When I was young I lived in a neighborhood of practical jokers. There were some who’s mischief ran to the malicious, to be sure, but by and large our pranks and practical jokes were harmless if occasionally quite shocking. Almost all of the kids in my neighborhood were long-time residents, so any prank would probably be pulled on a neighbor who’s lawn one might cut for a few dollars on a Saturday morning or who one might deliver newspapers to in the afternoon, or who – worse case scenario – might go to bowling league with one or more of your parents. Getting caught pulling any prank on one of these neighbors might easily result in retribution from Dad with his belt. Getting caught pulling a malicious prank would result in a fate that would be much, much worse.
Also deterring us from pulling really bad pranks was Officer Alphabet. Officer Alphabet grew up in East San Diego not more than 150 feet from my house. His family was Polish, and his name contained nothing but C’s and Z’s and Y’s and a gob of other letters in unpronounceable combinations. The real pronunciation of his name was something like “Shemshack”, but it certainly didn’t look anything like that, so we just called him Officer Alphabet.
Officer Alphabet had been a big kid while growing up in our midst and he grew up to be a big police officer, and he was assigned to patrol our neighborhood. This presented big problems to us prank-loving kids, as Officer Alphabet knew every passageway between houses, every path through the canyons which laced through our neighborhood, and every hedge, tree or shrub big enough to provide cover to a hiding prankster with judgement hot on his heals. Officer Alphabet had used all of those passages and hiding places himself when he was a kid pulling pranks. Officer Alphabet couldn’t be in our neighborhood all of the time, but when he was there the place stayed pretty quiet.
We had all levels of tricksters living in our midst, and many were not all that creative. Draping toilet paper over trees and shrubs and family autos parked in front of somebody’s house so that the morning dew would virtually plaster the paper to whatever it was draped over was a favorite of the unimaginative, as was scooping up a pile of doggie doo into a paper bag, placing it on a porch in front of the door, lighting it on fire and ringing the doorbell, hoping that the occupant of the home would answer the door, see the burning bag, and stamp on it to try to put out the fire. That prank was so old that few people fell for it, but it still generated a lot of laughs on the rare occasions when it worked.
I belonged to a higher order of trickster, however, and enjoyed hours of entertainment with my friends as we raised hackles, ire and Cain throughout our neighborhood for many years without any of our jokes bringing significant retribution upon ourselves. What follows are a few examples of our better efforts at creating good natured havoc with out neighbors in East San Diego in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
My third all-time favorite prank occurred one summer evening in 1963, I think it was. Some friends and I, all fans of sci fi and monster films and all bored, came up with the idea of transforming me into “The Mummy” from the Boris Karloff 1932 movie of the same name. We went to my house where we cut a hole out of a cotton pad and taped it over my right eye, covering up eyebrows which I wished to keep. We then taped an intact cotton pad over my left eye and covered my close-cropped hair with a piece of rag from a bag of such things which my father kept in the garage. We then proceeded to tape my head and hands completely with gleaming white adhesive tape until I was eventually doing a pretty good imitation of Mr. Karloff’s character. I pulled on my black turtleneck shirt and we walked the short distance to the recreational center, which we called ‘The Park’, where all of the neighborhood kids hung out.
My friends hid behind shrubs while I strolled across the asphalt towards the center’s office over by the basketball court, dragging my left leg ever so slightly in homage to Karloff. The effect was electric. One of the girls gave off a stifled scream, or more like a swallowed squeak, when she turned and saw me approaching. Everyone else simply stopped in their tracks and stared as I shuffled further into the light. I made my way to a bench where most of the kids were sitting and took a seat which a couple of the kids had just quickly vacated. I sat down, faced them, and then began to laugh through the tight slit which we had left for my mouth. At this point my friends emerged from the bushes behind which they had been hiding and we all had a good laugh after a few punches in the shoulder from the guys and pushes from the girls, all of which I received with delight being a kid who was rarely the center of anything.
After a while Sonny Abacha, one of the newer kids in our group, suggested that we take our show out into the neighborhood. We devised a plan to have one of the kids walk up to a house who’s owner we didn’t know, with me in tow, and ask for directions to a mythical house number on a street a few blocks away. We all agreed on the plan and chose a house about a block away from the park. Since our scheme was Sonny’s idea he was chosen to take me up to the first house. We mounted the steps, rang the bell, and waited as we heard the steps of the approaching resident. The porch light came on and the door was opened by a short, grizzled man in dungarees and a stained undershirt.
“Excuse me sir, can you tell me where I can find Myrtle Street?” asked Sonny in the most polite manner which he could summon up. The man stared at me for a moment and then looked back at Sonny, “Huh, what’d you say?” he asked. “We’re looking for Myrtle Street sir. I need to get my friend to a home where he will be taken care of but I must have read the map wrong. Can you tell me if that street is anywhere around here?” “It’s two blocks down the street that way” said the man, pointing with his chin. “What the hell happened to him?” Sonny didn’t miss a beat. “Fire, sir. He was in a car crash and got burned.” The man stared a moment longer and then said “Hell of a bad break. Well, Myrtle’s that way”. This time he pointed with his thumb and shut the door as Sonny thanked him for his help. Sonny and I held our laughter until we reached the sidewalk and the group of kids who appeared from behind parked cars and trees, and then we enjoyed our prank to the limit. We repeated this scenario with different boys, and girls too, walking me up to the front doors, always to be greeted by gasps, stares, and frequently expressions of condolence.
The success of our little joke led us to try our luck with a larger audience. The two main business streets in our neighborhood were Fairmont and University Avenues, with University being the most commercial of the two. We decided to head towards Fairmont first where there was a hamburger stand at which we were frequent customers. We pretended not to notice the stares of motorists who drove past us as we walked up to that business, and when we arrived Linda Stevens, one of my oldest friends, took me up to order. Linda was a very pretty girl, and the boy working at the window was our age and always gazed longingly at Linda when we went there for burgers or taquitos or whatever. Tonight he just stared at me, like everyone else, and then asked Linda “Who’s your creepy friend?”
“Arlen, that is a terrible thing to say” Linda scolded. “This is Joseph, my cousin. His family died in a fire and he was terribly burned. Now he’s living with us and I would appreciate it if you would be a little bit nicer to him”. Arlen stood behind the screened window apologizing to Linda and me for his poor choice of words while I stood beside Linda thinking that it would be worth getting burned for real to elicit that much attention and sympathy from her. Linda and I were good friends, it was true, but I would have loved to elevate that status if there was any way that my shy personality would have allowed it.
Linda went to pay for the two sodas which she had ordered for us but Arlen wouldn’t dream of taking her money. Linda thanked him and handed me my soda. I inserted the straw into the thin slit which we left open over my mouth and slurped some of the soda in an exaggerated way that forced a laugh out of Linda. Arlen just stood behind his window looking stupefied as I limped beside Linda toward the kids who were watching from a darkened parking lot across the busy street. Linda and I crossed the street easily, as every car braked instantly upon seeing me.
One block away was the corner of Fairmont and University Avenues, and this was a major hub in our corner of the city. We were very aware of the stares of the drivers and pedestrians whom we passed by, and were busy planning our next act in this comedy when a black and white police patrol car slowed down as it passed us and then rolled to a stop by the curb a little bit ahead in the direction that we were walking. As we pulled adjacent to his car the officer called us over to him. “Is that dressing the real thing?” he asked. It never entered my head to lie. “No sir” I answered. “Then what is this all about”? “It’s just a joke sir” said Sonny. “We’re just having a little fun. We haven’t done anything wrong, have we”? Well, actually you have” replied the officer. “You’re not allowed to wear a mask outside except on Halloween.” We were stunned by that knowledge. “Why is that?” I asked. “Well,” the officer drawled, “how do we know that you aren’t going to rob some business or do some other bad stuff? If people just all ran around with masks all of the time there’s no telling how many crimes would be committed and with no way of identifying the criminals”.
That made sense to us and so we promised to remove the tape. The police cruiser pulled away and we walked around the first corner that we came to and plunged back into the darkness of a residential street. We hated the idea of ending the joke, but as it was my rear end that would be in a sling if the policeman returned to check up on our level of compliance I made the decision to shed my disguise. The tape came off, along with generous amounts of hair which I had not managed to adequately cover, and we all returned to the recreation center sharing a lot of laughs along the way. We waved goodbye to The Mummy as I dropped the tape and accessories into a trash can just on the other side of the tennis court.
And that is the story of my third favorite neighborhood prank. My second favorite will be told in my next story.