| By Rod Thorell |
They’ve been part of my life since I was little.
I sat and watched at the feet of a master, and, sometimes, became the butt of the joke.
One of the central tenets of humor is laughing at the misfortunes of others. Watching someone go to the edge of disaster is hilarious, once we realize they’ll come out unscathed.
This is the essence of pranking.
One of my father’s favorite pastimes was bowling. He was pretty good at it and was involved in leagues several nights a week.
As his little sidekick, I was able to watch as he surreptitiously tied together a teammate’s shoe laces as they sat waiting their turn. Or, his old standby, dropping the ball so that it almost fell on someone’s foot, a move I use up to this day.
Of course, when he executed it in New England, it was candlepin bowling, which uses a ball that is about 2 1/2 pounds. The effect is much more dramatic nowadays with a 15-pound tenpin ball.
Another great prank learned from my dad was the “dancing pine tree.” This was, notably, more suited to an outdoor cookout.
A sheet pan is placed on a picnic table and filled nearly to the top with water. All the kids are gathered closely around to see a magic trick whereby he will make a toothpick “dance” with touching it or influencing it with his breath. A few skillful waves of the hand would take place over the pan, before the children would be encouraged to get down close to see the moment when the floating shard of wood would actually start to rise from the surface of the water and stand on one end! Often, two or three adults would join the children to gaze upon the wondrous sight.
As they leaned in as closely as possible, that would be the time when the hands that had been waving over the water would swiftly clap down to the pan, giving everyone an unexpected faceful. The kind of thing you can only do once in a great while, but the payoff was so sweet.
If you don’t have a sheet pan handy, the same prank on a smaller scale was done holding a solo cup filled with water and a small dash of “dancing” black pepper.
My children have, for the most part, become inured to pranks. They have also learned valuable lessons on human behavior in the process.
Pratfalls are a frequent element of our craft at home. Among my personal favorites is dumping a steaming hot cup of coffee on someone after pretending to trip.
To properly execute this, you have to spend a minute trying to sip the hot coffee, nearly burning your tongue in the process (don’t over sell it!) before making your move. Then, swiftly and clumsily, the cup is tipped into a lap as you try to move by them and catch your foot on the carpet.
Need I say that the empty cup is styrofoam, not as funny when you bonk someone in the head with a ceramic mug. If you have the time, adding a shredded napkin really enhances the effect. Watching someone scream and swat an empty cup and little floating bits of paper like it’s an invisible spider’s web is great fun for everyone. Except that guy.
The greatest of variations on this theme was executed one night many years ago. I was hungry, wanted to eat right away, but nothing had been planned or prepared. This made me grumpy. (Seriously, it turned me for life. I was a perfectly easy-going, happy guy prior to this incident.)
Revenge was on the menu! But actually, we decided to get Chinese food. Not just “OK, everybody, here are five things we are having” Chinese food, but having to sit through a tortuous half hour as each person in the family debated which dinner plate they would order.
I called the local restaurant and left to pick it up. (They didn’t deliver. But, everything always only took 15 minutes. You could order a roasted whole water buffalo and they would just say “Number 24, 15 minutes.”)
Within a few minutes, I returned with everyone’s dinners, the big lidded styrofoam clamshells filled to the rim with rice and fatty, gloppy fried meat. My wife and the kids were scattered around the living room watching TV. Ever the gracious host, each person was served separately, navigating around the sofa, coffee table, dogs, kids and rabbit.
Finally, it came to my wife’s, balancing the heavy white container in one hand, a fork and a drink in the other. As I approached her, my toe caught the rug, the hinge flying open as the takeout container went flying through the air and landed on top of her. The good news, there was the foresight to ask Peter at the restaurant to give me an empty container for practice before actually bringing her food.
If memory serves, I was called a ******* *******, a **** and probably even a ************. By the time the laughter stopped, my food was cold. Totally worth spending a few days sleeping on the couch. And the kids learned some new words, so that was a plus.
In case you get the wrong idea, the victims of pranking are not limited to immediate family.
One of our boys had a period of gastrointestinal issues in his teen years, and he endured several colonoscopies during this time. Because of this, we got to know the staff very well. Well enough, we thought, to let them in on the fun of our family.
One of the things you learn from spending hundreds of days in the hospital over the kids’ formative years is how to entertain children with whatever is at hand, such as making a rooster out of a glove or pipette Christmas trees.
On this occasion, we happened to find a roll of tape and a magic marker left on the counter. One of the nice things about a colonoscopy is that, unlike most surgeries, you do not have a team of doctors, anesthetists and nurses coming in to inspect the surgical site and initial it pre-operatively. If they can’t find it, they don’t really deserve to be performing the procedure. This fact also helped our hastily assembled plans.
After leaving us alone in pre-op for about 20 minutes, the room was prepped and ready. They came in, administered a mild sedative to my son and we said our goodbyes.
This next part was relayed to us later by one of the surgical nurses. They wheeled my son into the procedure suite, everything was prepped, they connected him to some oxygen, checked and double checked equipment, before they were finally ready to go. The doctor pulled down the sheet covering our son and rolled him onto his side.
As the doctor drew back the gown to exposure the area under inspection, he saw emblazoned on two large pieces of tape holding the buttocks tightly together, the words “do not open before Christmas.” We were told that it was about 15 minutes before everyone in the room was composed enough to continue.
Human nature, you may recall if you did not sleep through that particular day in Psych 101, has different reactions to stressful situations. This response can result in one of two physiological reactions, known more commonly as “fight or flight.” One of the things that pranks can help you learn about people around you is what side of that scale they fall on.
For example, my daughter and I clearly fall on the “fight” side of the scale, with typical responses to stressors or startling being a quick and decisive blow to repel the source of the stress.
My oldest found this out one time when he thought it would be great fun to do his own prank and sneak up on dad, who was watching a scary movie in the dark living room. There are varying accounts of what transpired over the next 3 seconds, but suffice it to say that that was the last time any of the kids snuck up on me. Also, we learned he clots well. He is now over 6 feet tall and well over 200 pounds, but still makes sure to stay at least an arm’s length away before fully announcing his presence.
Other members of our family fall under the “flight” response, flinging themselves to the ground and screaming when confronted with a jump scare. Much more entertaining, and nothing to explain to teachers the next day in school.
The other day, I watched as my 18-month-old granddaughter toddled over to the bathroom door that my wife had entered a minute before. She stood there patiently waiting until the creak of the turning doorknob signaled the door was about to open. She threw her hands up in the air and shouted “Boo! Gotchu!” with all the fierceness her little body could summon, as threatening as a basket of fluffy pink bunnies.
I have never been more proud to pass something on to a new generation.
Grumpydad Rod Thorell and the love of his life, Donna, relocated to Clermont in 2015, where he works from home helping create software. You can follow his misadventures on Instagram, @grumpydad_goes_to.