Brushing Up an Old Joke

Brushing Up an Old Joke

My dad: the patriarch of the ElRite clan
My dad: the patriarch of the ElRite clan

Now that I’m firmly entrenched in my middle-age years, I often reflect back upon my relationship with my dad when I was a young lad. As previously reported, my father, AKA Coach, was raised in a Midwest farming family and served in the marine corps, both as a combat soldier during the Korean War and as a drill sergeant afterwards. He told a lot of stories but only had two jokes in his repertoire, at least around us kids. My favorite revolved around a toothbrush salesman. Said salesman would always take on a high-pitched nasally voice in the retelling which, dear reader, I’ll have to leave to your imagination.

So, one afternoon, a man walks into a toothbrush company looking for a job as a salesman. The supervisor offers him a chance as long as he works on commission. If he doesn’t sell any toothbrushes, he won’t make any money. The man says, “Okay,” grabs a box of toothbrushes, and hurries away.

I still remember the day when I discovered my father had a boss at work. I was around six years old and, at that time, my dad coached wrestling and taught PE classes at our local college in Houghton. He would often take us kids in with him to play basketball or swim in the pool on weekends. It was on one of those days when I overheard another man giving my dad instructions on what to do during the upcoming week. It was just typical shop talk, but I was really taken aback. It just never occurred to me that anyone would ever tell my dad what to do.

At the end of the first day, the new guy comes in with a hangdog look on his face. He hadn’t sold a single toothbrush. His supervisor, not wanting to discourage him, tries to give him a few tips and sends him out again.

Once I left for college, my dad would write me letters on a routine basis. This was back when a long-distance call was a costly event and certainly not something used for idle conversation. In fact, it was common practice for me to notify my parents of my safe return to Michigan State by calling home, letting the phone ring once, then hanging up before anyone answered. Anyway, the content of said letters was usually pretty generic: mostly observations on the weather or sports. Invariably, he included a stick of Juicy Fruit gum in every envelope. Figuring it was some sort of generational thing, I would chew it without a thought as a I read about the latest snowstorm to hit upper Michigan. Now, I can’t pass by a grocery store check-out counter without noticing that bright yellow pack on display; and it always makes me think of him.

After the second day, the new guy again returns to the office. His expression tells the story. He’s been going door-to-door for hours and hasn’t sold a single toothbrush. The supervisor feels sorry for him, but he’s got a business to run. He gives the salesman one last chance, telling him to come up with some sort of a gimmick that makes people want to buy. Obviously upset, the salesman walks out of the store with the box of toothbrushes under his arm.

My dad always had an interesting relationship with language. He seemed to believe he was fluent in Spanish even though he had never had any formal instruction in or, as far as I could tell, any exposure to the language. His every attempt to interact with waiters in Mexican restaurants would leave us in hysterics. For some reason, he always said the word, “sink” so it sounded like, “zinc.” Never knew why. Like any good parent, he also tried to protect his offspring from the vulgarities of the world by modifying his curse words into innocuous sounds. For example, if oncoming cars prevented him from entering traffic, his complaint would be worded thus, “Well, geez Christmas, look at this. Every horkey schnork in North Dakota has got to be driving through right now.” I often discover myself using the same verbiage around my kids.

It’s not even noon on the third day when the new salesman rushes into the store looking for more toothbrushes to peddle. His supervisor can’t believe it and asks how he managed to sell the entire box. The salesman says, “Well, all I do is walk up to the customer and offer them a piece of chocolate candy. They would unwrap it, take a big bite, spit it out, and say, ‘This tastes like dog crap!’ Then I say, ‘It is dog crap. Do you want to buy a toothbrush?'”

No matter how many times he told us that joke, we would always crack-up over it. It’s funny the things we take out of childhood. A bad joke. A stick of gum. A mangled word.  While I know all of the following must have happened at some point, I can’t recall a single specific time my dad ever gave me a hug, or dished out praise, or even encouraged me to do my best. And yet, even though he never verbalized it, I always knew he loved me.

And I loved him right back.


  • Disclosure: I partnered with Oral-B and Life of Dad, LLC for the #PowerofDad Father’s Day promotion and was compensated for my involvement. Take a moment to check out their video at

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