It was my grandfather, Otto, who moved from Indiana to Waterman, Illinois, a town of 500 people, to marry Sophie Dreher Lamb. Waterman is good corn country (probably soy, now) in the heart of the midwest. It is probably a bit of an understatement to say that Waterman was fairly homogeneous in population and belief. Although, there was one Catholic family with five children (also the only democrats in town) — the good, God-fearing Christians attended either the Methodist church or the Presbyterian church (they were across the street from one another). Forget other ethnicities or non-Christian religions. The words limited and narrow come to mind
Eventually all the Babcocks moved to Waterman, Otto’s siblings Uncle Guy (who married Minnie), Aunt Gladys (who married uncle Charley) and uncle Dean. They were baptized as Baptists but because there was no Baptist church in Waterman they went to the Methodist chruch.
Otto and Sophie were "good people." Otto soon made himself indispensable to the town and ended up by being the mayor for many decades. He was one of these people with lots of concerns: grocery store, filling station, buying and selling property. He liked wheeling and dealing and he liked to do things for people. I remember him as a short, bald man who smoked a pipe and had a twinkle in his eye.
My favorite story about Otto is an army story. He enlisted into the Navy during World War I and as a recruit had a real good chance of being sent to Europe where he would be shot at. So when the band recruiters came around looking for trombonists, he said he was one. He got to join the band and spent his war safely in the back lines. (This has always conjured wonderful images of the young Otto, back when he had his hair, frantically acquiring a slide trombone and learning to play it so that he wouldn’t be found out.) This did not prevent him from later joining the American Legion and waving the flag mightily on behalf of future wars.
Sophie was a dear, sweet woman: a quintessential grandmother. She was born with one foot shorter than the other and always wore lace-up boots, one with a large platform to compensate for the short leg. She walked with a limp. She was quite involved with the church (a Methodist church) in worship and service
She was also, apparently, a fairly strict task-master as a parent. I saw mostly her kindness, not the strict, toe-the-line parent that my father sometimes talks about.
What do I remember most about Grandmother Sophie? Oatmeal cookies.
What does this have to do with humor?
It is the soil out of which humor grew.
I can see the remnants of Brother James in myself. His autobiography gives a sense of a man who was accomplished and proud of himself but also struggling with a deep sense of unworthiness. I see (and fight) in myself a tendency to feel superior to other people but also can struggle mightily with low self-esteem. There is a combination of grandiosity and fearfulness. Like all Babcock men I have known, I can easily get carried away by my own pontificating — unlike Brother James, I don’t have a pulpit to do it on.
Perhaps the strictness of our upbringing, the fear of frivolity going back to a family trying to survive on the wilderness, accounts for the "dryness" of much of our humor. In a home devoted to God’s work as interpreted by people fearful of going to Hell, frivolous laughter is not real common.
Humor is many things, one of which is a way to survive bad times. There is a line in Robert Heinlein’s masterpiece, Stranger in a Strange Land, that comes to mind. The book is about a man who grows up raised by Martians and ends up back in America. Martians don’t laugh. They don’t understand jokes. When the hero finally understands humor he understands it like this: "We laugh because it hurts; it’s the only thing that will make the hurting less."
Humor is also more than this. In our family it was a way of gently (or not so gently) reminding someone not to get too far ahead of the situation. It was used as a way of telling someone to settle down and rope it back in.
The Essence of Babcock Humor
More Humor & Wisdom
|Copyright © 2003 Michael Babcock|