You couldn’t accuse my daddy of being a physical bully for he never showed the back of his hand to any of us. He didn’t scream or throw things, barely ever raised his voice. But he was cruel in one meaningful way. His sense of humour. That man thought he was about the funniest person he knew and no one could tell him different. Now, I should explain, his sole goal in life was to make himself laugh. His was an audience of one. What other folks did was their business.
Take me for example. My mother had named my three older sisters but when I came along, he decided to take a turn. I entered this World with an even chance for happiness and he chose to call me Turnip. Apparently that just put a smile on his face. The tears-down-the-cheek laughter came days later when it was discovered the name had been misspelled on the birth certificate as Burnit. Yessir, that just made my daddy’s day.
Now, we’re not talking The Hamptons or West Palm Beach here. This was a small valley deep in the Appalachian Mountains. There were plenty of folks with odd sounding names. But in that particular year, Burnit took first prize as I found out soon enough when I started at the one room schoolhouse. Five year olds’ expend a lot of energy ensuring they don’t wind up at the bottom of the popularity pool and I was just the clown they needed to hold up the rest of the pile.
I fought back with fists, feet and a rapidly developed smart mouth as best I could. Luckily, I hit my growth spurt early which eased the tension somewhat. Turns out, being five foot tall in a world full of people who were only four foot tall tends to remove the spotlight. So once I was in my teens, things quieted down, at least at school.
At home, it was as you might expect. Three older sisters and one comedic father took their toll over the years but, again, I learned how to deal with them. My mother tended to take my side which helped. When I came of age, I could have stayed. There were work opportunities in the valley, farming and such but I was ready for a change so off I went to the coal mine, a tough place in its own right filled with tough men, many of whom did not have a sense of humour. I don’t know how my daddy would have fared there, I tried a more diplomatic approach which kept me out of trouble for the most part.
My daddy never changed. When he was on his death bed years later, he still laughed when I walked in the door and I knew he wasn’t laughing with me. After he was buried, I held no particular animosity toward him though. There were other kids’ daddy’s in that valley that were a damn site worse. Fact is, I named my first born son after him and I did my best to see that he ended up with a good sense of humour too but with the sole goal of making everyone around him laugh.
By David Milburn