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“To laugh is to awaken.” –H.G. Wells

Dear sad and morose denizen of the harried universe,

What can I do to make you snap out of your gloom for a moment and unaccountably chuckle?

As a jester, there is not much I can accomplish in terms of changing the world or making it a better place for you. I simply don’t have the skills to shift the global axis and bid cool breezes to cross your wrinkled brow.

When I laugh, I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you. More accurately, I’m not laughing at you or with you, I’m instead laughing FOR you.

If you have trouble finding a shard of Funny during your inexplicably unpredictable journey through life, then maybe we jesters can give you a break, cut you some slack, grant you a reprieve…just by making you laugh despite yourself.

Innocent laughter is like an inexpensive bout of shock therapy. When something suddenly causes you to put on hold all despair and simply laugh out loud for reasons you cannot explain, then you’ve just experienced free treatment, no co-pay required, no appointment necessary, no distracted medical tech poking at your privates.

A good laugh at the most dismal of times can, now and then, derail you and cause you to see past the bleakness, disregard whatever up till that moment seemed utterly undisregardable.

Kind of like thinking you are streaming War and Peace but suddenly finding yourself viewing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for the umpteenth time.

The jesters among us help us through the gloom. That’s what they are for. Laurel and Hardy and Belushi and Pee Wee and Abbott and Costello and Murray and Carlin and Pryor and Hope and Crosby and Silverman and Argus and Diller and the Bennys Hill and Jack, and Rock and Carson and Barney Fife and Lucy and on and on and on. These jesters have a purpose. They are not to be taken lightly.

Our jesters bring us up and out of the grind and show us how to find the ponies hidden beneath the spangled saddles.

So, if we are able to spend some time now and then in mindless mirth, we might just barely reduce the temperature of the seething planet.

We just might barely find solace long enough to form a plan of prankster battle against the grumpies surrounding us

© 2016 A.D. by Jim Reed

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As Bronnie Nichols lowers my head underwater, I squeeze tight my eyes and suddenly realize I am about to die.

I can’t swim! I think in panic. What if he lets go of me? What if I get disoriented and can’t figure out which way is up, which way is the surface? Holy Moly!

I obviously survive the ordeal, or I wouldn’t be telling this true story so many decades later. So, to begin at one of the many beginnings from which I can select:

Bronnie Nichols does his job and baptizes me and gets me wet with God and makes me sputter a bit.

Reverend Bronnie Nichols is our pastor at Forest Lake Baptist Church when I am trying to grow up in Tuscaloosa, back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. We call him Brother Nichols, out of respect and tradition.

Brother Nichols is a distinguished-looking white-haired man with a laconic and pleasant manner, and in the pulpit, he appears even more laconic and pleasant. He doesn’t act like the other Baptist preachers we listen to on the radio or see delivering guest sermons at the church. Bronnie Nichols is nothing like the fire-and-brimstone evangelists who come through town during revivals, or who pitch tents or commandeer Denny Stadium for mass soul-savings.

No, Brother Nichols is kind of laid-back, intellectual, mildly profound, though he is judged harshly by some who say he does not make us in the congregation feel guilty enough to get through the week, once the Sunday sermon is over. Bronnie Nichols’ delivery is a sort of sweet, sing-song series of Bible quotations and moral lessons which he never seems to read. He actually “wings” his sermons!

That is impressive, because back in these long-ago days, folks feel that a preacher ought to be inspired by God or Mary or Jesus or Somebody Up There…so inspired that he doesn’t need notes or written-out sermons. Baptist preachers are supposed to walk back and forth across the stage (and during sermons like that, it certainly is a stage rather than a pulpit), waving their arms and making you regret the day you were born in sin—or at least regret what you did late last night. So, Brother Nichols does fill the bill to that extent—not having to rely on notes or worked-up speeches—but he fails in the arm-flailing department. He is just too distinguished to stoop to that sort of behavior.

One particularly guilt-provoking part of the Sunday sermon always comes at the end (the end being way past Noon…a good preacher proves his goodness by showing you how long he can hold you captive past Sunday lunchtime). This is when the choir and congregation join together in sad, passion-filled hymn-singing and Brother Nichols invites those who are ready to come down front and dedicate their lives to Jesus Christ and the other Powers Up There. In fact, the success of his sermons depends almost entirely upon how many people come down the aisle and say they want to Get Saved. If nobody comes forth, the Sunday lunch (we of course call it Sunday Dinner, as did just about everybody else except Yankees) conversation centered around whether or not Brother Nichols’ sermon has been good enough.

We really love Brother Nichols, because he looks so much like a preacher in the movies, and because he never makes us feel too guilty to show our faces in church next Sunday.

Anyhow, during those end-of-sermon hymns, little boys like me quiver in fear and expectation. We fight the impulse to run down front and let everybody know that we, too, want to be righteous and holy and forgiven for all we’ve done or want to do (in these days, we are mostly wanting pardon for what we want to do, since we don’t have much opportunity to escape the watchful eyes of family and neighbors). But going down in front of all those people is a terrifying prospect. Everybody will be looking at you. Everybody will be reminded that you haven’t already Been Saved, which means you are probably still sinning regularly. Then, they might want to know what you have been sinning at. Also, if you Get Saved, you’ll have to exert the effort to be good all the time, and that is totally alien territory.

But the sermon and the hymn pull and pull at you. The joyful sadness of knowing you can’t get to Heaven without a passport personally signed by Bronnie Nichols is almost unbearable. What if you don’t go down this Sunday, and you get run over by a ‘52 Ford pickup during the week? In spite of all your good intentions, you will wind up in Hell, and Hell is definitely a hell of a place, the way Brother Nichols describes it.

But the hymn goes on and on, and if only one or two people show up down front, Brother Nichols will have the choir sing yet another chorus, which puts even more pressure on you. Getting down to that sixth stanza that nobody knows by heart, is excruciating.

I hold out till I am thirteen years old. In fact, I am so stubborn that I hold out till a revival meeting is in progress, and a guest minister—not Brother Nichols—grabs me by my guilt and wrings it dry. Then I get the urge and follow it. I go down front, but immediately have second thoughts. That’s because during revivals, dozens of people pour down each night. In fact, many of them must spend the year preparing to go down only during revival. We know of some who go down every year, even though they have long ago been Baptized and Saved. They usually confess to additional sins and want some re-cleansing.

But going down front with so many others sort of takes the show biz out of the moment. I am hardly noticeable among the throng. It is hardly worth doing a good deed if no-one is watching. I later learn that comedian Tom Lehrer knows this all too well, too, when he sings,

“Be careful not to do your good deed when there’s no-one watching you.”

I go through with it, though. Getting baptized is a big event in the life of every Baptist, a cross between graduation and a funeral. You have to wear these stiff white robes (they tell you to wear a bathing suit underneath) and step into a pool (that’s what the kids call it) in front of the Sunday night congregation…and get dipped….submerged, not sprinkled…shaken, not stirred. I identify with other confused people I read about, such as Dorothy Parker, who was expelled from Catholic school for referring to Immaculate Conception as Spontaneous Combustion. What if I get all the terms mixed up?

The robes cling to my skin once I am standing there up to my chest in warm water, and Brother Nichols is kind of wet, too, calmly doing his recitation. Then, he leans me back into the water and takes me all the way under (I am told to hold my nose and cross my arms at the same time, so that I will look like a devout drowner. I long at this moment for a cyanide capsule).

After that, it is over. I return home feeling sacred for a whole night, before all doubts and temptations creep back in.

Strangely enough, getting baptized sort of washes me clean of wanting to go to church anymore, and I disagree with my father for years over the fact that I don’t want to go and he wants me to. It isn’t the Baptism so much as it is the structure of Sunday School that turns me away from the organized church.

Sunday School is painful, though I learn a great deal about what the Bible spins in the way of interesting and dramatic tales. In fact, I remember those Bible tales all my life and am amazed when others don’t know anything about some of the Biblical heroes and parables we study in Sunday School. These are great stories to live by, fables to guide me, and I still use them every day, just to get through the day.

The teachers are only human, often preaching against the very things they do themselves—smoking in the alley after telling us smoking is sinful, telling “dirty” jokes while urging us never to do such a thing, using profanity after cussing us out for doing the same thing, and so on—like real humans! There are exceptional exceptions. Pearl White and Festus Barringer are teachers who are every bit as good as their teachings! How do they do that?

At home, I have been taught that really good people practice what they preach. So I figure church is no place to go in search of really good people. We are told that only Christians can get into heaven, which makes me worry about what happens to heathen babies and Jews and people who have never even heard of Christianity. Of course, Sunday School and Bible School teachers are always annoyed by such notions, so I learn to keep my mouth shut—most of the time. I can open it now, because I understand more about the need to preach what my Mother calls little white lies in order to give people hope and the energy it takes to get through a day…Santa Claus and Jesus give us something to strive for, something positive and benevolent.

So, thanks, Bronnie Nichols, thanks for giving me a standard to live up to. Thanks for setting an example I can at least work toward.

Sorry about not becoming a preacher myself, which Pearl White always assumed I’d do. I may not get into a Christian heaven, but at least I know right from wrong and, on good days, manage to do more right than wrong


© 2016 A.D. by Jim Reed

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Relentless summertime heat competes head-on with drenching summertime humidity. It doesn’t matter which one wins, because we boys of summer know full well that we are the losers either way.

Today, it’s the late 1950′s in memory green. I am sitting in an un-air-conditioned classroom at Tuscaloosa High School, bent over the keys of an old manual typewriter, fingers poised for the starting gun held high by my typing teacher at the head of the class. When the gun goes off, we clacking victims will be off and running, trying to see how many words per minute we can produce without error.

My pal, Jon Charles Palmer, sits next to me at his own machine, staring hopelessly at the keys, acting as if he and I are ready, willing and able to enter the same contest…even though we know that deep down inside we are actually unready, unwilling and unable to accomplish very much.

Jon Charles and I share the same sense of doom. Each day of summer school, we have primarily goofed off, kidded around, passed notes, giggled, stared at out-of-our-league coeds and in every way ignored the typing lessons. We can’t get over the silliness of our situation–having to make up for poor grades by serving out this summer school sentence.

And whenever we look down at the word QWERTY on the keys beneath our fingers, we are overcome with stifled laughter. QWERTY has become our mantra. While prim and efficient coeds apply their practice and studies to the task at hand, Jon Charles and I are acting like the nerdy pranksters we are. And now we will pay the price.

I wipe the sweat from my brow, glance around the room at coeds, teacher, typewriters, shiny-surfaced desks, open windows, and one solitary apple glistening from a corner of the front desk. Wonder which student brought that to class. Why didn’t I think of that? Dang.

The gun goes off, the clickety-clacking ensues, Jon Charles and I go at it with full gusto. He and I are frowning intensely at the keys, even though it is forbidden to look at them while typing. “A professional typist knows where the letters are, does not need to look down,” the teacher pontificates on many occasions.

“Time’s up!” proclaims the warden.

The inmates pause, lean back, gaze at their handiwork. The coeds are pleased and have successfully executed perfect documents. I stare in disbelief at my error-filled sheet of paper and begin to tally my handiwork.

“Fifteen words per minute?” I look at Jon Charles. Jon Charles looks at me, having just about accomplished the same thing.

My career as a typist is over. I barely escape the course with a C average. I continue to be the worst typist in Tuscaloosa County. Until one day, when I become a writer.

Now, at last, I am motivated to type. My newfound career requires me to: Type fast. Type confidently. Type to persistent deadlines. My job is to write and report. I love having the job, receiving the paycheck, seeing my very own words come alive in black and white. I am now the world’s fastest–and most inaccurate–typist and, once I learn to proofread and edit, even my rapidly sloppy typing can be “fixed” to read correctly.

Even Jon Charles Palmer finds his own way as a professional, is eventually motivated to type.

All we need is motivation. A cell block full of heat and humidity and QWERTYness just doesn’t cut it if you’re a 1950′s teenager clueless to the world and tuned solely into your own undisciplined imagination and ungainly body.

And the mystery remains: How do all those coeds appear to keep it together? They seem to know how to stay the course and get the task done, while we guys just meander along, waiting a few more years till QWERTY fades and maturity arises.

This much I know. QWERTY seems more important now, all these decades later, than just about anything else this summer. That’s because QWERTY remains before me each and every day, grinning back at me from the keyboard, reminding me that ninety per cent of life is finding something to giggle at when times are muddled

© 2016 A.D. by Jim Reed

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You and I are having this serious one-one-one conversation over lunch. As always, our chat is punctuated by anecdotes, laughs, gossip and factoid-sharing. We are having a pleasant time.

At some point in this exchange over edibles, I catch you staring at the top of my head. You do it again, later. Now I’m beginning to wonder whether there’s something atop my pate that is attracting attention. Is there a wild hair? At my age, I do find an occasional errant unclipped intruder. Are you just now noticing how bald and shiny I’ve become? Is there a dab of soap lather missed during my morning shower? Am I so boring that you are drifting into daydreams?

Then, it suddenly occurs to me that the far away look in your eyes doesn’t have anything to do with my head or your attention span. There is a large television screen behind me, hanging from the ceiling. Indeed, there are several such flotillas scattered about the eatery–and just about any eatery I’ve visited lately.

I am looking into your eyes and you are looking into the face of a perspiring athlete on an electronic device. Guess you’ve made your choice. As a test, I halt my story midstream and continue eating in silence. It takes a few seconds for you to avert your gaze and re-join the flesh-and-blood moment. You have that “where were we?” look and I have my quiet bemusement.

The conversation re-boots and we get along well for moments at a time, in between your magnetized meanderings back to the hovering screen.

Well, it’s sighing time, I know you’re going to leave me again. I can see that far away look in your eyes.

They ought to write a song about it

© 2016 A.D. by Jim Reed

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