If a machine gun expelled staccato laughter instead of bullets, that would be the sound my uncle made after every joke I heard him tell. HA-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh followed the punch line, a clipped rat-a-tat-tat before anyone else could laugh.
He was used to people doubling-up from his stories. Franklin Chandler Penney was a Marine, a commander of Marines, a full-bird colonel once in charge of an airbase in the Pacific theater. I never saw him in his Marine Corps cap, but there was no hair for it to hide. He had thick brows, constantly stuck in the frown position, which gave him a hawkish squint. He was tall and held his backbone at attention, even in the most casual occasions. Whenever he laughed, his jaw would barely unhinge, as if it was a Herculean effort to unclench his teeth.
Col. F. C. Penney was known as Rocky. It was a boxer-tough nickname for the heavyweight champ, Rocky Marciano. My uncle was ringside in 1946 when Marciano won the Amateur Armed Forces boxing tournament. That same night, he got into a scuffle with an Army sergeant who called my uncle a jarhead. After decking the soldier, Franklin Chandler forever became Rocky. It’s a story I’ve heard many times, usually followed by a joke like this:
“What’s the difference between a woman and a boxer? The boxer stands up to be knocked down. The woman lies down to get knocked up. HA-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh!”
Rocky and his wife, my mother’s older sister, had lived all around the Pacific Rim. And each stop—Busan, Okinawa, Guam, Hawaii—netted me a cousin or two. By the time the tour of duty made it back to the mainland, there were five girls and a boy named Denny. After the Penneys encamped in California, they were but a Sunday drive from my house. Every month or two, my Dad would dust off the barbecue to feed the in-law horde, which included my aunt’s toy poodle, Fi. As in Semper Fi, the Marine Corps motto.
Rocky always brought a gift when visiting, usually a bottle of Christian Brothers brandy, housed in its fancy, foiled box. Long before dinner, he would wrench off the top as if detaching a bayonet. Straight from bottle he gave the liquor a quick taste, admired the label and proclaimed, “It’s the Lord-God’s favorite. HA-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh!”
Denny and I, being the only boys who weren’t men, paired off and played with my toys until dinner. We were then handed plates of steak and potato salad and told to eat at the backyard picnic table because there weren’t enough seats in the dining room. Fi was relegated to the patio as well, so the poodle was constantly begging for scraps. Denny warned me not to feed him.
I couldn’t imagine what life was like for my cousin, he and his five sisters living under a Marine’s scowl and bluster. Even at 11 I’d learned that you wore a polite set of manners when dressed up to go visiting. So if my uncle came across as stiff-necked and pig-headed at my house, it must be a hundred times worse under the Colonel’s roof.
My mother always hinted that there was something strange about my cousin. No one said gay back then, only veiled references about his sensitivity and being raised in a household of girls. Unlike my other friends, whenever Denny and I played alone in my bedroom, Mom became overly inquisitive about what we were doing. To me, he was just a boy near my age, dishwater-blond like me, who liked games and puzzles, and looked as if he’d grown out of his clothes since last I saw him.
After dinner, Denny and I found a deck of cards and played War at a little table by the living-room window. The rest of the relatives were stupored by food, while Rocky took communion from the Christian Brothers. That’s when the machine gun sounded and my uncle pulled up to the very edge of the sofa. He began rattling off jokes that had some secondary meaning to which I was not privileged. Soon, his laugh was the only sound that filled the brief silence before another joke.
“A couple was holding hands, watching ships sail into port. One says to the other, ‘What kind of ship is that?’ ‘A battleship,’ the other says. ‘And that one?’ ‘A destroyer.’ ‘How about that little one, over there?’ ‘That’s a ferry boat.’ ‘Wow,’ the first fag says, ‘I didn’t know we had our own Navy.’ HA-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh!”
This time the machine gun was aimed directly at Denny. My cousin bristled. No one else in the room laughed. No one moved until my aunt freed the poodle from her lap and asked if anyone wanted more dessert.
She also announced she was making coffee.
Rocky grabbed a handful of peanuts from the bowl we always left out for guests. He called out for Fi, who hesitated to come until he saw there was food in hand.
“Want to see a trick?” Rocky asked, not recognizing or caring that everyone had seen it before. “This is the only time he gets snacks.”
My uncle scooped the dog onto the coffee table and forced Fi to his haunches. The man plucked a peanut from his fist and made a show of eating it. Rocky balanced the next one on the poodle’s snout and with a silent glare, dared the animal to do anything but sit. The Colonel spoke:
Marine Corps Chow!”
Fi flipped the nut into the air and caught it. The machine gun laughed and rest of the audience clapped dutifully.
“I know what you’re thinking, but Fi’s smarter than that.” He reloaded the dog.
Air Force chow.”
The poodle never moved. But you could see in its eyes the anticipation of reward, the quivering of its balled white fur, waiting for permission.
“He knows when to eat. He knows the magic words.” Rocky said, staring at the dog. “Is it Air Force chow?”
Both he and the dog waited.
“Marine Corps Chow! HA-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh!”
Denny went back to slapping down cards in War. A jack hit the table with such force, the machine gun stopped.
Father faced son. “Problem?”
Denny stood and dropped the rest of his cards on the table. I’d never seen that much color in his cheeks. He scanned the room, making eye contact with witnesses, walked slowly across the shag carpet and plucked a peanut from the dish.
“Fi doesn’t know the words,” Denny said. He held the peanut high and the dog did an about-face. “It’s how loud you say them. You could say anything.”
“Dennis.” My uncle spoke, the syllables long and drawn out.
Fi and the peanut were in position when my cousin spoke again.
Marine Corps chow.
How Now Brown Cow!”
Fi flipped the peanut into the air and my uncle snatched it at its apex. His hand was in the perfect position to backhand his son and his muscles flicked as if a rifle had recoiled his shoulder. Rocky must have remembered whose house he was in. He looked around the room at faces as anxious as the poodle’s. My youngest cousin, Linda, misfired a laugh of her own; just like her father’s, two octaves higher.
“Dog do his trick yet?” my aunt asked, returning with a tray from the kitchen. My uncle didn’t answer. Instead, he ordered his troops to pack up and go home.
Denny was in for it. I didn’t want to imagine the militarized version of corporal punishment.
Over time, these family get-togethers didn’t get less frequent, simply less populated. The older girls went away to college or got married. My mom and aunt would quip that 18 was the magic number. The girls were out the door, the joke went, before the candles on the birthday cake stopped smoking.
Denny didn’t make it to 18. At 17 his father made him enlist. Rocky said his son wasn’t Marine Corps material, but the Army would make a man of him. Perhaps it did, but not by Rocky’s definition.
I lost track of Denny after that. Every family reunion was repopulated with husbands and children of cousins, but no Denny. His whereabouts either unknown or not talked about. In the end, my uncle had an opulent military funeral back in Hawaii. I wasn’t there. Neither was Rocky’s only boy.
DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon, where it's probably raining. Luckily, water is beer’s primary ingredient. His stories and non-fiction appear in 40 publications, including Confingo, Page & Spine, Zetetic and Wild Musette. You can find more of his writing at www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.