You Had to Be There

Disclaimer: I’m a US Navy submarine veteran and the following is partially about that experience in my life. Regardless of what I say, I really had some wonderfully unique and amazing times and I don’t regret a second of it. 

When people say, “you had to be there,” after telling a story they intend to be funny about something that happened during a tough situation, say an underway.

Underway stories are never as funny on retelling primarily b/c the experience of the circumstances. Going underway is stressful in ways that we don’t care to admit, but we do our best not to let it get to us. The thing is, the heightened level of stress is revealed in the amount of enjoyment we get from hi jinks. Jokes and pranks and other funny games just send us to the moon in ecstatic laughter.

The most complete laughing fits I’ve ever experienced, or probably will experience, had to be from underway silliness. Laughs going beyond just a good gut-buster or belly laugh. Laugh-gasm is not that much of a hyperbole. Look at any boat that still has the balls to observe halfway night with any semblance of a fun-loving spirit and what do you see? There’s guys doing insane things to one another, putting on crazy costumes, straight acting a fool in myriad ways. I don’t think I want to really catalog it all as I think it might spoil it for anyone who was there.

But even if I did I don’t think it would capture it. I think if you described these antics to anyone who hadn’t been there, they would shake their head and think you were describing people who can’t explain their actions. In a word, crazy people. And they would be right in a way. The stress of underway literally drives a person crazy. The halfway night games and other assing off can be seen as a way to try to regain sanity, or to relieve some of the pressure that everyone is under. If you can laugh, you must be safe, so laughter allows us to temporarily drop the lizard brain fight or flight instincts that we struggle with every minute of being underway and feel like we’re safe, we’re loved.

When you re-tell that story, none of those circumstances are in play, and you don’t account for them in the telling other than to mention, “we was underway.” When you just say that, you gloss over a major explanatory factor as to the humor of the situation. But that’s not how you remember it, to you the funny thing was the look on dude’s face when he saw his rack. You were primed to experience a slightly amusing thing as every laugh in Airplane! at once. Your nervous system was screaming for some kind of comfort since all the comforts of home have been cut off from you.

I am kind of loath to admit that this is so traumatic, because in a way that is me admitting some kind of victimhood for myself. But I’m no victim. But I don’t think it’s healthy to look at the experiences I had through rose colored glasses. There’s also the chemical composition of air underway. It could be lower in oxygen than on the surface for extended periods of time, then the boat does an O2 bleed, raising the level to much higher than you’re used to. When you’re used to lowered levels of O2, it can be a real jolt. It raises everyone’s energy level, so they love to do this right before All Hands Drills or Field Day. It can also make you giddy af and much more likely to lose your mind laughing like a jackass at the slightest thing.

When you tell that funny story, you never mention the oxygen levels or the other psychological factors that made your experience so much funnier than it objectively was. This is not because you weren’t or aren’t ever aware of them. I think it’s something like what Gazzaniga calls “The Interpreter.” The interpreter is a function in your brain that rationalizes your actions and forms a narrative that things can make sense around. In his lecture he talks about his work with split brain patients and how their left and right brains can be shown different things with a different image in each eye, then asked to respond to some kind of stimuli. The different ways to respond can only be done by one half of the brain, and depending on which half gets to answer, the answer will be based on whatever image was shown to that half’s eye. After that, patients are asked to explain their choice of answer. This is where the interpreter comes in. Instead of simply saying, “well it was that half of my brain that saw the Popsicle, so I chose Popsicle,” for example, the patient will say, “I saw the knitting needle and yarn, but it was in a shape that I thought looked like a Popsicle, so that’s why I chose Popsicle,”  or some other narrative to explain the choice, regardless of how silly it may be with respect to other possible choices.

The Interpreter is what’s making you think that your story is funny because of the things that happened rather than the psychological and/or chemical factors at play. In fact, I can’t imagine someone trying to tell that story with any expectation of getting laughs. “We were underway, so we were all, to varying degrees, deeply aware of the possibility of not coming home and fearing the prospect of drowning or worse. We had all gone weeks without meaningful romantic physical contact, not just sex but even a sincerely felt hug or caress from a loved one. We were constantly aware of the fact that we had not seen the sun or felt natural atmosphere in weeks and this was a massive departure from our normal experience of the world. We had been stripped of many of the other enjoyable things. These factors wore on us all, making us crave something to distract us for this torment. The oxygen content of the air was much higher than it had been in recent days, raising our heart rates and energy levels almost to the point of giddiness. So of course we laughed like hyenas when Shulz tripped and spilled pudding on McCullough accidentally.”