Printed in 2005 “Aging Through Laughter” in Plus magazine and locally published in 2011 Berks County TV website and Kutztown Historical Newsletter 2008.
My mother, upon falling in love with my father, told him, “I want to be a farmer’s wife.” Immediately, my father hired himself out on a farm for a year, eventually purchasing a farm of his own.
Mom told us that she always wanted a lot of children. She ended up with eleven -- five boys (one dying in infancy) and six girls -- me being the youngest.
As a mother, if I made comments about “those teenagers of mine,” Mom responded with, “Carole, I know what it’s like. I had you at 42. In addition, after having raised five children to adulthood, I had to go through the second batch!” I can’t imagine how my mother, or my father, endured all those years, with all the shenanigans we pulled.
The earliest shenanigans we learned as children were from our mother. She was the one who pulled April Fool’s pranks on each and every one of us.
Pranks weren’t limited to April Fool’s Day. During butchering season, Mom taught us the trick of pinning a pig’s tail on the back of one of our siblings. Sometimes the pig tail recipient had the tail hanging behind them for hours at a time. We always giggled upon seeing it.
Recently, I asked my siblings to go to their memory banks to tell me of their shenanigans as teens. The barn seems to have been one of our most hazardous playgrounds.
We had a lean-to shed that was attached to the barn. Most of us crawled to the top of the barn room and slid back down to the shed. We also walked from one end of the barn roof to the other. “At least,” Anita relates, “until Mom caught me and Paul. She was at the lean-to by the time we slid down, out of breath and unable to talk. Her arms flailed as she gestured to head for the house. There we got smacked quite soundly on our rears. We had to sit in a chair the rest of the day. Her voice didn’t come back until that evening.”
David recalled a barn game in which Gladys and I were involved. “Pop always warned us NEVER to build tunnels with the straw bales. We did anyway. We made mazes with the bales stacked high. All three of us were in the tunnel maze when we heard Pop come into the barn. We kept quiet, until Pop stomped atop the bales, not knowing we were underneath. The bales fell all over us. We screamed. Pop called Mom, and both of them got us out before we suffocated.”
Another barn stunt was to “walk” the beams inside the barn, from one end to the other -- hanging by our hands. I had always been scared of this stunt. But after David relentlessly badgered me about being a “chicken,” I finally relented. Deciding to walk the beams where the floor was closer to my behind, I chose the smaller shed. Hanging from this beam, I placed my hands in front of each other and one by one “walked.” My grip slipped. I fell smack onto an already broken bottle. David held my left arm, which oozed blood from the large gash, half-carried me to the house, screaming for Mom at the same time. Luckily, my aunt, who could drive, was visiting and sped Mom and me to the doctor.
Anita recalled a shenanigan that could have killed them. “Lester, Paul, Carl, and I pushed a flat-bottomed wagon up the hill. At the top, we all got on the wagon. No horses for this fearless foursome. In order to guide the wagon downhill, one of the boys held onto the horse hook up. The wagon picked up speed, and we flew down the hill, up a bank, and into the corn crib. Carl was bloodied up, but we survived.”
Pranks were also done in the house. Anita recalls another incident when Mom and Pop were gone. “It was Thanksgiving and time to make mince pies. Mom always put rum in her mince pies. She gave explicit orders for Paul and me to have the mince meat ground by the time she returned. Paul found the rum bottle and dared me to drink. I did. Then he gave me more and more. By the time Mom arrived back home, I could no longer coordinate my arms or my feet. I crawled up to the toilet to die. Jannetta sat with me all night while my head hung on the hopper. I was amazed to be alive the next day. After a day in bed, Mom and Pop must have decided I was punished enough. They never said any more to me about the incident.”
Gladys recalls, “David and I decided to get a drink from the large cider barrel in the cellar. We unplugged the barrel, and it ran and ran and ran all over the basement. Mom arrived on the scene first and hid me. David ended up with a kick -- you know where -- from Pop.”
If I had to choose, I think that Lester had the best shenanigan of any of us. “It was Halloween. Carl, Paul, and I were looking for mischief. We decided to ‘bottle’ the neighbor at dusk. I crawled to their front door and hung three bottles attached to strings of twine, which we brought back to our hiding place. We clanged the bottles several times. Finally, the neighbor responded -- with a shotgun. Pellets flew all around us as we scurried on our bellies through corn stubble to get our of range. We had decided to meet at the cherry tree. But, no Paul. We waited some thirty minutes. Then we decided that we’d better go home and tell Mom and Pop that Paul was dead. Mom was in the kitchen. We told her about Paul. She was shaking and said, ‘Get Pop.’ Whereupon, Paul, burst in the door -- ‘I’m not dead!’ All of us, dead or not, received severe punishment that night.”
Paul told me his story: “As kids, we often deviled each other, some more than others. One time, on a walk to school, Lester deviled me. Since I had Pop’s old army gas mask along, I hit Lester with it. I must have hit him pretty hard. He was knocked out. It took him awhile to come out of it.”
As a child, I remember a particular night of trauma. Before bedtime, after checking the usual hiding places, I assumed that the Boogie Man wasn’t about. But upon awakening in the middle of the night, I found him standing against the door of my closet, clad in a dress of all things. I screamed and bolted for my parents’ bedroom to tell them what I’d seen. Mom dragged me back across the hall. As we entered the darkness of my room, she asked, “Where is he?”
“Over there,” I pointed with trembling hands. “Over there, in front of the closet!”
“That’s your dress hanging on this side of the closet,” my mother laughed. “Now get back to bed.”
It wasn’t until months after the mistaken identity that I had another close encounter with the Boogie Man. One evening, it was so quiet that you could have heard a ghost swish by. I had locked the door and quietly lain down on the bed. Suddenly, I felt something move back and forth on the sheet next to my body. I snatched and pulled at the movement on the sheets. I heard a resounding peal of laughter. My scream was synchronous. In no time, my Mom forced the door and switched on the light. My sister, Dorothy, “the hand,” was then reprimanded for impersonating the Boogie Man.
With all of our shenanigans, Mom actually lived until her 89th year. She was still up to her humor even in her 80s. Prior to her death, she left some notes for us and the doctor: “If my medical condition is such that it will surely not return to normal, I request my physician to discontinue all medicine to prolong my life. I would say by then, I’m worn out.”
Carole Christman Koch grew up in Berks County and has been published in numerous publications. She has a passion for writing and has many stories from growing up on a farm to raising children to humorous stories about her and her husband to everyday stories to season storeis and more.