Stealing from Life: Don’t Forget the Prankster

I will admit that I’m writing this post as a not-so-gentle nudge to get back to work on the 2nd book in the David and Saul series — my lack of alone time in summer wreaks havoc on my concentration. Also, I’ve told a story from my Hart side that influenced a scene in It Is You (the 1st book), and it’s time my Steenwyk side got a little glory.

The book series takes place around 1,000 BCE. Things were not luxurious for most of my characters. Theirs was a survival economy and survival was tough. So I’ve tended to make everyone focused on survival all the time, with very little lightheartedness once they reach early teen years.

But I forget about my grandfather, John Steenwyk. He was born in 1915 in Chicago, but moved to Byron Center (when it was all celery farms) soon after. They were, apparently, impressively poor. Even other poor people remember thinking, “At least we aren’t as bad up as the Steenwyks.”

And there were a lot of them — seven kids to feed and put to work to survive.

Yet Grandpa, the oldest, was a lively and curious kid who loved building things, messing around with electricity and chemistry, and playing pranks. The quotes below are in his own words.

Four of us boys all slept in one bedroom in two beds. My brother Herm slept with me and brother Joe slept with Lou in the other bed. Sometimes Herm and I would talk together about some scary things, like falling stars, to get Joe and Lou in a scary mood. One night I started telling a scary story about the stars falling down, and the boys, Joe and Lou, asked questions, you know. “Does it make a big noise when they fall?” They fired all kinds of questions at me. So I said, “Yes, sometimes they do.” Well, finally I said, “Well, let’s go to sleep now.”

Herm and I had made up a plan together. I gave him a very heavy book and I said, “You bang this book together when I give you a nudge.” Now, I had about 4 or 5 dry cell batteries under the bed with wires connected going up the window to a light I rigged outside the window. When the boys were just about nodding off, I gave Herm a nudge with my elbow so that he would bang that book together. Meantime, I snapped that switch off and on and that bulb shone and flashed in that dark room real bright. Those boys were so scared, especially Lou. He thought the house was on fire.   They were scared stiff! They thought sure that a star had fallen. 

Herm told me the same story at Grandpa’s funeral; it was a great memory of his boyhood. He said that the book closing was as loud as a gunshot and Joe and Lou thought the world was ending.

What did I learn from this? Even in desperate situations, people like to mess with each other, especially boys. Given that this David story is mostly about male persons, I can’t forget this.

Grandpa didn’t grow out of pranking, either. During the Depression, when he was 18, he joined/was drafted into the Civilian Conservation Corps, and cut down the forest to build roads in northern Michigan. He wound up with a group of only guys, living in barracks, doing hard, physical work all day.

Another story of the CCC Camp: On Saturdays we didn’t have to work all day. We could take the afternoons off and if you wanted to go to town and they would take you in the truck. Some of the guys would go and get some booze to drink. One Saturday evening, there were some fellows who had come back from town. They had been drunk and had gotten in a fight in town. Then me and a couple of pals and another fellow who liked to fix radios too, Joe Hamilton from Detroit, decided to play a hoax using my radio.
Joe had given me some parts so I could fix my old radio. Way out there in the sticks my old radio didn’t get the best reception but by adding a tube in there, I made my radio more powerful so I could get reception none of the other radios could get. We could even get police broadcasts on my radio and pretty plain too. So we made up together with a guy, Bucky O’Connor, who had a big voice like a truckdriver, a plan to pull off a hoax on those guys who had gotten drunk and in a fight.
Bucky was the broadcaster. I had run a fine wire over the ceiling from my bed towards Bucky’s bed, connected to an earphone which he was going to use as a microphone. He was going to pretend to be sleeping in his bed with the comforters thrown over his head. I had the radio. The plan was that when I gave the signal, three taps on the floor, he would begin his broadcasting.
So first I turned my radio on and got some regular police calls and the guys who had gotten drunk were playing cards at a table and they didn’t pay much attention. Then I gave the signal and there was a call about “a drunken brawl in Nigawni, Michigan, and the perpetrator alleged to be in the CCC Camp” and that sort of thing. So then those guys pricked up their ears and started to get really worried. Then, to tease them a little, I would turn on the regular police broadcast for a while, and then a bit later, give the signal for Bucky to do his broadcast again. Now I had about 30 of those guys going; they stopped playing cards and said, “Now, listen! Listen!” And then they all looked at the guy who had been involved in the fight and he said there were others who had been involved too.
Pretty soon, Bucky accidentally disconnected the wire to his earphone microphone and didn’t know it. My radio went dead and there was a muffled mumbling coming out from under Bucky’s comforter: “Calling all cars! Calling all cars!” Someone ran over to Bucky’s bed and pulled off the comforter and there was Bucky with that microphone, trying to broadcast.
All we had to do was connect that wire and we were in business again. The fellow who had been so scared from our hoax wanted to pull that same hoax on two other guys that were involved too. So we could continue the hoax when those guys came in.

Then everyone wanted to broadcast too. Half of the guys wanted to broadcast. Some had guitars; some had mouth organs and other things. The other half would go outside and stand in the cold snow listening. So that was some excitement there that they had never experienced before.

I have to add a prankster to this manuscript. Of course, there was no electricity to aid in mischief, but I’ll think of something. I’m at the point in the story when David is first living in the caves in Judah. He’s hiding out, but more and more men escape their desperate situations and come to him. And wind up in an even more desperate situation. It’s not like he has giant reserves of food for them, yet, as their leader, he has to figure out how to provide for them and (in my version) to do it as honestly as possible. Even so, there’s got to be some nonsense happening, just to blow off steam, and to make David frustrated.

J.K. Rowling used the Prankster to great effect, with Peeves and the Weasley twins. So today, while I go about my business, I instruct my imagination to get to work on some first century BCE pranks.