Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Jarhead Who Laughed

It is one of the fundamental Things About Me: I am not comfortable until I have caused you to laugh.

It doesn't have to be much. Of course, if I had my way, every bon mot would bring laughter. Every wisecrack would prompt a shared grin. Each pun would be a serve which would lead us through the Volley of the Shadow of Wit. But I will settle for a mercy chuckle, or a groan and an eyeroll; even the grimaced recognition of a misfired punchline will make us "friends". It is the connection of minds that I crave.

And so when I met Steve, the Marine, I knew I faced a formidable challenge.

Steve was the original Robo-Grunt. He moved with a purpose, or not at all. Every turn he made was a right angle. He sat at attention with his Korean dictionary aligned in the upper right corner of his desk, and his pencils -- all freshly sharpened with the points to the right -- resting in a row on the left.
He was crisp, he was sharp, and he wasted no movement.

I didn't stress about it at first. I don't need immediate gratification; I don't need constant adoration. I waited for my opportunities, and took them as they came.

There were three Marines in that class; the other two were easy prey. Marines are generally smart people, and coming fresh from boot camp, they have egos the size of Chesty Puller's medal rack (that's big, kids). They don't expect much from non-Marines, especially not from slacker Airmen like myself. So all I had to do was a little self-parody to knock off the first; referring to myself as a "wingnut" did the trick. The second, a Filipino lad, took a little more effort. I asked him very seriously for the Tagalog word for "penis", and when he told me it was "penis" -- Tagalog borrows many English words -- I made a big show of writing it down.

"Did I spell that right?" I asked, showing him the name of the insufferable Army private who sat next to him. Two down.

But Steve was tough. He rarely spoke, and when he did, he sounded like he was quoting regs. "What did you have for breakfast, Steve?" Dave might ask. Dave was one of the three Dave Williams' in Alpha Company (one of the two real ones, in fact), and he happened to be our class section leader. So, of course, Steve called him "sir".

"Sir, eggs scrambled; juice, apple, 8 oz.; toast, qty. 2, no butter," Steve might reply to the breakfast question. Ask him how he slept, he would tell you the time of onset of R.E.M. sleep, and report any incidents such as head-calls. Very perfunct.

With so little to work with, I got a little desperate. It had been several weeks, and much drama had unfolded. Our little section was growing more friendly, but I just couldn't read that damned Jarhead! I simply HAD to get him to let his guard down. It was the one obstacle to my total sense of "belonging" there. My usual smart-aleck remarks and puns in class were no good. Steve ignored them, and the teachers didn't speak English well enough to get them. God forbid that they hear me and ask me to explain a joke.

Korean humor does not allow for the kinds of jokes I tell. Take the assignment to translate a joke; should be right up my alley? I tried one from my second grade joke books: Q: How do you catch a squirrel? A: Climb up a tree and act like a nut! (rimshot) It would help if they had a word for "nut", or "squirrel". My joke translated as "How do you capture tree rats? Climb a tree and act like a crazy person." It was much funnier trying to get a Korean to say "squirrel".

"Soo-kah-lo-lo. Ser-ko-laller. Sok-ho-lillah." Never mind. Steve sat staring straight ahead throughout the episode.

I tried all kinds of subtle tricks; I tried stupid stunts. One day we were sitting in a line: me, Angie, Steve, and Dave. Angie blew a bubble with an illegal piece of gum while the teachers were in the hall between class periods, and I shot it with a rubber band, and crowed "Fire in the Hole!" Gum shrapnel flew everywhere, and the rubber band landed on the desk in front of Dave. Dave shook his head in bewilderment and said, "I don't even want to know what you are thinking." Angie demanded a new piece of gum. It was, in a word hilarious, and the class lost it.

Steve had festive little pink balls strewn across his immaculate uniform and festooning his bristly crew cut. This HAD to be it! I expected something, even if it wasn't humor; maybe rage, maybe ire. Anything to make him bend! His only reaction was to blandly brush his desk clear. I felt hopeless. I was ready to give up, and concede that I would never see into the soul of this fellow human being. It was, for me, a bitter kind of defeat.

But then my day arrived in the person of Mr. Minh.

Mr. Minh was a very special teacher. He was ancient in a way that only a Korean man can be ancient. He had a steel wool mop of hair, and a tweed jacket with leather patches at the elbows. He stood a stooped 4' 11", at most, and he was the only teacher to level with us when we asked insensitive, "ugly American" sorts of questions. Like the day he was asked if Korean people really eat dogs; while the other teachers blustered and denied it as slander, Mr. Minh simply shut the door (after checking to make sure the hallway was free of eavesdroppers) and said to us, "Look; Yerrow dog, most tender..."

Mr. Minh was to join our teaching team. He had belonged to another class on the first floor, and he was going to need help moving his things up one flight of stairs. His "things" included a 1950's era, powder blue metal desk. It must have weighed as much as a city bus. But what is the point of having stupid, young men around if you can't get them to volunteer to move a 2-ton desk up a flight of stairs?

So, a bunch of us went down: me, Dave, Steve, the other real Dave, and Harris (a female soldier wanting to put us to shame). Together we hefted the behemoth, and trundled it to the stairwell. We somehow managed to work it through the door, and up to the first landing, but we had to lift it about four feet up to work around the turn. Daves were on the bottom, Steve and Harris were above, and I was guiding the side. It went well, until somehow the thing began to tilt; in slow motion, I watched as the desktop loomed, pressing me closer to the concrete block wall of the stairwell. When I realized that it was about to press my head into the wall... no, through the wall... I said something. Unfortunately, they didn't hear me, so I made more noise.

I do not recall what noise I made, but I imagine that it was the sound of an animal that the Korean people would have no problem eating. Steve looked around the corner of the desk to see what was the matter, and saw me being ground into USAF grade A dork flour. "Stop!" he bellowed, and the others stopped moving.

And then the corners of his mouth quirked up, and he uttered two sharp, "Heh"s.

Everyone heard it, too. They all knew about my quest, of course. It's not like it was a secret. I think there was even a pool going on when/whether it would ever happen. Steve's double "heh" surely cost someone a six-pack of crappy beer. But at the time, no one said anything about it. They shifted the desk, removed the danger to my cranium, and finished the task at hand.

Once we were back in the room, there was no time to comment. Mr. Park was in full lecture mode, acting as though five sweaty young students had not just barged into the room. We tucked right into the lesson. It wasn't until break time that it was mentioned at all, and it was Steve who had something to say.

"Sir," he said, turning to Dave, "I apologize for my loss of bearing."

Dave looked over at me and asked, "Are you alright?"

I was a little dazed, frankly, but as I told him then: It was worth it!


Jenny Weems said...

I LOVE IT! You've done their characters justice and given a GREAT laugh to me.... Thank you!

Ang said...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane Tad! I remember your quest all right, but I also remember you getting me in lots of trouble. "Welcome to the 13th century!"
"Hey you, stop causing so much trouble over there.!"
And me snickering all the while. Remember how they had to separate our desks? Good times!