Part 8 of the Growing Up Kansas Series

One dare not laugh in the little country church I grew up in or some little old lady would accuse you of sinning.  Church was a somber place where the virtues of God competed with the vices of the devil and the devil seemed to be winning; we were supposed to feel bad about that. The French philosopher Voltaire believed cogito, ergo, sum (I think, therefore I am). However, my Mom believed culpa, ergito, sum (I’m guilty, therefore I am).

One rarely laughed in church because, well, God doesn’t laugh because everyone is going to hell-in-a-hand-basket and that ain’t nothin’ to laugh about. After all, you might get ran over by a car while crossing a street after church so the last thing you want before meeting your Maker is to defile the holy of holies by laughing.

St. Peter: “So,Rick, you thought Mrs. Kennedy falling asleep then having her dentures fall out was funny?”

Me: “Oh, no, St. Peter, I was actually crying because I felt sorry for her, not because I was laughing.”

St. Peter: “Nice. Not only did you laugh in church but now you’re lying about it, too. It’s no wonder you got ran over by a car while crossing a street after church.

Like Pavlov’s dogs salivating when the light gets turned on, I developed a morose tendency to laugh during the most unsuitable times. I blame it on my upbringing; the devil makes me do it.

However, even though we weren’t supposed to laugh, we catalogued various kinds of laughter.

The Snicker:  It was okay to snicker at a lame joke Dad told for the umpteenth time. We kids sat bored out of ever-loving minds on the back row of the west section of pews. We hid Louis L’amour books in our Bibles and acted as pious as little heathens can. The 5-Star General- my Mom- sat about halfway up the east section with a couple of her little old lady friends; a brood you might call them.

Mom was our barometer for The Snicker. If she snickered, we snickered. When she snickered she turned like an owl spinning its head to make sure we were snickering, too..  We obliged so we could get an ice cream cone later.

The Chuckle: This laugh was a response to something Dad said that was accidentally funny. He didn’t mean for it to be funny, but he would tangle his tongue and turn the fiery darts of satan into the diery farts of satan. Of course, we all had to quickly repent of having fun lest we’d get ran over by a car while crossing a street after church.

The Chortle: This was reserved for a guest speaker that was actually funny. One missionary told great jokes about cannibals and gave us hope that we weren’t all going to hell on a grease-covered slipper slide. If one could tell a good cannibal joke, one was assured a devoted following by the back-row boys at our little country church. The next missionary with the hateful marimba-playing wife would have done well to include cannibal jokes in his arsenal.

The Snort: This was caused by another kid or by Old Roy Brenner. Old Roy’s eyebrows were so bushy it looked like a gray squirrel died and left his tail on Roy’s forehead.  Old Roy was a crotchety old guy that started complaining as soon as he walked in the door; we loved him because he annoyed the little old ladies thereby making himself the object of their scorn, not us.

Furthermore, Roy introduced us boys- right there in church- to the first naked female breast we ever saw that wasn’t crossed out with magic markers in a National Geographic.  We were lost somewhere on the trail with Louis L’amour when he snorted and motioned with his eyebrows to look across the way; a lady with a dozen kids was nursing. She was not a bit bashful about having her buffet line and silverware on display both before and after her little diners filled their bellies. Naturally, our young minds were piqued with scientific curiosity so we sat staring like a deer-in-the-headlights. Old Roy’s name is still mentioned with great reverence.

The Snort could be contained if you inverted your hands and pinched your nose between your little fingers and stuck your thumbs in your ears.  Usually, we could keep it under wraps until someone start giggling again and you felt the pew tremble. But the Snort was as combustible to the brain as a 2-liter 7-Up bottle stuffed full of Mentos and, once it escaped, sounded like an elephant sneeze. You could go to the bathroom and get a Snort under control until you came back and the pew startled trembling again.

Then there was The Wheeze.  A Wheeze meant you just got up and walked out of church thinking that if you got ran over by a car while crossing a street after church, you’d die a happy boy.

Wednesday nights was pretty low-key in our little country church.  The adults sat on the east side and the kids sat on the west side.  The girls grew weary of getting in trouble because of us boys so they moved.  The boys staked our claim on the back row and the girls set up camp in the front. Life was good.

We were in our typical catatonic state but on our best behavior because we wanted to go to Dairy Queen afterward.  We lived by the beatitude, blessed are those who behave themselves, for they shall get an ice cream cone after church.

One of the worst things a public speaker can do to an audience is to say in closing and not mean it.  To this day, if someone says in closing, I last about 30 seconds. Again, it’s a Pavlovian response. Dad was notorious for tormenting us this way.  Dad finally closed his remarks and told us all to bow heads and close our eyes; God only listens if your eyes are closed.

Half-way through the prayer, a Gatlin gun of flatulence erupted from the young girls section which, that night, was occupied by just two girls. We had enjoyed Tommy Orton’s chili for school lunch that day and apparently various parts of digestive system of one young lady declared war on each other.  Gastrointestinal combat raged inside her as battle lines were drawn and each side rumbled tanks into place as they jockeyed for position. Then one crazed soldier finally launched an offensive and shot off a round of rapid-fire retorts that were so loud we expected heavy artillery to follow.

Dad stopped dead in his tracks. We boys jerked our heads up to see if we could tell which of the dainty damsels had spontaneously combusted.  Soon the mystery was revealed as one young lady yelled at the other one, “Oh my gosh, Alice, that smells awful!”

I don’t know if Dad ever finished his prayer that night; we bolted for the door like someone zapped us with a cattle prod.  We collapsed in the snow wheezing for air and did not care if we did get ran over by a car while crossing a street after church. If we did, we would die in as rich a bliss as any prepubescent boy has ever enjoyed.

Being good predestination Calvinists, we couldn’t help but conclude that this was God’s will for our lives.  As the Good Book says, all things work together for good to those who love the Lord. I can’t help but thinking God thought it was funny, too, but I doubt if St. Peter grills God like I anticipate being grilled.

It turns out we didn’t get ran over by a car while crossing a street after church that night. We got an ice cream cone instead.


PHOTO:  In Full Moonlight

I captured this image in the Flint Hills of Kansas, near Florence. It was taken during a full moon.

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