To Improve the Quality of the Day with Laughter: That is One of the High Arts

I met Sam during my first year at Western. At that time, the home of the English Department was Sallee Hall, unique on campus as a windowless classroom building, an experiment in architecture and cost efficiency. I found the building disconcerting because until recently I have always been  a 7:30 to 4:30,  Monday through Friday man. Thus five days a week during working hours I found myself separated from any awareness of or contact with the natural world. To break this spell, I decided to have lunch every day in the student union across the street.

A few of my colleagues chose to take lunch there also. Thus the department’s two creative writers, the director of composition, one of my office mates, and I formed a part of a regular lunch crowd. Sam, a member of the Art Department, was the most interesting member of the group. He always told a joke or story during lunch, and I enjoyed listening to him. He could tell the dullest joke and make it seems hilarious. His laughter alone could turn a day from rats and pumpkins into sunshine and blue skies. He was an entertainer who specialized in humor and fun, so much so that a woman in our department dubbed him “The Eternal Boy.”

Shortly after I came back to Western after earning a Ph.D., I found myself in a working relationship with Sam. The English Department had started a creative writing magazine called “The Mississippi Valley Review,” and the fiction editor had left suddenly to go back to grad school. I was asked to be the new fiction editor. Sam was the art editor, and he was in what we called his “Mona Lisa phase.” Several of his covers featured some version of the Mona Lisa. But, true to his fun loving nature, Sam teased the editor by promising to slip a female nude into one of the covers of the magazine. Could it be a nude Mona Lisa? Sam would get this merry twinkle in his eyes, grin from ear to ear, tell us to be on the lookout, and then laugh in that unique way of his. The editor didn’t think it was funny, and he made sure that he carefully scrutinized Sam’s covers.

One day Sam came to the English Department to see the editor about some business with the magazine. The editor was not in his office, so Sam dropped by to visit with me. In those days I always kept a pot of coffee going, and some colleagues would drop by regularly to have coffee and visit. In addition, I had a heavy glass ashtray on my desk for the convenience of smokers. 

I invited Sam to sit down, and I poured him a cup of coffee. Sam sat down and took out his pipe. Nonchalantly, he tapped it once, twice, three times on my heavy glass ashtray. On the third tap, the beautiful ashtray divided neatly in half.  A professional glass cutter could not have done better. Instantly Sam’s face had a look of horror, as if he had destroyed the Mona Lisa. It was so amazing to see such a shock on the face of a man who lived for fun and laughter. 

I was surprised by what happened to the ashtray, but even more so by Sam’s look of horror that I broke out in unrestrained laughter like Edmond O’Brien in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.” 

When Sam saw me laugh, he began to laugh. We both laughed so hard that I thought we would never stop. When the laughter started to abate, I would point to the two halves of the ashtray and to Sam, and we would begin to laugh again. I have never laughed so hard and long in my entire life. Finally, we became exhausted from laughing. Then Sam, with a serious look on his face, pointed to the ashtray and said, “Now you know why soldiers never march in step when they cross a bridge.” 

I couldn’t help it. I threw a book at him and began to laugh even louder than before. 

For a few years after that, when I would encounter Sam on campus, I would point a finger at him in a menacing gesture, and exclaim, “You!”

Sam would cringe and look around wildly in mock desperation, and then we would both break out in laughter. I am sure that the people around us thought we had lost our senses. Fortunately no high level campus administrator witnessed our drama.