How the crowd of neighborhood boys huddled
by the telephone in the kitchen
a finger pressed into the holes
of the rotary dial. With each number
a clockwise swoosh to the curved silver finger-stop
answered by the clickity counter-clockwise refrain.
To every action an equal and opposite reaction.
How the hushed voices burst out in laughter
when the druggist affirmed that he had
Prince Albert in a can, and likewise
the widow who ritually turned off
the porch light on Halloween
with her quizzical, “yes” in response to a voice
inquiring, “is your refrigerator running?”
How the power of anonymity ensured
freedom from retaliation – no caller ID –
in the low stakes rebellion against adults
who hold the power at that age.
Shouldn’t it come as a consolation:
the knowledge that passes down
from one generation to the next,
from one culture to another,
the delight in the discovery of puns
and the power of words in pranks?
Certainly worth the momentary humiliation
upon listening to the eruption of cackling
through the receiver, any reaction
of bother and admonishment
silenced with the click of the handset.
And what if Chief Joseph
who with a full headdress of feathers
adorned the tin tobacco ad sign alongside
the slogan, ‘Great Peace Maker – It Buries
the Hatchet Over All Old Pipe Grouches’
sat cross-legged on the carpet in a study
with Prince Albert and RJ Reynolds,
upright in their leather chairs?
Would Prince Albert exercise restraint
over differences of opinion:
Edwardian, New and Native American:
sacred embraces of the steam engine,
rolled cigarette tobacco, earth and sky?
Could he hold back when shocked
by another’s beliefs, allow time
for learning and understanding?
Or must there be a reaction –
immediate, equal and opposite,
bombastic retorts, tweets and posts,
graffiti on gravestones,
filibusters and sanctions,
executive orders and airstrikes?
Might they take time to laugh now
and share tales of pranks –
a king, an Indian chief, an industrial titan
around a fire in a teepee
with their cell phones cast aside
passing a ceremonial pipe filled
with fine American marijuana
trying it for the first time
coaxing each other to hold it in,
cackling, snorting, coughing, slapping their knees
loosening their ties or deerskin shirt strings
in no urgent danger of suffocating,
momentarily safe from each other’s retaliations –
like boys, like free men?
Patrick Connelly is a writer and scientist who works and dwells in Boston. He is the author of numerous research articles, reviews, policy pieces, editorials and personal narratives on topics in science, medicine, and society.