The Udairi Desert, Kuwait. An abandoned compound in Baghdad. The woods of Fort Benning. An MRAP on the road between Bagram and Jalalabad. A cemetery in Texas.
“Okay, so there’s a sausage, a piece of french toast, and a waffle, right? And they’re all arguing over who is best breakfast food. So the french toast walks up to the waffle and says ‘hey, I’m the greatest breakfast food ever.’ The waffle doesn’t take no shit so he just beats the crap out of the french toast and that was that. Then the waffle walks up to the sausage and says ‘yo I’m the best breakfast food that ever lived’ and then the sausage grabs the waffle and throws him into the ocean.”
I’ll tell you a joke, but I promise, you’re not going to get it now, but it’ll get funny later
Soldiers’ attitudes change when they go to the field. There’s something that happens between the moments of loading the vehicles with MREs and gear and that last run to the Shoppette to stuff your rucksack full of candy, nicotine, and beef jerky.
It doesn’t really hit until you get to wherever you’re going, the vehicles’ engines shut down and then it’s just quiet. Everyone jumps out the back of the truck, moving gear, already wondering about what time chow is coming. The silence is noticeable, and I imagine it’s similar to what campers or hikers experience when they finally get out there.
In a world filled with noise and distraction, the sudden silence is deafening and often leaves soldiers cutting it with their own noise.
I learned very early that I get funny in the field. Where I might be more serious in garrison, being in the field makes me want to entertain others.
“Whose got a joke?”
Standing around in a circle, everyone’s hands in their pockets because it’s cold and the will to enforce basic standards has started to erode, a grizzled NCO will demand that someone tell a joke. The demand is usually met with silence as soldiers quietly rack their brains for something that’s funny, appropriate, and also not one that’s been used before.
“Seriously, whose got a fucking joke?”
Now it’s become a quasi-order.
These jokes are rarely good. Every now and then you’ll have a soldier who has an amazing depth of jokes saved up for these occasions. He’s a goldmine, because a well timed joke can wash away the grime and suck of the field for a moment.
One of the soldiers in our platoon used to tell absurd jokes that he seemingly made up as he was telling them. A week in the field will make people a little odd, and he was no exception. We’d be laying on our backs, heads resting on our rucksacks looking above into a star filled sky surrounded by darkness as he would rattle off a fifteen minute story-joke about soldiers crossing creeks naked, holding balloons. His jokes were never really funny, but he’d pull us along, all of us yearning for a punchline which never came. Eventually, he’d suddenly end the joke. There’d be an awkward pause, and then someone would say “That’s it!?””
“Yup,” he’d reply.
And then we’d be back in the field.
Watching him, I learned that joke telling in the field can be therapeutic not just for those hearing the joke, but even more so for the joke teller.
He’d tell awkward jokes. Jokes in which he would have pre-coordinated with one or two soldiers to laugh at an absurd punchline that makes no sense. When he’d hit the key-word, those in on it would erupt into wild laughter like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. Soldiers who weren’t in on the joke would start laughing nervously, not wanting to feel left out. This in turn would cause the original joke-teller and those in on it to laugh even harder, watching as their buddies faked the funk just to fit in.
And then there was the waffle joke.
The waffle joke is the ultimate field joke. Once learned and mastered, it can be used at the right moment to keep a platoon of infantrymen’s minds focused not on how much it sucks to be in the field, but on trying to solve the riddle of a joke with no answer.
I’ve told the joke about a dozen times, and it’s all in the telling, not the substance. The context matters too. You can’t tell it on the first day of the field when everyone smells good and their uniforms are clean. You have to be patient. Guys need to be sucking. You have to feel it out, and usually, in the moments when you’re just sitting around, waiting for chow to show up, or you’re in a school resting before resuming the patrol, you stand up and ask “Hey, who wants to hear a joke?”
Tired faces look up and shrug. Someone says “Send it.”
You enthusiastically declare that this is the greatest joke they’ll ever hear, that you’ve been telling it for years and it always delivers, but you’re remiss to tell it, because it always ends the same way. Everyone in the platoon will hate you for telling it. The worst part of it is, no one will get it now. You might think you’ll get it, but you won’t. In a few days time, it will reveal itself and then you’ll laugh. You’ll either think it is incredible or the stupidest fucking shit you’ve ever heard.
Someone interrupts “Just tell the fucking joke!”
And so you tell it, suddenly stopping on the word “ocean.” You peer into their confused eyes, watching them search for the meaning. One or two soldiers laugh, thinking they’ve figured it out. The rest of them stand there, faces twisting in disgust and confusion.
For the next few hours, soldiers will come up to you with their solution or questions: “Okay, so it was the waffle that got thrown in the ocean, right? Was he unconscious?”
It becomes a topic of conversation. The topic of conversation. Some soldiers enthusiastically throw themselves into solving it. Others decide they don’t even like you anymore. The joke reveals everything there is to be human.
At some point, the time is right, and the joke reveals itself, as you promised it would.
One or two soldiers quietly chuckle. The rest stare angrily with the black face of death.
Everything you said was right.
And they all hate you.