Whenever a waiter asked my father if he had decided on something to eat, he always responded in the same way: “I’ll have number 27 on toast!” He followed with a big smile and a sharp sniff, sucking in a full breath in a split second. That was his way of showing that he thought he had said something very witty.
It didn’t matter if the menu was numbered or if they even had 27 different entrées. He thought this response was knee-slapping funny. He even paused with comic timing, locking eyes with the waiter. I think that he expected him to laugh out loud at the riotous joke. The problem is that no one understood Dad’s humor—not the waiter and not even our family. Typically, the waiter barely managed a chuckle and waited for Dad to decide on an item that was actually printed on the menu.
With Dad, it didn’t end with number 27. Throughout my childhood, he had a slew of one-liners. Each was a snappy answer to a simple, everyday question. Some of the quips made sense, and some were so quirky, subtle or complex, that any sense of meaning was lost on us. I don’t think that even Dad could explain some of the obtuse one-liners of which he was so proud.
These retorts were so autonomous and repetitive, they were drilled into our individual psyches. Eventually, I found myself snapping back with the same answer when going out for a bite with friends…
Sir, are you ready to order?
“Sure…I’ll have number 27 on toast!” [sniff]
Since I have absolutely no idea why I utter these words, I probably lack the panache of my father’s delivery. When I use the line, restaurant employees appear dumbstruck—even more than with Dad.
Perhaps my father’s most memorable snappy answer was to that common American expression: “Do you know what?” In response, he would snap back without any delay: “Sure—Joe What! Met ’im in the army!”
Again, I had no idea what on earth this meant. Not even a clue. In fact, I never even parsed the words. But over the course of a lifetime, I heard it thousands of times. Eventually, when someone asked me “Do you know what?” I would respond instantly “Sure…Joe What! Met ’im in the army.” I’m pretty sure that it sailed past people around me without a thought, but for those that were tied to me by circumstance (my roommates at college or anyone I dated more than a few times), it actually rubbed off. Somewhere in upstate New York, there is a community of former acquaintances who continue to use the phrase even to this day! Just like me, none of them know why they say it or what it means. In fact, even my children respond in this way. It rolls off the tongue naturally.
During my 3rd year at college, I decided to surprise my parents by flying home over a long weekend. I recall feeling proud that I had managed to travel without asking my folks for air fare, or even a ride from the airport.
Upon entering our home, my mother was so excited; she gave me a big hug. It was exactly the response that I had sought. “Where’s Dad?” I asked, hoping that he was also at home. I wanted to gauge his surprise and excitement. Mom explained that my father was in his upstairs office meeting with an old friend that he hadn’t seen in years. It was an emotional reunion of sorts, and Mom suggested that I wait for him to come down.
As I snacked on my first home-cooked food in months, I relished in the fun I would have surprising Dad and catching up on family affairs. Eventually, Dad descended the big curved staircase into our living room. At his side was a guest that I had never met. Both men were in World War II officer uniforms of the U.S. Army Air Corps. In all these years, I had never seen my father in uniform. He looked pretty snazzy! Just like in the old photos from before he was married.
“Hey, Ellery. You’re home!” he called out to me. “Do ya’ know what?!” I responded without even a nanosecond delay: “Yeah—Joe What. Met ’im in the army.”
“Exactly!” my father exclaimed. That’s right!
“Huh?” I was puzzled. I had expected a small groan, upon recognizing my quick return of his trademark quip.
“You got it right!” Dad repeated. “How did you know?”
“Know what?” I replied.
“Yes, Watt!”, Dad said. “How did you know?”
I felt like I was in an Abbott and Costello shtick. Yet, I had the distinct feeling that I was Costello.
For a few seconds, Dad’s army buddy, Lieutenant Joseph Watt, was as clueless as me. But just as we were about to hit the reset button a second time, Joe started to smile. “Let me guess, Ellery…” A thoughtful finger rose to his lips. “I bet that your dad has used my name as part of a stock expression throughout your childhood. You never realized that ‘Joe Watt’ was a real person, and that I met your Dad in the army. Is that right?”
Brain freeze. I was speechless. Joe What. Met him in the army…I get it! This is Joseph Watt, an army officer with whom my Dad served during the war. So That’s Watt!
Nice to meet you, Joe. You’ve been part of my life forever.
- Who’s on First, Abbott and Costello (Classic version, 1945)
- Higher quality video (taped at a senior center in 1953)