The Joke’s On You, Part III

I have always had a unique love of practical jokes.  From the time that I learned what a practical joke was I have been drawn to playing them on other people and having them played on me in my turn.  Of course it was important to choose as my victims people who could take a joke, as some people just do not take them well.  I tended to avoid playing tricks on prickly people, even anonymously, since somebody was bound to run off at the mouth and there’d be a fight in no time at all.  I was never really interested in that.

Not all people were like me however.  Some of the guys in my neighborhood would pull off a  joke on just about anybody, and some of those jokes were not at all just in good fun.  Willie Starnes was such a guy.  Willie was bigger than most of the other kids and not at all afraid to cross the lines of propriety when it came to having fun at other people’s expense.

Willie’s jokes ran the gamut from simple fun to intimidation to outright sabotage.  For example, there were two slender trees growing at one end of our neighborhood park.  Willie one day took two lengths of surgical rubber tubing and tied one end of each to holes punched in opposite sides of a metal funnel.  He then tied the two rubber tubes to the trees and had in effect made a huge slingshot.  Willie then took a bag full of water balloons and began to rain them down on kids playing on the playground about 100 yards away.  Getting smacked in the head with a water balloon launched from half a block away was not a fatal event, but it was far from fun.  Willie liked it however, and that is all that mattered.

The boys in our neighborhood also had a little game that we called “Bam”.  In this game one could punch somebody in the shoulder, throw a basketball into their lap or hit them with a white bean shot through a pea shooter and be safe from retaliation if one would only say “Bam” out loud when the hit was delivered.  The effect was usually startling or embarrassing but rarely painful, at least the way that most of us played it, but Willie could be counted on to take it to extremes.  A punch in the chest, a football thrown at the head or groin, or a painful flick on the ear delivered by Willie to the accompaniment of a shouted “Bam” took all of the fun out of the game for the rest of us.

When Willie wasn’t annoying us he was sure to be somewhere stuffing a potato up somebody’s exhaust pipe or letting the air out of somebody else’s auto or bicycle tires or, as he once did, running a kid’s bicycle up the flagpole at the park and tying the ropes up high on the pole so that the little guy couldn’t reach it.  Willie was not the roughest guy in our neighborhood by a long shot, but he certainly had his own rough edge and was far from my favorite person to hang around with.

All of us guys looked for a chance to get back at Willie without taking a thumping on the head as part of the bargain.  Willie had a bicycle but nobody dared to mess with it for fear of being caught.  We would play the “Bam” game with him but always be sure to tap him lightly or telegraph the throwing of any object his way.  It was critical that we extend to him a sense of inclusion since he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon that we knew of, yet not make our actions aggressive enough to be interpreted as a challenge.  Walking that tightrope came to be a big pain in everybody’s necks.

The solution to the problem came to us unexpectedly when the older brother of Frank Cortner, one of the smaller kids in our group, got a summer job working at a movie theater in the suburb of La Mesa, which sprawls just next to San Diego.  This theater ran all of the old cheesy black and white “B” science fiction and horror movies; the ones we all loved and watched at the movie house in our own neighborhood.  Most of the movie companies produced posters to be displayed in the windows outside of the movie houses and wanted those posters back when the movie’s run there was completed.  Sometimes, however, when a poster got torn or soiled or in some other way defaced the company let go of it and printed up new ones to accompany their crappy movies to their next showing.  When this would happen anyone who wanted them could take these posters home, and that is how a poster from a monster movie came to find its way into the garage of Frank Cortner.

I do not at this time remember which movie that poster with a torn corner and a smudge of ketchup across the title came from.  I was certain that it was from “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” starring Michael Landon of “Little House on the Prairie” fame, but my friend Wes is equally certain that the poster was of “It! The Creature From Beyond Space”.  To add to the confusion another of my co-conspirators who still lives in San Diego, Ron Larimer, believes that it was the “Creature From the Black Lagoon”.  I guess it really doesn’t matter.  What is relevant to this tale is that we had at our disposal a nearly life-sized poster of a very frightening creature, and one fine day while we were all lounging in and around Frank’s garage a bright idea occurred to one of us concerning how we could use that poster to gain a small measure of revenge on Willie Starnes.

We carefully cut out the figure of the monster from the poster and glued it to a large piece of cardboard which had remained in the garage since Frank’s parents had bought a new refrigerator the year before.  We then cut away the excess cardboard so that we had a fairly sturdy, nearly life-sized image of a monster; trust me, it was the Teenage Werewolf.  The other guys don’t know what they are talking about.  Next we went to the hardware store a few blocks from my house and bought two eight foot 2 X 4 building studs.  We used a couple of strips of plywood as joiners and nailed the two studs together, and then tested it for height.  It was too big, so we took about four feet off of one end and now it was just right.

Willie Starnes lived in an upstairs apartment with his parents on the corner of Polk and 43rd Street, about five blocks from my house.  Willie always had his window open, wanting to see what was going on outside and liking being seen in return.  There was a streetlight on the corner opposite Willie’s window across the intersection, and a row of palm trees between that light and the window.  Those trees let a lot of light through but softened it so that things would not be seen outside in the sharpest clarity from inside Willie’s room.  We all knew that Willie had to be home on Thursday nights because his father insisted on family time, and Willie hated the thought of not being able to hang out at the park or prowl the streets with the rest of us so he would retire to his room as soon as he possibly could.

Darkness came early on the day that we got our revenge on Willie.  By 5:30 PM there was little more than a glow on the western horizon.  Willie was finishing his dinner and crafting his best effort at a credible excuse as to why he had to retire to his bedroom.  We were waiting in the shadows across the street when we saw Willie’s figure walk past his window, and at that moment we knew that our time had come.  Using a hammer that we had smuggled out of Frank’s father’s garage we pounded a couple of carpet tacks through the image of the monster, fixing it to the end of what had become a twelve foot pole.  We crossed the street, which was not a particularly busy one, and crowded behind a hedge which ran the full length of the apartment building in which the Starnes family lived.  Frank hoisted the pole with the image of whichever movie monster it really was and placed it squarely in the middle of Willie’s bedroom window.

We were probably not there for a very long time, but it seemed to us like we were there forever holding a long wooden pole with a silhouette affixed to it on a well lit corner in a big city.  We were worried that some curious neighbor would call the cops on us before we hit pay dirt, but all of those fears came to an end abruptly when we heard a terrified shriek come out through the open portion of Willie’s window.  Frank bobbed the pole up and down and Willie shrieked again, then we hauled down the pole and took off running, trying to stay out of the light as best we could.  We ducked into an alley, disconnected the cardboard monster, chucked the pole into somebody’s back yard, and trotted back to Frank’s garage where the monster was fixed in a place of honor on one of the walls.

Willie never did mention this event when he came to hang out with us at the park.  Frank or Ron or I would sometimes mention monsters that we had seen on the big screen at the Crest Theater on University Avenue and comment on how scared we would be if one of those creatures ever jumped out at us from the dark, but Willie would never take our bait.  I think that he suspected us, but that may just be the product of a guilty mind.  We never told any of the other kids about our prank, but all of the other kids went to the weekend matinees just like we did, and all of them would talk about this monster or that one, so Willie could never really be sure who had got the best of him.  That just made it that much better.

Frank and Wes and I are still in contact and we still laugh about that prank on rare occasions when we get together.  Nobody knows what happened to Willie however.  We have one clue only.  One day, many years later, Wes ran into Willie at Pacific Beach in San Diego.  Willie was living on the margins of society, probably what we would now call ‘homeless’.  Drugs had obviously wrought havoc on his life already and he seemed to be walking blindly into an alternate universe of delusion, paranoia, separation and eventually violent or drug-induced death.  I have no confidence at all that Willie still lives.  Nevertheless, Willie Starnes occupies the exalted position of recipient of the number one, all time best prank that I was ever a part of, and if for no other reason than that I wish him happiness if he yet lives and peace if he has gone to meet his Maker.

Movies on the Road, Part Two

When the time came to leave England my wife and I boarded a train in London and soon were speeding across the English countryside towards a large hole, into which we plunged and emerged less than twenty minutes later, and at almost twice our previous speed, flashing across the French countryside.  At first, everything seemed the same.  In a matter of a few hours however we were immersed in all things French; French language, French culture, French food, the works.  We spent a few days in Normandy and then travelled across France by bus, slow train and very fast train to a small city and then a tiny hamlet in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.  After a few days there we climbed back onto a bus which would take us back to the train, which in turn would take us to Bourg en Bresse, a small city in Eastern France.

Bourg en Bresse was the place on our itinerary that I most looked forward to visiting because there is no real reason for a tourist to go there.  The area does in fact enjoy a small amount of local notoriety for the very tasty chickens that are raised there, and if one is desperately seeking a ceramic chicken with which to decorate one’s kitchen or a kite in the shape of a chicken for the delight of one’s grandchildren, or any other conceivable use that one could wish to make with the image of a chicken, it could be found in Bourg en Bresse.  Unfortunately we did not at that moment have any use to which we could put the likeness of a chicken nor room to carry it if such a use presented itself, so we had to find other attractions to bring us to Bourg en Bresse and keep us there for two full days.

Fortunately those attractions did exist.  For my part I wanted to see a French city or town where the only attraction was French people being French.  Nobody in that city would be seeking to separate me from my tourist dollars any more than they would want to separate anyone else from their French Francs.  Except for my rather longish hair and beard which was somewhat uncommon in France at that time I did not look very much unlike any of the citizens of that city who thronged the streets and sidewalks and shops and parks.  That was exactly what I wanted to see, and I got my money’s worth.

My wife was on another mission.  Decades earlier when she was a teenager she had a pen pal in Bourg en Bresse.  My wife was taking French and a French girl, Edith was her name, was taking English.  They would write to each other in their native languages so that the recipient of a letter could practice reading real English and real French as real people speak and write them.  Now, almost thirty years later, we were standing on a sidewalk in front of the house which shared the same address as was on the letters in the bundle which was tied up in a ribbon and resting in my wife’s hand.

“Go ahead and push the button” i said, pointing to the button at the gate entering into the property where the house stood.  “We’re never going to be here again so why not?”  My wife is a cautious person and ringing the bell of a house owned by somebody we do not know in a city half way around the world from home is not the kind of thing that she would normally do.  This time it was different however, and so to my surprise she extended her digit and the button was pushed.  Nothing happened.  Nobody was home, apparently.  “Ah well, we might as well get a picture of you standing in front of the house”.  She agreed to that and I backed out into the street to get a decent shot of my wife and the squarish front of the large white house where Edith once lived.

These actions were very much out of the ordinary in Bourg en Bresse and we were noticed by an older woman who lived across the street.  I guess French people are not shy about asking slightly shaggy strangers in their neighborhoods why they’re taking pictures of houses, and so this inquisitive neighbor emerged from her house to enquire after our business there.  She spoke French and French only and I do not speak French at all, so the lot fell to my wife to use her high school French learned thirty years earlier to explain our purpose.  She failed miserably in that task.  Apparently there is no easy translation of ‘pen pal’ into French.  We were getting nowhere until my wife hauled out her beribboned bundle of letters, one of which contained a picture of Edith when she was a girl of sixteen.

Understanding flashed across the elderly neighbor’s face like fireworks over the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July.  You could see this neighbor, who had lived there when young Edith was showing neighbors the letters that she had received from a girl in the U.S., connect the dots; that this was the very girl!  She practically dragged us into her house and we waited as she got on the telephone.  I could hear a sporting event on a television or radio somewhere in the house and soon, as the woman was making her calls and explaining her mission, an older man appeared around a corner to see what was going on.  He was a great looking guy, wearing khaki colored trousers, what we call a ‘wife beater’ undershirt, a day’s growth of stubble on his face and a bit of a pot belly topped off with suspenders.

In French he asked, in a few words as is customary with men everywhere, what was going on.  His wife answered, in French and also in a manner which is customary with women everywhere, and told him in excruciating detail what was going on.  I will never forget his reaction.  First a slight lifting of the eyebrows.  Then an ever-so-slight pursing of the lips and a barely noticable tilt of the head which said, as clearly in French as in any language, “Whatever”.  He then retreated back into the interior of the house, presumably to enjoy the rest of the sporting event which I could still hear.  I really wished that he would have opened a bottle of wine and invited me back into the house to watch or listen to the sporting event with him.  Language, I am certain, would not have been a problem.  By the end of our visit with the old neighbor and her disinterested husband my wife was in possession of Edith’s new address and they remain in contact to this day.  I am deeply envious of them and have already written the story of my own still-lost pen pal.

We spent the rest of the day seeing the city; eating delicious snacks, doing laundry, and by early evening we had enjoyed a sumptuous dinner and withdrawn to our very comfortable hotel to relax for the evening.  We showered and made our plans for the next day and then turned on the television to see what the the French people of Bourg en Bresse were watching that night.  By far, the most interesting movie on the tube that evening was Forrest Gump.  We had already seen Forrest Gump in the United States but now we were watching it in a spacious continental hotel on a huge bed with a bottle of extraordinary wine.  Also, we were watching it in Italian.  Now Forrest Gump is a very good movie and the actors all turned in marvelous performances, and soon it didn’t matter that the movie was in Italian.  Between our memories of the general plot of the movie, the magnificent performances and the bottle of very good French wine we were all in with the movie and blubbering along with Forrest as he was talking to Jenny at her grave site under the big tree which they had climbed as children.

Soon after that Forrest saw his son climb into the school bus which brought the movie around full circle, sat down to await his return, and we watched the feather take off and begin to fly to wherever the winds would take it, just as we all do in our turn.  We gave our noses a final blow after the sad scene and then turned the lights off, resting to prepare for the tomorrow’s journey to wherever the winds would blow our feather that next day.