I LOVE JOSEPH PLUMB MARTIN, the young patriot who joined the Continental Army at age 15 in 1776 and later wrote Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier. He’s so humble. His book is a soldier’s-eye narrative that describes the gore and privation of war in crisp language. He’s serious about death and suffering, yet irreverent about himself and his modest role in the War for Independence.
Martin describes himself as “one of the lowest in station in an army, a private.” He endures, he says, “hardships sufficient to kill half a dozen horses,” but that’s the closest he comes to boasting, and he makes it clear that others suffered just as much.
Self-deprecation used to be a virtue, at least in my home. I recall a family friend saying “I ain’t the smartest guy in the world,” and my mom later telling me, “Don’t you believe it. Larry’s got more sense than anyone I know.”
That fit with all those Westerns I saw where the hero fights off hordes of outlaws and deflects praise by saying, “Ah, it weren’t nothin’.” Or, “I jes’ got lucky, ma’am.”
So what happened when I tried the humble-guy routine?
The year is 1989 and I’m an off-duty copy editor at an itty-bitty California newspaper trying to romance a female reporter over beers. She’s impressed with me, it seems. There’s an opening for a news editor position and she says I should go for it because I’m “an awesome editor” and all the reporters like me.
“Ah, I’m not that great,” I say in what I hope is a Cary Cooper-like “aw-shucks” tone. “I just catch a few typos here and there.”
Did she pick up on the just-being-modest message? Apparently not. A few weeks later I overheard her at the office whispering to another reporter, “Bill’s not much of an editor. All he does is catch a few typos.”
I would have been outraged except she was right — I really was a lackluster editor. Maybe false modesty fails when it isn’t truly false.
Still, I find that most people today lack a humbleness detector. Tell them you’re lacking in some quality, and they’ll believe you.
Example: A few years ago a colleague of mine at the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a story about the excess of so-so players in baseball’s Hall of Fame. To support his point, he used a quotation from 1920s-era pitcher Eppa Rixey, who was elected to the Hall in 1963. “They’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren’t they?” Rixey joked after his election.
I realize that some self-deprecating types are just fishing for compliments. Like a photographer I worked with who would turn in pictures and say, “I know they’re not that great.” In truth, the pictures were excellent, and he knew it. He was just waiting for me to say, “Whaddaya mean? These are awesome!”
I can see other cases where the I’m-so-humble approach wears thin. My brother, Jerry, recoils from compliments. Last summer our sister, hearing us talk about books, said, “You guys are so smart.” Jerry practically pulled a muscle disavowing her praise, which is silly. He is smart. Admitting it wouldn’t make him a braggart.
That said, I like the old-fashioned aw-shucks type. Like my biological father, Wayne Jackson. I was 35 when I first met him, and nervous as hell. He’d been a prisoner of war in WWII and run a successful business (he was retired). I thought he might be a pompous, dour guy.
Shortly after my wife and I met my bio-dad and his wife at a riverside restaurant in Shady Cove, Oregon, he launched into a rollicking tale of his World War II capture. It was late in the war and the Germans could smell their inevitable defeat, resulting in a let’s-just-get-this-over-with attitude from the enemy soldier escorting Wayne (my dad) to his squadron.
The German soldier had a rifle, of course, and a bicycle, which presented a problem. He couldn’t ride the bike and hold the rifle and make good time while Wayne, who had a shrapnel injury in his right leg, walked. So the soldier worked out a solution and pantomimed his plan — he spoke no English and my dad spoke no German.
The idea was my dad would ride on the handlebars of the bicycle, holding the German’s rifle. If they should encounter any other Germans, Wayne would jump off the handlebars, hand the rifle back to his captor, and walk with his hands in the air like a normal, obedient prisoner.
It was a great story, with a satisfactory ending. My dad spent a very short time in a prisoner of war facility and suffered no serious deprivations as the war wore down.
I’m aware that World War II was no lark for the 60 million people killed and all those who suffered in concentration camps. But that’s not the point here. The point is my dad saw combat, got shot, and yet found the humor in what must have been a terrifying situation.
I admire him for that. And I think Joseph Plumb Martin would have approved.