Director's DVD Commentary: It's getting close to Father's Day season and this will be my first one without my dad. I was going to run this closer to actual Father's Day but it's been a busy week/weekend and I'm at a loss for subject material. So rather than continuing to parse the recent events of the month, I figured I'd tell you a story about some of the best advice my father ever gave me.
It took place when I was a teenager in the late 70s and our family lived out in the farmlands west of Toledo, Ohio. We lived on a little more than an acre in an area rife with ponds. We had a big barn that we turned into a party-house, which we used with great abandon. It was a great place and time to grow up.
The Fish Story
One summer weekend, my parents went on a trip to visit relatives and took my younger siblings with them. Because I was the oldest and had a part-time job, I was allowed to stay home. I was just out of high school and this was the summer before college started, so it was a given that there was going to be a party of some kind. It was just a small one… my few of my closest buds and some neighborhood folk.
Someone came up with the idea that we should have a breakfast fish fry the next morning. Catching the fish would be no problem. Our neighbors directly behind us had a pond, in which we were allowed to fish. In fact, we helped stock it by depositing in it catfish, bass, and bluegills that we had caught elsewhere. But why do something we were allowed to do when instead we could have an adventure?
See, there was a pond behind theirs that belonged to some other neighbors who never let anyone fish or swim in their pond. You could see the fish in there; bluegills the size of a loaf of bread, enormous bass, all but poking their heads up out of the water and going “pppbbbbhhhhhhhhhtt!” We had no choice. We were provoked.
So about 10:30 PM, we staged our little fishing raid. A handful of us crept out, rods and lures in hand, and began stealthily fishing in the pond. We could see Mr. And Mrs. Neighbor up in their house, about 75 yards away. The lights were on, so while we could look in, they couldn't see us out in the dark.
We began pulling these big bluegill out of there immediately; it was just too easy. It was much easier, in fact than getting the hooks out by moonlight. We had a big bucket that we threw them in, and in no time we had a bunch in the can. At some point, we saw some motion up in the windows so we made a dash for it, grabbing up the bucket and hauling butt. I didn't even have my line out of the water. I just ran, with the line dragging behind me, the hooks pulling up little chunks of grass.
Anyway, we got back to The Barn and counted up our half dozen monster bluegills. The fish fry was on, so now, we just had to figure out how to fry the damned things. We knew how to filet and bone them, but that was it. Our friend Rob, who worked with me at the neighborhood grocery store, said he’d call home to his mom and ask for a good breading recipe.
His family was from Brooklyn NY and his mom was a tremendous cook. Of course, she wanted to know why we wanted this information, so he told her about our fishing party and came away with what we needed. The next morning we had quite a tasty little bluegill feast.
My parents came home that evening, and over dinner, I told them about our small party. Near the end of dinner, the phone rang and the caller asked for me. It was Mrs. Neighbor, who proceeded to tell me she saw me out there fishing last night and wanted me to pay for the fish we caught. She said she wanted at a buck a pound.
I denied everything, of course.
“What fish? I wasn't fishing! I don't know what you are talking about!”
She proceeded to describe what I was wearing that night, my shirt, my overalls, right down to the hat on my head. Still denying I was out there, that I was fishing, and that I even owned a hat, I finally said something brilliant like, “OK, even though I didn't take any fish, I’ll still pay you for them if I have to.”
I sat back down and then told my folks about the "fishing" part of the party, which I had neglected to mention earlier. They said, “Well, she gotcha, now ya gotta take your lumps.” I was sadly resigned to my fate, still wondering how she'd know how many pounds of fish we took.
Before the table was even cleared, Rob and my other friend Rik pulled up in the driveway. I dashed out of the house and told them everything… I mean, I wasn't the ONLY one out there and I wasn't going down alone. Then as I described the phone conversation, I noticed how neither of them would look directly at me. They seemed to be biting the inside of their cheeks. I stopped talking and looked at them and they just exploded with laughter.
It turned out that it was Rob’s mom who called, who described what I’d been wearing and heard me lie my ass off to her. Actually, I was relieved not to have to go show up at Mrs. Neighbor’s door, although not so relieved that I didn't give them a good cussing out just for putting me through the strain.
I ran inside to tell my folks the good news, that it was just Rob’s mom yanking my chain. Dad said, “So now, what are you going to do to get back at her?”
Hmmm. I agreed that I couldn't take this lying down and that revenge must be obtained. Then Dad gave me the best advice of my young life. He said, “The best revenge for a practical joke is to make it seem that it worked too well.” Genius!
We sent Rob back to tell his mom that my dad got so mad at me that he marched me right over to Mrs. Neighbor’s house and made me pay her off. Then he grounded me from the car for a month.
She was crestfallen when Rob told her the story… she never meant any harm. Rob must have given quite a performance too. She even woke him up late that night, trying to see if she could shake his story while he was half asleep. Rob held up though and stuck to the plan.
So, cut to the following weekend, as we were both working at the grocery store. She came in for her regular weekly shopping. I knew she’d want to ‘fess up, busting with guilt. Naturally, I did everything I could to avoid her. She came up once, with big sad eyes and a mournful look. I put on a look like someone just killed my puppy, all sad and forlorn. She asked me how I was doing. I just said, “Not so good, I got in pretty big trouble this week, but listen, I can’t talk now… I gotta go.”
That’s how it went for the next half hour: her stalking me up and down the aisles to try to confess, with me trying to avoid her.
The payoff was set for when she checked out. I arranged to be the one to bag her groceries and this was the day and age when bag boys still took your stuff out and packed your car. As we went out to the car, she just spilled it. “It was me on the phone,” she said, “I’m sorry. I didn't mean to cause any trouble. I’m sorry, it was just a joke, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
I just stood there, jaw dropped open, looking shocked.
Finally, I smiled and said, “That’s OK because I didn't really get in any trouble, I was just getting in a little payback.” Her response was typical of her upbringing as an Italian mother from Brooklyn.
“YOU SONOFABITCH BASTID!” she screamed at me, “How can you do that to a poor old woman? I oughta kick you right in the ass for that, you had me up all night from the guilt…”
We ended up having a great laugh about it. Meanwhile, I was giving mental high fives to my dad. He was most pleased by the way it played out when I told him how it turned out.
I went on to employ this tactic on numerous occasions, although it was often in the form of advice to others who’d been tricked. Just act as if their prank went too well and let them think it unleashed some unintended consequences. It never failed.
Dad once told me how he used it one time when he was the safety director of a company that ran corrugated cardboard production factories, and one of his cronies left him a voicemail message that there had been a fatality at his local plant. Dad called the plant immediately and found out that there was no such accident. So he called his crony back and left him a message... that he'd just contacted the CEO and the both of them would be on the next flight down to investigate the fatality. Then he wouldn't take the guy's increasingly frantic calls.
THEN, he got the CEO to call the guy and bust his balls a little more, before letting him off the hook. Sometimes, you have to show people what you're capable of, so they don't mess with you again. That's another lesson he taught me.
Also note that throughout these gags, no one was actually hurt, nor was there any significant property damage done (except to a handful of naturally replaceable fish). Dad always said that the best practical jokes are played in the mind, to make you think something terrible was happening.
Even throughout my own long history with practical jokes, I always made sure there was no actual harm done. It's more fun that way because you can move on with a clear conscience. Although you never know in today's hyper-sensitive era.
Had I tried this now, I might have been called out for fish shaming.
Note: All photos courtesy of ME, although they were most certainly NOT taken at the time of this story. Digital cameras were not invented yet, nor were Windows PCs, CDs, MP3s, or string cheese. We had nothing to do all day but think of ways to torture each other. Those were the days...