The Last Laugh (Ballad of Jim Hadaway)

Jim was a joker. Like a lot of older guys that think they’re funny, most of his humor made you roll your eyes and groan. Old man humor is its own animal.

Waitress: “And how would you like your steak?”

Old man: “Cooked.”

The server laughs, and you know she just wants to lean over and hug that old man for making her day with the funniest thing she’s heard all year! Before she kills him dead right there.

Jim and I were unlikely buddies, being a full generation apart in age. We became acquainted by playing golf as part of a large group that would gather almost daily for what’s commonly called a ‘dog fight.’

One day, after our dog fight, I wound up at his house to help him split some firewood. That’s where we bonded. We both shared the love of a warm fire, so finding and splitting wood became a thing for us. And we did it all year long.

Before his stroke a couple of years ago, we’d always split enough wood for the both of us and have enough left over to sell ten to fifteen truckloads. That was Jim’s thing. The old man was old school. He’d worked all his life, made and squandered a couple of fortunes, and like to tell me about it. I always figured selling a few loads of firewood every winter kept him feeling productive as he approached his eighties.

Over the years, we perfected a system whereby we’d have whole tree trunks delivered to his back yard by the dump truck load. Such a load would require several weeks of after-golf working to split and stack.

I imagine if we’d ever sat down to figure out how much it cost to keep three chainsaws and a splitter running, we’d probably have gotten out of that little hobby. But it wasn’t just the about the wood-splitting.

It was also about happy hour.

If golf ran until 3:30 or 4 o’clock, we could get a solid hour or so of splitting in until it was time for refreshments. Jim declared it against union rules to work past 5 o’clock, so really, what choice did we have but to quit and drink?

Even as Jim gave up golf, we would time our wood-cutting sessions to end at 5 o’clock and retire to his screened-in porch for tales and toddies. Drinks poured or beers popped, Jim would launch into his stories.

He’d always start with, “Have I told you about the time…” Yes, he had told me, usually more than once, but I always said no just to hear what embellishment was going to be added with this telling.

I never really thought of his story-telling as lying. Rather, I liked to think of it as him remembering some detail he had previously omitted.

Following his first stroke, Jim’s participation in wood-cutting sessions was as foreman, shouting instructions from his porch on where to stack wood and how high, because in the 10 years we’d been doing it together, I apparently hadn’t learned that.

By the way, the proper height for stacking wood is high enough that you can discreetly take a leak, and no one driving past your house can see you. I did learn that.

Through all of the years of our B-S sessions, Jim had repeatedly promised that when he died, he’d leave me his underwear and socks. Old man humor again. I mean, isn’t promising to leave your buddy your socks and underwear hysterical?

I think my biggest fear was that he might actually do it. I had played golf with him enough to know that his underwear was the very definition of hazmat.

Two years after his first stroke, Jim had another one. I lost a friend, but he left me with plenty of warm, silly, dumb, idiotic memories and stories to last me for a while. Plus, I got his PBR.

Jim drank Pabst Blue Ribbon. Post-stroke, he required help, and his wife needed whatever participation he could offer in getting him dressed, bathed and going about the business of the day, so she tried to keep in on a two-a-day limit. Given that, a few cases would last quite a while.

Upon his passing, there were two cases of PBR that I felt needed a home. I knew his wife had better taste, so I just loaded them up and took ‘em. I do believe that upon my own passing, there will still be the better part of two cases left. If you like PBR, no offense.

I spoke at Jim’s memorial. Jim had fun with his life, and I aimed to have some fun with it, as well. I recalled how he seemed to most enjoy telling me about the things that went awry in his life: bar fights, failed marriages, bum business partners or deals, too much drink… I had heard them all always questioned what amount of truth they contained.

At his memorial, I called him out. I did. Right there in the First Methodist Church chapel, I called Jim a liar. I told the over-flowing gathering that he had promised me his underwear and socks, but that he had not delivered on that promise. Most folks there thought that was pretty funny.

It was interesting to see the faces of those gathered as I spoke. I brought as much laughter as I could tastefully invoke. But there’s always the few, the old-line few, that think a funeral or memorial is a strictly somber occasion, that it is not a time or place for happiness.

Those folks are getting left behind by those of us that choose to be grateful to have been a part of a well-lived life. Almost every memorial I’ve attended in the last decade has been generally uplifting. Sure, there are tears, but there is joy, and yes, plenty of laughter as we relive the precious – frequently amusing – memories of the life we are there to celebrate.

If I have the opportunity to plan my own exit, expect hijinks. And BBQ and beer.

At age 80, I’m convinced Jim knew he was near the end of his journey. He spoke of it frequently, though not in a weighty manner. And he planned. He had taken necessary steps to donate his body to a medical college. He had also arranged for an attorney/friend to be his executor in order to free his wife of that responsibility.

This week, the postman delivered a package to my house. It was from an address I did not recognize. Turns out, it was from the executor of Jim’s estate. In the box, underwear and socks. A tee shirt and the patriotic bandana Jim frequently wore when we split wood had also been included.

I spent the rest of the day laughing. That’s exactly how Jim would have wanted it.

I’ll keep the bandana. Probably the t-shirt, too. But the underwear, that’s one precious memory that will not linger!

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