I Held Their Coats: A Case Study of Two Jokes

Reader, I, too, wonder about what follows. I wonder what calls a person to think something is or is not funny. What causes us to remember some jokes and to forget others. What the simple act of remembering might mean. What it might say about who we are and what we value. So I guess I must ask your indulgence for some ugliness that follows, that you put aside your misgivings, consider it all with me, and see what you think.

My brother and I used to sit by the living-room window waiting for our uncles to come driving up the hill to our house. Often it was Thanksgiving Eve and late at night when they arrived. Living on a dead-end as we did, we had no tricks to make the time go faster, no counting of makes and models of passing cars. The clock with no second hand barely crept along. Our uncles brought our cousins, who, even the ones who were younger than we were, knew better, knew more. Our uncles had gone off to the bigger world, bigger towns. Our folks stayed back in the hills, up in the hollow.

Whenever these uncles came to see us, they came with a bunch of stored-up jokes to tell each other. They told these jokes to my parents. I don’t think they were very good joke-tellers; you wouldn’t want to call them storytellers. My Uncle Bill would just rattle them off in quick sequence: “What do you call a Chinese virgin?” Then before anybody could think: “No Yen To.” “A Chinese person in Las Vegas?” “Dough Gone Now.” My uncles Jim and Jack tried to make a little more of a narrative of their jokes, but for all my uncles, the whole point of a joke was the punch line; the trick was to get there as quickly as you could. Their jokes might be political, topical, faddish. Sometimes they were about touchy subjects—race, say—but rarely, and then only mildly, about sex. If they offended my mother in the telling, my uncles never meant to.

Uncle Jack would plop into our dad’s red reclining chair, with a certain droit de seigneur, read my dad’s newspaper, holler to my mom, “Hey, Sis, are any of my khakis still around here?”—a different kind of joke, a joke between my mom and dad. Fifteen years after the war, Uncle Jack still imagined a footlocker around the house somewhere containing a limitless supply of his soldier’s khaki pants.

Here is a joke he told us:

This black guy wanted to go out for a college football team. (But Uncle Jack would have said a colored boy, and we all would have understood that the college my uncle meant was an all-white college in the South, the only kind of college any of us would have thought of. It was that time in our country’s history.) Anyhow, this colored boy went up to the coach and said he wanted to play some football for him.

And the coach—I always pictured him as a thick-chested, short man, a man in a gray sweatshirt and ball cap and whistle on a lanyard —and probably wearing khaki pants—and the coach said reluctantly, grudgingly, probably embarrassed and resentful all at once, “OK, I’ll give you a try.” He let the colored boy line up in the backfield with the second team and told the quarterback to give him the ball.

Sometimes I pictured the joke taking place on the lumpy football field behind our high school—the field I practiced on all fall with my Midget football team, a field full of standing water and breeding mosquitoes on into October. Other times I pictured it happening on the lush, green practice fields behind E.C. Glass High in Lynchburg, Va.—a place where field gave onto field and where sprinklers shot rainbows of mist onto the grass every morning and evening. Uncle Jack and Aunt Mildred lived in Lynchburg, and he taught and coached at E.C. Glass.

The colored boy broke through the line and dodged his way through the secondary until he was standing all by himself in the end zone. And I saw that in my head clearly, too, the beauty of broken field running, the kind of play my dad would have called us from our attic room to look at on the TV in those days before instant replay, when we had to hurry from our homework or we’d miss it.

E.C. Glass was the biggest high school in Virginia then and a major football power, always on the hunt for the Class AAA Championship. They ran the antique single-wing attack, but their boys were so many, so big, it didn’t much matter. Once when they came to Bluefield to play, my dad and my brother and I went to see them in their royal-blue jerseys, helmets and pants (blue pants, even!), like a small army when they ran from the visitors’ locker room. They had oxygen on the sidelines for their players whenever they came off the field. We thought it was to compensate for the higher elevation. Only later did I learn that major college teams and professional teams kept oxygen on the sidelines for every game, just to give the players a lift.

Well, now. The coach told the colored boy to try it again, only this time the coach sneaked over and told the first team the play. The same thing happened. The boy just ran right through the line, knocking aside the offensive and defensive players, and wound up in the end zone again. So while the boy was trotting back up the field, the coach told the second team not to block for him on the next try. It didn’t matter; that boy ran right through them all again.

Race jokes were not told in our house. Once a kid friend of mine enticed me to holler up to a bunch of black kids our age walking along the back road that ran around the lip of the hollow we lived in. We stood out in front of my house up under the shadows of the big maple tree and yelled, “Hey, chocolate drops. Hey, little jungle bunnies,” though we were all about the same, first-grade size. I heard the storm door rattle open on the front porch behind me.

“Bud, get in here right now,” my mother told me.

And when I went in, I automatically sat in one of the stuffed living room chairs to hear my scolding. The very rattle in the door had warned me.

“We don’t,” my mother said, “call people names because of what color their skin is. People can’t help that.” My parents ran a little grocery store. Those kids’ folks were our customers. The kids themselves were our customers, standing by the big windows at the front of the store, waiting for the bus that would take them to the one consolidated school for all the black kids in the county. They bought blow gum and licorice whips and gingersnaps, just like the white kids who came through the store later. When I got big enough to carry a box of groceries, I would help deliver orders to their houses. And later, when integration finally came, they would be my classmates, my bandmates, my teammates.

Lynchburg had a high school for black kids, too: Dunbar. “The Poets,” my aunt hooted. “They call themselves ‘the Poets.’” I pictured a black kid in his varsity jacket. There would have to be a quill pen on it somewhere, a pen sticking out of an inkwell. I pictured a kind of style that went with being a poet, berets and sunglasses, a looseness in the walk. It wasn’t such a terrible thing to be. Later my mother said there was a colored-man poet—that’s who that school was named for, she bet. I can’t guess how my mom ran upon Paul Laurence Dunbar—possibly in the inspirational literature for her Sunday-school class—but it was just like her to take this kind of corrective action, to worry out an explanation, get to the truth of the matter, regardless of how long it took. And I could tell by the way she let us in on this information that she expected us to put it together and see the various ways my aunt had it wrong. A poet was a perfectly good mascot.

Finally it came down to the colored boy on one side of the ball, all by himself, and the first-team defense arrayed against him. And there he went, running through the line and into the secondary, running and stiff-arming and dodging his way to another touchdown.

The coach threw his hat down and hollered, “Hoo-wee! Look at that Polynesian boy run!”

My parents laughed at my uncle’s joke. It was a funny joke. I still think it’s a funny joke. When I was a boy, I told it over and over to myself, refining my uncle’s details, making it richer, making the number of steps the boy had to go through greater and more complicated.

Coaches rarely appreciate an ironic sensibility. The ironist is never exactly where you think he is. His body is right there in front of you, but his thoughts have wandered off to fix you from some altogether different angle. Not a very useful trait for any kind of ball player. So it was that as I grew—an absent-minded ball player, an ironist in training—I wondered how my uncle could tell his race joke and never see how it came back around on him: the only part for him to play, an assistant football coach at an all-white school.

My mother would say of just about anybody who didn’t get a joke, “He’s just like an Englishman.” I don’t know how she could have run upon any such humorless Englishman in our hometown to test this theory, but the upshot of it was that you had to explain a joke to such a person, and nothing ruined a joke worse than having to explain it. I guess I’ve come to the explaining part of this joke. I’ve come to try to explain it because I wonder why, of the many jokes I’ve heard and forgotten, I’ve kept this one in my head so long.

Here is how the Commonwealth of Virginia finally came to accommodate racial integration: gently, apologetically, and with the greatest possible resistance. Down in Alabama Bull Connor turned loose the police dogs and the fire hoses, but the good people of Virginia just said, “No, thank you.” That was how you turned away an encyclopedia salesman or a Jehovah’s Witness who came to your door. There was no need to be rude. People with good manners always knew when they weren’t wanted.

Robert E. Lee, for instance, was always a gentleman. He loved his men, and he loved his horse, Traveler. He shook hands in defeat. Most likely, our grade school teachers assured us, he would have freed his slaves anyway.

And when Virginia’s time came, why, like a rich old lady who gets things a little bit mixed up from time to time, who has the right, granted her age and her standing, to always have it her way, things would just be different from here on in without ever having to admit the way they had been was wrong. All the little Polynesian boys and girls would take their places in the clarinet section of the band, in English class and math and chemistry and on the football team. Often in the backfield.

A friend of mine told me a story of winning a long-distance foot race at a Boy Scout jamboree. The racecourse took him past the camps of the black Scout troops. When he finished the race, he wondered out loud why the black Scouts had not been allowed in the competitions. “Son,” a Scout leader told him, “if those boys were in this race, you wouldn’t have won it.” That’s the other part of the joke.

Maybe that’s the ugliest part, the part about being afraid of what integration would bring. The black players would run through the white players even when the white players knew the play. Black people would overpower white people. Animal strength would win out over mere entitlement every time. That was another category of race joke, the kind you’d not hear my uncle tell in my parents’ house because he’d know better, a race joke about the sexual prowess of black men or black women or both. These jokes were supposed to scare you. Maybe my uncle’s football joke was, too, but only in a glancing way. The black player has both skills and courage. I admired him; he was the football player I wanted to be but couldn’t.

I knew white players who had skill and courage. A fullback named Gerald Perez, who would catch a kickoff and stand for a moment with the ball resting on his hip, looking over the onrushing opponents, looking for the best way to run through them. Others, too, skinny quarterbacks and tailbacks who threw their whole bodies flying into blocks. Guards and tackles too frail for their positions but fierce. Those who could only get in fistfìghts to ease the pain of losing.

The black and white boys I played with had some fistfights, too. Robert Howell and William Johnson, one white forward, one black, had a fight at basketball practice just about once a week. Race had something to do with these fights but not nearly everything. Race was the easiest thing to call it and sometimes still is.

And that might be the saddest part of the joke. How we never really accommodated race, how we used words to hide from the problem. How the black player got on the team but without the team ever accepting who he really was.

I am getting closer to understanding why I like this joke. Because it is funny; because it is ugly; because it is sad. Because racism in America, in the South in particular, is such a long and complicated story, and this joke balls so much of it all up in a tight, little package I can carry around and remember. I can pull it out and tell it to myself from time to time, tell it to my friends. Because we will be driving along in the car, and something will come on the radio — some part of the O.J. Simpson mess, say—and I will tell this joke as a way of getting at what I think.

Except all that leaves a lot unexplained. For example, what responsibility, culpability even, could I have for carrying this joke around all these years? What made me remember it, and what does that say about me? Would I be ashamed if, under anesthetic, I suddenly came out with this joke in a hospital operating room? Hospitals may be the most integrated workplaces in this country. That is where I was, on my way to visit my dad in ICU when the O.J. verdict was announced. Everybody froze. I froze, even though it took some time out of my 10 minutes allotted to visit with Dad. And at that moment, the racial divisiveness of our culture was never more apparent. The black people sighed and let themselves smile small smiles. No high fives, no laughter. This was relief. This was getting out from under some implicit, collective guilt. And the white people tried not to look disgusted at what they saw as the injustice of it all. Where was that Polynesian boy then?

Or years from now, as a dotty, old man, will I sit in the sun at the old-folks’ home and pop out with this joke, pop out with it to one of the black minimum-wage employees who seem to be the heart and soul of every old-folks’ home? What has made me carry this joke around, allowed me to roll it around in my head the way I roll a LifeSaver around in my mouth, savoring it, playing with it? Mostly I have allowed myself to stand aside, to mock old Virginia, to place blame, as if I had never been an enfranchised citizen of that green commonwealth. At the most I have let the joke be about us, and who am I but the smallest droplet in an ocean of us? What does this joke say about me?

Because here is an uglier joke, a joke about sex, not race. This is a joke that I am not sure is funny at all. This is a joke that I would be happy to have out of my head if it would just go, but like an annoying jingle, there it is, popping into my thoughts. Unbidden it comes to me; there is never a right time for it. It is more like a sore in my mouth that my tongue can’t stay away from. A joke my uncles would never have told and that would have caused my mother to cover her ears in shame.

A man goes to a whorehouse. He asks for the ugliest, skinniest whore in the house, and he is led to a dark, basement room where a lonely, pimply whore is shivering naked under a moth-eaten army blanket. He pays his money and tells the whore to take off the blanket and lie there. Then he straddles her and shits on her. “Now, don’t move,” he tells her and leaves.

I am not exactly sure where I first heard this joke. At band camp, I think. I started going to band camp before I was even old enough to be in band. My dad took a whole truckload of groceries over to this camp, rented from the Boy Scouts, and when I saw the cabins and the creek, I wanted to stay And he let me, my folks bringing back a suitcase of clothes for me later that night. Actually it was no fun at all. I didn’t know any of these older kids, and I was lonely as hell.

Odd things went on at band camp. At night the chaperones and the band director retreated to the staff cabin and, I suppose, drank. We had the run of the place. Here’s a representative moment: A boy called Larry, maybe four or five years older than I am, is up on a top bunk in one of the boys’ cabins, where he’s fashioned a kind of stage with a curtain made from several of our blankets thrown over the rafters. He parts the curtain, steps through, and begins to do a striptease, peeling off his T-shirt and briefs. Somehow he has managed to tuck his penis between his legs and keep it there as he does his bump and grind. I have never seen a woman naked below the waist; I don’t know what I am supposed to be looking at. But along with the other boys, I sit on the lower bunks and hoot and whistle just as I’d be expected to do in a real strip club, a place I am certain none of us had ever been.

Here is something I do know, even at this age: The bizarre goings-on at band camp are to go in a separate drawer in my memory. They are not to be shared with the kids who didn’t go. They are not to be recounted, reconsidered, even among the kids who were there. Certainly they aren’t for Mom.

Either at band camp or the real Scout camp at the same location, I would fill plastic bags with piss and throw them at other campers. Examine my first condom, unrolling it, inspecting it, rolling it back up but not trying it on. Participate reluctantly in a circle jerk. Look at dirty magazines and hear stories read from them with frighteningly unlikely anatomical details—a woman, driven by guilt after a moment of lesbian sex, throws herself from a high window; and when she hits the sidewalk below, her breasts burst like cartons of milk.

There is an initiation into the world of men. Here is how you pass the test: 1) Don’t blab; 2) Don’t ask questions; 3) Pass it on.

Who was I when I was this boy, who sat around a campfire burning down to its embers, listening (avidly listening) to such stories and jokes? I am thinking now of the stoning of Stephen, how it all came about from his telling a group of men something they didn’t want to hear—that Jesus was the son of God. Enough was enough; they started throwing rocks. Off to the side is the figure that interests me most: Paul, still going by Saul then, holds the men’s coats for them while the deed is done. What does feeling ashamed of what we see before us have to do with our complicity?

The whore—the whore in the joke—is still lying on her poor cot when the man comes back the next day, climbs up over her, and again shits, tells her not to move, and leaves.

I would like to believe I have a pretty normal life after being exposed to a boyhood full of polymorphously perverse behavior. Despite all the jokes about impossibly long dicks going into and out of women in wildly improbable places, about exploding jock straps, about rape and mayhem practiced against women who never seemed to mind it so very much, I want to hope I have managed not to grow into a hateful, predacious man. If it is so, it may be because I failed to learn the lessons of my initiation.

I was innocent then, not just of sex but also of the kind of responsibility I wonder if you don’t take just to stand around the way men do when they tell dirty jokes, heads bent toward the ground, ears cocked toward the teller, knowing grins of anticipation on their faces. There is a kind of naughty playfulness in sex that is a fine and wonderful thing. Listening to a nicer kind of dirty joke might sometimes be akin to that—something edgy, sexy and yet seeking to do no harm. I know a joke about a monkey, an elephant and a Corvette that works that way. But a mean joke like this one requires of us a kind of bonding up, a way of listening without looking one another in the eye. The world is full of bad behavior, and a joke is one way we come to know about it.

From the moment I came back from that first band camp, a kind of separation between my parents and me began that could only deepen. As it had to. At some level it was a not-so-bad thing. It was part of the scheme of things that took me down a road so far that I would come back to my mom later, as an adult, a person different from her, and part of that difference would be in the things we would know.

And would part of it be the things we must hide from each other? Only once in my life have I had sex with a woman who was merely an acquaintance. I have loved the women I’ve slept with, and I think I’ve tried for the kind of intimacy that women friends assure me for them is a necessary prelude to sex. I would like to say Me, too. I love women; I love to look at them, in all their shapes and sizes. In conversation I enjoy them much more than men, and I would like to think my sexual relationships with women are part of a richer and much more complicated interaction. In my adult life, I don’t look at girlie magazines, and I don’t traffic much in dirty jokes.

Here I am blabbing.

When I was an eighth-grader, a ceremony of initiation went on in the band room. It was fifth period, when those of us in band were yanked out of study hall to try to practice as a small, cobbled-together group. Sometimes—far too often, it seemed to me—the band director went to the teachers’ lounge and smoked or stayed in the cafeteria and talked to the guidance counselor. Then the upperclassmen took another eighth-grader and me and pushed us into the instrument room, came in behind us, and turned out the light. Our job was to get out of the room any way we could; theirs was to whale on us with drumsticks.

It didn’t matter whether you were the one trying to get out of the room or the one holding the drumstick. What mattered was that we were all in on it. I learned some things in the instrument room. I learned I could take a blow without crying out. And in that first year of high school I learned I could take any number of blows and jokes and teasing at my expense. I think that’s what I was supposed to learn.

When the time came I was to pass the lesson on. But I didn’t; I didn’t and I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure what I should do, and I still am not.

What I do is wonder. I wonder about this dirty joke and what it says about men and women, what it was supposed to teach the boy who heard it when he had only the vaguest notion of the bio-mechanics of any sexual act, when he could not explain what it was a whore did exactly. When he understood only one part of the joke clearly: shit.

Camps had outhouses, and only outhouses, then. And the campers, as part of their camper chores, dumped cans of lime down them every day, swept them assiduously. The outhouses made you think about excretion more, even more than boys normally think about it. You smelled your shit; you heard the gentle thud it made at the bottom of the dark, earthen shaft. You tried experiments passed along by camp folklorists—a firecracker down the hole in the seat just to see if it really would blow the shack up.

So I thought of the whore lying in her bed as the man in the joke came back day after day and shat on her. A huge mound of shit was building on her, just as it built up in the outhouse, and I saw it in mixed colors—deep brown, green, maroon, ochre, burnt umber, burnt and raw sienna. All mixed together and finally blending together as it rotted. And the stink? Beyond my imagining. I thought of stinky things I knew—rotten potatoes, dead possums on the roadside. It would be worse than any of that.

We are coming toward the punch line. When the punch line comes, men break apart like a rack of pool balls, laughing. Apart, distancing themselves from the teller. It’s behavior as old as Adam.

So one day the guy comes back, and he climbs up on his huge pile of shit and he strains and strains, and nothing happens. And he goes away.

The woman waits. She is at the man’s disposal. Like a figure in an existential novel, she is trapped in her waiting. There seems to be no way for her to eat or drink or to take a shit herself if she needs to. She waits. There is something in the sheer force of the simplest narrative that makes us wait, too, wait without giving much thought to whatever improbabilities are bound up in the situation. Once, at a younger stage in my writing, I thought a story should work like a freight train, like the freight trains that ran through my college town in the middle of the night. Guys I knew would get high and go down to the railroad tracks and try to stand inches away as the train rushed past. A story could work like that, I thought. And if you let it, it will. It will just blow on by and leave without ever offering an explanation.

This is not the kind of fun, naughty joke like the one about the monkey, the elephant and the Corvette, which I am not going to tell you. This is a hurtful joke, isn’t it? This is a simple joke that says women are shit, should be treated like shit, and that they really even like to be treated like shit. There is no chance for the woman to be resourceful or brave, like the colored boy. There is only the end, when the guy comes back again for several days running, constipated, unable to add to his pile. Discouraged, he climbs off and starts out of the room.

There is a movement under the pile. As a kid, I pictured this, pictured what has been a gloppy mass of shit suddenly transformed into something like Lincoln Logs, discrete, wood-like turds that begin a rumbling, little landslide as the whore begins to raise herself up out of the pile.

“What’s the matter?” she asks. “Don’t you love me anymore?”

I have been able to tell this joke aloud only a time or two in my life—such is my terror of it. Yet the last time I did, to a woman I love dearly, I burst into laughter at the punch line. What kind of laughter was that? I am still not sure I know. Was it an outrush of embarrassment? Was it a kind of recognition of the self that has carried this ugly thing around so long inside me? Was it an apology, a way of saying, “Listen, it’s not as bad as you think”?

Recently in a big town near where I live, a little girl was walking home from school when a man in a blue pickup truck pulled alongside her and offered her a ride. She told him, “No, thank you,” and he drove on. But he came back, and he forced the little girl into his truck, took her into a woody spot, and raped her. Then she somehow managed to get away.

I think about this moment because I know why she turned the ride down. Her mother told her what all our mothers told us: never to accept rides with strangers. I have a good friend who accepted such a ride as a little girl just to find out why. Nothing happened except that she got spanked by her mom, and by her dad, too, when he got home. I think about what her parents knew, what all our moms knew, all our moms who told us never to accept rides with strangers. What they knew was all about the ugly filth down inside the sewer pipes running below the sunny world we walk on and what might spew out if we chanced to pry the lids off. In other words there is nothing in any dirty joke that in some vague form or another a mom has not forced herself to imagine.

What every joke needs is somebody to tell it and somebody to listen—somebody to listen and pass it on. But what exactly do jokes such as these bring us to? Shame and grief? Despair? Confusion about what one ought to do in this life, in this world? Comeuppance served with a dash of surprise? An acknowledgment of unjust things? A way not to get so angry? A good kick in the ass? A way to give or take away some hurt? A way to gang up against somebody? A way to know ourselves and the world we live in more truly? A safe way to say things?

What was my woman friend to think? And what do you think, reader? Maybe jokes are little explosions, like the kind we boys expected when we threw the firecracker down the outhouse hole. I think sometimes the jokes we keep—what somebody might call the best jokes and somebody else might call the worst—are full of truths so ugly we’d better laugh. Otherwise, what would we do?

About the Author

Frank Soos

Frank Soos teaches English and creative writing at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. He has published three books, including “Unified Field Theory,” winner of the 1997 Flannery O’Connor Award.

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