When I was a preteen, I went with Dad to Fort Snelling National Cemetery to visit "Mortie's grave."
Morite was one of his Army buddies. I remember feeling afraid, because I'd never — ever — seen my dad weep, and I expected that would happen. Instead, Dad started laughing quietly to himself. I was old enough to feel uneasy about that and maybe a little angry, too, watching him laugh at Mortie's gravestone. Dad sensed this and said not to worry because Mortie was the funniest man he'd ever known and that helped Dad live through what he called some "rough patches" during the war and for years to come.
This Memorial Day I'll visit my best friend Malcolm's grave for the first time since he died. He was the funniest person I've ever met.
The first time Malcolm made me laugh was in 1963. We were 10. The last time he made me laugh was eight weeks ago, the day before he died. Both times it was at the same joke. The one about the snail.
That was on a Saturday. We breakfasted at Hoagies, our usual spot. Hoagies was Malcolm's favorite because of its no-frills, throwback ambience. He liked the old-style vinyl booths and the soda fountain counter. Both are — were — right up his alley for yucking it up with the groups of retirees in their worn trucker caps, flannel shirts and faded Viking and Twins gear, and the end-of-shift cops and firefighters. He made them all laugh. He made me laugh.
A joke about the snarky, profane snail who knocks on a man's door christened our friendship six decades earlier:
On a snowy late afternoon, I was shoveling "Dad's driveway" as we called it, and Malcolm appeared in the dusk, which was eerie. Up to then, I'd avoided him. Why? He was a pint-sized, foul-mouthed mischief-maker who told dirty jokes and enjoyed tormenting his teachers. I was a goody-two-shoes.
His first words to me in the driveway were, "Wanna hear a joke?" I said I guess so, and he told me the one about the snail. The R-rated version. I didn't understand it. It was too sophisticated for a 10-year-old the likes of me. But I laughed anyway, because he laughed so merrily while telling it. Then he helped me with my shoveling and taught me the swear words that helped me understand the joke. We laughed some more and became best friends like polar opposites sometimes do.
It's been said everyone needs a friend they probably shouldn't be allowed to sit next to at a serious function.
Once, under the nose of our no-nonsense teacher, Mr. Turchick, Malcolm tried smuggling me a folded piece of notebook paper with "Happy Bar Mitzvah!" scribbled on it. Inside was a gift — a shiny gold foil-wrapped condom. Mr. Turchick confiscated it and threatened him with expulsion, but Malcolm finagled him otherwise.
"I thought it was a piece of my mother's butterscotch candy."
Once, Malcolm insisted we skip school (he from Minneapolis North High, I from St. Louis Park) and meet up at Bde Maka Ska (then Lake Calhoun). When I arrived, he'd already inflated a yellow two-seater rubber raft. Off we paddled. When a Minneapolis park police officer threatened us with truancy if we didn't row back to shore, I, of course, panicked. Not Malcolm. He explained to the officer that we were assigned to collect "samples of the lake's flora" for biology class. "Stay closer to the shore, then," the cop said. We spent the rest of that glorious spring afternoon circumnavigating the lake, collecting lake flora.
Once, Malcolm and I took our dates to see the film "2001: A Space Odyssey." When those ancient australopithecines awaken to the preternatural monolith in front of them and caterwaul in disbelief, Malcolm did too, but for another reason. "What's this *@#%^#@ movie about?!" The like-minded audience laughed and cheered Malcolm's chutzpah.
That same night Malcolm planted a small tape recorder under the car seat. His plan was this: We'd "park" (remember that word?) near the Lake Harriet Band Shell, claim that he and I had to fix something under the car hood and press "play." His plan worked. After we dropped off our dates, we listened many times with amazement to the girls' recorded secrets.
As we left Hoagies, Malcolm told me the joke about the snail for the umpteenth time, because I asked him to. We laughed at it for the umpteenth time, fist-bumped and said our usual "See ya next Saturday," not knowing it was the final time. Our friendship ended the way it started — with a laugh.
When I visit Malcolm's grave this Memorial Day, I'll tear up, because I miss my friend. But we'll share some laughs, too, like always.
"Life does not cease to be funny when people die," said George Bernard Shaw, "any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.