Navy Captain Bob Kessler was the defense attaché at a US Embassy in West African in the late 1970s. On weekends and holidays we often gathered on the back porch of his home out near the deep jungle, drinking gin and tonics and telling stories. We imagined ourselves the African Algonquin table.
Each of our gatherings took on a life of its own dependent on the participants, most of whom had served in exotic and dangerous places around the world. Gradually rules developed. For example, we tried to avoid the “I” word¼ generally telling our stories from the third person perspective. Too much “face time,” too many personal accounts of events, was considered bad form. We were expected to listen to one another and not sit thinking about what we were going to say next. Challenging or commenting on the punch line of stories was expected. Back and forth banter filled up all the between stories time. Some people were invited just because they were good audience and prone to laughter.
I was assigned to the CIA station in that West African country and was often working my unusual job after hours, but I attended as often as possible. Rice riots, street violence, curfews, wild animal sightings, road closures, jungle fires and the like also prevent regular attendance.
Some of the story telling was on the order of folk tales or homilies where the main entertainment came from the accents or strange local customs or the visual drawing of unique situations, but there were also common water cooler jokes that were dressed up with an occasional, “Now this is a true story.” One liners, quotes, urban legends, interesting true accounts and wild newspapers misprints were all acceptable, although when someone pulled something out of his pocket he would be ragged for cheating.
Scatological and sarcastic humor were generally excluded though there were exceptions. Profanity had its place if it enhanced the characterization or added pop to the finish. But the Kessler gatherings were mixed crowds and profanity had to give value to be used. That held true to what were usually called dirty or bawdy jokes. They had to score. Gutter descriptions or unusual reactions to the boy-girl thing were generally not perceived as funny and didn’t get much play. All attendees were off duty members of the official American community and salty language in the context of an interesting story made for almost illicit fun.
This was early in my CIA career and I remember those story telling sessions with great fondness. Ever since I have collected homilies and one-liners that would make it at the Kessler house.
Though funny’s hard to capture sometimes. And story tellers are different. Some people just have a gift for telling funny stories. Bill Cosby and Tim Allen have the gift… so does Bob Kessler.
Here’s a little vignette he told one sunny Saturday afternoon on his porch in Africa that started the sessions. It set the house standard for story telling, and the bitch is that the magic – producing belly laughing results - only comes from Bob Kessler’s telling.
Maybe if you go slow and use your hands to indicate cranking the wheels up and there at the end use your hands like a draw bridge to illustrate the wheels coming up, upside down, maybe you can mimic Kessler’s funniness.
Anyway that day Bob cleared his throat, looked around the porch and said,
“Now this is a true story… back in the old brown shoe Navy, when sailors were men, Petty Officers were trained as pilots. There was this old trainer plane – had its wheels fixed down. After WW II they got in conversion kits and fixed ‘um up so that the pilots could crank up the wheels into wheel wells once the plane was in the air, and before landing, the pilots would crank them down.
Only a lot of the old salts forgot to crank the wheels. You’d see a flight of the planes going overhead and one or two of ‘um might be flying along with their wheels still down. Pilot forgot to crank them up.
And…a more dangerous thing… pilot would have the wheels up, and come in for a landing. Yea, the pilots would forget to put the wheels down. Lot of damage.
Squadron commander finally addressed the men. “Men,” he said, “I’ve told you and told you and told you about cranking them wheels. Get ‘um up after you take off, get ‘um down before you land. Some of yous ain’t heard me good, or forget or are too stupid. So listen here, this is what we’re going to do…from here on out, you forget to put those wheels down, and you land and have structural damage, you going to pay for it. You land with your wheels up, you’re going to pay for the damage. I’ve checked, I’m authorized to do this.”
“You land…your wheels ain’t down…you in debt.”
Next day a flight of planes is landing and one of the oldest, one of the saltiest, petty officer pilots is coming in for a landing – WHEELS ARE UP. Everyone in the tower yells…everyone on ground yells…plane keeps on coming in…wheels still up. Comes on in, comes on in, comes on in, finally one of the wings hits the runway…flips the plane over and it skids upside down for one hundred…two hundred…two hundred and fifty hard yards. Comes to rest in a cloud of dust against a berm. Still upside down.
People on the ground can just barely see, but in the dust…the wheels are coming up.”