Funniest family members

Humor sustains us in difficult times, and I have become profoundly appreciative when my family makes me laugh.

Upon reflection, I find my dad, father-in-law and middle brother, Lee, the funniest in my family, each in their own way. Dad has a penchant for remembering and telling stories and jokes. Lanny was a quipster who loved to poke holes in pretense. Lee has a deadpan sarcasm that catches me off guard.

Dad’s story and joke telling emerged from years of practice. Whether it was an illustration for a sermon or an icebreaker for a senior adult lunch program, Dad has developed a comic timing that makes his stories attention-grabbing and relatable.

Dad excels at the set up. I’ve been had so many times by stories that ended up being jokes that I’ve grown suspicious every time he starts his wind up. Even if I’m not fooled, I’m hooked, listening for the tell-tale signs that what I’m hearing is fiction.

“Hey, did you hear we had a sinkhole off Highway 27 this week?”

“No! Really?”

“Yeah, the police are looking into it.”

Larry Wallace in a red shirt with nautical scenes and a camo visor with built in gray and white hair standing up all over.
Dad sported this “poor man’s toupee” for comedic affect many times around friends and family, especially the grandkids.

It’s the plausibility that piques my interest. I think I’m hearing legitimate news that’s both interesting and potentially impactful to my parents and their neighbors. I’m all in until the punch line washes over me, and I realize he got me again.

He did this to my brothers and me when we were growing up so many times I’m convinced he spent each night before bed plotting how he could “pull our leg,” as my Granny described it. It took me many years to figure out that Reader’s Digest was one of his sources. We had a subscription most of the time I was at home, and he learned how to make those stories his own by changing one or two key details to fit our setting.

Even when his stories were real, they had a humor that tickled our funny bone. Whether it was his exploits in school, tricks he played on his brother, pranks from his days in the Air Force or just odd incidents during his tenure at American Airlines as a mechanic, we enjoyed his humorous stories when he got on a roll.

One of the most memorable and significant to the circumstances of my parents getting together was how my Mom broke things off with him while he was stationed in Guam with the Air Force during the Vietnam War. They had met but weren’t necessarily exclusive before he shipped out. My mom learned that he had gone out with someone else and decided to send him a not-so-subtle message to express her feelings about the development.

As Dad tells it, one day he received a package in the mail marked “Cookies.” Excited to receive some comfort food from home, he ripped into it only to discover a voodoo doll stuck full of pins. When he got home, they got together, and the rest is history. His punchline?

“Beware of care packages labeled ‘Cookies’!”

Lanny Barron passed away in 2013, but during the 16 years I knew him, he gave me plenty of opportunity to enjoy his brand of humor. By the time I met him, his hearing wasn’t good, so his participation in group conversations could be limited. But one-on-one, he could carry on a conversation easily. He loved weaving in stories and jokes, always with a wink and a smile for punctuation.

His quips were my favorite. They were always so on-the-nose that I couldn’t help but doubt they were original to him. For example, his description of his sister-in-law, who always kept up with and often contributed to the town’s informal news network: “She may not get it right, but she gets it first.”

Or, when he got to hold his grandsons for the first time, he said of all three: “He’s a handsome young man, just like his granddaddy.”

When they got older, he concluded his visits with our boys by giving them a $20 bill and the instruction to “Tell your mama and daddy to buy you some ice cream.”

Seen here holding baby Carlton in 2008, with a smile of grandfatherly pride, Lanny almost always wore a mischievous grin.

I never will forget the time he recounted to me all of the mishaps he had with his pickup trucks. We were driving out to the farm one Saturday afternoon, and in the span of 12 or 13 miles he covered the untimely demise of five or six different trucks, including one that rolled into a pond in an abandoned kaolin mine. In each story he laughed and concluded his series of tales with “I used to do some crazy things.” Lanny was never afraid to make himself the butt of his own joke.

His exploits and sense of humor was well known at the chalk plant, and he was often called by the nickname “Jelly Roll.” Our friend, Devita, grew up hearing her dad tell hilarious stories involving Jelly Roll, and she was amazed the night she learned the famous — or infamous — Jelly Roll was none other than Carla’s daddy.

My brother Lee came along three years and seven months after me, and for another six years and nine months, it was just the two of us. We fought, sure, but we were also close because of the vast amount of time we spent together playing whiffle ball and football in the front yard; basketball in the driveway or church gym; and board, video and computer games in the bedroom we shared.

It took me a long time to appreciate or even understand Lee’s sense of humor, but I distinctly remember the night I recognized it.

It was June 2001. I was working for Mercer University at the time and had to stay overnight at a hotel on Peachtree Street across from the Fox Theater. And, no, it was not the Georgian Terrace. It was the less fancy one next door. I believe it was a Days Inn at the time. I had worked an event in the Fox’s Egyptian Ballroom honoring Judge William Augustus Bootle, a Mercer graduate and judge whose ruling led to the integration of Georgia schools. 

That night Lee just so happened to be coming through town, and so he crashed in my hotel room. We caught up on each other’s lives and families before somehow shifting to reminiscence about our time at Troy University.

Lee came to Troy in January of 1993 after spending a semester at Pensacola Christian College, and I had graduated from Troy in June of 1992. We did not overlap, but there were still plenty of people on campus who knew me, including my friend, Jim Quinn, who became Lee’s friend and guide. Lee referred to him as “Super Jim,” and I had no idea about their friendship or Lee’s exploits and misadventures at Troy.

We stayed up all night as he told one story after another of how he made the adjustment from a strict, Christian college to a largely free and unencumbered state school experience. He described his first roommate, with whom he had little in common, and how the guy could not understand Lee’s constant concern about “inspections,” “lights out,” and “demerits.”

I have never laughed harder than I did that night. Hearing about his encounters with the characters I knew from my years at Troy, his exploits in the marching band, the odd occurrences on the night shift at Subway – it was all perfect fodder for good stories. It was early in the morning before we both drifted off to sleep. If laughter is the best medicine, I overdosed that night. Lee’s storytelling and matter of fact, self-deprecating humor hit me in wave after wave with each new anecdote.

Lee Wallace wears a tan blazer over a green leprechaun t-shirt holding a microphone in his right hand and a raffle ticket stub in his left as a woman in a blue top and gray hair looks on.
Almost as funny as his deadpan humor is his crowd work at church events. He’s especially good with the… em… “Keenagers.”

Even now, I have to listen close when we talk to discern his sarcasm. I get out of practice, losing my ear for it when we go too long between conversations. But no matter how long it’s been, he never fails to make me laugh at some point.

Humor is subjective, and all of the members of my family — particularly my children — have given me plenty to laugh at and about in my life. I am grateful for all of it, particularly Dad, Lanny and Lee for sharing the gift of laughter.

Appreciating my brothers, part 1

Arthur Lee Wallace arrived on the scene on March 17, 1974, changing all of our lives. I was three-and-a-half and not convinced it was for the better. I eyed him with suspicion as he disrupted the established order that had me at the center. New baby Lee got all the attention. In my shyness, I shrank back from the cheek-pinches and glad handing. Lee stole the limelight.

Mother holds a young boy and a baby boy on her lap
In March of 1973, Mom brought this little guy home from the hospital. You can see my enthusiasm.

Our little St. Patrick’s Day leprechaun overcame a number of early illnesses and a crazy array of allergies to grow into one of my closest companions. As we both grew, the three-plus years that separated us didn’t seem to matter as much. Particularly when we moved from Dallas-Fort Worth to Lakes Wales, Florida, Lee was my constant playmate and only confidant. We shared a bedroom, so many hours of procrastinating sleep were filled with jokes and stories and imaginings.

As he grew and matured, Lee took to music both as an artistic expression of his creative impulse, and a sincere act of worship. Deeply spiritual and serious about his faith, Lee used his talent to express his love for Jesus and glorify God. Whether it was his voice, saxophone, piano or guitar, Lee’s musical talent always impressed me, and I still marvel at his ability to conduct a choir or orchestra.

A young boy in a plaid suits sits next to a screaming baby in a baby carrier on a sofa.
Despite appearances, I had nothing to do with Lee’s caterwauling on his first Easter, but, boy howdy, I sure was a sharp dresser.

Beyond his musical talent, I have always enjoyed Lee’s sense of humor. His wit is sometimes so dry and sarcastic that I don’t know how to take it when I’ve not had the pleasure of his company or conversation for a long time. He makes me laugh. His perspective finds humor in circumstances that would challenge a lesser person’s patience. His experience in ministry and public speaking has helped him hone his gift for comedy, but to me, he’s funniest one-on-one in the midst of day-to-day activities.

When we do have an opportunity to catch up, it’s his storytelling I enjoy most. Whether it’s describing a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles or a harrowing attack by an unleashed pit bull, Lee knows how to weave the details together to be poignant, suspenseful and hilarious, often all in the same tale. He’s always been truthful to a fault, but he knows how to season his stories with just a hint of exaggeration to give them impact. And when he gets on a roll, you will laugh until your abs hurt.

Two men in tuxedos
Lee was the first of the Wallace men to fall prey to matrimony, and he seemed so happy about it all.

My life and career have brought me into close and prolonged contact with preachers and other ministers. I never felt a call to local church ministry, but I’ve seen enough of it firsthand to know that sometimes ministers do not possess a strong work ethic. They feel that doing God’s work and making financial and reputational sacrifices entitles them to put forth less effort in their jobs.

Two of those Wallace boys… circa 2021.

Lee is not one of those ministers. He works hard and without complaint, understanding at a fundamental level that ministry is just as much about visiting the hospital and setting up tables as teaching a Sunday School class or preaching a sermon. He will clean toilets, mow grass, fry fish, wash cars, and visit people in their homes until he is completely spent, pouring himself into the lives of others. He has been a surrogate father to untold numbers of teenagers who needed Christ and the love and affirmation of an adult. He has been an encouraging presence to hundreds of elderly saints who needed a listening ear. I have always admired his dedication and approach to ministry, even if I have been concerned for his physical and emotional health.

A man and his wife and their teen-aged daughter stand on a bridge during the fall.
The boy turned out OK. This family portrait from a few years ago with his lovely wife, Karrie, and daughter Kalee, says it all.

Lee loves the Lord, his wife and daughter, and the church. He has the right priorities, and I love him for it.

My little brother the leprechaun

Tomorrow is March 17, a date that looms large for my family.

My little brother, Lee, turns 39 tomorrow. He's slightly bigger now.
My little brother, Lee, turns 39 tomorrow. He’s slightly bigger now.

No, we’re not Irish. Well, we’re a little Irish, but not THAT Irish. You see, 39 years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, my little red-headed brother was born. He would end up being my first little brother, but none of us knew that at the time.

Arthur Lee Wallace, named for my mom’s father, proved to be a handful then and continues to enlighten and entertain us with his witticisms and misadventures. I was a mere 3 years and eight months old when Lee was born. When he came home from the hospital, I tried to hold him in my lap but failed to properly support his neck and head.

“His head is falling off!” I yelled as his fuzzy noggin lolled across my knees.

Lee, seen here on his first Easter, also survived my fashion disasters. Although to be fair, this wasn't my fault.
Lee, seen here with me on his first Easter, also survived my fashion disasters. Although to be fair, I didn’t choose this outfit.

He survived my fledgling attempts to hold him – though any damage he sustained may explain some behavioral eccentricities – and much worse at my hands as the years went on.

I will never forget the sick feeling in my stomach when I looked into the rear view mirror on my parents’ van and saw him rolling across the pavement of our driveway after I gunned it up the hill with him clinging white-knuckled to the spare tire on the back.

And then there was the time we fought. OK, well, we fought a bunch. In fact, the last whuppin’ I got from my dad occurred when I was 13. Lee and I we were hitting below the belt in a knock-down, drag-out tilt. I’m still not sure if we were punished for fighting or for fighting dirty.

Lee has also survived many a tongue lashing from my parents for following through on ideas I may or may not have planted in his mind.

“Lee, ask Dad if we can stay up and watch TV.”

“OK!” he eagerly responded.

Minutes later, after my father erupted at his post-bedtime appearance in the den, Lee returned, crying.

“Oh well. Guess that was a ‘No.’ Thanks, Lee. Good night!”

Lee is a talented musician and choir director. He sings WAY better than me and plays several instruments.
Lee is a talented musician and choir director. He sings WAY better than me and plays several instruments.

We shared a bedroom from as far back as I can remember until I left for college. We had long late-night chats about important topics like the Dallas Cowboys’ chances of winning a Super Bowl with Gary Hogeboom as the quarterback and how Darth Vader could possibly be Luke Skywalker’s father.

The conversation Lee likes to remind me of happened one night when I was 16. I professed to have found the woman of my dreams. Really, really, really wish I never shared that. Now Lee uses it to great comedic effect at family gatherings. He has a way of keeping me grounded if I ever get too full of myself.

Lee and the girl of his dreams, Karrie. What a handsome couple.
Lee and the woman of his dreams, Karrie.

Many years later I eventually found the woman of my dreams, and so did Lee. He actually preceded me in marriage by a full three years.

Although I would never tell him, I’m very proud of all that he has accomplished. He has been a youth and music minister for nearly 20 years, impacting the lives of hundreds of teenagers. He helps his wife, Karrie, run a very successful business in Lake Wales, and is excelling at selling nutritional and weight loss products. He and Karrie are raising an intelligent, beautiful and talented 11-year-old daughter, Kalee.

Our infrequent opportunities to catch up are treasures for me, and I enjoy following his exploits from afar on Facebook. My life changed forever 39 years ago tomorrow, and despite what I may have said in the heat of arguments during our childhood, I’m glad he was born.

While everyone else is donning the green tomorrow in honor of St. Patrick, I’ll be thinking of Lee, our family’s own lucky leprechaun. Having him in our lives is worth more than a pot of gold.

Happy trails (mostly)

Harris at the beginning of the hike next to the sign.
Spirits were high at the start. Harris had no idea what 4.8 miles felt like.

This week Harris and I embarked on a 4.8 mile journey that has come to represent more than just a hike through the Chattahoochee National Forest.

This rite of passage for my boys began five years ago when Barron was six. We made a similar journey from Amicalola Falls State Park to the Len Foote Hike Inn, and it was Harris’ turn. A middle son not heard often enough and in need of his daddy’s undivided, unplugged attention, Harris had been anticipating the trip since Christmas when I first brought it up with him.

After a quick picnic lunch, we descended 425 steps from the top of the falls to get a better view of one of Georgia’s most impressive sites. That’s when the math lessons started as Harris began calculating how many steps we would take going down and back up.

Half way back up the falls, my mobile phone rang. It was my dad.

“Lance, they’ve taken Lee to the hospital in Winter Haven. He’s having chest pains and numbness in his left arm. You need to pray for your brother.”

Lance and Harris at the base of Amicalola Falls
After 425 steps down, we had to pose with Amicalola Falls as our backdrop.

About to embark on an important journey with my middle son, I went numb as I said a prayer for my middle brother. Overwhelmed with confusion and worry, I couldn’t help but enumerate the connections between Lee and Harris: middle sons, lefthanders, witty and clever humorists.

Already winded from the steps and questioning my fitness, we quickly found sturdy walking sticks among the fallen limbs and headed into the woods, pausing long enough to snap a few photos.

As we started, I pointed out the bright green rectangles of paint on the tree trunks, marking our trail. I covered the basic rule of hiking: “Don’t step on anything you can step around or over.” The last thing I needed to do was carry a backpack and a 50-pound boy up and down a rocky and root-covered trail.

It wasn’t long before Harris needed a break.

“Daddy, how long is it to the Hike Inn?” he asked, taking a long sip from our water bottle.

Harris at a scenic overlook
Harris takes one of his frequent breaks at one of the scenic overlooks from the trail.

I looked at my watch. The hiking equivalent of the car trip refrain “Are we there yet?” came three minutes in. It felt like déjà vu. I couldn’t help but remember taking the trip with Barron and how impatient I had been with Barron’s slowness and fatigue and griping and all the things 6-year-olds find to complain about on their first hike. But this time, it was different.

“Oh, we’ve got about three-and-a-half hours,” I answered calmly.

There are some benefits to being the second born. Harris was the beneficiary of my patience and deep understanding that this journey would be over all too soon. Instead of rushing it, I was savoring it.

Conditions were perfect, and while the sun warmed, the breezes cooled. Up and down the trail we went, discussing such truths as “all that glitters is not gold” as we came across pyrite. Harris wisely added only a small piece of Fool’s Gold to his rock collection.

We listened for bird calls and strained to see any signs of wildlife. We discussed Harry Potter, and Harris enlightened me on arcane theories of super hero superiority. We made little progress the first hour, stopping five or six times for brief breaks, but we picked up our pace when Harris felt a different call of nature but was unwilling to answer that call in nature.

The first half of our journey ended all too quickly. We arrived at the Hike Inn without incident, seeing a bee-infested tree, a black salamander and a sprinkling of white-blossomed wild dogwoods in among the budding and the hardwoods with their newly emerged bright green leaves.

Harris headed straight to the restrooms to see the amazing non-flushing, waterless, composting toilets Barron had described.

Standing beside a sign that said “No cell phones, please,” I checked mine. The battery was nearly dead, and service barely registered a faint signal. It was enough to see that Lee was being kept overnight in the hospital, a battery of tests scheduled for the next day. I looked out over the rolling green hills and low fog and offered another silent prayer for my brother.

Harris plays Stratego for the first time
Harris plays Stratego for the first time in the Sunrise Room.

The inn was exactly as I had remembered it, inviting and comfortable without being fancy. We stowed the gear in our bunkroom, toured the facility and gravitated to the Sunrise Room where a number of games and puzzles beckoned. Harris settled on one he had never played – Stratego.

He picked it up quickly, and soon he was giving me a run for my money. I explained how I had grown up playing thousands of games of Stratego with Uncle Lee, becoming an expert in the process. I couldn’t help but make yet another connection between my middle son and my middle brother.

Harris became obsessed with the game. We played three times before supper. He enlisted the help of several of the other kids who were staying at the Hike Inn with their families during their spring break. Anna and Will, a sister-and-brother combo from Cincinnati, Ohio, served as his war advisers, but my supremacy over a 6-year-old held.

The dinner bell rang, and we were summoned to a family-style meal. The rule at the conservation-minded Hike Inn is you must eat what you put on your plate. The goal at every meal is to generate less than 4 ounces of table waste, a policy Barron had briefed Harris on before the trip. We ate family style getting to know the folks at our table, replenishing our energy stores after the hike.

Lance and Harris at the dinner table
Two hungry hikers ready to clean our plates.

As we passed the green beans and pork roast, I could almost hear Lee ask, “Anybody want any more rolls?” This innocent-sounding question has been our family’s “last call” for the food in question since Lee learned to talk.

Soon, we were back in the Sunrise Room where Harris chose to skip the evening’s program on hiking the Appalachian Trail. The Southern terminus of the “AT” was just a few miles from the Hike Inn at Springer Mountain, and the Hike Inn’s manager had completed a thru-hike in 2008.

I explained that a thru-hike was a nonstop hike from Georgia to Maine or vice versa, and that it usually took six months. Harris couldn’t wrap his mind around a six month hike.

After a few more games of Stratego, we showered and settled into our bunks. We read a book and with my battery waning and no electrical outlets in the bunk rooms, I checked my phone one more time. A Facebook message from Mom confirmed that Lee was stable. Harris and I prayed for Uncle Lee one more time and drifted off to sleep.

Awakened by the soft beat of a drum, we were dressed and ready for the day by 7:30. Well-rested and sipping my coffee, I gave in to Harris’ plea for another game of Stratego before breakfast. We ate another hearty meal, and we were soon packing to leave.

Harris bought a Hike Inn T-shirt, adorned with a trail map on the back, at check-out, and by 9:30 we and our new friends from Cincinnati were headed back to Amicalola Falls. As Kevin and Shelly and I conversed easily about all the things parents talk about, our kids bonded along the trail, buoyed by each other’s presence. Then, when we least expected it, Harris fell.

Harris receives first aid on the trail
Will looks on as Shelly provides first aid. Harris made a full recovery.

Tripped by a root that looped out of the ground, his left foot caught and his right knee came down hard on another root. His left elbow and right hand were a little scraped up, but from the wailing, nearby hikers may have thought someone had a fatal injury.

Shelly tended to his superficial wounds with a mother’s tenderness, distracting him from his injuries by asking him to read the instructions on an ice pack from her first aid kit. I was grateful she was there. Again I was reminded of my trip with Barron. He, too, had fallen on the way out, scraping up his knee and tearing a hole in his pants.

Sometimes, our children fail to heed our warnings and the examples of their siblings. Some falls just have to be repeated.

Anna took my pack as I carried Harris on my back for a couple hundred yards, crossing a creek and seeing a water snake. The encounter helped distract Harris from his injury, and soon he was moving under his own power again, and I was able to relieve Anna of my pack.

Still seeking that moment of profound parent-child interaction, I trudged on, trying to relish the experience while being concerned for my brother. About that time, Harris came back from his new friends and joined me at the rear of our little traveling party.

“Daddy, I just want to walk with you for a little bit, OK?”

“Sure, Harris. I’m glad you want to walk with me.”

“Thanks for taking me to the Hike Inn. It was the best, especially that game – what’s it called? Stras-ty-go? Can I get that game for my birthday?”

Harris and Will at the trail head
Success! Harris and his new friend, Will, commemorate their hike with a photo.

Almost 24 hours to the minute from when we had set off, we emerged from the woods into the upper parking lot at the falls. We said goodbye to our new friends, snapped a few, last photos and headed for home.

When my cell signal returned, I paused at an intersection and checked Facebook. Lee was posting, his sense of humor returned. He complained about hospital food and having EKG sensors pull his abundant red chest hair out. Mr. Lee, “the Wolf,” was going to be OK.

The stress of being on a local church staff had evidently caused the episode, and there was no evidence of a heart attack or any damage to his heart.

Relieved, I said a prayer of thanksgiving and told Harris that his Uncle Lee would be OK.

We spent the hour-and-a-half drive home sharing our “favorites” from the trip. Harris decided he wanted to go back to the Hike Inn with the rest of the family.

Whether we can convince Carla to make the trip remains to be seen, but I’d gladly go back into the woods with Harris any time.

Next time, though, Lee better stay out of the hospital. Middle kids always have to do something extraordinary to get some attention.