Humor doesn't always leave you laughing. Sometimes it elicits a groan, a smile, or just a puzzled expression. The humble Farmer shares his unique wit.
by Robert Skoglund
illustrations by James Parker
What is dry? When asked about dry stories, I'm reminded of an evening visit with Lawyer Crandall and Julian Rubenstein. Julian showed us a book about the good old days in Spain - when they used to burn people at the stake. According to Julian, if your friends heard you were going to be burned at the stake they would attempt to bribe the fellow to use green wood. Crandall said, "What happened if they used green wood?" and Julian said, "The smoke would snuff you in a wink." Crandall said, "What happened if they used dry wood?" And Julian said, "If they used dry wood, I imagine you would desiccate rather rapidly." And Crandall said, "Gee, if it'd been me, I probably would have before they lit the first match."
What is dry? People from away might tell you that dry is a native's ability to articulate his sentiments in such a succinct and oblique manner that he becomes incomprehensible. But dry is really no more than a clever circumlocution or a punch line that doesn't need to be said.
Although it can be difficult to locate the origin of dry stories, the next two first appeared in my newspaper column. I will deny in court that they were topical commentaries on two of my neighbors.
Gramp Wiley said, "In 1905, Uncle Ern ran for dog catcher. Went around knocking on doors just like you'd do today, asking for votes. Everything went fine until the third day when a big black dog came right through a screen door and muckled him by the leg. Uncle Ern fought off the dog and three days later he was sitting in his rocking chair with his feet in the oven when his buddy lawyer Sline dropped in. When Sline heard what had happened he told Ern that he could sue the dog's owner for $5 for the torn pants. And when he learned that Ern couldn't even walk he told Ern that he'd also sue the dog's owner for $1,000 for loss of consortium. I said, "Did Uncle Ern collect $1,000 for this loss of consortium thing?" Gramp said, "No, he didn't. When Uncle Ern's wife learned what loss of consortium was, she jumped up in court and demanded payments for the previous ten years."
My friend Winky read in the paper that they were looking for an ambulance attendant down in St. George. He applied - and got the job. My old neighbor Gramp Wiley was not too pleased when he heard about it - he's 79 years old - he's a concerned party. He said, "Winky can't work on that ambulance. Winky is stupid. He gets everything back end to. It would be just my luck to have Winky show up in that ambulance 2 o'clock some morning when I'm lying here on the kitchen floor needing a tube shoved down my throat."
Any professional storyteller knows that an open bar or wine on the banquet table kills any possible response from the ambulance story. This is why humorists beg to be introduced to their audiences before 8:30 p.m. If you're not underway by then, your best dry stories are just about as useful as extra anchors in a sinking skiff.
To be fair, here's a story I didn't get, and I was stone cold sober when I heard it. Seems as Mrs. Jenkins approached the dean at Bowdoin College and offered to donate a $10 million building if they'd give her horse a college degree. When the dean discussed it
with the board, the money talked and it was agreed that the horse would graduate from Bowdoin. The incident warranted attention because it was the first time Bowdoin had ever given a degree to the entire horse.
A TV commercial I wrote for the Maine Seatbelt Coalition is somewhat dry. It showed my friend, Stanley French, leaning on the hood of a car in his South Thomaston junkyard. The car had hit a tree, but the driver had kept right on going. You can see tears streaming down Stanley's face as you hear my voice saying: "Nothing bothers Stanley more than seeing a car brought in here, one of his best friends was driving without wearing a seatbelt. You know, Stanley could have sold that windshield for $65."
The late great John Gould published two dry stories that I use on stage. Within 30 years only a few anthropologists will understand the one about Mr. Cobb, the rich Boston merchant, who made a fishing trip to Rangeley every fall. One year Mr Cobb arrived at the Rangeley Hotel to find that his guide was sick, so he asked the hotel manager what to do. No problem. The best guide in Maine, Mr. Hoar, lived in Rangeley, and he would be glad to take Mr. Cobb out on the lake. No one who saw the first meeting between these two great men will ever forget it. Mr. Cobb swaggered up to Mr. Hoar, held out his hand, and smirked, "Mr. Hoar, hah? I suppose you know what we do with Hoars in Boston." And Mr. Hoar said, "No I don't, but I do know what we do with Cobbs in Rangeley."
When the minister came over to Winky's farm, he did what calling clergy always do: he tried to say something good about everything. "Nice looking cow you have there." "Thank you sir. Thank you." "Nice looking chickens." "Thank you, sir." "That's a nice looking ass you have over there." And Winky turned all red and hid his face in his hands. The minister looked surprised and said, "What's the matter with you? Have you not read the scripture? Did not our Savior ride into town on the back of an ass? There is nothing wrong with that word, and I don't want you to blush when you hear someone using it. And I don't want you to refrain from using it."
Winky took all of this to heart. The next time the minister came to call, the animal had died, and Winky was out in the field with a shovel in his hands, burying it.
The minister walked up to Winky and said, "Hi, what are what are you digging there, a post hole?"
The worst thing I saw while walking around the fair grounds up to Gray Days was 16, 17-year-old girls wearing shorts - with tattoos on their legs. You know, if they'd wait 40 years they could be spared the expense.
Sometimes dry happens. All you have to do is write it down: Twenty years ago I was watching a tug of war at the Winter Harbor Lobster Festival.
You might know that the tug of war is popular down on the coast because it's cheap. All they have to buy is the rope and the medical insurance policy for possible injury, and all the surrounding towns send in their champs. They were there from Winter Harbor, Bass Harbor, Bar Harbor, Pulpit Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Tenants Harbor, and Beals. Because I was at least a hundred miles from home I was surprised to look up and see my St. George neighbor, Bernard Davis, standing next to me. At 40, Davis was still an exceptionally handsome fellow who traded in his girlfriend and his Corvette every year for a model with fewer miles. For half an hour we watched twenty men yank and pull on the ends of a wicked long piece of line that Teddy Kennedy could have used to anchor his yacht - or pull a car out of the water. And on each end, with the hawser tied around their waists, were two rather substantial women who served as anchor persons. Moving either one of them would be just like pulling up an oak stump. When they finally determined who the champs were and everyone walked off to get their basket of seafood, I kicked at the hawser they'd dropped on the ground and said, "Hey boy, I don't call that much of a contest. Tell you what. I'll go get all of my girlfriends and you go get all of your girlfriends, and that will give us two teams for a real tug of war." Davis said, "Good idea, I'll go get more rope."
In the 1950s, Bernard's father, Giant Davis, bought lobsters on a dock in Port Clyde. One day a fellow came alongside at low water and hollered up,
"Hey Giant. You wanna buy some lobsters?"
"I wouldn't know who to pay."*
*[i.e., I know not from whom you stole them.]
Giant's is the best dry story I ever understood, but it is certainly not the driest story I ever heard. You and I cannot appreciate the driest story we ever heard because we didn't understand it. Maine is full of people whose ability with the oblique dry phrase will never be applauded because the rest of us will never figure out what their words really meant. And here my friend, the venerable judge Sam Collins in Rockland, comes to mind. Sam once said something that I had to think about for six months before I laughed. That is dry.