Douse ‘em if you got ‘em

As a young boy I loved the idea of pranks, and now as a man (an OLD man, at that), I still do. Then again, that only makes sense, since men are nothing but boys who have to work for a living and can legally drive, drink and smoke pot.

Note, I said I love “the idea” of pranks. Because when it came to DOING them, I’m lukewarm at best. Most pranks I’ve known are neither fun nor funny, others are just plain stupid, and still others are downright cruel.

When I think back on My Home Town’s well-known practical jokers, I see them as little more than closet sadists and former schoolyard bullies. They were one-trick ponies whose only “skill” was making fools out of the usual victims, while they and their hangers-on howled in moronic delight.

Although I never played a practical joke, I amassed an arsenal of props. I had all the usual gags — whoopie cushions, squirting toilet seat, fake puke and dog poop, gold teeth, joy buzzer, and on and on. But armed to the teeth though I may have been (and still am), I’ve played only one practical joke in my life. It was at Clan Woodward’s 1981 Thanksgiving Dinner.

Some necessary background: Ed Woodward, the family patriarch, taught at Paul Smith’s College with me. We became friends there, and stayed friends till he left this Vale of Tears in June 1981.

Because the family manse was on my way to school, I dropped in a few times a week and did so with no sense I was imposing: Since there were eight kids in the family, and usually a few visitors as well, I doubt my presence was even noticed, much less objected to.

The place was a hive of activity. Someone might be banging on a piano while someone else was doing leathercraft, or rebuilding a motor, or talking about the Battle of the Boyne, or making a sleeping bag, or doing anything but watching TV, since there was none. There was always hot coffee and lively conversation, ironic comments, and sometimes raucous laughter.

Somewhere along the line I got invited to holiday dinners, which given the clan’s lively nature, were as dignified and austere as the midway at the Malone Fair. I don’t remember how many peeps were at the ’81 T’giving bash, but a fair estimate would be a dozen, since five of us were guests. I was seated in the middle of the table, with Dave Caldwell on my left.

Dave was a long-time friend of both mine and the Woodwards’. He was bright and well-read, and an avid and astute student of history (which I think was the main topic of discussion between him and Ed). Beyond that, he had a dark and sometimes biting sense of humor and a manner that could fairly described as “curmudgeonly.” Underneath it all, he was a good guy, but he didn’t want the word to get out.

Buttin’ in

Anyhow, as befit his status as a curmudgeon, right after we all started eating, Dave pulled out a pack of cigarettes.

Reactions were immediate, from the incredulous to the strident, but with everyone calling him out on his lack of consideration.

“Are you serious?”

“I don’t believe this!”

“Have some manners, willya.”

“Not while we’re eating!”

I said nothing, mostly because I was too taken aback. I was an ex-smoker and, as such, I was full well aware how repulsive it was generally, but especially so around people who were eating. Beyond that, after I quit smoking, I couldn’t tolerate second-hand smoke. So if Dave started smoking at the table, I’d either have to hold my breath for five minutes or leave the room.

While the protests continued, Dave waved them off with a dismissive flick of his wrist. Then he reached in a shirt pocket for matches, but came up empty-handed. He reached in another shirt pocket, with the same result. After that, he rifled through his pants pockets, but still no matches.

The tension mounted, with him getting more frustrated and everyone else getting more annoyed.

He grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair and not only reached in its pockets, but turned them inside-out. He found some coins, an old raffle ticket and lots of lint … but nary a match.

At that point, I reached in my pocket and brought out my Bic former-lighter.

To clarify: The lighter was not “former” in the sense it was the one I used when I smoked. It was former because it had started out a lighter, but was no more. It had neither flint nor lighter fluid. Instead, it had been converted into a fabulous gag prop — a squirting lighter. It didn’t produce flame, but a long and surprisingly powerful stream of water.

I’d bought it only a couple days before and had been carrying it, locked and loaded, never thinking I’d actually have the chance or chutzpah to use it. But now, thanks to Dave and his mid-chow nicotine fit, I had both.

“Here,” I said, handing the lighter to Dave.

“Ah,” said Dave, “Bobby Seidenstein’s my friend.”

He put a cigarette in his mouth and took the lighter. Then, when he gave the Bic a flick, a geyser of H2O shot out of it and hit him right between the eyes.

It was a Three Stooges’ Moment at its best!

The table erupted with laughter.

Dave just sat there, trying to process what had just happened, as water dripped off his nose and onto his now-soggy cigarette.

That signaled the beginning, and end, of my practical joke career.

And if you wonder why, I’ll tell you. I figured if retiring undefeated was good enough for Rocky Marciano, it was sure good enough for me.


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