I had an unexpected glimpse of a friend from the distant past last week.
I was staying up late watching a French Canadian film called The Decline of the American Empire. Around thirty minutes in, just as I’m taking a sip of Crown Royal on ice, a telephone rings. The character in the shot stiffens in his chair, and then the camera pans to a side table, where we see…
I had to stop and grab a screen shot immediately. I’d nearly forgotten what my old friend looked like, and I never expected to see one again. Not Rob, of course, but the phone.
You see, I invested in this electronic device in the 10th grade. I saved up money from my summer job and went downtown to Radio Shack, where I put a big roll of cash on the counter and asked Mr. Khan for what I clearly identified as an enormous, state of the art prank calling machine.
I was 14, and we were living through a bit of a Golden Age, but we needed the proper technology to perfect our craft.
I chose the DUO-fone so me and my best friend Rob Wilson could both enjoy each call without huddling over a single receiver.
It would be no exaggeration to tell you that we were artists.
We spent entire afternoons bringing joy to the residents of Prescott, Brockville and surrounding (non-long-distance) areas as we took turns running through our carefully tested list of original Prank Templates.
Of course we did the usual things, like ordering every taxi in town to a house down the block and watching out my bedroom window when they all showed up simultaneously. Or ordering a bunch of pizzas to a house that we could see from my window with binoculars.
“That son of a bitch is probably watching us from somewhere right now..!”
But we preferred more sophisticated pranks. Pranks that took patience and cunning. A call where we could weave a tale and build the effect.
We weren’t interested in your garden variety, “Is your refrigerator running…? Well, you’d better go catch it, then!”
We preferred something like a Template called Young Man of the House.
Of course, this format didn’t work on everyone, so it could take a few attempts to hook a good prospect. But here’s how it went.
Rob or I would take the lead, with the other listening in, and perhaps providing support or ideas scribbled quickly on scraps of paper. We’d open the call with angry demands.
“Let me speak to the young man of the house!”
“May I ask who’s calling please…?”
“No, you may not. Just get him on the phone right now — and no games. I’m sick of games.”
Of course, we didn’t even know if there was a Young Man of the House, so we’d have to keep talking to keep our interlocutor off balance.
The goal was to eventually lead up to, “Well, that sonnovabitch broke my window!”
The best was when they responded with, “But I’m telling you, I don’t have a son!”
And then we could say, “That’s odd… I don’t have a window.”
That Template didn’t work very often, but it was worth wheeling out anytime we were feeling nostalgic. I liked to think of it as an early prototype.
Other Templates were extremely simple.
A favourite of mine was to call up random numbers and cackle maniacally into the receiver until the person on the other end hung up. I would do this several times in a row, all the while imagining what would happen when these neighbours met at the Horton the next morning and compared notes.
“The strangest thing happened to me last night…. I picked up the phone, and there was a voice cackling maniacally on the other end.”
The neighbour turns pale, overtaken by a chill that begins in his toes and ends just south of his hat.
“What….? Surely not you, too, Clive….?”
“I thought it was all just a horrible dream, but …”
I could picture the growing miasma of gloom that was sure to engulf the city, and the newspaper headlines: MAD CACKLER STRIKES AGAIN!
But unfortunately this never happened. Perhaps we should have targeted individual neighbourhoods systematically?
A more effective — and much more amusing — simple Template was to call a random number, wait for the click, and then say “Hello” before they could say hello first.
Of course, this required a form of clairvoyance. The trick was to speak just as you sensed receiver meeting ear.
“Yes, what is it?”
“What do you mean, what is it? You called me?”
This could go on for quite some time. You’d be surprised by the sort of arguments that ensued as irate residents of Leeds Grenville insisted on proving we had called them, and not the other way around. People really have trouble letting things go, don’t they?
Another popular variation — and one which worked well in combination with other Templates — was Mispronunciation.
We would simply look through the telephone directory for someone with a common surname, but one that no one could possibly get wrong. A name like MacDonald.
“Could I speak to Mr. MACdonALD please…”
“Yeah, speaking. But it’s MacDONald.”
“Yeah yeah, so listen, Mr. MACdonALD…”
Others, like McManus, were especially easy prey.
“Could I speak to Mr. mcma’ANUS please…?”
It’s amazing how infuriated some of these people would become when we ignored their corrections and carried on anyway. I once convinced a McManus that he was about to be audited, and that I’d need to see every receipt for the last 5 years in his kitchen that coming Monday. I’m sure it was the Mispronunciation that flustered him enough to believe me.
If only we’d come across someone called Cockburn.
“Excuse me, that’s pronounced Co-burn…”
“You’re not fooling anyone, you know.”
It didn’t always go so well for us, of course. We would occasionally meet with resistance. I remember one instance very clearly. It was a late night call, say around midnight, and I got an elderly woman on the line.
I began with my opening gambit, and I heard the old biddy muffle the phone on her ample bosom.
“Gert,” she shouted to someone in the background. “Gert! Get the whistle! There’s a prank on the line!”
And then this bitter old spinster had the nerve to blow a whistle right into my ear. I howled obligingly, of course, and gave a convincing imitation of a horse being eviscerated. I must have sounded like the voice of Orpheus come up from hell. But she hung up just as I was getting started on the dire legal repercussions of her sonic attack.
Of course, most of those pranks resided in the lesser ranks of our Templates. Simple warm ups. Audio aperitifs to stimulate the creative juices for the banquet yet to come.
The Gold Standard, the prank Template-of-all-Templates, was simply called “John.”
As in martial arts, the most effective techniques are the simplest, but they must be honed to perfection and carried off with precision timing.
The thing is, everyone knows someone called John. Just think of how many John’s you know. I tried counting just now and gave up after ten. You give it a try…. Seriously, I’ll wait. Run through a list of known John’s in your head, and you’ll soon come to appreciate the genius of this template.
It’s origins are hazy, but I’m pretty sure Rob thought this one up. I do know for certain that he pulled off the greatest performance of this prank that I’ve ever witnessed — and indeed, one of the most convincing pranks of all time.
Here’s how it works.
You simply call up a random number and say, “Hi, it’s me, John!”
Now before you jump to conclusions, please think of the possibilities here. In pranks, as in sales cold calls, you need to get past your prospect’s initial resistance, to engage the person on the other end of the line and get them invested in your conversation. And it is a conversation, make no mistake.
What better way to do this than to throw them into confusion over who they’re talking to? Is it a friend…? A relative…? Which John is it…? And why do they feel so stupid about asking directly?
I especially liked to get a housewife on the line. I’d carry on as though I were a friend of her husband, or a close family friend, and once I knew she had a clear picture of who she thought she was speaking to, I’d throw in something randomly offensive, such as, “So…canigetalookatthosetits?”
I’d say it just like that, run together in a low mumble.
She’d say, “Excuse me?”
And I’d respond with, “I said, how are the kids?”
My goal was to see how long I could string this person along by defusing suspicion, getting back into a normal conversation, and then mumbling something lewd again, but raising the stakes each time, often by moving south anatomically.
Unfortunately, no one ever took me up on it, despite the fact that I was 14 or 15 and I earnestly did want to get a look at those tits.
Anyway, as I was saying earlier, Rob pulled off the Academy Award winning performance of the John Prank. In the interests of discretion, I don’t want to give away what he said — I’ll leave that up to him should he choose to comment. Suffice it to say that Rob drew some poor woman in to his own personal tragedy, and kept her on the phone in sympathy for a full 40 minutes. I even had to pass him a tissue when he convincingly burst into tears.
It didn’t always work out this way, of course. We had our share of failures, misfires, giggling fits and false starts. But we were never ashamed to hang up when things went wrong. We always got right back on that receiver and tried again. In pranks, persistence is everything.
Persistence also made for some very good calls.
Another favourite Template of mine involved phoning the same number 10 or 15 times throughout the course of a day and asking for a common name, like Will.
The person on the other end would become increasingly irritable after 6 or 7 hours of this. And when we sensed they were close to a proper boil, we’d wait twenty minutes, then call back and say, “Hi, it’s Will. Any messages?”
Now, I know what you’re thinking by this point. That it’s fine to be the one dishing it out, but can you take a dose of your own medicine?
I can honestly say that I enjoyed being on the receiving end of a good prank call. They didn’t often dial my parent’s number. But when they did, I appreciated their craftsmanship, and I always listened closely to see how they’d play it. Sometimes I’d even string them along, which made me feel like a counterintelligence agent. But I only remember receiving two pranks, and then, like hitchhiking, they died out completely.
Sadly, technology was our undoing.
An unwanted new gimmick offered by Bell Canada, “Call Display”, put an end to what truly was a Golden Age.
The telephone company was hot on our heels, and we were forced to hang up my tan coloured DUO-fone for the last time. I got my first proper girlfriend right around then, so my old phone still got a lot of use, but my hands were full of other things.
This may not be the end of the story, however…
Voice from another room: Keep it clean, you!
Shut it, pops, I’m not talking about her.
What I wanted to say is that the very same technology which put an end to our hobby may be about to resurrect it…
A good friend from home — I can’t say who, because he and his twin brother are highly respected members of the community now — told me that it’s possible to get an app on the iPad that both disguises one’s phone number and distorts one’s voice.
It’s sort of like an arms race, when you think about it. But without those snivelling treaties.
And on that note, I have to be going.
If you get any strange calls from someone named John over the next couple months, I want you to know that it wasn’t me and Rob. It was probably that friend from my hometown, so don’t even think about blaming us.