Volume X, No. 1, Fall 1982
SOME PRANKS REMEMBERED BY THE BURNS AND AMOS FAMILIES
by Carl Davis
Illustrated by Vickie Hooper
Sixty years ago a patch of ripe watermelons was an irresistible invitation to youth to help themselves. "We went over to the neighbor's watermelon patch that was kind of hid in the woods," Farrell Burns remembered. "We was getting watermelons when this fellow come up on us and said, 'The sheriff's after you.' We went to running, but one of the boys like to got caught. He had put a watermelon in the bib of his overalls, and it slipped down in the leg of his overalls. He had to bust that thing so he could run."
"One time, Farrell and a whole bunch of kids went to a singing in a big wagon," said his wife, Lena. "They got their dad's team and wagon and along the way the kids had been getting in his watermelon patch. So his dad got tired of it and said he was going to put a stop to it. He went to town and got some kind of oil. You could put it in the watermelon, and it wouldn't bother them, only it would really give them a bad stomach ache and diarrhea. That night a different bunch of kids coming home from the singing at the church decided they would stop, get a watermelon or two, and eat them. There was a whole bunch of them and they stopped and got their watermelon and ate it and went on. They hadn't been the ones that had been getting them before. It wasn't very long before first this one would leave the wagon and that one would leave the wagon. Before long the teem and wagon was just going down the road by itself!"
Though some pranks years ago were youthful ones, many were perpetrated by adults. But no matter who played the joke, whether it was just for fun, malicious or thoughtless, the best part of it was the telling and retelling through the years.
To get a variety of pranks, we visited with two different families, the Burnses and the Amoses.
In a big family like the Burns family, it wasn't hard to come up with ideas for new pranks. Lena said, "There was five of the boys and five of the girls. Well, for years, the three oldest girls was all married so that made the five boys and the three brother-in-laws, and what one of them didn't think about, the other eight or nine did."
It helps to have the encouragement of the family in remembering long-ago pranks and to understand the conditions then. Farrell's daughter, Jean Sharp, explained, "Dad was about to back out on telling these pranks, but he can tell a lot of interesting things. I was asking him awhile ago about it, and he said that they played checkers and dominoes when they would go in of a night. But he said after they had walked home from school, done their chores and ate supper, they didn't have much time for anything except, he said, the neighbors always come in and visited a lot."
But they always had time for playing pranks. After finishing their work, for lack of things to do, they would play pranks or practical jokes on unsuspecting people.
Farrell said, ,'Oh, we had to think up a lot of things when we were kids. Back then we didn't have nothing else to do. No radios, no television, no nothing! We didn't have no cars -nothing like that for entertainment.
"One of the funniest pranks was about the hogs. The hogs had a big barn to lay in, and my two brothers were going to ride some of the hogs. The hogs were big back then--big black hogs. My brothers was going to ride them around in the barn. One brother got in the barn and the other just stood in the door and spread out his legs to hold the hogs in there. That is, he thought he was going to hold them in. But one of the hogs run out between his legs and got his nose caught in the boy's britches. And the hog went out across the field just a-bucking. My brother couldn't get off 'cause he was just straddled over the hog. The hog finally got out on the ledge and throwed my brother off. He got a big gash in his head.
"These two brothers were always into it with the animals. After they got home from school, it was their job to go down and get the cows. So there was a neighbor right close to us, about a quarter mile from the house and he had a fellow working for him. I don't know how, but my brother got on this cow and she went back the other way towards the neighbor there. She was just a-bucking. My brother didn't know this fellow that was working there. He was just a new man but my brother hollered to the new man, "Head her off, man! Head her off!"
Lena remembered an incident with steers. "Farrell's folks were all gone and they. had give them all strict orders not to be riding them steers because they was trYing to get them fat so they could ship a carload to St. Louis. A bunch of the neighbor boys come, and, of course, they went down and went to riding the steers. Oh, it was just like a rodeo, really. The steers would just run and whirl and buck. One of the steers fell with Farrell's brother and fell on his leg. Oh, it like to broke his leg. His dad had to find out about the riding the steers because it hurt his leg so bad."
"We would ride them bareback. Part of the time we would have a rope but most of the time we didn't try to get a halter or a rope on them," Farrell said. "We'd just get the steers in the barn where they was a big bunch of them. One of us would get on a steer, someone would open the door and out through the field we would go. We'd trY to see who could run the farthest or the longest."
"Then there was the time you and a friend hooked the heifer to the buggy," Lena said. "Jess used to have a Shetland pony which they would hook to the buggy. When they sold the pony, they had the harness and the buggy still there. So Farrell and Jess decided one day that they would catch one of their heifers that was kind of gentle, put the harness on it and hook it to the buggy. They got in the buggy and started out down across the field, and, of course, the heifer didn't know how to guide or anything. It just made her more scared than ever, so she just went to running away. There was a big ditch washed across the field, and when she got to the ditch, she jumped it but the buggy stopped in the ditch. The heifer and the boys just went right on over. She broke her harness loose from the buggy and run off with the harness. It had throwed the boys out of the buggy right over on the bank. It almost broke Jess's arm. I don't know what it done to Farrell. He never would tell."
"We never got in trouble for it," Farrell said. "This boy's mother never knew anything about that--his dad was dead. He never told her. It didn't tear the buggy up too bad."
Jean remembered some pranks her husband, Allen and his brother, Jim, did.
"I've heard them tell about how they shucked a couple of sacks of corn to feed the hogs and then tied the sack on the old mule. Allen thought he would ride the mule to the house but Jim run and jumped on it. Then the mule took off just as hard as it could go to the house until it come to a mud hole that it had to go through. That mule stopped dead still and when it did, Jim went over head first in that mud hole.
"If Allen was here, he would tell you a lot. He told about his cousin who used to play with snakes all the time. His cousin just loved for snakes to crawl all over him. He was playing with a snake, one time, and he was whirling it over his head like a lasso. When he turned it loose, it wrapped around Jim's neck. Jim liked to died right there."
No matter how big or little, almost any animal could be the victim of a prank. "There was an old bachelor who used to live up there near where we had horses in the lot," Farrell said. He got out there one day and he caught him a mouse. He put this mouse under a horse's tail. That horse went to having fits and just running as hard as it could go. And so his dad come out on him and he said, "Giffy, what's the matter with that horse?" He said, "I don't know but I figure he's got a mouse under his tail."
Boys didn't need a special occasion to play pranks but the coming of Halloween invited special effort. Farrell said, "Halloween, we done all kinds of tricks. We would take a wagon to pieces or a buggy and carry it up on top of the barn and put it back together again. Of course, the old outhouse, we always had to move it into the backyard or into the middle of the road in front of the house."
It was always fun to use water in pranks. "Used to the boys would go to the house and scare people about Christmas time," Farrell said. They would wet them--get them out of the house, and throw a bucket of water on them. One time, my brother and a friend or two went to my uncle's house and hollered at him. He got up and began to get his clothes on. When he come to the door, they throwed water on him. So the boys went to running and they run to the next neighbor there and wet him the same way. But my uncle followed them up to his neighbor's house and he threw water on one of the boys and then on the other one. That stopped them from running. The neighbor, the one they had throwed water on up there, he caught up with them. He seen him coming and says, "Catch'em, catch'em, catch'em!" My uncle also hollored to them and said, "Catch'em, catch ' em."
"The last time that they ever pulled a trick like that was so funny," Lena said. "Our son, Jack, and
his wife, Rose, had just gotten married and moved to Phillipsburg. Three neighbor boys decided
they was going to wet Jack because they never could catch him for a shivaree. So they went up
there with a bucket of water. The front porch didn't have a foundation around it. It was pretty
high with two or three steps down. It was kind of on stilts. One of them rang the doorbell and the
other one was standing to the side with the bucket. Instead of Jack coming to the door, why Rose
come to the door. They had already drawed back to throw and throwed it on her anyway--that
whole bucket of water. And, oh, she just screamed. It like to scared her to death. Jack come
running to see what was wrong, and it made him mad, because they had throwed it on her. So he
took out after them. Well, he seen one of them going across the railroad track, but the other two
had just ducked down and crawled under the porch. Well, the one that had gone across the
railroad track, he run and got in the car and left. Jack never could find the others. Those two boys
was afraid Jack would hear them. It was away up in the night before they crawled out from under
that porch. They sure soaked Rose. She mopped half the morning trying to get that bucket of
water out of the living room floor."
Sometimes to annoy a neighbor, boys would lure them outside at night on a wild goose chase. Jean remembered her father telling, "A bunch of boys got in different corners of the cornfield with cowbells and the farmer was out there barefooted in the middle of the night trying to run these old cows out. One boy would ring a cowbell away over in one corner, and one would ring it over here in another, and the farmer would take after them. He thought the whole herd of cattle was in the cornfield and he couldn't get them out."
"We didn't get caught either," Farrell said.
No account of pranks would be complete without some cemetery stories. Lena told a story of a trick played on a high school girl who walked home by a cemetery each evening. The girl was staying with her uncle and aunt to be near the school. She didn't help with supper dishes or do any work, but stopped to visit on the way home. Her uncle got tired of that and wanted to teach her a lesson. "So he got in a sheet and went up the road to the Roper Cemetery and laid down out on the ground. She would go home every time just before dark. It was getting pretty ark and here she come. The uncle laid still until she got just about even with the cemetery and he kind of raised up and went to groaning and taking on. She seen him and went to running. It just like to scared her to death. She ran clear on home. She was so out of breath when she got home, she just opened the door and fell in the room. She said, 'Oh, Aunt Vera, Uncle Jim just like to scared me to death!' She knew who it was but she couldn't keep from running."
"My dad told me of a time way back," Farrell said. "One boy was going sparking and he had to pass a cemetery. The boys decided they was going to scare him. I think one of the other boys was wanting his girl and tried to scare him to keep him from going over there. They got out in the cemetery with a sheet and when his horse come by, they all just run right out to the fence just like a big floating angel. It like to scared him to death mod like to run his horse to death."
Cemeteries weren't the only things which could beused to scare people. Noises could do it. Lena tells one about "bear" noises. "They've told about a neighbor that was kind of scary, and the least little things would make him uneasy. Some fellows got to telling around they had seen a bear in the country. Of course, they was sure that he would hear about the bear being in the neighborhood. They fixed up a gallon bucket and put a string through it some way with rosin. When they pulled it, what an awful noise it would make! So two or three of these boys got that old bucket fixed up to where it made the kind of racket that they wanted it to make.
"They used to have singings at the schoolhouse on Saturday night. Of course the neighbor and his wife walked up to the singing and then walked home. He had to go down the road a ways and then cut through the timber. These fellows went down and hid in the timber. As the couple was going home that night, before they got quite to the hidden boys, the boys pulled that string. It was kind of growling, awful sound. It got a little louder and a little louder and the neighbor heard it. He told his wife, 'Now, listen! What's that?' And they stopped and listened. And of course, the boys pulled the string again with that awful racket. And so he said, 'Let's hurry.
I believe that's that bear.' And so the boys pulled the string again and as he got farther away, they kept following just so far away, slipping along so he wouldn't hear them walking. But they got pretty close to him. He got so scared running home from that bear that he run plum off and left his wife!"
WE AMOS BOYS WORKED HARD BUT ALWAYS MANAGED TO FIND TIME FOR PRANKS
The Amos family like the Burns family also had several boys. Bill and Roy reminisced about the escapades in their family of five boys.
"Usually there's a leader in a community or family that will do most of them, but not always," said Roy. "I would say that the days before my younger brother, Ralph, married, he was the leader of anything like that. If it came to playing a joke, he was ready. He worked hard, but somehow always managed to find time for something like that. There are so many other things to do now, much more than back then. It was on holidays, pie suppers and Sundays. Those were wide open for pranks. We always played them on April Fool's Day. That seems to be a regular holiday for pranksters, especially trying to fool younger brothers.
"My brother Lee had quite a temper. We were about eight and we were testing how tight we could squeeze an egg without bursting it. I got the idea of cracking one, and of course, Lee, younger than I, didn't know and didn't see me do it. He tried to squeeze one and gave it back to me and I tried. What happened was I had already cracked another one and was holding it in my hand. I let on like I was squeezing it real hard, but I wasn't. So I said, 'Lee, you try it.' He did and it smashed in his hand. That really made him mad and he threw it at me. That was a really big mess."
"Halloween was another time for pranks," Roy continued. "On Halloween of our second high school year Landis Esther and I went out turning over anything that would do. We turned over Mr. Rowden's outhouse, and as it went over backwards, there was a squeak. It sounded like somebody was in there, so we ran. Out back of the outhouse was a field that came to a barb wire fence, and trying to get through, I tore my trousers. Back then, we only had one pair of trousers. I had torn those many times before and they had patches all over them. It cost me twenty-five cents to get them fixed."
Other special times for pranks was someone's birthday. Most people have practiced spanking the birthday person the number of years they had lived. The Amoses had another tradition. "Whenever anybody had a birthday, we put them under the bed," Bill said. "My wife's niece was with us one time and lived with us for a couple of years. When it came her eighth birthday, I put her under the bed. She cried--she just didn't seem to know about the tradition. So to console her, Gladys said, 'We'll do Bill that way when it comes his birthday.' I'd forgotten about it, but they got up the morning of my birthday to get breakfast and came in before I got out of bed. I just happened to think, 'what do I do?' So I scooted clear over against the wall. I was leaning against the wall, and they couldn't push me out so they jerked the bed out."
"We pushed the bed over him,"Gladys laughed.
"I was over so far I couldn't catch it. I got put under the bed," Bill said.
"In our family with just boys at that time," Roy said, "one could not put the other under. In fact, two could not have put Bill or me under. It would take four at least, Bill or I, Lee and Ralph. The other three could put me under when I was twelve years old. Bill was about as large as I was. It took all the muscle to get him under."
A neighbor getting married was an invitation for his friends to do something to him. Shivarees, where the neighbors paid a surprise visit on the newly married couple one night for treats were common. If the couple didn't treat them, the boys and men would do something to the groom such as throwing him in a pond. Bill remembered, "Back in those days, we didn't have any money to go on honeymoons. We just got married and went home. The day that Chester Lemery got married over at the First Baptist Church, they pulled two pranks on him that day. For some reason, he was to walk in to the bride from one side of the church. Since he was on the wrong side, he had to get over on the other side, so he started around behind the choir. He should've known where he was going back there, but he fell off in the baptistry before he got married. There wasn't any water in it. So later that day the men caught him and took him out to a farm where they had a horse trough. It was mid-winter, and since he didn't get wet in the baptistry, they put him in that horse trough."
Imaginative people didn't need special days such as April Fool's Day or a wedding in order to play jokes on others. Any dark night would do, Bill's wife, Gladys, remembered, "Sometimes they got the long thin onion blades and put them in the bed. When you put your feet in, the onion blades seemed like snakes. Then they would go to bed and there'd be cracker crumbs in the bed, and they'd feel like chat or cornbread."
It was always fun to play pranks that used noises. Roy said, "I never participated in this one, as a prankster or a prankee, but I have heard about it. Some night the neighbors would go to someone else's house, and it was always someone they knew well. They'd attach a string or something to the head of a long nail and stick the nail up under the weatherboard of a house. They'd go out a distance and pull it taut a violin string and rub something on it like a bar of soap. The person come out and try to find that weird noise. The pranksters would hide. The prankee would come out, and he had no idea what was making that vibrating noise on his house. Then he'd go back to bed and it'd start again. He'd get out again and listen. I've heard of that so many times."
"I heard about cowbells in the cornfield a good many times," Bill said. "This happened to other people--maybe it happened to us--but people would have a good corn crop and had a lot of corn way up high. Sometimes, of course, cattle really would get in it. But to play a prank sometimes two or three neighbors would get cowbells and get together and go down there in the cornfield. They'd ring the bells and the farmers would think they had cattle in their field."
"Today with the new corn seed and shorter corn, you could pretty much see the cattle in a field," explained Roy, "but that was real in those days. I can remember the days, fifty or sixty years ago, that someone could not see if there were cattle there or not, and they had to go down and try to find them."
"There were no cattle in there at all," Bill continued, "but the pranksters would run all over the cornfield with a cowbell. If the owner got too close and they could hear him coming, they'd stand still. They'd just hold the bell--wouldn't let it make any noise and they'd slip off in the dark. The owner just couldn't catch up with the cattle at all. They'd chase him around for an hour."
"Then there's this one," said Roy. "There are very different variations of it. The pranksters had to know the prankee and the house really well. Most of the old houses had a porch. At night one could climb up over the porch top on the house with a bucket of water if he knew where a ladder was, and knew the house well enough. The other one would knock on the door and call the prankee out onto the porch and tell him about the storm coming. The prankee said, 'It's clear, isn't it?' 'No, come out here,' said the prankster. When the prankee goes out and looks up, the other fellow on the roof pours the water on him."
Sometimes the prankster, by quick thinking was able to play a prank that wasn't planned when the opportunity came up, as Roy explained. "I remember one that happened to Bill. We had a beautiful horse, but she went blind though we still could work and ride her, and she would go wherever we wanted her to go. Bill came down the road from the church at Orla on her just a-galloping. Hobert Knight asked if he would trade, and Bill said he would. Bill got off his horse and looked the other one over. it was a beautiful horse, so they made the trade. They changed saddles, too. Hobert said, 'Well now then, there's no question that your horse is a better one than mine.' Bill waved his hand over her eyes and said, 'How about her eyesight?' She was stone blind. There was no backing out then.
"Most pranks were played on adults. I remembered Dad telling about a fellow who had a funny looking head. He seemed to be smart enough, but his head came up and slanted back. This fellow kept kidding a drummer, trying to talk him into something. The drummer got irritated and finally he asked, 'What caused the shape of your head?' The fellow said, 'It's a smarter one than you have, and yours is round.' The drummer said, 'I found out what's wrong with you. At one time you had a wart on your head, and you got a hold of some salve and put it on the wart, and it took your head off and left the wart."
"Back in those days, most of the teachers didn't own homes, because they had to move around too much," said Bill. "Roy Litle had been in Aurora for two or three years, and he decided he'd buy a house. He bought one, and the first thing they had to do was redecorate the inside and paint it. When they got that all done, they had to reseed the lawn, so some friends helped him with that, working several weekends to get the seed bed all prepared, and get it seeded. When it started coming up, he got to looking at it real close one day. It was all turnips!"
Sometimes people cause their own downfall. Roy's wife, Marie, said, "I recall Ralph telling this practical joke. fast-talking salesman sold a man a stove and said it was so strong that you could jump on the oven door without breaking it. Some men talked the man into testing the door by jumping on it. He broke it down."
Though not exactly a prank, Roy said his mother was fond of telling this experience. "We lived in a one-room cabin. When we were real young, the cows were about half a mile away in a little area of pasture down by the river. Mother would go down there to milk. She'd leave Bill and me to watch Lee. I was four and Bill was three, and Lee was almost one year old. We sat in the doorway so Lee couldn't fall out. One time mother was late, and it was starting to get dark. I remember going out and getting an old ax with the handle broken out, and I said, 'If any boogers come, I'll chop them up.' And Bill said, 'Well, what can I do?' I said, 'You go get the sharp knife.' Bill went back in the kitchen and got the sharp knife. We were sitting there in the doorway when mother came and wanted to know what in the world we were up to. 'Oh, if any boogers come, we're gonna kill them!' She thought that was so funny, and she would tell it and we'd get embarrassed."
Children weren't the only ones afraid of boogers. Some men went to elaborate preparations to scare those who tended to be timid. Roy concluded with one his grandfather used to tell.
"Near Orla between the Lindsay farm and the Amos farm in the 1870s there was a trail on a hillside. It was known by three pranksters that two persons were going along the trail that particular night, and they were afraid, or superstitious about a dead body, or a ghost. These three persons rigged up a dummy, just like a person as much as they could, placed it rather close to the side of the trail and hoped the two apprehensive people wouldn't miss it, but to be sure that they didn't overlook it, they ran a wire up the hill. They were a little higher on the hill hiding, and they could pull on that wire to make a groaning noise. These two came along, and the three pranksters gave a little pull. It scared the two. They didn't dare go touch the dummy because they decided it was a dead person. One of them said, 'What do we do? What do we do?' The other said, 'Go get the Justice of the Peace." But the Justice of the Peace of that community was one of the three pranksters, Luckily, the Justice was between them and his home, so he was able to slip out of his hiding place and run home.
He didn't have time to pull off his clothes but got into bed with his clothes on. These two
prankees got him out of bed, never noticing that he was dressed, they were so scared. They all
went back down the trail to the body. The Justice very bravely went up to it, and he said, 'Oh, this
is just a dummy! Son, body played a trick on you.'"
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