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?”
“Yeah, the police are looking into it.”
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.”
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.
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.