The phone was ringing, and Bobby Francis answered it with an ordinary hello. Fifteen-year-old me could tell by the change of his expression that this wasn’t one of his Java Java buddies calling to catch up or arrange the next gathering. “How did you get this number?” He barked into the phone, “This is a direct line to the White House!” He hung up and explained that it was some telemarketer. He walked out of the kitchen casually, and for the first time, I became fully aware of how clever and hilarious my grandpa is. I visited Bobby last week with my younger sister, Mary, and my older sister, Katie. Because I write this charming pranking column and am a student of the craft, I thought that I could and should feature a real O.P. (original prankster, if you will).
Bobby turns 90 this month and is as sharp as any other intelligent being out there. He lives on a barrier island outside of Charleston, South Carolina, and lives his life in that relaxed and preppy style ubiquitous among retired people on the East Coast. He is a WWII vet and never misses an opportunity to wear his USMC hat. He has seven grandchildren who are each more awesome than the last. I’m sure that awesomeness is a result of spending time with the smooth talking and handsome devil that is our grandpa. My brother calls him “Old Stallion,” and Bobby calls Patrick “Young Stallion” in return. Bobby really is the best (except for when he’s ornery, but if we’re being totally honest, we’re all less than stellar at times).
On a ride into town, my sisters and I asked Bobby to tell us about some of the practical jokes he has pulled. He started off with a story from his advertising days in Middletown, Ohio:
“We had a young writer [Jim] in our advertising staff who had a pretty long commute from home to work and every morning he would come in, he would not have had breakfast. So we had one of those old vending machines. And he would go to it and buy a cup of coffee and a package of those sort of powdered do-nuts. And this one particular morning I needed to talk to him about something and he was out of his office again, but he had left the do-nuts on his desk. And he was so easy to fool. I couldn’t resist. So I peeled open the package of do-nuts carefully, took a bite out of one, put it back in the package, and sealed it with a little piece of tape. Well, 10 minutes later, he comes into my office and said, ‘You can’t believe what somebody did. What somebody did to me.’
“And I said, ‘What was it? What’s the matter?’
“Then he told me, so I said, ‘Oh, that’s some terrible treatment.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what we can do about it, but next time, be more careful.’
“So he left and I picked up the telephone and called another guy in our art department—nice, young fellow. ‘Hey,’ I said, ‘You want to have a little fun with Jim? Call and ask him if he has anything to eat over there in his office.’ And he was dumb enough that he did it. And he called and asked, so Jim, of course, thought it was him. What was especially funny to me was that [Jim] said, ‘I can tell from the way the bite was taken out of it, so carefully, that somebody with a mustache had done it. This young artist had a nice, black mustache.”
This prank was subtle, much like when I play music at the lowest volume at my desk and observe coworkers’ reactions. However, once I learned that it is one in a long line of Jim-centric pranks, it carried more weight because I realized that Bobby’s pranking skills became more creative and refined as time went on.
Bobby told Katie, Mary, and me some more stories, like how he bought a fake and wonderfully tacky golf trophy for the office and his playful way of calling out the golf league’s notorious cheater. He told us about how a few years back, he and his friend Ike created a plaque that christened a well-traveled footbridge as the Bill B. Bridge. Bill B. had just not been re-elected to the town council, so Bobby thought, “Maybe he’ll feel good if he has a bridge named after him.” Of course, neither Ike nor Bobby had bought naming rights for the Bill B. Bridge or even gotten permission from the town, so the sign was taken down.
Nobody, not even Ike, is exempt from the O.P.’s shenanigans. Bobby and Ike are part of the aforementioned Java Java Club—a group of island “geezers” that gets together to drink coffee and scheme about once a month. They’re regulars, so when a Java Java barista gave the group membership cards, “Compliments of the management,” Ike wholeheartedly appreciated it. The other men weren’t fooled and probably guessed that Bobby had made the cards himself and tipped the barista into playing along. Even after the jig was up, Ike kept insisting that he gets a discount on account of his Java Java Membership Card. The owners finally gave in, and Ike actually does get discounted coffee at Java Java.
However much I love the turn of events in the Java Java epic, my favorite story dates back to the 1960s or 1970s:
“[The whole department] used to, as a group, a couple of times a season, go to a Cincinnati Reds baseball game. And we often bought seats in what they called an upper box. Second tier, but right in the front row. We’d sit there and drink our beer and eat our peanuts, but before we’d go in, I would go down to the local 5 and 10 cent store and buy a dozen plastic baseballs that looked like real balls. I’d bring them, put them in a sack and when we got to our seats, we’d distribute these balls. Whenever a foul ball would come up toward us, in our direction, we’d throw the fake balls. And down below, you’d see people scrambling for them. As soon as the people would touch the ball, they knew they’d been had.
“One time, we got there early, and Pete Rose was being interviewed by someone in a box seat right below us. I yelled, ‘Hey Pete!’ And he looked up and I threw one of the balls down there to him. And he laughed and threw the darn thing back and it came all the way back up to my seat—a lightweight, plastic ball. Those are hard to throw.”
Bobby and his coworkers were too involved in their fun to realize that they had a baseball (albeit a plastic one) that had graced the hands of Pete Rose, and they threw it away with the other fake foul balls. Someone below probably caught that ball and became upset that it wasn’t the foul ball he or she was looking for, never knowing that Pete Rose himself had clutched and thrown it earlier that day.
I just imagine people running around and wrestling each other for these plastic baseballs, and it makes me laugh so much. I can’t tell this story without laughing. It’s genius! It’s the work of a seasoned prankster. It is exclusive to its setting (thanks bag checks and audience cams at baseball games), but can still be appreciated for its ingenuity. Maybe, one day, I will emulate Bobby and reach that level of pranking brilliance.
Leslie Michaels is currently a Level 3 improv student at the DCH Training Center. She spends her spare time riding her bicycle, playing Ultimate Frisbee, or hanging out with her boyfriend, Netflix. She still questions whether she’s a dog person or a cat person.