"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Thursday, June 01, 2006


The college prank is a hallmark of academia.

In this time-honored tradition, a group of students (usually frat guys) get together annually to pull off some "stunt" that is clever, humorous, and very public. The intent is not to leave a permanent mark, but merely to elicit a chuckle from passersby -- although the best pranks leave a lasting impression in the minds of those who witness them. Unfortunately, "the prank" has fallen into disrepute in recent years, and most people these days see them as simply a demonstration of the immaturity of college students. It could be argued as well that all the really good pranks have already been done, and that today's students are too lazy to put the creative effort into anything more original than stealing a rival college's sports mascot or pouring a box of dish detergent into a public campus water fountain.

So it is with some fondness that I recall a prank from my own college days. Let me say up front that I personally played absolutely no part in this, so I can claim no credit (blame?) for the results, but in my mind it still ranks as one of the more creative displays of adolescent humor.

When I went to college, I (or to be more accurate, my parents) had every intention of me becoming an electrical engineer. I had no real idea of what such a person actually did, mind you, however my father convinced me that this occupation would be my ticket to a successful future. I had a vague concept that electrical engineers designed power distribution systems for large office buildings, or worked on high-voltage transmission networks for power companies. What a fun-filled, exciting career! (yawn.) In the greater New England area -- and for that matter, the nation -- one school stands head and shoulders above all others as the place to get the very best education in this field, and that is Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT churns out engineers and scientists of the highest caliber, who go on to win Nobel Prizes and other prestigious accolades by the boatload and make tons of money. Unfortunately, my high school GPA was not quite up to MIT's lofty standards, so I enrolled in a "second-tier" college -- Lowell Technological Institute (LTI). Hey, it had two out of the three letters in MIT's logo, so it must be at least two-thirds as good, right? (This logic should clearly explain why I was not MIT material.)

By my sophomore year at Lowell Tech, I had fully immersed myself in the operation of the campus radio station, "WLTI" (duh!) -- an act which was destined to take over my future life. Playing music on the radio was so much more fun than calculating shear forces and bending moments! As the semester began, a new kid by the name of Steve showed up wanting to work for the station. Steve had transferred to Lowell from (gasp!) MIT, so he had immediate caché, in addition to being a naturally funny and smart guy anyway. One night after a few beers, Steve told me of the most recent prank that he and his friends had pulled off at MIT, and produced a series of pictures as evidence. They had researched the design of traffic signs as specified in manuals published by the Massachusetts Highway Department, to determine the exact size, text font, color, reflectivity and other properties that are the standards for road signs in the state. Then they set to work cloning a fake sign that would be indistinguishable from any "official" highway sign. The finished product was a work of art. Roughly four by eight feet in size, it was an exact replica of any highway sign in the state. In the dead of night, they attached this sign to an overpass above the Boston artery of the Massachusetts Turnpike, where it remained for close to a week until someone responsible for such things realized it was unauthorized, and had it removed.

It said, in letters approximately two feet tall, "Fornicate - Next Exit".

Unfortunately, I do not have any copies of the pictures that Steve took of the sign hanging in its full glory over the Mass Pike, with thousands of cars passing underneath it, but I am sure that wherever Steve is, to this day he pulls them out now and then to share with friends or maybe his grandchildren. "Look what Grampa did back in college," he might tell them proudly. "I was lucky not to be arrested." But using a web site I found called SignMaker, I can recreate for you a fairly realistic approximation of what the sign must have looked like:

One can only imagine the puzzled look on the face of motorists who saw this for a brief moment as they zipped beneath it and thought "What?" Yes, it's a bit juvenile, but still pretty damn clever. If anyone else has any recollection of pranks they either witnessed or participated in, please post a comment. Names may be changed to protect the innocent guilty.


  • At 6/01/2006 01:12:00 PM, Blogger April said…

    very very clever! I can't believe it lasted a week! Unfortunately, I have no prank stories to tell... I guess I'm just not a trouble maker.

    I've always laughed at those signs that people switch the letters around in... to say something stupid. those are some brave souls... they have to hang out there for a while to get all the letters laid out right and the time it takes to put them back in...


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