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For Whom the Bells Toll

In the fifth grade three of us moved from elsewhere to Rumson, New Jersey where we became lifelong friends: Mar from Alabama, Skip from Philadelphia and I from Maryland. From that time to the present we were never out of touch. Only two of us now, Skip died a year ago.

We did the usual and unusual stunts in elementary and high school. There was no middle school then, seventh and eighth grades were in the high school. While we did things together, there were some solo acts, like when Miss Erickson, our fifth grade teacher, was reading Ivanhoe to the class. The book’s villain, Reginald Front de Boeff utters the phrase “fiends from hell.” I raised my hand, was called on and stated that ‘hell’ was a bad word. For that I was dispatched to the dreaded cloak room for the remainder of the class.

In those days “damn” and “hell” were written as d--- and h--- in any decent publication.

One of our combined efforts occurred in the school library. The librarian had a strict policy of charging two cents for every day a book was over due. One day another friend (who became a general and deputy commander of Fort Lewis) gave her a nickel for a day’s overdue. The librarian opened her drawer to give him three pennies in change and he responded with “Keep the change.”

“I cannot do that,” she stated, adding, “It will foul up my bookkeeping.” From that day on for months one of us would distract her by asking her to locate a book while one or two other culprits would sneak into her desk drawer, and open her money box. Rather than stealing pennies, we would add them to her petty cash. No clue that she ever caught on: we found it hilarious.

Another friend, Martin, had a party at his home one evening. Martin was what today we would call a Nerd. He was a genius at all manner of scientific things, among them electronics. For his party he offered a special surprise: he hot-wired the toilet seat using dry cell batteries and thin wires. Of course, it was generally the girls who got a charge out of that. One of them (name forgotten) swore revenge and we resolved to assist her.

One of the guys came up with three or four chimes, heisted from the music room and another found some bells. These were carefully placed in Martin’s locker, the chimes leaning on the door, the loose bells atop them. Thus, when he opened his locker door between classes there was an audience for the horrific clatter and gonging and bell ringing as the instruments crashed to the tiled floor and resonated along the length of the hall.

The school subscribed to the Sunday New York Times. It came on Monday, maybe a dozen copies, this monolithic and weighty pile of paper. In our senior year the word went out to save them and soon somewhere there was a vast hidden collection of the paper. Probably not quite a half ton, or so it seemed. The collection was instigated, I believe by friend Skip to play a trick on our other buddy, Mar. The latter’s pride and joy was a 1934 Ford hot rod coupe. One day when he was in class, the Times collection was assembled in the parking lot and several of us took turns stuffing them into his coupe. When he went to the car after school and saw the car-nage, he was a very unhappy senior.

It took me a long time to outgrow pranksterism. Two decades later I worked with the prosecuting attorney’s office. One of the deputies was, shall we say, obsessive-compulsive and on his office wall were his framed degrees, licenses and a fair amount of framed pictures. He religiously kept them absolutely level. One day when he was in court, several of us tilted them all, just slightly, in the same direction. When he returned to the office and entered, he looked around and calmly said something like “Gee, the building’s not level anymore.” That comment was funnier than if he’d blown his top,

I don’t know if pranks are still pulled in schools and offices these days. I’d fear for a contract on my life if I did one. Maybe recognition of AK-47s is part of growing up.


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