Last Sunday, my miss-matched set of friends from choir sat around a small table at Shari’s. We always meet here after church; mostly because we could usually get in and out before we died of starvation, and the food was tolerable. As usual, conversations twisted this way and that; someone’s latest operation; who was dating the widowed soprano; if our food would ever come. At this point, someone thought it would be fun to pull a prank on our director and all eyes turned to me. Based on their experience with my elaborate April Fool’s Day stunts, they knew I must have a PhD in silliness.
“It comes naturally,” I said. “My dad was by far the most dangerous kind of practical joker. He was infinitely patient.” And so I began the story of Custer’s Revenge.
After our tour in Thailand, we moved into a two-story brick duplex at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas dating back to the 1860’s. Someone, perhaps my dad, started a rumor that said George Armstrong Custer was quartered in this very house. Our next-door neighbors, Neil and his wife Dottie, became great friends. My parents would often have them over for dinner or evening drinks. The men would regale us with fanciful stories about their exploits, but dad invariably steered the conversation to tales of Custer’s lavish parties and his love for Leavenworth, organ music and especially Bach.
“Some say, he wanted to be buried here,” my dad said as they gathered in the living room after dinner. My brother and I pretended to be getting ready for bed, but stayed within earshot.
“Oh really,” Dottie said.
Knowing my dad, I now doubt any of this is true, but at the time, we were both enthralled by the stories.
“The Andersons, you know the couple that lived here before us? They thought they heard noises late at night,” my dad said.
“Some footsteps in the attic, but mostly music.” My dad was barely making eye contact, loading his pipe with tobacco.
Neil gave my dad a skeptical glare. “The Beatles?”
“Sure. The Beatles,” my dad laughed and got up to refill glasses.
“What kind of music?” Dottie asked.
“They didn’t say. I can write to them if it matters.”
“Oh, no. Don’t bother.”
The conversation drifted to other subjects and sleep pulled us upstairs to bed.
That night, every creak, every branch clicking on the window sounded like bony fingers pulling at the sashes, but when I heard something clump, my curiosity got the better of me. Tiptoeing down the narrow, twisting stairway leading to the basement, I saw a flickering light, and yes, I heard muted shuffling as if someone was dragging boxes or a body over the floor. Once I worked up the courage, I peeked around the corner expecting to see General Custer, sword and all glaring back at me, but no one was there. My feet were cold, so I switched off the light and climbed back up to bed. Later that night, distant organ music and bloody scenes of Custer fighting at the Little Big Horn filled my dreams.
In the morning, I asked if anyone had heard music or noises from the basement. My little brother scoffed (as usual) and mom convinced me it was nothing. The next night, well past midnight, I heard the same—at least the music. Though very faint, I eventually recognized Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, one of dad’s and my favorite organ pieces. This went on for about a week until one morning, as we were finishing breakfast, Dottie appeared at the back door, her hair still in curlers. She looked as if she had not slept a wink. “Fran, did you hear it?”
“What was that Dottie?” Mom ushered her in, settling her into a chair with a cup of coffee.
“Music. Handel I think.”
“Bach. It was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” I said, returning to the comic strip.
“You heard it too?” Dottie said, pulling down the paper.
“Sure. I hear it every night.”
“Go get dressed,” mom said in her “get lost” voice.
I took another bite and hung around in the hallway, just out of sight.
“Jack’s been…” Mom whispered.
“Been what?” Dottie asked.
“Pulling a prank. He’s been playing organ music through a speaker he stuffed into a hole in the wall between the houses.”
I had to cover my mouth to stifle the laugh.
“I’m afraid so. I’m so sorry.”
Dad had struck again.
We didn’t hear any music after that, but early Sunday morning, persistent knocking got all of us out of bed, including my dad who liked to sleep in on Sundays. From the top of the stairs, I watched my dad open the door to a stern Military Police Sergeant.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Honest Jack?” the Sergeant said, reading from a large piece of cardboard.
“What is it Sergeant?”
“Sir, with all due respect, you know it’s against regulations to run a business out of your quarters.”
“Again, Sergeant. What’s the issue here?” My dad’s voice was getting louder as if it made him easier to understand. It didn’t.
“Sir, you’ll have to take down those signs.”
“Sergeant, Miller is it? I still don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Dad was now in his “take names and fire back mode.”
“Sir, can you come with me?”
In bare feet, my dad reluctantly followed the Sergeant into the front yard who pointed down the block before marching around to the back of the house with my dad close behind. I scurried around to watch from my brother’s back bedroom. Someone, probably our neighbor Neil, had taken his revenge by placing signs on the handful of cars parked behind the house: my dad’s VW Variant, my mom’s Ford, my 1930 Model A Ford, and my brother’s 1942 Plymouth. Each car had been priced and tagged with pitches such as “Classic”, “Great Deal!” and “Runs Like New.” We later discovered that someone had also posted signs all up and down the block with arrows leading to our alley such as, “Big Sale at Honest Jack’s.” Why wouldn’t the MPs think my dad was running a used car lot behind the house?
My dad was eventually able to talk the MPs out of filing a report, but I shudder to think what he did to retaliate. I do know that my dad never got even. He always got ahead.