Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fun is cheap--entertainment is expensive.

My folks always worked hard. Very hard. Pat and Wally's work ethic is one I've never seen matched. But they played hard, too. They laughed easily, could usually laugh at themselves, and enjoyed seeing if others could or would laugh and, I think, saw such as a reflection of character.

In his teens, in the early 50's, Dad worked at a gas station in Brookline, Massachusetts, on Cypress and Boylston streets pumping gas, checking oil, greasing joints, and washing cars. He was trusted with cash and he was reliable so he sometimes worked at any one of the three stations that the owner operated in the area. In Brookline, there was a Pontiac car dealership across the street and frequently Wally would see the salesman out on the lot among the cars. Since a lot of time was spent out of the building dealing with customers who were inspecting or choosing a car, the dealership telephone was hooked up to ring a bell outside as well as inside for incoming calls.

This is in the days long before cell phones, so telephones were simple, and phone booths were common. The gas station had its own booth, and like everything else in that generation, a call cost a nickel. Somehow, known only to dad, the phone at the gas station had a short in the coin receiver, so it could be jiggled without losing a nickel to place a call.

Wally had the number for the car dealership across the street. When he saw the salesman far out into the lot away from the building, he'd jiggle the coin receiver, place a free call and watch. The salesman would perk up when he heard that outdoor phone bell ringing and run back to the the building, dash inside and catch the phone just as Dad would disconnect.

"Oh! so close!"

Of course, this is also the days way before caller ID, *69, voice mail, answering machines or any other calling feature. It was just a heavy black desk phone, so it was a lost call--and potentially, for that eager salesman, a lost sale.

Dejected, the salesman would head back out to the lot, resume his duties among the cars or customers, and Dad would jiggle the line again, and hearing that ring the hapless fellow would run back to catch the call--but faster this time, and with each subsequent ring his determination increased.

Dad continued this taunt, timing the frequency and duration of the calls with the distance the salesman would put between him and the phone to the point that eventually the fellow would just stand in the doorway, waiting for the phone to chime. He'd get closer and closer with each failed connection until he ultimately stood next to the desk, hand hovering over the phone ready to snatch the handset off the receiver at the first chirp of a jingle. No connection ever made.

It was mostly a harmless prank, and it amused Dad as he watched the salesman shake his angry fist at the telephone and see his shouts, silent from the interior of the showroom. For most teens those days the fad was stuffing themselves by the dozen into phone booths, but that seems so corny--somehow Dad's chicanery satisfies on an entirely different level.

Dad and his pal, Arthur, used that same phone booth to place a free call to his mother. Posing as agents from New England Bell Telephone, they explained that it was time for the annual 'blowing of the lines' and they were calling Bell customers as a courtesy to alert them. They described the necessary process of forcing jets of compressed air through all the phone lines to clean them and avoid the annoying cracking and static in the connection during conversations.

"Mrs. West, if you'd just take a paper sack, and set the entire receiver in the bag, when we blow the lines, none of the dirt and dust that will blast out of the handset will get into your home. You'll just be able to throw the full bag of dirt away when we're done."

Mildred certainly appreciated the advance notice and promptly put the phone in a sack as advised. When Wally and Arthur came back to the house, there it sat wrapped up tightly in a brown bag.

Dad continued these harmless pranks over the years. My mother was often the victim. In the 70's, we'd moved to a new home in Michigan. As with all of our frequent moves, my mother served as forward infantry. Before the moving van would arrive her operations began in an empty house that she would scour, freshly paint, wallpaper, shine, polish and wax floors, and bring all bathrooms and the kitchen to operating-room sterility before we settled in.

Knowing my mother was eager to replace a room full of dated shag carpeting, my father rolled up several feet of the carpet, and laid down several denominations of paper currency, then unrolled the carpet back into place.

Later, when it was time to actually remove the carpet, they knelt side by side to evenly roll it up and out of the house. As each row of bills was revealed, she shrieked and whooped. Thinking that some previous owner had stashed away a small fortune she snatched up the bills while pushing at the carpet roll with the newfound strength a mother would employ to lift a car that had just pinned her child underneath. It took her a few minutes to catch on since Dad didn't join her, but stood watching and laughing, making fun until they were joined by the family who all shared the hilarity.

But she fell for it again when we moved years later, returning to Massachusetts in the late 70's. This new house was in rural central Mass. and had several acres of woodland, complemented with a pond, stone walls, and a babbling brook. To find the septic system Dad purchased a sophisticated metal detector and tromped around the woods on weekends adjusting buttons and knobs listening keenly to various beeps and alerts the machine would offer for whatever was hidden just beneath the earth.

Anticipating a new discovery in Pat's company some day, Dad took a rusty tin can and stuffed it with paper money and coin. He buried it keeping its location in mind for just the right opportunity. Not long after, they walked side by side in the woods, and the telltale alarm was sounded. My mother, prepared with trowel in hand, pounced on the spot and dug to quickly reveal the latest treasure find, the notion of new-found riches erased all memory of having fallen victim to a similar prank.

Maybe it's a generational thing. Our pal Paul's dad, Dwight, seems to be of the same stock.

Paul shared the story with us all about when his native Nebraskan parents were on a trip with another couple. Each couple checked into their separate hotel rooms and as soon as Dwight and Gladys settled in to theirs, Dwight went into the bathroom and unscrewed the light bulb from its fixture, rendering the bathroom pitch black when the door was closed. He then filled the ice bucket with tap water and set it off to the side.

When the traveling couples re-convened in Dwight and Gladys' room to plan the evening's activities, Dwight excused himself to the bathroom, flipped the light switch several times and poked his head back out to explain the faulty bulb, and ask forgiveness for needing to leave the door slightly ajar in order to see in the darkened bathroom.

He then proceeded to slowly and deliberately pour the contents of the bucket in a steady stream from several feet above the toilet bowl creating a clearly audible image of the activity within. Taking several more moments than would naturally occur for even a capacious full bladder, Dwight continued to empty the bucket until half the contents were spent. Then he stopped, paused for a second, and then resumed pouring the remaining water into the toilet.

Emerging from the bathroom, deadpan, they all went off to supper.

I think Dwight and Wally could be very good friends.


  1. man, people don't prank like that these days.
    a word of caution, never hold your coins in an open palm while near jane

  2. ...and NEVER open her medicine cabinet.

  3. Highsterical (as Jane would say)

  4. Oh, pranks, how we love them. Stay tuned for more: I hope the party invitation story is coming up soon.

  5. I L'd and O'd--what great stories. I love a good prank. I do miss those old black phone days. There's scant little to do tricky-wise on a cell phone except purchase a sound effect machine, say you're talking while driving and then play the horrendous crash sound. Then come back on the line, "Now what was I saying?" That's all I can think of.