The question was obviously not an innocent one. When Laura asked it as we sat in the way-way-back of her parents' van on our way home from fourth grade, I should have known she was hinting at an after-school dare.
"It's where you call a phone number and say something funny, then hang up."
Laura was my best friend. Being funny was our thing; catching people off-guard and being generally goofy were the activities we enjoyed most as friends. Once we choreographed an elaborate show for the pizza delivery man that involved toilet flushing and other carefully timed background noises for when we opened the door to hand the guy our money. We regularly recorded radio programs on our tape recorders, which featured original music about class picture day. After a family trip to Connecticut to visit my brother and meet his new fiancee, I couldn't wait to tell Laura about how I rattled off the entire "Hi, my name's Chubby" routine in front of everyone at dinner. This was that classic "joke" where you squish your face together (because you're "Chubby") and recite a brief monologue about going on a motorcycle ride with your dad, who's not going fast enough. You plead with him to go faster, when finally Dad goes so fast that the force stretches your once-squished face back to your ears. We tucked these things in the "We Are So Hilarious" folder in our friendship filing cabinet.
So naturally, a question about prank calls was sure to turn the wheels of a couple of partners in 'tween comedy. Plans would be made, and soon.
On normal afternoons, we'd spend the after-school hours jumping on Laura's trampoline, eating nachos and watching "Batman: The Animated Series" or "Full House" until Mom came to pick me up at 5:30. We were about age 10, with Barbies stuffed under our beds and coloring books shoved in the back corners of our closets. We were always looking for something different to do, lest we succumb (as we often did) to the ever-present temptation to play make-believe.
|The night we discovered MadLibs, circa 2nd grade.|
Some randomly dialed elderly woman in a Boise suburb would say hello, and within seconds, her ear would be filled with the obnoxious and crude sounds of mouth-made flatulence, followed by a "click" and dead air. These calls were so simple, so irreverent! We kind of knew we were being bad, but gosh, it was too funny; surely no one would call the cops on someone for this stuff. Besides, we felt protected by that phone line. The person on the other end couldn't see us, didn't know how old we were or where we were.
It couldn't get better than this. We farted on the phone line for days.
But it did get better. One day it occurred to us that we had a school directory. It was one of those publications teachers send home with students, knowing that the delivery may never make it all the way to the parents. In most cases, students like us kept them, drew flowers and stars next to our friends' names, frowny faces next to the boys we didn't like, and teeny tiny hearts next to our crushes.
We began with Trevor, a nice boy in our class who loved cars and lizards. We dialed. It rang. His mom answered. We hung up.
That was often how we warmed up.
Then came Gabe, the boy I thought was the cutest in our class. Hearts big and small were drawn everywhere around his listed family residence. He picked up (though perhaps it was his sister - hard to tell in those pre-pubescent years) and we did the fart-noise-hang-up routine. We envisioned him still holding the phone, very confused. I was already moving on to a daydream of me explaining it to him later, he being so impressed by my farting noises that he would realize how foolish he was for overlooking the girl who sat next to him in class.
We did a few more, when finally, we got to Mark. He was a new kid at school that year and we thought he was mean. We even thought his older sister was mean, purely by relation. We dialed his number and it rang over to the answering machine, so we hung up. But then it occurred to us that perhaps answering machines were another opportunity.
I grabbed a cassette player and queued up Amy Grant's "Baby Baby" on a nearby "Heart in Motion" tape. We dialed Mark again. As soon as the machine picked up, we pressed "play" and unleashed the upbeat synthesized intro. Laura and I could hardly control our laughter. Right around the time Amy started singing, "The birds above are singing you a chorus," we heard the machine beep again, cutting us off. We simply stopped the tape, redialed, got the machine again and carried on. Several more times.
|Me and Laura in the principal's office, circa 4th grade|
The day after the Mark call, my teacher pulled me aside on my way out to recess and told me I needed to visit the principal. At this point, I should mention that Laura's dad, Mr. M., was the principal of our school where we got these handy school directories. Because my family was friends with Laura's, my first thought was something had happened to my mom or dad, and Mr. M. was going to break the news. Heart attack? Accident? I was scared. When I got to his office, the office aid motioned me in. I rounded the corner to find Laura facing her father's desk. Mr. M. walked in after me, sat down and leaned forward toward the two of us.
"Girls, we have a problem," he said with concern, though it didn't feel like the kind of concern that preceded a statement about my becoming an orphan. That rotten feeling in my stomach was telling me we were in big trouble.
"Mark's mother called me to say that there were several annoying messages left on their answering machine yesterday that came from our phone number. Can either one of you explain to me what's going on?"
What was going on? The invention of Caller ID was what was going on, and we had been entirely clueless about its existence until Mr. M. explained how this little device displayed his last name as Mark's family listened to Amy sing, "Baby, I'm so glad you're mine" across multiple messages.
We were crushed and totally embarrassed. As we sat there in the office, staring down at our feet, we confessed to all of our crimes, from hanging up on strangers, to making fart noises, and yes, to playing light rock over the phone and misusing the school directory. My ears were tingling because that's what they do when I'm trying not to cry. I looked up for a moment to see Mr. M. frowning at us through his big black beard. We would have to apologize to the meanest boy in class, who would undoubtedly just laugh at us through his gleaming mouthful of braces.
But really, more devastating than being caught that day was the life lesson we were learning. It was something that even the best comedians have to learn at some point: not everyone thinks you're funny.
I think back on those days every so often, and how more prank calls were made after we learned how to block the Caller ID. But it was also around that time that Laura and I kind of drifted apart in our friend circles, she being more interested in playing sports, me being more interested in living the life of Anne of Green Gables. Little did we know that the years that followed would bring heartbreaking events at our little school that would cast a bittersweet hue on those earlier years. But our friendship continued to weave in and out through critical points, changing with the times and adapting to new environments. Laura and I went on to different high schools. Then I went off to college and she spent some time in Sweden. As far as we've moved beyond those days of our after-school scheming, to this day we can still easily slip back into our old routines when we get together, even if multiple years have passed between visits. All this is to say, I guess, is that of course not everyone thinks you're funny, but it's nice when you know there's at least one person in the world who does.