When A Smile Becomes A Laugh

I have bloviated before in this column about the power of a smile; how a smile can change someone’s face and their whole outlook on life and how it can spread that good will infectiously to others.

I am constantly reminded of the adage an old friend, Ron, gave me when we were both much younger; “Put a smile on your face and soon you will feel it in your heart.” 

It was a time when we were driving together from Stafford, Va., to our jobs at Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington, D.C.  It was a harrowing 40-mile drive filled with road-crazed drivers in large, fast cars and SUVs jockeying for position like they were vying for the Indy cup instead of going to work.

I never looked forward to those drives; some days I’d drive, some days Ron would and we were both very safe, defensive drivers, but each morning I’d climb in the vehicle and think, “Today could be the day, and not to win the lottery, but to be randomly selected to be involved in some mega-car pileup at 70 mph.”

I distinctly remember the morning Ron gave me this enduring pearl of wisdom about a smile.  It had been an extremely daunting week; the first week of Desert Shield-Desert Storm and I was a spokesman at Headquarters Marine Corps trying to squeeze sensitive information to the media and public while still observing operational security.

So as I got into the car that morning I was especially stoic, unspeaking, steeling myself for the onslaught I knew we were driving into--both on the road and on the job.

So when Ron said “Hey, Good Morning” in an irritatingly joyful tone, I just stared straight ahead and grunted.

“Rough day, eh?” Ron said to me in his best Chicago mobster dialect; he was Irish/Mexican but could do voices.

I grunted again.

Then he began babbling out a story--probably fictitious but no doubt based on true events and still entertaining--about some distant relative of his who sent this adage down the family line to him.  He explained how putting a smile on your face, even if you don’t feel like smiling, even if you’re angry as heck, how that smile will instantly change your frame of mind.

“Go ahead, try it,” he challenged as we propelled his 2,500-pound motorized vehicle filled with explosive liquid at speeds for which the human reaction time was never intended to be in control of. 

I grunted.

“No really, just slap a big, silly, toothy grin on your face and hold it there, even if it hurts, and tell me how it feels.”

I grunted again, but he persisted so I relented and put a half-hearted, closed-mouth half-smile half-grimace on my face.  He glanced over and said, “Well, that’s a start but let’s see those pearly-whites. Then he let loose with another pearl of wisdom, saying, “You can’t show your teeth when you’re frowning.”

I thought about that for a moment and realized that was true, so I began to experiment: I’d frown, then smile; frown, then smile.  He was right; frowns do not include exposure of teeth.

So in the process of this exercise I suddenly smiled big and toothy, and held it there.  I looked like one of those demented circus clowns with their macabre perma-smiles painted on.

I held it, and held it, and held it until it actually started to hurt; then, as I thought I was going to pass out from the effort, when I thought I didn’t have anything left, something happened that led to a phenomena that even Ron, in his wisdom, hadn’t realized: the moment when a smile becomes a soul-freeing laugh.

 As the corners of my uplifted lips began to quiver and collapse back into a straight-line, Ron did that thing that will make most men and boys – and women and girls if they’re honest about it – break into a belly laugh.

He broke wind – and I don’t want to be graphic about such a subject – but it was an award winner.  I swear I think I saw people in adjoining vehicles turn their heads from side to side to see from whence that long, melodious tone had emanated.

That was it.  That smile, already locked and loaded, opened up into a gut-retching laugh that doubled me over; I jolted forward so fast my seat belt tightened up in impact mode.  Ron was laughing too and I’m not sure how he kept the car between the lines.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or emailcwo4usmc@comcast.net.