Robert Burns

In the early sixties Herb Chatterton, one of the greatest guys on the waterfront, got me involved in the Seattle branch of the Apostleship of the Sea, otherwise known as the Catholic Seamen’s Club. Subsequently, I became a member of the Club’s board of directors. All that meant was that I nodded along with the other members when Father Murphy, also from Brooklyn, told us what he wanted. He was a real character and could have held his own on any stage as a stand-up comedian. Thus, each of his fund-raising monthly labor-management luncheons was attended by a full house of enthusiastic fans.

When Father Murphy retired he was replaced by a thirtyish Father Jantzen who was apprehensive when the time approached for him to host his first labor-management luncheon. While the event was billed as “labor-management,” the crowd consisted mostly of labor-union officials and their minions.

Concerned Father Jantzen asked me what he should say. I told him that no one could replace Father Murphy’s act so he shouldn’t even try. I also advised that the crowd was a bit boisterous. I added, “They are the salt of the earth and would be interested in Jantzen the man. Tell them where you come from and what you were like before you became a priest.”

Although I didn’t expect anything to come of it, as an afterthought I said, “It’s appropriate to tell a joke.”

Our King County Prosecuting Attorney, Charles O’Carroll who could hold his own with any wit, served as the master of ceremonies. It took someone with his experience to keep the crowd in line. He introduced Father Jantzen. The young-priest’s voice was actually quavering when he said, “I’m from Canada, when I was in my teens I played hockey and….”

Just then someone interrupted by yelling, “Where can I get Father Murphy’s address?”

O’Carroll scowled as he pointed to a bulletin board in the back of the hall, “You will find it posted there.”

Father Jantzen gave up telling about himself and with some hesitation said, “I heard that it’s appropriate to tell a joke. I think this one’s OK because my sister-in-law told it to me.”


He then told the following tale and his composure returned as he spoke: “On one of those rare weekends when it was sunny and the heather was in bloom, Robert Burns and his friend Tim hiked into the highlands of Scotland. The countryside was so magnificent that it caused them to lose track of time. Darkness was falling fast and they could not possibly get back to the inn where they had accommodations. There was no cause for alarm because they spotted a farmhouse where they were sure they could get bed and breakfast.

“The farmer recognized the famous bard and was delighted; he would not charge for bed and breakfast. There was a standoff for a time because grateful Burns and Tim wanted to pay. Suddenly the farmer’s eyes lit up. He said, ‘I’ve heard about you Robbie Burns and your canny wit. I’ll give you a rhyme. If within a minute, you match the rhyme and use the same last word, you stay for free; otherwise you pay.’

“Robert Burns and Tim were delighted with the challenge; it would break the deadlock and it was fun. Tim took out his watch so as to time how long it would take Burns to respond. The farmer said, ‘As I walked along the river Strand, I saw a sailor lad kit in hand. His hair was red, his eyes were blue, he just came back from Timbuktu.’

“Burns was beside himself as he slapped his forehead, ‘Timbuktu? Timbuktu?’

“Tim was excited and hopped up and down as the second hand of his watch raced away. The farmer was rubbing his hands gleefully. At the fifty-ninth second Burns shouted, ‘I got it! As Tim and I walked along the river Trent, we spied three maidens in a tent. Since they were three and we but two, I bucked one and Tim bucked two.'”

The crowd in the Catholic Seamen’s Club roared and cheered and roared some more in a way that they never did in response to any of Father Murphy’s stories. Charles O’Carroll waited a full ten-minutes until they were exhausted…he thought. He held a glass to the mike and banged on it with a spoon to get attention. When silence reigned he solemnly pointed to the bulletin board and said, “You will find his sister-in-law’s address there also.”

The crowd went wild again.


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