The Whole Nine Yards: Dad’s joke (it says here) could battle the unexpected

By – Published: Sunday, June 18, 2017 5:30 a.m. CDT

Dad would have turned 99 this year, if he had lived this long.

He didn’t. He died at 75, felled by esophageal cancer that was almost certainly the result of swallowing toxic fumes at his steel mill job for close to 40 years.

Oh, the steel mill will tell you his cancer had nothing to do with the workplace. They will tell you Dad died because he had once been a smoker – just like the other two men on Dad’s steel-rolling machine who also died of esophageal cancer, a coincidence of near-impossible probability.

But Dad knew. They all knew.

Still, Dad took it all with a shrug. “That’s life,” he would have said. It’s a dirty job, but someone had to do it. And breathing greasy smoke seemed like a walk in the park when he took the job in 1946 after dodging Japanese bullets in New Caledonia in the Pacific during the war.

Dad had joined the Army years before the war, and after serving a full tour he was scheduled to get out in early 1942. But when Pearl Harbor was bombed in December of 1941, the sneak attack changed everything. His discharge was canceled just months before it was to take effect. He stayed in uniform, and he spent three more years and then some, the entire war, in the service.

“That’s life,” he would have said.

Anyway, the Army was a good enough place to be when he joined up, since his job opportunities were limited. He had been an intelligent boy with a bright future ahead of him, but the Great Depression threw his father out of work, making it impossible for him to continue to feed a big family. Dad left school at 13 and went to work to help put food on the table.

“That’s life,” he would have said.

And it wasn’t so bad leaving school to go to work at 13, especially when you’re a Chicago kid carrying around a German last name with classmates who can be pretty nasty reminding you that “you Krauts” started World War I and lost to the Americans the year you were born. The teasing didn’t last long, because he became a pretty good middleweight boxer all through his teens. But boxing can take you only so far – especially when that lanky hayseed from Kentucky fell forward and blew out your knee when you knocked him down.

“That’s life,” he would have said.

I guess you might say that life, for Dad, never quite went the way he planned for it to go.

But I never once heard him bemoan his fate.

Never once did I hear him complain of dreams denied.

Never once did I see him sigh in bleak despair.

“That’s life,” Dad would have said, because he loved his life. Every bit of it, even the parts unplanned.

In fact, one of his recurring jokes was a wry comment on how life has a way of surprising you, no matter how carefully you plan.

Whenever he made plans for some future event, his favorite comment was: “It says here …” in the tone of one who had just read through pages and pages of complex instructions while putting together some confusing device, only to find that the project didn’t come out the way the instructions said it would.

The bicycle wheel won’t turn, even though you put the chain on just right.

The electric motor won’t come on, even though you hooked up the wires just right.

The fishing reel won’t retrieve the line, even though you greased it just right.

And after re-reading the instructions word by word, ensuring that each step was followed to the letter only to be met with a less-than-desirable result, what appeal would you make to an uncaring universe?

“It should work, because it says here ….”

Oh, it’s not funny if you have to say it after things don’t come out as you expect them to, is it? But it’s hilarious when you say it before you even start. He would say it any time he made rock-solid plans for the future, as a wry reminder that rock-solid plans have a way of turning into sand, regardless of what “it says here.”

The garden would be planted, watered and fertilized, and before the seeds even had a chance to sprout he would put his hands on his hips and say, “Well, in a few months we’ll have carrots, potatoes and beans … it says here.”

The brake pads would be mounted on the Chevy, and before testing them out he would wipe the grease from his hands and say: “Well, now we’ll be able to stop the car without that irritating squealing noise … it says here.”

The cracks in the house’s foundation would be unearthed and sealed, and before the rains fell he would pat the dirt with the shovel and say: “Well, we won’t have to worry about water seeping into the basement anymore … it says here.”

It was a simple phrase that said: “I’ve done my best – but things don’t always turn out as you think they will. That’s life.” Soldiers during World War II had a term for it: SNAFU.

But by recognizing the looming snafu before the snafu happened, it was Dad’s joking way of dealing with disappointment – because the unexpected isn’t really unexpected if you expect the unexpected to happen despite your best-laid plans, is it?

It was his way of saying: “We’ll get through this, even if it all goes south.”

Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner never met my Dad, but I think he was talking about him when he said: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

Anyway, that’s what it says here.

• Tom “T. R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He is the author of the book “Revenge of the Sardines.” He can be reached at trkerth@yahoo.com.