Comedy

“Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!”–Stephen Sondheim

You may have discovered the harder we try at humor and comedy, the less successful it is. The unplanned moments are often the funniest. Most people don’t find genealogy entertaining, let alone funny. So much of what we research falls into the category of sad, even tragic, events. How does one find humor in the deaths, illnesses, war injuries, tornadoes, and rattlesnake bites that befell our ancestors? You don’t, because it just isn’t there.

Sometimes, though, comedy sneaks through during the research process. We learn a quirky fact about someone, or the process of tracking down a piece of information is so convoluted, you can’t help but laugh at how you reached your conclusion(s).

My dad was the youngest of five. His oldest brother, Paul, died very young. You met Dad’s next oldest brother, Henry, in Namesake. He was six years older than Dad, so I’m not sure that as kids they would have hung out much with each other. Marie was in the middle of the boys, leaving George, eighteen months older than Dad, as his closest sibling, age-wise.

With three older brothers, and three sons of my own, I’ve observed brothers, particularly ones close in age, can have interesting relationships. Sometimes difficult ones! I don’t remember hearing many stories about Dad & Uncle George when they were young, but I imagine when they weren’t killing each other, they were causing mischief together.

Around April, 1941, in the backyard at 910 Rosemary Terrace, Deerfield, IL. Robert Haws is on the left, newly enlisted brother George is in the middle, and brother Henry is on the right.

During the 1990s, Mom’s Meintzer clan held four reunions: 1990, 1992, 1995, and 1997. We kids flocked back home to attend them, if we could. I remember sitting in the kitchen one of those times, packing coolers, cooking, whatever. Mom’s kitchen wasn’t very big, but in our family, the kitchen was [is] a regular hang-out spot, regardless of whose house and kitchen.

So a bunch of us were in there, and Dad started telling this story about when he was a kid. He and George found some rags in their basement. They didn’t know what they’d been used for. Somehow they got the brilliant idea to see if they would burn! This was probably the late 1920s, so they were eight to ten years old, maybe? Not necessarily the age to think through consequences of their actions real well.

Their dad smoked a pipe, so finding matches wouldn’t have been hard. Latex paint didn’t exist, so the house paint would have been oil-based. Where you have oil paint, you have turpentine.

You can see where this was headed, right?

Apparently Bob & George had the sense to put the rags in a coffee can. Of course, the coffee can had probably been used to clean paint brushes, so it’s likely there was turpentine residue inside it, also. Anyway, the fire started by the rags (and yes, they were still in the basement!) was a little more robust than they anticipated.

Fortunately, their mother (Victoria) had been upstairs, smelled the smoke coming up the stairs, and went to investigate. She extinguished (smothered, I imagine) the fire, and gave the boys “what for.” Lesson learned, right?

No, not really.

In the next day or so, they had a repeat performance. I’m not sure whether they thought they had a “better” plan, or what, but their mom was back downstairs, putting out the fire again. That time she was probably more emphatic about stopping the nonsense, threatening promising to tell their father (Edward) if it happened a third time. That was enough motivation for them to cease and desist!

Now, rags burning in the basement of a 2-story wood frame house is not a joking matter. It’s downright serious! Time has a way of mellowing the danger, though, especially when we know everyone came through safely. By the time Dad finished telling his story, it was seen only as a comedy of errors. We adult kids were in hysterics, and the grandkids old enough to appreciate the story were shocked and appalled their grandfather was such a scalawag when he was young.

Then there was my mom.

She’d been at the sink during the story, washing vegetables or something. Her reaction was not one of amusement! She railed into Dad, wanting to know why, in 45+ years of marriage, she had never heard that story. She continued on about how he should have told her about that incident when Bob & Warren (my older brothers) burned their bedroom floor.

Hold the phone! What??

She explained that the burn mark on the oak floor in the boys’ bedroom was caused by them starting a fire. Granted, it was small, but still a fire. At the time (the ages were never nailed down, but probably somewhere around the age of our dad’s adventure), she was worried there was something more seriously wrong with them. If she’d know Dad and George had done the same type of thing, she might not have worried as much!

Warren, Bob, and me at Scenic State Park, near Bigfork, Minnesota. Yes, that is a Mickey Mouse Club, short sleeved sweatshirt. And a really big fish, not caught by me! Warren says it’s probably a Northern Pike, rather than a Walleye Pike. He doesn’t recall who actually caught the fish. It could have been either one of them, or my dad, who was taking the photo. Estimated date, July 1961, ages 13, 3, almost 14. Why are there no photos of the Bluegill (my “first” fish) that was placed on my hook when I wasn’t looking?

At that point, if we’d gotten our laughter under control, we all lost it again.

I remember there being a blackened area on their floor, usually covered by a throw rug. By the time Dad was telling his story, we’d been gone from that house for over 15 years. The floor and burn mark had been replaced by a McDonald’s, and I’m unaware of any photos with that section of floor. Mom is now 97; I don’t expect her to remember the circumstances (it’s been 20+ years since the reunion where it came up!). So as a thorough researcher, my only option was to contact the perpetrators. Bob died in 2008, leaving Warren as my only hope.

He wasn’t much help. Of course, It’s been 49 years since he moved out of that house! Did I have pictures? No. He had no recollection of anything like that happening, and adopted a Mission: Impossible attitude, disavowing all knowledge of the alleged incident. Evidently whatever punishment they received didn’t leave a huge impression! He suggested IF such an event occurred, it was probably him and Bob trying to light paper with a magnifying glass.

Some of you may remember back in the pre-Nintendo/Atari/Sony, and pre-iPad days, childhood entertainment was pretty simple. It could include roller skating, playing cops & robbers, or making stick floor plans for the worms on the sidewalk after a rain (yes, I was a weird kid!). Compared to that, firing cap rolls by hitting them with rocks, or lighting paper or dry leaves with a magnifying glass were far more exciting activities! But starting a fire that way was harder than it sounds, because it took a really steady hand to keep the beam focused on the exact spot. Move a bit, and you were effectively starting over! It was a skill I learned under the tutelage of my older siblings.

The boys’ room had three west-facing windows, but it presented several logistical problems, reducing the plausibility of the magnifying glass scenario:

  • the burn was closer to the door than the windows, so the sun would have had to come in at a fairly low angle
  • there was an elm tree (later succumbing to Dutch Elm disease) that would have blocked sunlight from that angle
  • even without the tree, the light passed through a window and window screen, first. I could be wrong, but I think that would have dispersed the beam enough that it wouldn’t have worked. It was hard enough starting a fire outside, sun directly overhead! Adding obstacles wouldn’t have helped.

Clearly the details of my brothers’ mischief have been lost through the years. I don’t doubt its occurrence, though. Mom had no reason to make up a story like that, but my brothers had every reason in the world to have forgotten the incident! We just don’t confidently know the why or how of their fire.

Sometimes it’s not the event itself, but the memory of it, and the reactions generated from retelling, providing the comedy. Fortunately none of our four “pyromaniacs” continued down that path—that we know of, at least! It seems I instinctively knew to keep my matches on the top shelf of a cupboard, and never retrieved them in view of my children . . .

#52Ancestors


2 thoughts on “Comedy”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s