The Art of Practical Jokes
A good practical joke. Largely, they have fallen out of favor. Seen as too cruel to many, the practical joke of an earlier time actually had value. To be sure, the jok-er used the setup to be entertained by the inability of the joke-ee to cope with whatever trap had been sprung on them, but the prank was also a mechanism used to toughen up the new kid on the block or tweak the old who had gotten too set in their ways.
Back in the last century, a type of Social Darwinism prevailed down on the shop floor of furniture factories all across the region. Some workers looked for ways to liven up the day. “I wonder what would happen if…” was usually how it started. Mostly, these tricks were harmless but they did establish a pecking order, with folks striving to see who could pull the best stunt.
First, a couple of terms. To “rag” someone meant giving them a hard time. Could they take it or would they be so embarrassed that they would lash out. One of the unwritten rules of life in the shop was to never show that the joke got to you. It implied weakness, which meant more mischief was on the way. So the question became, could you “hack” it, slang for taking it in stride. To be able to ‘hack a ragging’ meant they never saw you sweat, no matter how angry you were after you figured out what was going on.
One fellow loaded a hot press at a veneer factory. The days got long and his mind began to wander. He found a cutoff valve on the water fountain, out of sight of the drinker. As folks bent down to take a sip, he would cut the water supply. They looked around to see what was the matter. He remembered, “when I had a free minute or two, I’d just amble up to that place and I’d watch for them guys to go over and get a drink of that water. They’d push the button. Water would come up and I’d let them lean over and I’d cut it off. They’d stand up, they’d push the button again. I’d turn it on real quick. Water would come up, I cut it off. I did that a long time before I got caught. That’s pretty silly, but it was a lot of fun in the factory.”
When one coworker insisted on blasting out tunes on a boom box he brought to work, the practical joker found a way to secretly stop the noise. It “got on everyone’s nerves,” he said. Since the job required wearing heavy gloves, the box’s owner couldn’t just go over an attend to the issue, but he did eye the problem intensely. “He would get his gloves off, apron off. He’d go over there and he’d reach up to touch that thing and right where his hand got there, I’d plug it back in. Oh, he finally caught me at that. Me and my work partner, boy, we had some good times doing that stuff.”
Some plots could get intricate. “There was a guy, he’d eat beanie weenies at lunch or pork and beans. For years he had done this, he would bring the things over there. Where we worked, there was a pipe over there and it would get super hot. He would open the can a little and set this beanie weenies up there about 20 minutes before his lunch. By the time his lunch came, he’d have his beans heated up.”
“I got to watching him. He’d come over and he would set it on there. As soon as he’d around the corner, I’d get his can and set it up in the window. In the wintertime, it’s pulling cold air and it’d be ice cold, freezing. As soon as he would start back, I’d go get it out of the window and set it on that hot pipe. He picks up the can. It’s cold as ice. He feels this pipe and it’s radiating just hundreds of degrees of heat. Then the next day, he comes about five minutes earlier. He figures it’s not heating up. He puts it up there. I watch him go around the corner. I set it up in the window. He comes back at lunchtime, he picks it up. It’s ice cold again. He looks at it. He’s shakes it. I did this for years. I get him coming over about an hour early, sitting it on this pipe. He just cannot figure it out. Finally somebody caught me, so the game was up, but another, fun, little trick we did there.”
Perhaps the best joke is when one’s own greed is turned against them. “There was some vending machines down the aisle. I could see them. This old guy would walk along and feel in the change thing to see if anybody left any coins in there. If he found something, he hit the jackpot, he was guy that liked his money, so he’d feel, feel, feel, feel. He would try to be cool about it. I found a box of washers. I told my partner, “Watch this.” I let everybody go get their drinks and everything. Then, I just filled them full of washers. Here comes Bob down through there. He feels the one that I’ve got piled with washers and man, you could see his eyes just light up like he’s hit Vegas.”
Jokes like these may not have been the most sympathetic thing to do, but they sure kept the days lively.
Photo: A furniture worker from an earlier era. You can see a prank in his eyes.