Category Archives: Practical Jokes

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.

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The Joke’s On You, Part II

Halloween was a special time in my neighborhood of East San Diego when I was a child.  I grew up there in the 1950’s and 1960’s when things were more simple, in my world at least.  These were the times when the elementary schools would have halloween carnivals in the evening at which one could fish for prizes from a tank, throw bean bags through a hole to win tickets redeemable for prizes, or win a cake on the cakewalk.  I will never forget how excited I was one time when the music stopped on the cakewalk and the paper plate upon which I was standing contained the winning number and some big, pink, three layer cake was mine.  And I didn’t even like cake!

Also missing in halloween these days is the homemade and natural goodies that we once filled our pillowcases with; brownies, fudge, apples and oranges and my all-time favorite, popcorn balls.  We knew most of the neighbors who were giving us these home concocted treats and the thought of them inserting something dangerous or gross into our treats never entered either our minds or theirs.  I really do miss the popcorn balls.

There is no doubt that I enjoyed the treats greatly, but I must confess that I really loved the tricks too.  Most people only said “Trick or treat” as a formality, but my brother Brad and I took that formula very seriously.  Our tricks originally were short on imagination.  Soaping windows, burning paper bags filled with doggie doo on the front porch and the like were our stock in trade at first.  As we grew a little older however the quality of our work was honed to a sharper edge.  My all-time second favorite prank was Halloween related, and was as follows.

Sometime right around 1960 Brad and I decided to make a dummy to hang from a branch of the pine tree which grew in the front yard of our house.  The branches spread out over the sidewalk and anyone walking up that sidewalk, and there would be hoards of people out trick-or-treating in those days, would have to walk under that pine tree.  We found an old pair of my jeans and stuffed the legs full of crumpled up newspapers, pine needles, dried weeds from a burn pile in our back yard, and dirty rags.  Brad then pulled an old shirt out of the rag bag in the garage and attached it to the jeans with safety pins.  The shirt was then similarly filled and a cotton rope attached to the collar with more safety pins.  We then glued a paper lunch sack into the collar opening of the shirt which represented a head and in the dark it made a pretty good likeness of a person hanging from a limb.

Our results were mixed.  It was Halloween after all, and people were expecting such props.  Some of the younger kids were a little bit spooked by our dummy but they were calmed down by their older escorts and not much came of it, so Brad and I decided to take the prank to the next level.  We tied one end of a string to a leg of the dummy and then climbed up into the tree, using the string to pull the dummy up into the tree with us.  Now we were able to wait for our victims to come walking up the sidewalk and let the dummy come swinging down right in front of them.

The effect was electric and hugely satisfying.  The first group gave out a shriek, and when they assessed the nature of the joke tore our dummy down and spread it all over the sidewalk.  After they walked on we repaired our masterpiece and regained our perch in the tree to wait for new victims.  The wait was not long and soon our dummy, now just a bit the worse for wear, went swinging back out of the tree.  The effect was identical, but this time we hoisted the dummy back up into the tree before our marks could recover from their fright and inflict punishment on the dummy like their predecessors had.  We received a few threats and verbal chastisements from our thoroughly punked victims but we stayed silent and mostly invisible in the dark recesses of the pine branches, neither moving nor even giggling until the party had moved on.  We then waited for the next party to stroll along, and the whole thing began all over again.

This prank generated a lot of laughs but eventually grew stale.  We climbed down from the tree after a while and removed our dummy from his branch over the sidewalk.  Several ideas were kicked around and we finally agreed to take the dummy a couple of blocks away where we would hide between two parked cars, wait for a car to come along, pitch the dummy in front of the car and then run out and snatch it up before the presumably startled drivers could react.  It seemed like a good plan, so we gathered up our dummy and walked to Chamoune Avenue two blocks distant from where we were.

When we arrived at Chamoune Ave, two blocks east and one block north of our pine tree, we found a pair of cars parked very close to one another and hunkered down to await the arrival of a passing car.  We didn’t have to wait long.  A car driving west on Wightman Street turned right onto Chamoune and began rolling slowly towards where we lay in wait.  When the car was very nearly even with our location Brad heaved the dummy out in front of the advancing car.

The driver hit the brakes and the car came to a screeching halt, but not until after it had rolled over our dummy.  The driver, an elderly man, emerged from his car and hobbled around the front to the passenger side.  While he was doing this Brad and I retreated to a row of shrubs, behind which we hid.  It turned out that we had no time to leap out, grab our dummy, and make our getaway.  The old boy quickly assessed the nature of what he had just run over and gave vent to a string of curses such as he had probably not used since he stood in the trenches of France in World War I.  He grabbed the dummy and threw it towards the sidewalk, yelled something about our mother, and then reentered his car and continued on his way northbound on Chamoune.

Brad and I howled with delight at the quality of our prank and recovered our dummy.  We replaced some of its stuffing with some of a newspaper that we had brought with us from home (it was a Thursday paper, and they were really thick with lots of pages), put a few new safety pins into it to keep pants and shirt together, completely discarded the paper bag which we had used for a head, and prepared for our next victim.  Again, we didn’t have to wait for long.

In the distance two headlights appeared and they kept coming toward us.  As the car passed Wightman we knew that they would be the next to suffer from our clever ruse.  We knew that we would toss out the dummy and go straight to our hiding place behind the shrubs this time, making no attempt to bolt out of our covert and flee with the dummy.  Worked last time didn’t it?  What could go wrong?

The car approached and once again Brad tossed the dummy in front of it.  The result was initially the same; screeching tires, grinding halt, dummy under the car.  That’s where the similarity ended.  Out of the four doors of the car boiled four large teenagers, easily Brad’s age or older, which meant a good deal older than me.  The four teens were not amused and we slunk back deeper into the darkened yard, trying to stay out of sight.  The attempt was a failure.  The four angry teens saw our movement and came after us with shouts and threats.

We retreated at a run into the alley and then followed it up to Wightman, then up that street and into the alley between Chamoune and 45th Street with the four teens closing the gap between us.  This alley was closer to our home however, and we knew that Mr. and Mrs. Larson had a big and intimidating dog that they kept in their back yard.  Brad decided to take our chances with the dog and hollered for me to stay close to him.  When we arrived at the Larson’s back fence we jumped up onto a wooden box-like structure where Mr. Larson put his trash cans and leaped from there over the fence, running for the fence on the front side of the yard like the devil himself was on our heals.

And the devil WAS on our heals.  Duke, the German shepherd, was taking his ease in his doghouse in the back corner of the yard when we exploded into his domain.  The dog was caught by surprise by two figures racing silently through the yard and did not get a good jump on us, and that was the break that we were hoping for.  Brad flew like an eagle over the fence on the other side of the yard and I made it most of the way before Duke clamped his teeth onto the heel of my U.S. Ked.  I lunged forward as Duke lunged back, and we traded my freedom from a mauling or a beating or both for my left shoe, and I considered it a bargain.

The four teens had no intention of entering a yard occupied by a full grown and thoroughly pissed-off German shepherd, and Brad and I flew through a passage which we knew of between two houses that led between 45th Street and the alley which ran between 45th and Highland Avenue.  We crept queitly through another passage and soon we were standing on Highland Avenue, close to our house.  Once on Highland I kicked off my other shoe and hid it in a bush, put my socks into my pocket, and we ran the rest of the way home.

Upon arriving at home we entered the house gasping and laughing, with me barefoot.  Our mother was not curious about this as we were in San Diego after all, and I was barefoot most of the time anyway.  We pretended to be stopping in to eat some of the candy that Mom was handing out to trick-or-treaters, but in fact we were waiting to be sure that the angry teens had given up the hunt.

After a while we ventured back outside and returned to the scene of our triumph by a roundabout way.  When we arrived we discovered that our dummy was nowhere to be found.  Not even pieces were seen in the street or in nearby yards.  It appeared that the teens had thrown the dummy into their car and drove away with it, probably to reproduce our joke somewhere else.  Brad and I returned to the Larson’s yard where he posted me in the alley while he went around to the front.  On Brad’s signal I began to make noise and distract the dog while Brad jumped over the fence and recovered my shoe.  Duke never saw him.  Mr. Larson raced out of the back door of his house just as Brad cleared the fence on this return trip.  I fled from my post at that moment and ran around to the front of the Larson house.  Brad was waiting with my shoe and we retraced our steps to the bush on Highland Avenue where we recovered my other shoe from its hiding place.

We walked home with me fully shod, enjoying a good laugh and only one old pair of jeans lost for our efforts.  We get a good laugh to this day every time we get together and tell the story for the umpteenth time.

The Joke’s On You, Part I

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.