It was a mid-week standup show on the Norwegian Dream, and the small auditorium was rocking.  Cruise-ship audiences are a comedian’s dream — they’re on vacation, they’re relaxed, they’re ready to have fun.  Some of them started laughing at my first setup, before I even got to the punchline.  It was one of those “I can’t believe I get paid for doing this” shows.

Partway into my set, I noticed a big man with graying hair sitting in the front row.  He was laughing as much as anyone, but also writing on a yellow pad.  A reviewer? I wondered.  Someone the cruise line sent to get feedback on my act?

An hour later, after changing into jeans and a t-shirt and then grabbing a late supper at a buffet, I was walking past one of the many bars on the ship when I heard someone call my name.  It was the note-taking man, sitting at the bar and waving me over.  A muscular young guy sporting a crew-cut was sitting with him.

“Can I buy you a beer?”

“Sure, that would be great.  Guinness.”

“Good man.  That’s my beer too.”

He shook my hand and told me his first name, then introduced me to the crew-cut.  They told me how much they enjoyed my act.  They appreciated that I kept it family-friendly and clean.  I told them that’s what the cruise ships require, but it’s also my style in the comedy clubs.

The crew-cut saw a friend making time with some attractive young women at a nearby table and went to join them.  The older man pointed to his yellow pad, which was sitting on the bar.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I took some notes during your act.  I’m not stealing your material or anything, but … well, I hope this doesn’t sound too strange for a guy my age, but now that I’m retired, I’ve been going to some amateur nights at a comedy club.”

“No kidding?  How’s it going?”

He gave a dismissive wave.  “I’m no good yet.  I see someone like you, getting all those laughs without having to do dirty material, and I just don’t know how you do it.   So I take notes, trying to figure out what makes your stuff so funny.  I hope you don’t mind.”

Over another Guinness, I gave him my quick seminar on humor, the various forms a standup bit can take, how to create the surprise that gets the laugh.  He jotted down more notes as we were talking.

“I really appreciate you taking the time to help.  I tell you, I just admire the heck out of what you people do up there.  You’re spreading joy, you know?  It’s a great thing.  If I had it to do over again, that’s what I’d want to do, spread some joy, make people feel good.  I’m hoping I can still do that now.”

“You said you’re retired.  What did you do?

“I was in the Marine Corps pretty much my whole adult life.”

“No kidding?  Doing what?”

“Ahhh …”  He took a sip of Guinness.  “Well, I hope you don’t think any less of me, but I was a sniper.  Then when I got too old for that, I trained snipers.”

“Why on earth would I think of less of you for that?”

“Sorry.  I guess it’s just my stereotype of Hollywood and show-biz types.  You know:  anti-military, thinking snipers are all bloodthirsty killers, that kind of @#$%.

“Yeah, that is a pretty common attitude in Hollywood.  But between you and me, I can’t stand Hollywood.”

That seemed to perk him up.  “Let me buy you another Guinness.”

“Thank you.”

“No, thank you.  I really appreciate you letting me pick your brain.”

I told him he could return the favor by telling me a bit about his life as a sniper, since I’d never met one before and probably never would again.  So, somewhat hesitantly at first, he did:  being in the field alone, disguised as foliage, crawling toward a target at a rate of maybe a couple of feet per hour to avoid detection.  No meal breaks, no bathroom breaks, no water breaks, bugs crawling up in your clothes and biting at you, all the while knowing one sudden movement or one sneeze would get you killed.  Finally, you’re in range, and then …

“It’s not like being on the line,” he said.  “You don’t fire at enemy soldiers a couple hundreds yards away and watch them drop.  It’s one man in your sights, you’re looking at his face, probably looking into his eyes.  Then you pull the trigger.  It’s personal.  It can get to you.”

“Wow.  I guess it could.”

“Well, I did what had to be done, you know?  But that’s what I mean about if I had a chance to do it over.  You get to a certain point in your life, you want to do something meaningful, something that makes people happy.”

It was only because of the Guinness that I was willing to disagree with a rather large retired Marine who’d been drinking.

“Can I tell you something?”

“Sure.”

“I’m flattered that you like my act and admire what I do.  But in the scheme of history, guys like me aren’t worth a @#$% compared to guys like you.”

“What?  How the @#$% do you figure that?”

“How many standup comedians you figure they’ve got in North Korea?”

He smiled.  “Never thought about it.  Probably none.”

“Right.  And there probably aren’t any standup comedians in Iran either, and if there are, they sure as hell have to watch what they say if they want to keep on living.”

A chuckle.  “I guess they would, yeah.”

“I can be a standup comedian because I live in a free country.  And the only reason I live in a free country is that at certain times in our history, starting with the Revolutionary War, some really tough mother@#$%ers like you stood up and did what had to be done.  I read a lot of history, and I don’t remember any of our presidents ever responding to a national emergency by yelling, Holy crap! Get the Secretary of War on the phone and tell him to send in the standup comedians!

He laughed and slapped the bar.  Whew.

“I think it’s great you want to try being a comedian.  I hope you do.  But even if it doesn’t work out, I hope you remember guys like me get to do what we do because of guys like you.  So let me buy you a Guinness now.”

“No, I’m buying you a Guinness.  But I appreciate what you said.”

The crew-cut eventually rejoined us, and over the next few hours I learned it’s not a good idea for a middle-aged comedian to go drink-for-drink with a couple of Marines.  When my head started spinning, I stood up and announced I should get myself to bed.

The retired Marine stood up and said he should do the same.  He reached out and shook my hand, slipping something into it, then walked away.  The other Marine noticed what I was holding.

“You know what that is?”

“Some kind of coin.”

“That’s a Scout-Sniper’s coin.  It’s an honor.”

“Cool.”

“Seriously, don’t lose that, and don’t sell it on eBay, okay?  The man just let you know he considers you a brother.  It’s an honor.  I don’t even have one of those yet.”

“I won’t lose it.  I promise.”

Five years later, I still have the coin.  I’m looking at it right now, remembering my Marine buddy from the cruise.  Tomorrow night, as I enjoy the Independence Day fireworks with my wife and my girls, sitting on a blanket in a public park and feeling happy and safe and free, I will remember him again.

I hope you’re well, my friend.  I hope you made it onto a comedy stage somewhere and spread a little joy.  But even if you didn’t, I hope you understand that men like you have been spreading joy for 235 years now.  The joy is called freedom.

Happy Fourth of July.

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28 Responses to “Independence Day”
  1. Jeff says:

    Great story, thank you for sharing.

  2. Be says:

    Happy 4th Tom – let’s hope we stay free.

    Indeed. If we lose our freedom, it won’t be enemy soldiers taking it from us. It will be our fellow Americans voting to give it away.

  3. Amy Dungan says:

    Fantastic story Tom. Thanks for sharing! May all our soldiers know how much we appreciate them, and how important they are to us. Not just on holidays, but every day.
    Happy 4th to you, Chareva and the girls. Give them hugs for us.

    Happy 4th to you and yours too, Amy.

  4. Angel says:

    I spent a month in Russia in 1999 for some language training, thanks to the Navy. I felt so deeply grateful when I returned home, that I am an American. I felt a sense of ease and freedom that I had not felt for a month (and no, I wasn’t being harassed by the KGB or anything). The *Russians* called Russia a prison – ordinary Russian citizens, not politically active or controversial – and this was several years after the wall fell.

    Travel in foreign countries (usually) expands the mind, and for me in this case, in a very unexpected and positive fashion. I never really thought about it before I visited Russia, but now I can say unequivocally that I love being an American.

    Amen.

  5. Norm says:

    FWIW it sounds like you may have been presented with what’s known as a challenge coin, and if so, they are a very big deal. They’re used to verify membership in the organization, and aren’t used for ceremonial purposes. Like the jarhead said, never sell it. And don’t mount it on anything, or deface it in any way. They’re meant to be carried on your person at all times.

    I’m afraid to carry it for fear I’d lose it. But it’s in my desk, still in a protective sleeve. The jarhead made it clear the coin was an honor, and I took him seriously.

  6. john hunter says:

    I’ve often dreamed of being a stand up, but alas I have no cool story like this. Thanks so much for posting. Happy independence day to you and your family. Now go light some sparklers!

    The girls sparkled after the fireworks.

  7. Zeeger says:

    Hey Tom,

    maybe you go and tell the native indians of your country about the spreading joy part. The few remaining in the reservations may be glad to hear about their ancestors beeing robbed and murdered by the U.S. out of pure joy!

    I really hope for you, that one day learning a bit about the history (and present) of your country will become as strong an urge to you as is learning about weightloss and diet.

    Do you know for example that the U.S. waged over 25 wars in the last 65 years alone and all of them on foreign territory? Are you really that naive to think that the U.S. military brought your country the joy of freedom when the killed and tortured civillians in e.g. Vietnam, Irak and Afghanistan? Anyone remembering the fotos of vietnamese children with molten skin from the use of napalm on civillians? Maybe you want to look up photos of malformed children because the U.S. military use of ammunition made of depleted uranium. The net is full of atrocities commited by the U.S. since the systematic murdering of the native americans which started even before the invention of photography. Of course, there are paintings too…

    Another thing. What do you believe has to be the mindset of somebody, who professionally executes people? Without asking questions as part of military assignment. Assigned by the military of a country that is the biggest wager of wars in the whole world and with a list of proven misses and fails and kills of innocent people. So yeah, you once talked one evening to your newly acquainted beer buddy the military executioner. Way to be proud as hell man.

    Happy 4th!

    Oh goody, I just knew I’d attract some America-bashers with that post. (These are usually the same people who can’t heap enough praise on France and Germany, conveniently forgetting the atrocities committed by those countries.)

    I’m a history buff, and I probably know far more than you do about our country’s past. America, like nearly every other civilized country on earth, has some sorry episodes and abuses of power in its past. Sometimes the dedicated men in our military have been sent by politicians on missions that weren’t noble. That doesn’t change the fact that men who are willing to die for others are noble, and it certainly doesn’t change the fact that without those men, America wouldn’t be free … and neither would Europe and much of Asia.

    The biggest mass murders in history came at the hands of fascists, Nazis and communists — three movements born in Europe, the product of European intellectuals. I don’t know if you’re European, but if you are, you’re not in much of a position to lecture about the atrocities of Americans. Those three movements were defeated only because of American military involvement — the Europeans weren’t capable of doing it themselves.

    Some Americans in Vietnam committed atrocities. They were also prosecuted and in some cases stopped by other Americans. Lt. Calley’s men stopped their slaughter when an American helicopter pilot saw what they were doing and flew in to rescue some of the villagers, telling his own men to fire on Calley’s soldiers if need be. And then Calley went to jail, where he belonged. If you can name an example of, say, German soldiers threatening to kill other German soldiers to save Jewish citizens being led to slaughter, be my guest. If you can name an example of German (or French or British) officers prosecuting other officers — while a war is still going on — for killing civilians, please do so.

    As for the mindset of a sniper … let’s see, what kind of person does it take to spend perhaps two entire days crawling through a bug-infested field, unable to shoo away the biting insects, unable to scratch, stretch, drink, pee, sleep or eat, knowing you could be spotted at any time and riddled with bullets, knowing when you take the the shot you’ll now have to escape across an open field with no backup, all for the sake of killing one enemy target that may negate the need to fight a larger battle that will kill hundreds?

    I’d say it takes a tougher SOB than you will ever meet. Sure, he endures all that just because he loves killing.

    But he’d be delighted to know that “snipers are bloodthirsty killers” attitude isn’t limited to Hollywood.

    [Addendum: After responding to your comment, I looked up your IP location. You're in Germany ... and you want to lecture me about my country's past atrocities? ARE YOU @#$%ING KIDDING ME?!!]

    • Javin says:

      Just… Wow. Maybe if he hoots like a monkey and jumps up and down while pointing at America long enough, people will forget the millions that Germany is responsible for killing. I suppose we should also ignore all the slaughter that went into “founding” Germany between 1 BC and 400 AD. And all of the slaughter that happened between then and WWI. Then there’s that fact that if not for AMERICAN SOLDIERS such as this one, Germany would still be a Totalitarian state. I don’t care who you are, or where you are. Chances are, if you have the freedom to post on the internet, anywhere in the world, that freedom came in some part from United States Soldiers. Learn some humility and respect, jackass.

  8. Tony Dickson says:

    Wow, what an honor to meet and talk with a man like that.

    The Hollywood image might be changing. If you’ve ever seen the TV show NCIS, the main character is a retired Marine sniper.

    There are a few good men in Hollywood. Gary Sinese is one of them.

    • Jean says:

      I had the pleasure of hearing the Lt. Dan Band last night. Great show, and a great way to celebrate Independence Day!

      Sounds like a good one. We were at an outdoor concert featuring the Kadillacs (great cover band), followed by fireworks.

  9. shutchings says:

    Well, I’m sure glad I bookmarked your “other blog”. This post is wonderful.

  10. traderpaul says:

    This is the most embarrassing suck-up piece you’ve ever written (or at least put in print).
    Did it give you a thrill to be sitting next to a murderer?
    How is this bastard you glorify any different from a Mafia hitman?
    Both are paid from the ill-gotten gains of their employers, money that is stolen from citizens under threat of violence and told “it is for their own good”.

    Think about it next time you are railing against some USDA or FDA proclamation which is making us less safe and less free.

    1) I don’t suck up to anyone. My respect for the man is genuine.
    2) He’s no more a murderer than any other solider or marine who kills an enemy in war, although he does put himself in far more danger than most.
    3) A mafia hit man kills for profit and doesn’t expect to killed while doing it. A sniper kills to hasten the end of a war and knows he could be spotted and killed on any given mission.

  11. TonyNZ says:

    Great post.

  12. Jim says:

    Good post, Tom.

    I just finished reading a series of books about a Marine sniper and his spotter written by Stephen Hunter, a Pulitzer winning former journalist.

    Very well written, the stories taking place mostly outside a war setting. The main character, Bob Lee Swagger, is based loosely on an actual Marine sniper named Carlos Hathcock. Here’s a good summary if you’re interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Lee_Swagger

    Thank you, I’ll give those a look.

  13. Underground says:

    There are at least one or two books about Gunny Hathcock. Very good story. Another good one if you can find it is A Rifleman Went to War by H.W. McBride.

    “Do you know for example that the U.S. waged over 25 wars in the last 65 years alone and all of them on foreign territory?”

    Damn straight, and it’s Marines like that who keep it “on foreign territory.”

    My sentiments exactly.

  14. Excellent post!

    Really hoping you’ll write something about the debt ceiling talks.

    Thank you for all of your efforts to bring rational thinking to the world.

    Stephen

    Thank you.

  15. Milton says:

    I’m glad that you got to meet that gentleman and that you were able to lift his spirits and thank him for his service to his country. I’m sure you will get some more hate mail over it, but a lot of us feel the same way that you do, and are glad that you were able to remind him that we’re out here and that we appreciate the sacrifices he made for us.

    Thank you, and sorry for the slow reply. I’ve been out of town.

  16. Flybabymoni says:

    Thank you for making one of our heroes realize he is a hero to us all.

  17. Stephen Pasquale says:

    Hello again, Tom.

    Any chance you’ll be weighing in on the debt ceiling issue? You always make your point so clearly and I’d love to be able to share it with friends in time to inspire them to phone in some sense to their senators.

    Thank you.

    Stephen

    I may get to it. If you read the Fat Head blog, you know we had one crazy month, so I’ve been pretty much ignoring this blog. I’m way late checking comments for the same reason.

  18. John Morris says:

    Mr Naughton,
    I recently watched your film “Fat Head” on Netflix, and while quite enjoyable, I did have one question that lingered once the credits began to roll. While you illustrated how your cholesterol was lower following your additional 30 day diet, you did not make mention of your weight following the same experiment. Did you manage to actually lose weight during this time period? If so, was it significant, and if not was this the result of the diet itself, or were you attempting to solely measure other variables that you were unable to account for.
    Sincerely,
    John
    P.S. Where in Tennessee do you live? My fiancé and I recently moved to Ashland City.

    I ate a lot and made no effort to lose weight, but still dropped another two pounds. We’re in Franklin, just bought a 5.7-acre minifarm west of town. We’ll move there in a few months, after renovations.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Hey, I just wanted to say, all politics aside, that you are an absolutely awful comedian. You continue to reinforce thatr conservatives cannot be funny.

    Uh … I’m supposed to be surprised that a liberal doesn’t find a libertarian (I’m not a conservative) funny? Yes, that is a shock. But I’ll be sure to tell all the comedy club and cruise ship bookers who hired me (over and over) that you don’t find me funny.

  20. Robby says:

    I will be broadcasting Tom’s interview from a couple weeks ago that was interrupted by the series of tubes known as the internet. Tonight at 7 PM EST at http://tenacityradio.com/listen
    it will be available for download after the show as well. feel free to email me with any questions.

  21. Robby says:

    tonight being Labor day Sept. 5th. sorry

  22. Pat says:

    Not a comment – when I went just now to the Fat Head page I got a pop-up that your site is now an “attack page”. This site does not provoke that. Don’t know where this came from but thought you would like to know – none of the other sites I regularly go to are doing this.

    Yeah, our provider had some issue. It’s fixed now.

  23. David Moritz says:

    Hello Tom,

    I appreciate the story and thank you for your compassion. I recently saw the documentary Fat-Head on Netflix and absolutely loved it. You did such a fantastic job of creating a well-balanced argument that was (in my opinion) nearly irrefutable. I have started changing my diet to weigh more on fat and protein and less on carbs and I am already noticing a difference! I feel hungry again! This may sound weird, but I used to eat Cheerios every morning and I thought I was doing my body good by avoiding fat at every turn. However, I was filling my body with so many carbs, that all I had was stored blubber and extremely low metabolism. Now that I have been making this small change, my metabolism is coming back and I feel great!

    Thank you!

  24. Jim says:

    Freedom, eh? I seriously hope you don’t entertain the notion that is the reason so many American soldiers have died in Iraq. The United States is far more tyrannical than North Korea or Iran.

    Honestly, think about it. How many people died in Vietnam because the U.S. didn’t like the politics there? How many died in Korea for the same reason? The U.S. is up in arms when they see a communist take over in a country, but they don’t mind invading other countries to usurp their oil. Meanwhile, capitalism has left the United States up shit creek. The global recession was sparked mostly in the United States, due to their wreckless, dog-eat-dog economy.

    They haven’t fought a noble war since the revolutionary war. They sat back for two thirds of the second world war, until their own toes got stepped on. Hmm, how many innocent Jews would still be alive if the United States wasn’t so indifferent to any problems but their own?

    The U.S. is more tyrannical than North Korea? Capitalism is our downfall?

    I’m not going to waste my time replying to such ignorance.

  25. Great post that I just got around to. All of the above comments are true. Wars have a mind of their own. In my view, there are two worlds: the intellectual world and the real world. In the real world, none of it makes much sense and war is the extreme example. On the guy on the cruise, though, Einstein had a good understanding of the real world despite the effort he spent trying to stay away from it. He referred to being a soldier as “enforced heroism.” He meant it as a criticism but it is really ironic; heroism is still heroism, enforced or otherwise. I know you were waiting for my thoughts on all this.

    Anyone who spends an entire day crawling across a bug-infested field while risking being shot is heroic, no matter how he ended up there.

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