The Way it Was: Practical jokes, funny for everyone in the good old days

by John straka Published:

Some practical jokes are fun, some are embarassing, some are destructive. When we were kids, we were ready to trick some unsuspecting victim into doing something that would turn out to be funny, at least to us if not to them. Most practical jokes can be done only one time and after that the victim will not fall for the same trick a second time.

When automobiles were still pretty new, they weighed a lot less, and were higher off the ground. There were fewer paved parking lots and not every home had a hard surfaced driveway. They had rear wheel drive and if one of the back wheels was not getting traction, it would just spin and the car would not move. Picnics were often held in open fields and sometimes a driver would have a little too much to drink. That's when a couple of his "friends" would lift one of the rear wheels and put some rocks or boards under the axle. When the driver attempted to move his car, that wheel would spin free. Getting out of the car to see why didn't always help, especially if there was grass under the wheel. That would be funny to everyone except the innocent victim.

On some old cars the radiator cap would fit the gas tank and the gas tank cap would fit on the radiator. However, if that was done, the car would go a short distance and quit because it had the wrong cap on the gas tank. Drivers that didn't know that, would take a long time to figure it out. That could take place by accident or by a practical joker.

Another car stunt was to disconnect one or two spark plug wires. The car might start and run, but it would sputter and the engine just wouldn't run very well.

When I worked on the railroad, one of the engineers would have two hard boiled eggs for lunch every day. One of his crew members substituted a raw egg for one of his cooked ones. When he cracked the shell, the raw eggs splattered all over his brake valve handle. Then he didn't know whether to try cracking the second egg or not.

I've seen a man wearing a fake flower in the lapel of his jacket and when someone noticed it, the man would invite the friend to smell it. The flower would be attached to a hose with a rubber bulb full of water concealed in a pocket. A quick squeeze of the bulb and the invited guest would get squirted with a faceful of water.

I don't know what happened to my dribble glass. It was a fancy cut glass water tumbler with two or three places where the cut in the glass went all the way through. When the unsuspecting guest would take a drink, some of the water would dribble onto his hands and chin.

"Inchy Pinchy" is a parlor game that requires everyone seated around a table to know what it is except the victim. The leader tweaks the cheek of the person to his left with thumb and forefinger and says, "Inchy pinchy on the left cheek." That person does the same to the person on his left and so on all around the table. The game continues on the right cheek, the chin, the nose, the forehead etc. It generates gales of laughter and everyone has lots of fun, except the victim. He doesn't know that the person next to him (or her) has lipstick on his fingers.

Prank phone calls were fun when the telephone was something new and long before there was caller ID. When Prince Albert was a popular pipe tobacco, kids would call a store that sold tobacco products and ask if they had Prince Albert in a can. If the answer was yes, the kid would ask the store person to please let him out.

Some times a practical joke can backfire. When ground coffee was sold in paper bags, a couple of my buddies filled one of those bags with sand or sawdust or cinders (I don't remember which) and left it out on the sidewalk in front of the empty lot next door to our house. We expected someone would find it, take it home, and be surprised when it was not full of coffee. While we watched through the window, a man found it and figured it might belong to us. He rang our doorbell and when my sister answered she ended up thanking him for returning it.

There used to be a store on East 9th Street in downtown Cleveland that sold all kinds of practical joke items. I think it was called Jean's Fun House. I would go in there just to see what they had but seldom bought anything. That's probably where I got my dribble glass. I also bought some Mexican jumping beans. They had some kind of worm inside that made the bean move.

The store sold exploding cigars, rubber hot dogs and rubber swiss cheese, stink bombs, itching powder, and sneezing powder. You could buy chewing gum that looked like Black Jack chewing gum, except it left your whole mouth black for a while until the color wore off. I bought a device that left a bit of white thread on the lapel of my suit coat and when some helpful person would try to pick it off, they would unwind yards of thread concealed in a spool under the lapel.

A gory item was a little box lined with cotton. If you held the box the right way, you could put a finger, or maybe your thumb, through the hole in the bottom and when the box was opened it looked like there was a freshly amputated finger in it.

The " fun house" also sold marked playing cards that let you know what the card was by looking at the pattern on the back. I don't know how one would use the loaded dice they sold. You would need to have two pair, one loaded and another not, and secretly switch when it was your turn.

I wonder if kids today even know how to have fun the way we did.

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