When one prevails in a contest, they sometimes receive a prize. These vary a bit depending on the type of competition a gold medal, a trophy, or a cardboard cutout of Barney, the purple dinosaur embossed with “you tried.” But not as widely appreciated is the phenomenon of “stupid prizes” these are awarded to random players of what might best be described as “stupid games.” This is described in the axiomatic phrase “play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”
To most people, these stupid games are easily avoided, although everyone ends up playing from time to time. Children, in particular, teenagers are particularly vulnerable to stupid games, indeed many of the stories I tell are based on this. Stupid games usually involve speed, gravity, sex, and of course poor decisions. My personal best took place while skiing. I set out at breakneck speed down a long and enjoyable trail failing to remember that it took a sharp 90-degree turn about halfway down to avoid a rather substantial plunge on to a frozen creek. Predictably I was unable to make the turn and shot off into space, falling in a graceful arc spoiled only by my Yosemite Sam style cursing that echoed off the valley walls as I fell. Fortunately, my descent was arrested by a rather large and disagreeable spruce tree which give me a good thrashing before unceremoniously deposited me into a snowbank.
There was also an incident where myself and my friend the mysterious Double Dee were discovered to be parked by the river in his Dad’s BMW with a half rack of beer, two girls and being 15, no driver’s licenses. At that place and time Lower Education was more valued, and instead of jail we polished my families sheet metal warehouse, cleaned Double Dee’s pool and performed much yeard work for the parents of the two young ladies who never had anything to do with us again.
Years later, I would find this useful when a new soldier assigned to me proved resistant to all forms of instruction, I determined that he badly needed some lower education and began the introductory course. This is ordinarily unnecessary as this is taught in basic training, but as the saying goes, results may vary. Sadly he proved a poor study, and I eventually ran out of menial tasks assigned to him. But as any Non-commissioned officer or parent knows; if you run out of jobs, you just invent more, and he soon found himself cleaning the chain-link fence surrounding our motor pool with a rag and a bottle of brass polish. My First Sgt. was initially disapproving but reconsidered after I explained that the depth and variety of his sins, which ranged from failing to do basic personal tasks like bathing, keeping his room clean and uniform squared away to the grievous sin of keeping the squad late because he talked back to the armorer when turning in his weapon. I considered myself to have a pretty sharp tongue, but nothing can please a disgruntled armorer, and suddenly our weapons needed “more work”.
After this, I added graduate level stupidity to his course list. This included removing rocks from a rock garden, washing them and turning them over so that their bottom side might enjoy the sunshine, a couple of days later it would turn out that the rocks wanted to go home. After performing these lessons in his off-duty hours for a couple of weeks, I found that his memory, listening skills, and attention to detail were much improved.
Despite the military being a bastion of lower education, the most exquisite example I ever saw was visited on a deserving but technically innocent party. It was the summer of 1995, and my friend and roommate Joe Parke and I had decided that for our final year of college we would no longer reside in the dorms. This decision produced great relief in our friend Steve Newell, our dorm director. Unfortunately, we found that most of the suitable apartments in the area had already been reserved for the next fall. The remaining lodgings were either outrageously expensive or squalid. I should point out after a hitch in the army my definition of squalor was somewhat elastic, but we were delivered from our predicament by a mutual acquaintance who knew of a small house for rent.
While there was no apparent issue, the arrangement seemed too good to be true. Our prospective landlord was a small dumpy fellow named Dwight, who bore an astonishing resemblance to Barney Rubble, and as a bonus, the house he was renting was located on the grounds of a former Air Force missile site. The combination of an entire home to ourselves, and such an exciting setting proved tempting, and a deal was struck.
The property encompassed a large square about a half-mile on a side surrounded by a double row of chain-link fences. The launch facility itself was from the late 1950s and was essentially a substantial concrete underground garage with what had once been a sliding concrete and steel roof. A nuclear-tipped Atlas missile would have laid on its side until it was raised, fueled and dispatched to increase the supply of good communists. The facility had been decommissioned in the 1960s with the advent of better missiles and purchased by Dwight’s father, and the family had rented space in it as storage ever since. The large doors in the roof had long ago ceased to function, but an enormous concrete loading door could be opened manually by turning a handle, this was the usual method of entry for large items that needed storing. It could also be entered through a roof hatch leading to a long, long ladder.
Our first few weeks and the place went well enough, but gradually we began to discover why such accommodations had not been taken. Dwight was an unbearable human being. He was unpleasant to speak to, uncomfortable to be around and his hygiene was questionable even by the standards of college males. Dwight would lurk in various shadowed spaces around the property and watch us. At first, we found this somewhat humorous, as he was obviously an amateur at concealment. But after a couple of times, this became infuriating rather than funny. One evening we returned home with a couple of female friends to find him poorly concealed halfway up a pine tree in our front yard. Because of this both of our friends decided they preferred to leave immediately and seldom agreed to return because of “that horrible little troll.” Only their insistence that they be taken home at once kept Joe from firing up the chainsaw and felling that particular tree. He even entered the home when we were asleep despite landlord-tenant rules to the contrary. Apparently, he felt that he could enter the house whenever he pleased. Fortunately for him, his prehistoric silhouette was easily recognizable, and I was so confused at his presence I forgot to shoot him. Later we would much regret having missed such an opportunity.
To add injury to insult Dwight was an alcoholic and a mean drunk at that. Many evenings he would stand on his porch and yell across the intervening space at us at all hours of the day or night. I even returned from work one evening when Joe was out of town to discover him standing on the lawn in front of our place, screaming for us to turn down our music. The empty and silent house paid him no notice.
We had much experience dealing with unpleasant roommates but were little baffled about what to do when the object of our displeasure was our landlord. As we had signed a year-long lease, we couldn’t just leave without losing a substantial deposit so we would have to figure out a way to adjust Dwight’s attitude. After a vigorous discussion, we reluctantly eliminated murder as a solution and instead decided to murder his sanity.
We began by purchasing a sound effects disc containing various animal noises such as lions, elephants, and different species of monkey. We would wait until we were reasonably sure Dwight had gone to bed or passed out and then activate a battery-powered CD player we had concealed on the property. This provided considerable amusement for a time as he searched high and low for the source of the strange calls, even questioning several neighbors who already believed him insane.
We also took to closing the main gate around the property, this was a massive rolling gate that required a person to get out of their vehicle and push it open or closed. This was much easier for us than it was for the troll, so we amused ourselves watching him struggle with the gate for a time before he insisted that we stop. We also noticed where he kept flashlights in the Missile Bay. And we had great fun leaving them turned on to deplete their batteries.
But the coup de grace came in early June, we were already preparing to move, Joe would be attending graduate school the next year and would be moving to an apartment in town. And in spite of Dwights efforts, I had acquired a girlfriend and would be sharing an apartment with her. We became a little melancholy as the last few weeks drifted away, we had been roommates for most of the last few years and had successfully fended off adulthood, but we both knew times were changing. But then on the most beautiful of June afternoons, Joe walked in the front door sat down and put on his headphones. A smile of complete bliss on his face. The afternoon proved very quiet and despite the unexpected arrival of his ex-wife, Dwight did not put in a single appearance. This happy time came to an abrupt end when he burst through our front door his equally unpleasant ex-wife in hot pursuit, a cloud of accusations and curse words swirling about them.
It took about five minutes to make any sense of what they were saying, the Troll had apparently accused his ex of attempting to murder him, by trapping him in the missile bay. His former wife, not at all offended at the suggestion she might kill him, seemed angry that he thought she would fail in such an attempt. It appears that he had descended into the bay via the roof hatch to check a sump pump and been unpleasantly surprised to find only one barely functional flashlight. After a few moments when he had proceeded about halfway across the bay, he heard the ominous sound of the heavy metal hatch crashing shut behind him. He backtracked and ascended the ladder only to find the exit barred from the outside. At this point, his flashlight gave out. After some time spent feeling his way around in the dark, he found the main entrance denied to him as well because the hand crank used to open the large doors was strangely absent. Eventually, his ex for some inexpiable reason decided to go looking for him and opened the roof hatch, and Dwight came boiling out like a hobo gene out of a magic dumpster. It took a hilarious half-hour to expel the couple after which Joe collapsed into a paroxysm of laughter, and I realized what had happened. I also know for a fact that even after twenty-five years he still has the crank handle.