A final tribute to the Funny Man, who brought a lot of life to mine

Johnny Sanna, 1919-2011.
Photo: Deborah Hardee

Before I understood who this man was, that he was my mother’s father and thus my grandfather, I knew him as the Funny Man.

In my head, I called him that. He was the Funny Man, and he looked the part. There was a nameless character in the old Warner Bros. cartoons, a little fellow dressed in overalls, who looked just like the Funny Man: Oversized in the schnozzle, happy to grow his hair long and wavy and sporting a mustache as large as a shrubbery.

Later, the tiny, bounding cartoon figures in the Super Mario Brothers video game looked like the Funny Man, too.

I remember very early in life my Mom and Dad driving out in the general direction of the home of the Funny Man, lumbering up a long incline of a street near the Idaho State University campus in Pocatello. Our family car, which was a stout, gold Mustang fastback, would make a right-hand turn and lurch toward a football enclave called the Spud Bowl, which at the time was an eroding relic of a stadium where the largely luckless Idaho State Bengal gridders used to play.

But before you reached the Spud Bowl, there was a traffic light, with two streets intersecting.

A fork in the road, in more ways than one.

I soon learned that making the left-hand turn was the right move, for all time, because making that turn meant we would be visiting the Funny Man’s house. During these drives, I would curl up in the back seat as we approached the light at that intersection, waiting with great anticipation for the dull “thunk-thunk, thunk-thunk” of the turn indicator. That rhythmic clicking was the certain signal that some fun was going to happen.

The Funny Man’s old brick house, with the deep basement that housed a not-quite-completed home saloon and an unfinished spare bathroom, seemed enormous. But since I have grown to an adult, I’ve realized, to my eternal bemusement, it’s far more the size of a cottage than an estate.

There was a garden out back, and the Funny Man worked out there, gripping a wheelbarrow and digging into the dirt with a hoe and shovel. My little brother and I had no clear idea of the purpose of all this activity, other than we understood that some fun was going on. We’d leap into the wheelbarrow and be carried through the long rows of peas, tomatoes and beets. He’d spread manure across the large patch, calling out that he was “Victor Manure!” a reference to a long-ago actor we’d never heard of. He’d strip off his shirt, prompting us to do the same, and pronounce that it was “time to give the girls a break!”

We seemed always tan in those Idaho summers and grew our hair out long, just like him, as we were true disciples of the Funny Man. From him, we learned such phrases as, “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” a play off his ever-playful first name, and, “Hommina-hommina-hommina!” It was not until later that I learned these call-outs were pulled from Johnny Carson and Jackie Gleason. It made no difference. There was an endless conveyor belt of such phrases as "I'm glad you got to see me!" and "My time is liniment!" Whenever he left a family gathering, he signaled his departure with, “Like they say in Scotland, Glas-Gow!” I never did hear him actually say “let’s go,” and someone other than the Funny Man may have also said that, but I’ve not heard it.

I took the Funny Man’s interminably fanciful attitude with me to grade school. Soon after I entered first grade, my teacher, the infinitely patient Mrs. Rice, quickly took note of my inventive use of the English language. Once I remarked to her, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy!” having no idea what that term signified. As Steve Martin later remarked, “Give that kid a special test.”

We became bat boys for a local softball team, my brother and I, an outfit called the Electrics, who wore wedding-gown-white uniforms with thin green pinstripes. Fast-pitch softball was a big dang deal in the state of Idaho in those days. Our Uncle Dave was the Electrics’ best home-run hitter, and the Electrics battled such hated rivals as Buddy’s bar and restaurant and the Blackfoot Spuds. To be allowed into that haven of machismo was more enlightening than uncovering the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. This is where we first learned how to whistle, singsong-like, in an athletic context. It’s also where the Funny Man regaled the team in tales of his Idaho All-State softball medal, which he won decades earlier for his play at third base.

That the “medal” was no larger than a buffalo nickel hardly mattered. Its legend was enormous. The Funny Man also spoke frequently of his military boxing career, using such self-appointed nicknames as “Canvas Back” and “Horizontal Sanna” to describe his fistic acumen. He told a story too preposterous to fabricate, about how he once meshed a two-handed set shot to help the Pocatello Air Field basketball team beat the Puerto Rican Air Force all-stars 12-11. Noting my crooked stare of disbelief, he added, “Yes! Puerto Rico has an Air Force!”

Over time, the family moved away, to Northern California, allowing the Funny Man to take his show on the road. His trips to see us on the West Coast were marked by a visit to San Francisco, where in Chinatown he stood casually on a street corner, wearing an Idaho State University baseball cap and leafing through a Chinese-language newspaper, grinning and pointing at the stories as if he fully understood the text.

In Oakland, he sat through a double-header matching the Minnesota Twins and the then-mighty Oakland A’s, on the hottest day of the year in the Bay Area. As the afternoon wore on, the Funny Man proudly told fans seated nearby of how the climate in Pocatello was far more appealing -- the beer never went warm at his house! -- and how the seats on his front porch were far more comfortable than the metal bleachers at the Oakland Coliseum. We happened to run into an old friend I’d gone to high school with that day, who joined the Funny Man in hilarious conversation through two pretty bad baseball games, the home team getting shut out twice.

Five years later, I once more ran into this person, again randomly while covering a semi-pro soccer game in Anderson, Calif. I was walking along the sidelines and heard, “Hey, Kats!” I turned and my high school friend rushed up. The first thing she asked was, “How’s your grandpa doing?”

As time wore on, the Funny Man grew older. For years, he fought off old age, jabbing and weaving like the Air Force boxer who was a far craftier fighter than his nicknames implied. At his 70th birthday, he played volleyball for hours. At his 80th, it was bocci and horseshoes. At age 90, he bowled a 200 game.

The Funny Man always kept the zingers coming, too, even at the expense of my grandmother, as the two enjoyed something of a “Honeymooners”-styled marital relationship.

The Funny Man once underwent back surgery, an excruciatingly painful procedure that limited his mobility and bent his rod-straight posture to a question mark. I called him at Portneuf Medical Center, located just a couple of pallina pitches from his house, soon after the surgery. A nurse handed him the phone, and he told me he was having his back drained of fluid, which was an acutely uncomfortable process. He struggled to get his words out, so much so that I asked, “What are they doing for the pain?”

“She’s at ceramics,” was his swift answer.

Knowing that Grandma had recently enrolled in such classes, I coughed out laughter. “Oh, Grandpa,” I finally said, “That’s some rough stuff.”

“That was a good one!” he said.

Such comedic tension (and my grandmother’s saintly tolerance and incredible Italian cooking) helped keep this marriage afloat for 68 years. Three children, seven grandchildren, five great-grandchildren. We’re hardly alike but all share the same engaging quality the Funny Man instilled in us when he happily welcomed friends (there were no strangers) onto his front porch in Pocatello.

That is his legacy, really, and it is immeasurable, the enjoyment of meeting and interacting with other people. I’m reminded of him always by the ruby ring I wear on my right hand, a gift he slipped to me off-handedly during Christmas Eve dinner in 2005.

He’s gone now, John “Johnny” Sanna, having left on the afternoon of Aug. 6. Ninety-two years the Funny Man lived, touching everyone he met. He was not sick when he died. He was just done playing. Reflecting on his life, and ours, I’m reminded of the sentiment conveyed by the author Thomas Wolfe: “You can’t go home again.” People say it all the time, you know: "You can't go home again," as if by recitation it is absolute truth.

Not so, I say. When you had the Funny Man in your life, you could do that, even from Las Vegas back to Idaho. You could go home again.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow "Kats With the Dish" at twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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