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Who’s The Prankster Here?! Often Indicted, Never Convicted

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard it, “We don’t know who’s responsible, but we KNOW who’s responsible – so stop it NOW!”

Ah – the joys of youth!

I was a good kid growing up (really, I promise) but I sometimes couldn’t resist a practical joke – if it was a good one – and I could escape blame. Hence my minor little “often indicted, never convicted” stunts.

The High School Prankster

The Time Keeper

By the time I reached high school, I had started taking pride in my work and tried for the most elegant tomfoolery. My first real coup was my freshman year. The school consisted of separate buildings of a few classrooms each connected by covered walkways. Each classroom had a clock on the wall at the front of the room. There was also a bell system out in the hall to announce the start and end of each class. I found out that the clocks and bells were all electrically slaved to the master clock in the principal’s office. That made it easy to adjust things for short days, etc.


It also meant that the wires doing the synchronization were lying unprotected atop the covered walkways. The way it worked is that the master clock sent out 60 pulses a second.  \Each classroom clock “counted” the pulses and when it reached 60, the second hand would move ahead one second.

One night, a person or persons unknown, climbed atop the walkway, stripped back the insulation of the clock signal wire and added a small battery powered signal generator that added an additional 540 pulses per second for a total of 600. Now the classroom clocks and the bells were seeing 10 times as many “ticks” in a second – and therefore were running 10 times as fast. A 50-minute class now lasted 5 minutes! It did create a delightful amount of confusion.

Call Me The Chemist


High school chemistry provided the joys and access to the various mercaptans. This is the stuff of rotten eggs, skunks, and the odorants put into natural gas so you can detect a leak. Some are detectable in parts per billion. With a little care a syringe, without the needle, could be filled with the vile concoction and kept off one’s own hands. Then for a week or so, a person or persons unknown, would surreptitiously give a quick squirt to the jeans of some of the biggest jackasses in the school during class changes to the delighted amusement of all the non-jackasses.

The College Prankster

The Bookstore Scandal

College provided many more opportunities for minor mischief. One of our favorites was more scam than prank, but equally effective. Before each semester, the college bookstore would be swamped with 50,000 students buying books. There were many registers and the lines were long. In those dinosaur days, you bought the books with checks – checks that had names and home town info, etc. printed upon them. To amuse ourselves while in line, we’d casually glance around until we found the right person with her checkbook out, filling in everything but the amount.

Then – after finally getting through checkout, a little maneuvering would lead to a conversation like this:

“Hey! Mary Jane is that you? It is! Wow, it’s been years since I last saw you. Are you still living up in Dallas? Here, let me help carry your books to the car. So what have you been up to?”

Of course, you’ve never seen her before in your life – but she’s smiling away while the wheels are spinning furiously in her mind trying to figure out who the hell you are. What can I say – guys hustle girls – I’m almost sure it’s in one of those Constitution Amendment things.

Before We had Krazy Glue

The research lab I worked in a got shipment of some fancy new Eastman Chemical adhesives – cyanoacrylates, the similar stuff later marketed to consumers as Super Glue or Krazy Glue. These were the industrial strength version, (one project we worked on was testing small potential aerodynamic models of the Space Shuttle Orbiter during the re-entry regime from Mach 7 down to Mach 3 – we needed all the strength we could get.)  There were several varieties, but the one that really got our attention was a shock adhesive.

Unlike Super Glue, atmospheric moisture didn’t cause it to polymerize (and glue stuff together.) This one was almost totally inert until something really smashed it hard, a shock, that caused it to instantly glue things together.

So, persons unknown, left a few little puddles around the campus walkways – then watched and waited in the distance. When a shock was applied, like by someone stepping on the puddle, their shoe was instantly welded to the concrete. What fun! Long suffering John McKetta, Dean of Engineering, pronounced another of his “We don’t know who is responsible …” edicts and the shoe welding stopped. By the way, he lived to 103 years old – despite the grief he had to put up with from us.

The Mixed Up Freshman Map Pranksters

Our lab was a “paper mill.”  Whole forests feared us. In academia, there is no truer maxim than “Publish or Perish.” We were the golden kids that cranked out more mind numbing scientific papers than anyone on campus. All of the professors lined up to add their names to the stuff, as just having your name on any paper counted toward full professorship. Most of those papers during that period never saw the light of day as our “client” at the time was deep in the black budget realm. (Enough said.)

Because we ground out so much drivel, and because of the security aspect, we were given free access to the university’s publishing equipment and “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” So – as a little side venture, we printed up a few thousand copies of the full color, highly detailed maps of campus that we found the printing plates for. Except – our version had all the names of the buildings changed around. During freshman class registration at the gym, (and to make sure it didn’t get back to us,) we recruited a couple of eager beaver freshman to stand outside the gym and hand out the maps to the rest of their new classmates. Another dean visit.

The Pumpkin Tossing Pranksters

Then there was the cannon incident. (Dean McKetta missed this one since I was at a different school.) We read about the invention of the “potato gun.”  Being serious self proclaimed engineering geniuses, we considered a potato gun too blasé for consideration by geniuses such as us. Besides, we had a lot of useful “toys” at our disposal to up the ante. Which led to us launching pumpkins in sub-orbital flights out onto the parking lot adjacent to our lab building. (No – we didn’t kill anyone and we didn’t hit any cars – just came close.) Another meeting with a different dean with the same result. All of those papers were our life saving “get out of jail free cards.”

The Need For An Emergency Excavator

There were a couple on “incidents” that weren’t pranks but were potential disasters. There’s only one that I better talk about. One of our “toys” was a hypersonic wind tunnel. The test section was only 7 inches high and 5 inches wide but the air moved through it at over 5,000 miles per hour.  That takes too much energy to run continuously, so we’d pump air into storage cylinders for hours, then blow it all down in a few seconds.  We cut a deal with the Air Force when they decommissioned a Nike missile base and they gave us a huge 40 foot long high pressure tank. This dramatically increased our air storage which meant we could get longer run times.

The problem was that stored high pressure air, in this case over 6,000 pounds per square inch, is essentially a bomb waiting to go off. We did some calculations and designed a concrete and steel “saddle” that would contain the tank if it ruptured. Everything looked good, so we ran for a few weeks.  Then one of our advisors asked, “What happens if the hemispherical end of the tank pops loose?”

We hadn’t considered that – seemed safe enough since it was a 5,000 pound chunk of steel. But, we did some quick back of the envelope calculations. Whoa!  If it had popped loose, it’d have tumbled through west Austin at Mach 5. We got an emergency authorization, called for an excavator, dug a huge hole, and buried the damn thing 20 feet underground – and counted our blessings that nothing had happened.

There are more “amusing” little tales, but I’m out of room, so I’ll save them for another installment.

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Reeves Motal
Reeves Motal
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