Sunday, July 29, 2007
I usually don't care for practical jokes, unless, of course, I'm the one pulling the joke.
I find what many people call practical jokes are often acts of cruelty and humiliation designed to make someone look bad and feel stupid.
The "jokers" who do these things are really looking to do damage, not spread mirth. But if you don't smile and go along with it, you're told that you have no sense of humor.
There was one time, though, back when I was a teen-ager that my father and the rest of us pulled a pratical joke on our mother that actually turned out to be fun for the whole family.
First, a little background: my brother had a habit of leaving his guitar case in the living room, much to my father's displeasure. He'd tell my brother a thousand times to take that goddamn thing into your room when you're done with it and every time my brother would ignore him.
Now my sister had gone to some kind of carnival or church event and wound up winning--if that's the word--a cheap wig, complete with a plastic foam head where you could perch the thing when you no longer had the urge to wear it.
One day my father decides he's going to have a little fun. He takes my brother's guitar case, my sister's wig, and a couple of blankets and fashions a dummy on the livingroom couch.
My mother comes home and he tells her that this "person" is a friend of my sister's who stumbled into our home and promptly passed out on the couch.
"I think she's on drugs," he tells my mother in an ominous tone.
My mother went back to her room, presumably to wring her hands, and then my father grabbed each of us as we came into the house and told us of his little con game.
Now bear in mind this was my dad--the leader of the family, the one who is expected to be responsible and mature--pulling this stunt. Sometimes it's difficult for me to get my head around that, even after all these years.
I assume my father had a job at the time, so this fiasco happened either on a Saturday or a national holiday, because normally he wouldn't have been home at that time to wreak all this havoc.
It's interesting to note that my mother, who loved old horror movies, had a particular interest in any spooky story involving ventriloquists and their dummies.
These particular tales all pretty much have the same plot line: the dummy takes over the ventriloquist's personality. You find this in such films as Dead of Night, Magic, an episode of "The Twilight Zone" with Cliff Robertson and God knows how many other movies, plays, radio shows, and so forth.
I don't think these stories have much to offer. Once you know it's a horror story involving a ventriloquist, you've got to figure that it's going to be about the dummy coming to life and taking over the hero's personality. But my mom still loved them.
I had my own run-in with a ventriloquist and his dummy. Years ago, while a reporter in Pennsylvania, I covered a public safety lesson at one of the area grammar schools.
The presentation was being given by a ventriloquist and his dog puppet, who was dressed up like a cop and went by the name, I believe, Canine Doggie Dude.
It was a good show for the kids. Instead of lecturing them on how to behave, the dog deliberately got things wrong, forcing the students to correct him.
When asked how he should behave on the bus, Canine Doggie Dude shouted, "I jump up and down all over the place!" Whereupon the children shouted at him and told him he had to behave on the bus.
Before the show, the ventriloquist assured me that I was free to walk around the class and take pictures while he did his act.
"Don't worry," he tells me, "take all the pictures you need."
Nice guy--or so I thought. Little did I know that I was being set up.
Late into the show I was walking around with my little PhD camera ("Press Here, Dummy") and I decided I wanted to go to the other side of the room for a different angle. I'm a reporter, a fly on the wall, right? I'm supposed to be invisible.
I was directly behind the ventriloquist when he spun the dummy's head around like it was Linda Blair, so the dog puppet was now eyeballing me.
"Where you goin', dude?" the dog shouted in his raspy voice.
For one second, I babbled and tried to explain myself to an inanimate object while a roomful of second-graders howled with laughter.
Then I slunk over to the other side of the room and hid behind the teacher for the rest of the hour. Stupid mutt.
Bring It Home
My sister was the last one to come home and my brother and I just about dragged her down the cellar and told her the story. She covered her face with her hands and started laughing--and quickly joined in on the joke.
Now we were all co-conspirators. We gathered in the kitchen while my poor mother walked around the house looking quite upset. Who was this stranger--this dope fiend--on her couch? How would we get her out of here?
Meanwhile, the merry pranksters were also in a bit of quandry. Namely, how do we end this charade?
Just yanking back the blanket and shouting "fooled ya!" didn't seem dramatic enough; we wanted to bring the house down on this caper. (My mother always hated the word "caper" for some reason, by the way. Sorry, Mom.)
Then we hit upon it: my brother, the guitar player, would loudly declare his intention to watch TV and demand that this bimbo vacate the premises forthwith.
So he storms down the hallway, bellowing at the top of his voice that he wants to watch TV and he wants to watch it now.
My mother is insane by this point and she starts chasing after him, shrieking "Peter!" After all, this may be a drug-addled vagabond stretched out on the couch, but she was still a guest.
My brother charges up to the thing, leaps through the air and lands right on top of the dummy with both knees, knocking the bogus head clean off.
And there's my mother, standing in the middle of the living room, laughing and shouting at the top of her voice, "stupid! stupid! stupid!"
We told and re-told that story for weeks after, recalling the look on my mother's face when she found out that she had been had.
It became part of our family history and I like telling it again now, at this time when we are cleaning out our house and closing down this act of our family's show.
As we dig through the rubble here, we are also unearthing some very unpleasant memories.
For the record, I'd just like to say that we had good times, too. We had our problems, but we also had fun together as a family.
And that's no joke.