall, and because he couldn't wait any longer, and because there didn't seem to be any women in the saloon, he went in, locked the door, and got down to business. Sure enough, just as soon as he'd started to relieve himself, there was a knock at the door. He said, "Hang on, I'll be out in a minute." The woman on the other side of the door was angry to hear a man's voice coming from inside, and she shouted, "Hey, don't you know that thing's for women to use?" The country boy said, "Yeah, I know, but right now I'm peein' through it!"

Strange as it may sound, I've always treasured this memory of him. I have many others which make me smile, but as a 40-something father, this memory in particular resonates because it gives me some idea of what was going on inside his head, of the person he really was behind my idealized notions of a grandfather, and of the power of humor to cope with fear and tragedy.

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