Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 20 December 1989 in the Arkansas Democrat
By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 1989 Ben S. Pollock
My father was a funny man, yet I cannot remember any of his jokes, except the last one.
He died Dec. 19, 1985, — he was 69, me 28 — and still not a day goes by but something doesn’t remind me of him, sometimes opening a deep memory.
I saw a revival of Guys and Dolls this month, partly because it was Dad’s favorite musical.
The first full number, the program read, was “Fugue for Tinhorns.” Had I known that was the “can-do” song — which Dad sang or whistled in the years when he called me “Mister Boo” — I would have braced myself. Caught by surprise, I cried for a moment in the dark balcony, regained my composure and enjoyed the rest of the show.
Dad generally avoided lecturing my big brother, big sister and myself and on the whole gave us little advice. He had gotten a good deal of “When I was your age…” when he was growing up in the Depression, he said, and didn’t want to inflict that on us.
He did advise good grades and hard work as keys to success, with few anecdotes, and generally we complied. He also recommended business with little elaboration, which we ignored.
Although pleasant and generous, he didn’t say much to anyone. Dad was not taciturn. he just was quiet, and kept his comments brief, often disarmingly witty.
Dad also was nice. Everyone in Fort Smith knew him as nice, that gentleman who ran the Model Laundry & Cleaners for some three decades, minus time in the Army.
Dad was polite even when the family business folded in the late 1960s, about 17 years before he did. He acted correctly during the series of jobs after the laundry, including real estate salesman, office manager/data processor, job placement counselor and income tax preparer.
Some said it wasn’t that Dad was nice but, rather, weak.
Being nice wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, Dad admitted in spring 1984.
For still unknown reasons, the company I had served for three years had taken a sudden dislike to me, and I had just found another, better job.
As much as I hated to, I intended to give two weeks’ notice — the proper thing to do, I knew Dad would say.
I was wrong.
“They treated you like hell. Go in, tell them you’re quitting, clean out your desk, then leave,” he said on the telephone.
I can’t do that; it’s not right, I replied.
“I spent my entire life being careful about not burning any bridges, lest I need to cross them again. Now, I see it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference, whatsoever. You don’t owe them a thing.
“And tell them off, so they won’t think they got by with anything,” my father said, asking if I ever heard Johnny Paycheck’s song “Take This Job and Shove It.”
I couldn’t follow this rare advice, and despite my dad’s bitter, hard-earned insight, I doubt he could have, either. But I compromised: I announced my resignation in the morning, effective at the end of the day. Their reply was, “We’ll miss you.” I regret not giving them a piece of mind.
I’m still too nice, but I hope not as nice as Dad. What an awful thing to say.
Dad’s other bit of wisdom ended up coming posthumously. (Dad spent all of 1985 homebound, his nose tethered to an oxygen tank. He had emphysema, and only the fear of exploding kept him from smoking.)
During a visit a year or two earlier, Dad switched to the public television channel to show me Robert Benchley’s 1929 movie short The Treasurer’s Report. Although the print was scratchy, the hilarious service-club satire had not staled. Dad, the civic businessman, had sat through many such meetings; I covered them often as a reporter.
On one trip to Fort Smith in late 1984, Dad had a prize he bought for a quarter at the library’s used book sale. It was Chips Off the Old Benchley, a collection of the humorist’s deft pieces. When he spotted the book, Dad said, he knew I should have it because I might find a kindred soul — I had been trying my hand at light essays.
I hid the volume because it reminded me of Dad’s failing condition. When I tore through the book in mid-1986, I realized — once I stopped laughing — Dad had given me in Robert Benchley a mentor of style, a model of wit, a master of language.
Mom phoned in mid-December 1985. Dad was back in the hospital, but they didn’t want me to come home. I went anyway.
My legs buckled when I saw how emaciated and helpless Dad looked in the white-sheeted bed.
What he said to me were pretty much his last words.
“You got here just in time.”
Dad was right.