Illegal and Unlawful—Jokes that Refuse to Die

With some trepidation and plenty of worry, parents today fret about how the world has changed since they were kids. Every day the media offer up a full banquet of fears. Handwringing ensues. The halcyon days of yesteryear were kinder, simpler, more wholesome, slower, safer.

Every now and then, however, I’m reminded that children are still just children. Little kids having fun in the most innocent of ways.

Coming home from breakfast this morning #1 turned to me and asked:

Daddy, do you know what the difference is between illegal and unlawful?

Instantly I was transported back four decades to the curb in front of my house. I first heard that joke one summer evening. My best friend from down the street was sitting next to me as we threw stones into the neighbors overgrown ivy. He turned to 7-year-old me and asked: “Hey, what’s the difference between illegal and unlawful.”

He always prefaced his jokes with “Hey” and tried to make them sound like real questions. I fell for it this time. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I do remember launching into what I thought was a sophisticated 2nd-grade compare-and-contrast discussion of illegal and unlawful no doubt replete with pseudo-etymologies and subtle distinctions in nuance and meaning. A few stones later, he turned and delivered the punchline: “One’s a sick bird, the other’s against the law.”

Hahaha, he laughed as he got up to go get more stones.

This morning I recognized the question. I knew the punchline. I picked up an acorn, tossed it into a pile of leaves, and said:

Nothing really.

Hahaha, #1 giggled,

An ill eagle is a sick bird. Get it?

Everything about this rerun of a joke made me smile. I smiled hearing #1 tell it as if he and his friends were the first kids to tell it. I smiled to see the glee it brought him to have fun with language. I smiled seeing him pick up an acorn and, as he tossed it at the pile of leaves, hearing him giggle, haha.

Maybe childhood today isn’t all that different from forty years ago.