Ginger Manley
© 2012

Chapter Nine (excerpt)

Amputee humor requires a strong stomach, not just because some of the jokes are so gut-wrenchingly awful and insensitive, but also because some of them are gut-busting hilarious. Josh Sundquist, a leg-amputee as a result of childhood cancer and author of the national bestseller Just Don't Fall: How I Grew Up, Conquered Illness, and Made It Down the Mountain (Penguin Group, 2010), hosts a “best amputee jokes contest” at his blog at www.lessthanfour.org.  Wolf, an arm amputee and the third-place winner in the 2010 jokes contest, says, “Disability humor seems to evoke both fear and joy, both embarrassment and slapstick. Never is disability humor outright tasteful. It often seems to play with stereotypes. There always is a degree of ‘hoops’ involved……But of all the disability jokes, this one brings it to a point: a woman puts out an ad for the guy with the most incredible sex powers ever. When the door rings, she finds a guy without arms or legs sitting in a wheelchair is waiting in front of her door. When she asks him, what are you doing here? He answers, well I’m here for your ad in the paper. She asks, so how did you imagine this would go? He replied, well how do you imagine I rang the doorbell?” 

Link: Best Amputee Joke Contest Winners

From time to time Internet-circulated jokes about disarmed people make their way into my inbox. One of the more recent ones had to do with a one-armed man who was contemplating suicide until he saw a no-armed man, running and dancing along, appearing to be exquisitely happy. Seeing him, the first man changed his mind and climbed down from the perilous height from which he had intended to jump. He caught up with the other man, inquiring how he could be so seemingly happy when he had no arms, to which the man replied, “I’m not happy at all. I’m moving along like this because I can’t reach down and scratch my balls.”

Why is this joke funny enough to keep circulating, and un-funny enough to cause a shudder? All jokes take hold because there is both an element of truth and an element of fear in them. No one wants to lose an arm, much less two arms, or two legs but at the same time all men—and women, too—can relate to how good it feels to scratch whatever itches.  

What I have learned from spending almost fifty years in association with amputees—both arm and leg, and combat and non-combat-related causes—is that among the fraternity members and their spouses, almost any kind of humor, even very-dark stuff, is okay, but from outside, it may come across as insensitive. John, however, does not seem to have a sensitive bone in his body when it comes to giving and getting arm,  hand, or ear-related humor. Whether it is an unintentionally funny “Buddy, can I give you a hand with that?” from someone who sees him struggling to load luggage in the overhead container in an airplane (“Sure, I’d appreciate that since I only have one of my own”) or “Hey, John, can you lend me a hand?” (“Okay, but it may not fit you too well.”) or “Can I bend your ear a moment about something?” (“Yes, but be careful because it could fall off”), John has never gotten his back up by anything that is said about his state of disarmament.    

Washington Post reporter Christian Davenport has written about the dark humor used by amputee veterans of our current wars as they bond and heal during their months-long rehabilitation program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Noting that the uneducated public, not really knowing what to say or do, usually stares at and/or pities a vet who is an amp, Davenport chronicles how some amps use humor to diffuse these situations. For example, describing the story of Pat Murray, an Iraq war veteran whose prosthetic leg usually gets attention and maybe also “that look” (quote and italics by Davenport), the writer says Murray adapts by striking first, like telling a woman who is putting her hand into the space between a closing elevator door at the same time he is approaching the elevator, “Careful, you can lose a limb that way.” When the woman withdraws her hand and tries to get her mind around the facts of his absent leg and her now-safe hand, Murray “flashes a smile, chuckles, and suddenly the ride up isn’t nearly so awkward after all.” (Washington Post, July 30, 2009)   

Sometimes such humor can be considered bizarre or twisted to an outsider but it is a crucial part of the amputee’s defense mechanisms and to their sense of well-being. Davenport notes, “(t)he sphere of people who can get away with telling amputee jokes is tightly defined, and not every wounded warrior is able to joke about having a hard time going up stairs or holding a cup of coffee. But for others, it’s the ultimate palliative as they move from denial to anger to acceptance.”

I have never known John to engage in self pity. There are times when he is clearly frustrated to not have use of both hands as he would prefer, but in almost every situation he adapts, finding some way to accomplish with one hand and a hook or artificial hand, what everyone else does with two hands. He does often get stares when in new situations with strangers and especially from children, whose parents may try to shush or re-direct the child, as though their curiosity might somehow confirm the absence of his arm and silence will keep the situation at bay.

Perhaps unlike some people who have disabilities, John has always welcomed questions from children and from anyone else. If the other person is also capable of joining him in some good-natured amp humor, that person is likely to be a friend for a long time. Sometimes he seems to be so able bodied that he truly seems to be unaware that he has a missing limb. In fact, recently, as I was reviewing with him some of my notes for this book, he looked at me, quite seriously, and said, “Am I really an amputee?” Not quite knowing at the moment whether he was serious or joking, I replied, “Yes, John, you have been an amputee for almost fifty years.”                

Davenport reports that veteran amps at Walter Reed call other amps special names, like “Five,” for the number of fingers left for an amp with one arm missing, and “Gimpy” or “Peg-leg” for those with leg amputations. The Walter Reed amps sometimes have printed up business cards or tee shirts mocking their situations, with sayings like “Buy a Marine. 25-50 percent off. Some assembly required,” and “Dude, where’s my leg.” Or darkest of all, “I went to Iraq, lost my leg, and all I got was this T-shirt.”

The leg amp vets at Walter Reed created a Top 10 list of positive things about being a double leg amputee, like “You can always wear shorts,” and “Your feet don’t smell.” John’s Top 10 list for being a single arm amputee, with a bonus for having a missing ear, includes, “You get half price on manicures,”  “You never wear out both gloves in an expensive leather pair,” “You only need to spend money for one hearing aid,” “You can instantly lose six pounds by removing your artificial arm,” “Your hook may leave you hanging, but at least you will be alive,” and my favorite, “You can remove a broken-off light bulb from its socket without needing to go look for pliers.”

John and his buddies, especially his golf and other sports buddies, have long used humor with each other as an end run around his being an amputee. Among the leg and arm amputees with whom John competes in the National Amputee Golf Association circuit, amp jokes can turn very dark.

One time his buddy, John Bragan, now-deceased, a double leg amp with one below-knee stump and one above-knee stump, had removed his prosthetic legs in the motel room after a round.  John M knocked on his door to go to dinner and John B, having not yet replaced his artificial legs, hobbled to the door, stumbling unevenly on his leg stumps. When the door opened John M looked into the room over the much shorter John B’s head and said, “Bragan, where are you?”  

Looking up, John B. answered, “Down here,” to which John M responded, “Oh, hell, it’s bad enough to have to eat dinner with all these amps, but I didn’t know I was going to have to eat dinner with a dwarf, too.”  


Disarmed was published by Ideas in to Books/Westview in May 2015 and is available for purchase through Parnassus Booksellers. It can also be puchased at Miss Daisy's Kitchen at Grassland Foodland in Franklin and at Landmark Books.

It is available in print and eBook through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.