I’ve always been fascinated by Benjamin Franklin—a man who was basically the Swiss Army Knife of our founding fathers. Instead of tiny, foldable wrenches and miniature scissors, Ben was spring-loaded with piss and vinegar and political savvy and freaking electricity. I’m sure there were many mornings back in colonial Philadelphia where Franklin awoke half-electrocuted and with last night’s grog on his breath, fired off a few thousand revolutionary leaflets on the old printing press, and then brunched with royalty by noon.
None of that would surprise me. What surprises me is he was able to hold it all together. Not only was Franklin one of the founding fathers of our great nation, he was apparently the chief inventor of multi-tasking. I mean, I have trouble changing radio stations when my car is in motion. Franklin was building a nation and running a publishing company and dating half the women in Philadelphia—and all while flying a kite. That’s key (super lame pun alert).
So, how did he do it? What made Benjamin Franklin so flexible, so open to possibilities and closed off to limitations? What complex formula did he cook up in his inventor’s lab? Was it the prototypical recipe for colonial Red Bull? An 18th century prescription for Zoloft? Some DaVinci-inspired flying machine that would blast him to heights where all his troubles looked like tiny ants on the sidewalk?
Or maybe the secret lacked all manner of complexity. Maybe the secret was hidden all along, within the sheer simplicity of Franklin the man. After all, he was the guy who said, “Trouble knocked at the door, but, hearing laughter, hurried away.”
My little Uncle Joe (I have two Uncle Joes—one little, one big) has lived his entire life in South Philadelphia. He never met the actual Benjamin Franklin (as far as I know), but the two of them would have been good friends.
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The hulking structure rose up from the street like a fortress, its granite walls frozen into shape by the bitter cold. We crossed the streets at the crosswalks, filed through massive corner gatherings of pigeons pecking at stray crumbs, and climbed the heavy, stone steps.
The Franklin Institute has always been a Center City mainstay, especially for class trips, and it was nearly impossible to avoid if you went to school anywhere in the Philadelphia area. Both my brother and I had been there before, but we’d never had the pleasure of experiencing it in the company of my aunt and uncle.
Their presence was sure to make our journey through the institute’s outrageous scientific exhibits especially enjoyable because my uncle happens to be a walking joke machine and my aunt the perfect comedy partner. Their humor, of course, was magnified ten-fold for a couple of boys aged nine and five at the time.
“Now look at this exhibit,” my uncle said to us as we stood in line for tickets. He reached for the velvet rope partitioning one section of the line from the rest, and he gently and dramatically lifted the metal hook from its post as if he were deactivating a bomb. “Whew,” he said as he replaced the hook. “I’m glad I saw that. Science is an amazing thing.”
“Don’t listen to your uncle,” my aunt chuckled. “He’s just being a goofball.” But it was too late. My brother and I were already cracking up and searching for other mundane oddities of the everyday world we could convert into ironic science experiments.
It was always like this around my uncle. He’d crack some kind of clever one-liner or introduce us to an ironic situation and we’d mimic the bit for the rest of the day, or until we’d extracted every last shred of humor from it.
“Wow!” my brother aped. “It’s completely amazing! How does science keep up?” He pointed at a janitor’s mop bucket leaning idly against a wall next to the information kiosk.
“It doesn’t beat the secret exhibit they have right behind that door,” I said pointing to the men’s room.
“Oh yeah,” my uncle laughed. “Top secret assignment. They’re classifying farts by smell. Personally, I’ve read the research and I think it stinks. But I’m not a scientist.” And that basically opened the door on potty humor, our favorite, for the rest of the day.
We got our tickets and picked up a few maps of the sprawling building. Then we sat along a huge stone bench and listened to the water trickling in a decorative fountain behind it as we picked our favorite exhibits.
“I want to see the printing press and the pendulum,” I said referring to two of the signature exhibits at the institute.
“I want to make my own coin,” my brother added, to which I had no objections.
My aunt was the voice of reason. “Why don’t we go to the heart exhibit first, guys, since it’s on the bottom floor?”
“The heart?” my brother groaned, and I compounded his sentiments.
“Yeah, who wants to look at some stupid heart in a glass jar? That’s boring.”
“Boring?” my uncle quipped. “Did you just say boring?”
“I most certainly did.”
“I think you’ll feel differently when you see this particular heart.” My brother simply responded by blowing a fake fart into his hand. I cackled like a warlock.
“Oh, you make a good point young grasshopper,” my uncle said sagely. “A very wise man once told me about the awesome powers of the heart. Powers that are far more awesome and more important than just pumping a little blood through your veins. But, hey, the heart’s boring so you guys probably don’t want to hear about it.” That was all we needed to pique our interest.
“We don’t mind,” I said.
“No, no. It’s much too boring.”
“No it’s not,” my brother added.
“Well, I suppose I could tell you, but if you get bored don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Inexplicably we’d gone from hating the heart exhibit mere seconds prior to outright cheering for my uncle’s proposed anecdote about it. It was like a switcharoo routine right out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. “You see,” he continued, “a very wise doctor once told me about the heart and about the importance of beans.”
“Beans?” I asked as my brother wrinkled his brow in confusion.
“Yes, of course. They are of the utmost importance,” he said. “You know why? Because… beans, beans they’re good for the heart. The more you eat the more you fart. The more you fart the better you feel. So eat more beans at every meal.”
Well, that was enough to blow the roof off the joint for me and my brother. We were a mere step away from rolling around on the marble floor in hysterics, and we didn’t care who was watching. My aunt also joined us in laughter even though I was pretty sure she’d seen the whole thing coming a mile away.
My uncle had set us up like this before, and I’m happy to say he’d do so many more times in the future. I’m also quite pleased to tell you, and I’m sure you’re not the least bit surprised, that we were more than agreeable to tackling the heart exhibit first after my uncle’s inspiring limerick. And we were pleasantly surprised by the experience.
We walked through a heart twice the size of a normal bedroom as a surround-sound stereo system cranked out the methodic bump-bump usually silenced behind one’s chest. We explored the right and left ventricles, the aorta, and the jugular vein. We even stopped to take our blood pressure and examine a video model of an active blood molecule. And at every step the fart humor rose to new levels and took on louder and more elaborately disgusting dimensions.
My aunt and uncle, whom I imagine were slightly embarrassed when my brother and I made farting noises under our armpits in perfect rhythm with the beating of the heart, made no indication that our antics bothered them in the least. In fact, they joined right in.
We eventually headed out to the other exhibits in the museum. We saw the pendulum and Ben Franklin’s printing press, and I still have the coins we made lying around somewhere. We combed the entire institute that day, and when we walked down the big stone steps out into the cold later that evening it was with big, fat smiles pasted across our faces.
“Wow,” my uncle said as we piled in his car. “It’s freezing.” The cold air rose from his mouth in little puffs as he spoke. “I better not eat any beans out here.”
This time my brother walked right into the set up. “Why not?” he asked.
“Because I don’t want to have icicle farts,” he responded. Of course, this opened up a brand new can of laughter that lasted all the way home…and for the next twenty five years of our lives. Because even in the closed confines of a compact car—especially in the closed confines of a compact car—trouble comes. It hears laughter. It lingers a bit in the air, as trouble is known to do. But the laughter lingers longer. And eventually, mercifully, trouble hurries away.
My uncle may have told us beans are good for the heart, but he proved that laughter’s a whole lot more powerful and probably more pleasant on the nose as well. I’m pretty sure Benjamin Franklin would agree.