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.

The Stolen Girls of Nigeria

It has now been 25 days as I sit and write this post since over 200 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from a school in that country and carried off into the forest.  No real word was heard of their whereabouts until recently, when the terrorist group Boko Haram admitted that they had committed this act.  Boko Haram is a radical islamist group which fears Western education, and it justifies its actions by saying that the girls should be married instead of going to school.  Subsequent announcements by Boko Haram now make clear their intention to ‘marry’ the girls or sell them.  A few things must be said about this.

This crime has been perpetrated before, and in this very region of the world.  A couple of centuries ago it was Africans kidnapping and selling Africans to Europeans.  Now it is African men kidnapping and selling African girls, but at the heart of the matter it is the same thing.  The terrorists counter that the sale price is the ‘bride price’ which is customary when a girl is married in that part of the world anyway, but this is a hideous perversion of the Nigerian process of marriage and family life.  Boko Haram is not facilitating marriage.  They are engaging in slave trading and rape.

And where is the appropriate world outrage for this act?  Curiously it is for the most part absent.  There are many people, women and men alike, disgusted by this crime.  I know this because Twitter and Facebook are humming with condemnations of the cowards of Nigeria.  Where are the denunciations by heads of state?  Where is the African Union?  More importantly, where are the denunciations by the Muslim world?  Boko Haram calls itself a Muslim organization, and if any outside group has any chance of making them see the horror of what they are doing it would be fellow Muslims.

The most effective moral push-back to this outrage should come from Muslim religious leaders.  Prominent and respected imams should issue a moral judgement called a ‘fetwa’ declaring that this crime is not the act of a true Muslim.  Such pronouncements carry great weight in the Islamic world.  A concurrent fetwa declaring that no true Muslim could buy one of the girls would be of considerable value as well.  Unfortunately no such pronouncement has been made by any Muslim religious leader to my knowledge. An implication could be made that this practice is consistent with Muslim values.  I am not saying that it is so, only that the absence of comment on such a monstrous event can only bring shame upon the religion of the perpetrators who do what they do in the name of their religion.  The silence speaks volumes.

One final comment is in reality an exercise in fantasy.  The terrorists are in fact cowards.  They crawl around in shadows, plant bombs, attack schools and churches and kidnap teenage girls.  They haven’t the courage to fight soldiers face to face, but I think that such an engagement should be arranged.  I would love to see the intelligence capabilities of the Western nations combined to fine the ratholes where these cowards are hiding, and then infiltrate the area with specially trained American service women.  It would be a fitting touch to see Boko Haram get its ass kicked by female soldiers, and to have the Nigerian girls rescued by butt-whipping American women soldiers.

I know, it’ll never happen.  Not because it couldn’t be done, but because our leaders would never pull that trigger.  We all know however that those Boko Haram clowns would never show their cowardly faces again after limping their wounded and bleeding selves back into the bush, knowing that they cannot stand up to a good woman.

The Complexities of Social Justice

     I heard a story the other day that I believe is important enough to share with others.  The story centers on a cold weather shelter which a church in my community opens up for a period of time in the dead of winter, when the weather is most likely to be at its worse.  The church has an indoor gym/basketball court upon the floor of which homeless families can spread a mat and catch a night’s sleep out of the elements.  There is also a kitchen, bathrooms and showers, so the guests can get a hot meal and clean up for a night and perhaps feel a little better about life for a while.  These homeless people can line up each night for a couple of weeks and after the adults blow into a breathalyzer (no drugs or alcohol permitted in this space) the families go in and reclaim their corner of the gym floor. Various churches in the community take turns monitoring and facilitating the process, and my church’s turn will come later in January.

     The speaker at my church told us a story about a family that helped last year, and particularly about a young boy who is a member of that family.  On their appointed evening the parents went about their chores while the little boy in question played with the children of the guest families.  As children are able to do, the differences in social position between servers and served were overlooked and he simply had a great time playing with another little boy.  When their four hour shift was over the parents gathered up their little one and began their drive home.  On the way the little boy was expressing how much fun he had had and how he wanted to play with his little friend again the next day.  “Well, we won’t be going back tomorrow” said his father.  “We only signed up for one evening.”  “Can’t we just go over to their house?” asked the little guy, seeing an obvious solution to the problem.  “No, we can’t” responded Mom.  “That little boy and his family don’t have a house.  That is why we were helping them to have a warm place to sleep tonight.”  The little boy thought about that for a while and as the concept that the family of his new friend did not have a home sank in he began to tear up.  “But where do they live when they are not at the church?” he asked.  “I don’t really know” replied Dad.  “Sometimes with friends for a while, or in their car.  I really don’t know.”  This was too much for the little boy to deal with.  He simply broke down and cried as Dad and Mom drove home.  Mom and Dad were weeping too by the time they arrived at their warm house and both ended up lying on the bed with their little son, comforting him and each other until at last he fell asleep.

     After hearing that story I meditated for a while on the concept of justice and its counterpoint, injustice.  The words get used in a great many different ways and their meanings can become murky.  One person’s injustice is another person’s just deserts, and so on.  Many people speak of social justice and injustice and it can be hard to pin those concepts down too firmly.  A baby is born to an addicted mother, and clearly the baby is a victim of injustice while the mother is guilty of breaking a plethora of moral and judicial laws, and is deserving of retributive justice.  But when that baby grows up with his capacity diminished by the drugs in his little preborn body and surrounded by the most marginal edges of society and then he is homeless, addicted and viewing life through a lens that doesn’t quite reflect the view from a safe and secure middle class life, has he ceased to be a victim of injustice?  He should most certainly be answerable to the law for infractions of that law, but is a bag of dope in his pocket going to get him a much more harsh sentence than the same bag of dope in the high school quarterback’s pocket?

     I could make this a longer bit of writing but I don’t want to preach.  The topic of social justice and injustice is a difficult and tangled one and if you believe that you have it all sorted; well, you don’t.  There are ins and outs, nuances and a galaxy of tangents and rabbit holes to be plunged into in a full discussion of this topic, and I do not propose to so discuss it.  Rather, I find it valuable to ask myself as I ponder the issue “does it break my heart?”  Do I weep because a little boy or a little girl does not have a home?  If not, why not?  Am I so calloused and hard that such a thing does not bother me?  Has this child tapped into the heart of God in a way that I, with my books read and sermons listened to and tedious opinions rendered to whomever would listen to me, have completely missed?.  I am uncomfortably certain that that is indeed the case, and I will have to give up a lot of my smug pride and false sense of superiority to even begin to understand what that little boy instinctively knows.