May is my dad’s birthday month, and I’ve been thinking about him a lot. He’s been gone for almost 15 years and I still miss him every day. Dad had many wonderful qualities, among them genuine kindness, keen intelligence, and a deep well of tolerance for diverse ideas and people. He also had a sense of humor that some would call off-beat, while harsher critics might deem it just plain weird.
I came across an old photo of him that made me laugh out loud—as he made all of us in the family laugh so often.
Once, he put a very realistic, life-size poster of a horse looking out from a stable stall on the stairway door. It startled more than one visitor to our house. Dad named the horse “Old Trotter,” and had a number of photos taken of himself and various grandchildren standing in front of the “stable.” He then sent them out randomly to old friends, who were perplexed about where and why Fred was boarding a horse.
When my sister Barb was in college and in need of some quick cash, Dad answered her call for $20 by mailing her a small plastic pail filled with pennies. Only after she had rolled all the coins did she discover the $20 bill at the bottom, along with a picture of a cow. No note, no explanation, just the cow.
When the vacation resort Club Med was heavily promoted with the tagline “Welcome to Paradise,” my sisters and I decided to give Dad a special gift for his birthday. We had a bright blue sweatshirt custom-printed for him. On the front, it read “Welcome to Paradise”. On the back was the headline Club Fred, and underneath that were the names of all the local and the famous Freds we could think of: Fred Hunter (our dad), Fred Hunt, Fred Ewing, Fred McDonald, Fred MacMurray, Fred Dryer, Fred Flintstone and more.
We expected that he would laugh, and then use the shirt to wear for working around the house. We should have known better. He wore it all around town for years, without explanation or embarrassment, a 60-something, bald, bespectacled, and not very trim guy presenting himself to the world with the introduction, “Welcome to Paradise”. He followed the beat of his own humor drummer all through his life. When he was well into his 70s, he snuck into my sister Tricia’s apartment while she was at work. His mission: plant a motorcycle alarm clock, complete with a wake-up signal of bright flashing lights and roaring engine sounds, under her bed, timed to go off at 3 a.m.
Even though he was far removed from the scene of a sleep-dazed daughter jolted from slumber by the sound of a motorcycle racing through her bedroom, just knowing it was going to happen provided him with endless hours of amusement. Long after the actual event, he could still crack himself up recounting the story.
Dad always laughed at his own jokes, and we did, too, because it was impossible not to be amused by his amusement. When something that he said or did was more groan than laugh-worthy, one of us would invariably say, “You’re such a Fred!” and then we’d all end up laughing anyway. It’s a phrase we still use with each other, when one of us makes a joke that is so bad, it’s funny. And we still laugh, just the way Dad would.