The Diabolical Duo
As teenagers, me and my cousin Robert John were notorious for causing havoc, destruction, and unfathomable cruelties that were beyond description – especially when it came to our siblings. Anytime we came together, our minds seemed to meld and be on the same wavelength. “What can we do to scare the hell out of them?”
As diabolical as that may sound, we were careful not to cause any pain beyond the bonked head from a frightful shock or mind altering, fear generating abomination. Blood curdling screams sometimes caused stresses on vocal cords and sore throats were common fare but that was the extent of our damage. We certainly did not want anyone to permanently impale themselves on the metal jacks we placed on the floor. Nor did we want anyone to fall too far down the stairs in a pile of broken shattered bones when an obviously “fake” giant spider would appear out of nowhere. No – we were responsible deviants and artisans of pulmonary stress and trauma of the highest order. We took our craft seriously.
Throughout our childhood, me and Robert John were inseparable. Even at a young age, he possessed an engineering mindset of unequaled caliber. My devious visions only fueled his imaginative spirit and mechanical prowess. He was always up for the challenge.
One can only imagine how many miles of fishing line we used throughout those years. Dad had tons of it. I’m fairly certain there is probably a few miles of spent filament still up in the rafters of that old house — along with some rusty pulleys, eye hooks and forty rolls worth of dried out, duct tape.
Years of devising ways of making lamps invisibly move, fall or eerily swing takes a lot of hardware, planning and construction. It required ninja silence, spider-like sleuth, timing and expert execution. It was not for the faint of heart or the run of the mill amateur. Again — we were artisans and creating the illusion of a supernatural apparition appearing out of nowhere in the middle of the night, was something we took seriously. We were the Penn and Teller of Howell Street.
“This really sucks. I can’t get into their room and into the crawl space.” said Robert John, as he bolted through the tent flap, “Nancy is sitting on the stairs.”
Robert John began feverishly emptying the inside of his shirt of its contents. The fishline, tape, three pulleys, three wood-screws and screw driver; as well as the black six-inch spider with the eight-inch orange legs and beady eyes — were thrown in a pile on top of the cot. “What now?” He could see the disgust on my face.
“I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”, I blurted as I started pacing across the floor of my Dad’s white canvassed, World War II officers’ tent. Like a general, I paced back and forth while my mind formulated another strategy.
“I think they have us beat this time, Tom.” I shot back a look at Robert John. I was not going to be defeated in devising the perfect chaotic storm of terror. Failure was not an option.
I sat down in the aluminum and nylon strapped lawn chair and began tapping the top of the cassette recorder I got for my birthday. “You know Robert John, maybe what we need is a new victim.” A quizzical look formed on his face.
“Maybe what we need to do, is go after a bigger target.” I nodded my head hoping Robert John would instinctively embrace my exuberance but I felt his caution immediately.
“What are you thinking?” Robert John leaned in closer from the edge of the cot.
“My Dad!” A grand smirk built upon my face, as my eyes widened and my heart pounded at the mere thought of getting my Dad.
Robert John sat back and took my words in. “Wow. Your Dad? What do you want to do? Are you sure? I mean — it’s your Dad!” –
I understood how this shocking revelation was being taken. I was considering invoking terror upon my father; a person directly responsible for my genesis and the continued existence of my life on this planet. I was taking a big risk. I knew that if we did this, nothing short of awesome would suffice. We would have to go all out.
“I will be right back. I’m going to check how much money I have in my bank. Once I know, we can figure out what we can do.” As I ran to the house all excited, my mind raced with half-hearted ideals. The plan in my head wasn’t clear but I wasn’t backing out on who the victim would be.
Earl the Hobo
Blasting through the flaps of the tent, I splashed my seven dollars and twenty-five cents on the table in front of Robert John.
“Hey, what about if we make masks and scared your Dad tonight, in the front window, near his chair?” I gave Robert John my squinty eyes with pursed lips look. I was appalled he was considering that two teenage boys masquerade in scary child-like masks and believe for one second, that it could scare my father. Then it hit me. My eyes widened as the vision became clearer.
“Holy crap Robert John. You’re a genius but we aren’t doing masks. We are going to make a whole dummy.” Now Robert John’s eyes widened.
“How? What do you have in mind?”
“We need plaster au Paris and we need some old clothes from the trunk downstairs. Those old flannel shirts. Oh, and some pants. And newspaper! And we need the paint from my modeling set.” I haphazardly scribbled the ingredients of the plan on our master scratch pad. Robert John sat there and nervously tapped the top of the cassette tape recorder as my brain spurted out words in no particular build order.
I immediately saw opportunity. “And batteries! We need batteries. Ok, grab your bike. We need to go to the store. We are making a hobo!” I swiped up the money and stuffed it in my pocket.
As we jumped on our Schwinn’s and tightened the playing cards against our spokes, we raced toward the hardware store. Throughout the ten-minute ride, Robert John peppered me with questions on what I was envisioning. By the time we started back with our ingredients, Robert John was fully onboard with the plan.
“This will be our most epic scare of all time, Tom” I could see the wheels turning in Robert John’s head. “We need to make sure he can’t see us. We have to unscrew the lightbulb.”
I knew exactly what he meant. Our plan required incredible stealth and invisibility and an impressive diversionary tactic. We agreed that even if we didn’t scare my Dad, we at least wanted to be annoying. This would not be easy.
We jumped off the bikes and brought our bag into the tent. With Robert John using the plaster au Paris to create the neck, head and face, I ran to the clothes trunk downstairs and grabbed some of the older tattered clothes. Once I returned with the goods, we began assembling the other parts of our hobo. It had to be life size. I stuffed wads of used newspaper into our fiendish Frankenstein. Within an hour, Robert John was ready with the head. With Earl resting on his surgery room cot, we painted a crude set of red lips and dark eyebrows on him. I also found an old black, winter cap that I fitted over his head, which gave “Earl” a sea haggish look of a pirate. He was coming along quite well. He possessed a dastardly look.
Now it was time to create the diversionary tactic. I plopped two fresh batteries into the tape recorder and hit record. I pointed toward Robert John and he began making pathetically miserable wailing sounds into the microphone. “Woaaaaah, Ahhhhhhh. Errrrrrrr. Wuhhhhh.” We did this for the next thirty minutes until the tape was full. We replayed the tape and listened to our shared wailing and decided to tape over some parts. Over and over again we made changes in the pitch and tone of Earl’s cries of terror and banshee-like discord. Once finished, we felt tremendous pride and accomplishment in our work. The only thing left was to unscrew the light bulb in the garage.
The Battlefield is Drawn
Once we finished dinner, me and Robert John went back to our command center, to finalize our preparations. Each of us rubbed black ashes from the embers in the outdoor fireplace. We made some changes to Earl’s facial features and tucked in wadded paper in his arms and legs. We found a pair of gloves and securely duct taped them on as well. He was quite an impressive, gnarly figure.
I looked over to Robert John, who looked smugly upon the face of Earl. “I did a good job on his face.”
“Yea, you did. He looks pretty real,” I said, as I nodded in approval.
“So how do you see this going down?”, whispered Robert John, “Are we just going to prop him up on the screen door and hit the recorder?”
“It has to be realistic. If Dad comes and open the screen door, Earl will just fall down. I think one of us has to keep him propped up and stay out of sight.” I looked into Robert John’s eyes and sought his approval. I could tell he was uneasy with it.
“Man, your Dad is going to be so pissed. I’m not doing it,” he said defiantly. I expected that.
I had a feeling Earl and I would be doing the drunk hobo dance together. I couldn’t chicken out now. I was already too far committed.
“Okay — you stay at the back door. When I tell you, start playing the recorder at the highest volume. Let’s make our way to the garage. It’s dark enough and everyone is in bed.”
Fox One to Fox Two — Over!
My parents had a very modest house with an attached one bay garage that barely had enough room for my mother’s 1969 Chevy Impala SS. At the door entering the house, was basic screen door with the windowed door on the other side.
Whoever answered the door, we knew our victim would have to flick the garage light on to see who was at the door. By removing the bulb, we knew the only light source would come from the kitchen lights. Even then, it would be very difficult to see who was at the door.
Slowly climbing on top of the hood of the car, I unscrewed the light bulb. Step one was complete.
Dragging Earl into the garage was a bit more difficult. He quickly snagged his leg on the rake and his head banged against the back door. His flimsy body and heavy, clumsy head caused me to struggle getting him into position without standing directly behind him. With Robert John in position at the backdoor, I started pounding on the edge of the screen door. As the door rebounded against the door jam, it created an annoying slapping sound. I knew my parents would hear it. Especially my light sleeping Dad.
After several hard slaps, I stopped and listened for a sign of movement. Nothing. The kitchen remained silent and dark. I was both confused and perplexed. They had to have heard it. I took a few more slaps on the screen door and waited.
Suddenly, kitchen lights started to come on. I whispered toward Robert John, “Someone is up! Get ready.”
Then I heard my father’s voice bellow out, “Who is that? Who is making that racket?” My heart began pounding in my chest. Peeking from behind Earl, Dad slumbered toward the back door. As expected, he started flicking the garage door light switch. Nothing happened. He flicked it a few more times and still — nothing.
Standing in his tighty-whities and white t-shirt, Dad’s minimal physique and lanky skinny legs, did not necessarily pose a threatening figure, but I knew he was scary nonetheless. You could sense his annoyance.
Dad barked again at the figure through the window, “Who the hell is that?” To see Earl clearer, he would have to open the door. The only thing separating him from Earl would be the flimsy screen door. I counted on his curiosity to take over his sensibility. I swung one of Earl’s floppy arms at the door.
Dad took two steps from the kitchen to the lower landing and placed his hand on the door knob. He still wasn’t sure who was in the garage. As Dad got closer to the window, I ducked down further behind Earl. I waved Earl’s arm in a defiant nature. I could hear the door handle slowly turn.
“Now Robert John!”, I whispered loudly as I could. I could hear the click as Robert John pressed the play button on the cassette recorder. Spooky whines started to echo throughout the garage, as I choreographed Earl’s erratic movements to the recorded moans.
“Who the hell is that? Is that one of you kids?”, grumbled my Dad as the door swung open, “Go to bed.” Earl took a massive swing with his limp against the screen door. “Hey now, be careful. That’s a new screen.”
The recorder speakers continued to bellow low quality annoyances for thirty seconds but it seemed like eternity. I made Earl jump and jive, back and forth, as the echoed wails only served to annoy my father rather than invoke any fear, shock or awe. Then without warning, the banshee sounds began spiraling in pitch and volume; down to a barely audible death moan.
“Oh crap! The batteries are going dead.” I paused and shuddered of what I should do next. All of our edits must had killed our power source.
Within seconds, the recorder went completely silent. I was floundering keeping Earl upright and now I was flying solo. I looked back at Robert John in terror as I realized our ruse was failing and coming to an abrupt end.
I began to improvise with my own painful banshee screams. I flailed Earl’s arms wildly and even pushed his torso against the screen door. Any illusions of invoking fear melted in contrast to my Dad’s stoic defiance.
Feeling the life force of my plan evaporate right before my eyes; I slammed Earl against the screen door and manufactured a snarly growl. Dad did not flinch. I backed Earl up and again hurled him six inches up against the screen door, which made my Dad step back. I was looking for an exit strategy and creating a last-ditch diversion.
I threw Earl up toward my Dad. I used that window to quickly sneak out the back door with Robert John. Looking back, I saw Earl fall into a lump of mush on the garage floor. He was down for the count.
Me and Robert John tempted our escape to the tent but suddenly I heard, “Hey! Get up off that garage floor.” Dad was talking to Earl.
“Hold up, Robert John!”, I whispered as I grabbed his arm. “Listen. Shh.” We took a position near the back door. I was curious what was going to happen.
“Alright — get your ass up. You’re okay. Right?” Dad’s voice started to change from disgust to worry. Earl’s leg was up against the screen so Dad didn’t want to open it right away. “Move your leg.”
Earl was out cold. He couldn’t hear a thing my Dad said. I was convinced he had a concussion. Dad carefully opened the door and Earl’s leg slowly rolled off the screen with a thump. “Are you okay? Is that you, Tommy?”
“Art. What’s going on out there?”
My mother was now up and making her way to the back door. By this time, Dad was slowly stepping over Earl’s lifeless body and getting down on one knee to render first aid. His back was to the Impala. “Ma? I think Tommy hurt himself.”
“Tommy? Tommy. Are you okay?”, Dad muttered in a caring tone. Me and Robert John knew Earl was a goner but I was proud of Dad for trying to bring life back into him. Dad cradled Earl’s shoulders and began to slowly shake them. It was scene reminiscent of a war ravaged death in “Platoon”.
“Is he okay, Art? I can’t see anything. The light won’t work,” Mom said.
“I don’t know yet, Madge.” Dad placed his hands behind Earl’s shoulders and started to coax him to sit up. As soon as Earl’s head was a foot off the floor, it violently jerked back and flipped off of the torso, thumping hard down upon the garage floor.
Oh dear Lord! Dad insensitively dropped Earl like a sack of potatoes. A blood curdling girlish scream mushroomed in intensity out of my father, as his legs jolted him backwards nearly three feet. It would have easily been four but the Impala’s passenger door was shamefully in the way.
Me and Robert John heard the crumbling metal as my Dad’s back violently smashed my Mom’s car.
“OMG MADGE! His head. His head — came OFF.”
We knew Earl. We knew he had a habit of doing that.
Mom came racing into the garage with the huge lantern flash light with the six-volt battery. With a bulb that could light up half of Schenectady during a blackout, we knew my parents would soon realize Earl’s actual fate and condition.
Looking at Robert John, we agreed that a quick exit was in order. We had seen and heard enough. It was now time to get back to base and ready ourselves for the fallout.
We silently laughed as we sprinted to the tent. We hurried into our sleeping bags and cleaned our faces as much as we could. Our plan was to deny any acknowledgement or culpability of responsibility. Unless we were caught red-handed, it was up to them to prove our guilt. We expected a fair trial from our peers no matter what.
The Silhouetted Monster
Me and Robert John hurried into our sleeping posture as we heard my father yell out, “Oh, those sonza-bitches!”
Robert John kept giggling under his breath. I knew we needed a culpable explanation as to our whereabouts. My strategy was to disavow any knowledge of what had just transpired.
“Remember — just stay quiet.”, I barked back at him.
“What about Earl?”, giggled Robert John. I laughed as I replayed my father’s girlish scream in my head.
“Shh. I’m pretty sure Earl won’t be a snitch. Be quiet. I think I hear something.” As if the Sun was beckoned, a bright beam of white light shined against the side of the canvassed tent. “Quiet Robert John!”, I whispered back strongly. “He’s coming.”
The beam continued its intensity but started to flicker up and down the side of the tent. I could tell my father was now walking toward us.
Robert John couldn’t contain his emotions. “Oh my God – he’s coming!”
Suddenly, the beam stopped moving. My father had placed it on the ground twenty feet before the tent. As the beam stayed motionless against the white canvas, a silhouetted figure, looking strangely like the Jolly Green Giant appeared. It stayed still and stationary for several agonizing seconds.
“I know you’re awake. I know you can hear me. I also want you to know, that you got me good. I also want you to know, that tomorrow will be here soon enough.” Just then, we saw the shadowed menace bring his finger pointing hand to his throat and make a slow, cutting motion. “Good night, boys.”
Like an Alfred Hitchcock movie, the shadowy figure fell out of view. The flashlight was picked up and the beam was turned away. We were in pitch darkness once again.
Robert John started his nervous giggle once more. “What’s he going to do?”, he mused. I could not even guess what my father had in store for us. I was emotionally spent and drained. This had been a harrowing evening and all I wanted to do was sleep.
The Mess Hall
The aroma of Mom’s Sunday morning breakfast extravaganza wafted through our tent and easily coaxed us out of our slumbers. We knew Dad would be up but we also knew Mom would ensure we were fed like kings prior to any sentencing.
We snickered as we replayed the events of last night. At each turn, we laughed hard as we reenacted my father’s reactions and those girly little screams. But enough of that. We were hungry. It was time to get some vittles inside us.
Going through the garage, we noted the crunched metal on the passenger side door of my Mom’s Impala. Dad really slammed into it hard. Although we knew it would cost Dad some money to fix, we couldn’t help but laugh.
Every Sunday morning, Mom ran a tight ship when it came to breakfast. All plates, silverware and glassware were counted and laid out depending on how many people were going to be in attendance. Mom used this method to ensure that everyone was fed. An errant plate meant someone did not have breakfast and that was not acceptable to my Mother. Breakfast was the most important meal of the day and unless you had a Presidential pardon, you were expected to be there. You were expected to eat. No exceptions.
Moving through the kitchen, Robert John and I made our way to the small card table to get our plate and silverware. We were starving.
To our surprise, there were plates nor any silverware at all. After so many years of military accuracy, my Mother must have made an accounting error.
“Mom? Where are the plates?”, we murmured with elevated disappointment. Mom looked back and then at the table with shock.
“Oh my, that’s awkward. We don’t have any more plates.” Mom said with a convincing air of shock and dismay. ‘There is no more food either. You know how it is. The last plate usually gets the last of the food.”
“What? No more food?”, me and Robert John said in dismayed unison. “We haven’t eaten anything.”
“Oh, it must have been our guest. He must have eaten the last of it.”
Guest? What guest? My parents rarely had unannounced guests during certain times of the day; especially when a meal was being celebrated.
Just then, I heard my father laughing hysterically in the dining room. ‘Oh, my Lord, mister — that’s a funny story! Hahaha.” Me and Robert John turned to each other and wondered who was in there with my Dad.
As we rounded the corner into the dining room, Dad grabbed his gut and rocking back and forth in his chair in frantic laughter. Someone said something funny.
I took a closer look of who it was. Slightly slumbered in the chair at the head of the table – was Earl! Earl had two plates of food in front of him. He seemed to be propped up on his elbows. His arms laid motionless in front of him, but each hand had a fork and knife. His head, seemingly un-weathered by the trauma of last night, was carefully wrapped in medical gauze and additional duct tape. It was only with closer inspection that we noticed the crudely fashioned skull brace made out of clothes hangers.
Earl now seemed to be on the road to recovery and his first order of business was to eat and enjoy our breakfast. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing a slight smile on Earl’s face; along with bits of egg and bacon. A far cry from the menacing stare I thought we created.
We were in my father’s domain and he was determined to be the forging general on this battlefield. We may have won a battle last night but Dad was determined to win the war.
“Have you met our guest before?”, Dad asked with a quizzical excitement. I rolled my eyes at Dad’s feigned imagination of his friend’s reality.
“Actually Dad, we do and umm — his name is Earl,” I mumbled with an air of disgust in my voice.
“EARL!!! That’s right — EARL.” Dad said with an excited cadence. “Well, as soon as Earl leaves; and I am sure you will help Earl leave, you can come back and maybe, Mom will be nice enough to make you two boys some breakfast, but”, Dad’s voice suddenly took a deeper tone, “since your Mom has to work twice as hard, I expect you two boys to clean the dining room and kitchen afterwards.” Dad’s head took a quarter twist and his smile turned into more of a demanding grin.
We silently conceded defeat. Dad had just planted the flagpole on the battlefield; cementing his victory. The war was ended.
Few historians will ever mention the Battle of Earl from books or through lecture. Most seem hellbent to only describe my parents over all reverence and command of their minions. Few acknowledge the wins of inconsequential guerilla battles that the enemy forged upon the final victor, but we, Robert John and I, shall remember how we plucked victory on that darkened summer evening.
That evening, we were victorious in sowing confusion and discord. We caused fright, pain and one-hundred and forty dollars’ worth in automotive bodywork repair. The weakness of our indestructible overlords had finally been exposed.
We lost the war but that evening, at the conclusion of the Battle of Earl, we stood victorious and drank Kool-Aid from the skulls of our fallen enemy. This victory, now long forgotten by historians, shall forever be cast in bronze in the memory banks of those soldiers who fought that epic battle from our childhood.
Rest in peace, Earl. Your sacrifice to your country and fellow soldiers, shall forever be remembered.
Earl “Plaster” Paris, Pvt. 1st Class
Commissioned into service: August 15th, 1975
Died: August 16th, 1975
Cause: Head Trauma / Dismemberment
Medals: Purple Heart, Rations Medal (with bacon slice achievement)
Buried: Family Trash Bin
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