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Road's Scholars

Claim:   Pranking college students pit street repair crew and police against each other.

LEGEND

Example:   [Bishop, 1988]

Roadwork on Paramatta Road near the university inspired some students to create some mischief. They telephoned the police and claimed that some students had dressed up as road workers and were not only causing tremendous traffic disruption, but were actually digging up the road. The police said they would come out and investigate.

The students then went out to the road workers and told them that some students had dressed up as policemen and were going to try to remove them as a joke. The students assured the workers that they could say or do anything to these bogus officers. The road workers said they were looking forward to a little fun. So were the students . . .
 

Variations:   This legend is told as true in Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and the United States, always as a recent and local occurrence.

Origins:   Pranking is an integral part of the collegiate experience, as Shovel young people, many of them away from home for the first time, revel in stretching their wings by pitting themselves against authority. Usually that "authority" takes the form of a particular professor or encompasses the school as a whole, but there have been instances where pranks have been directed beyond the ivy-covered walls and into the community at large. This is supposedly one such case. Or is it?

Over the years accounts of a number of famous leg-pulls have worked their way into student lore. Time blurs the line between pranks actually played and ones merely heard about from others. This prank is a classic example of the practical joke everyone's heard of but no one seems to have pulled. As Neil Steinberg says in If At All Possible, Involve A Cow, his 1992 classic on collegiate pranking: "So much of a prank involves the right concept, that some people make the mistake of being hypnotized by the brilliance of a prank's idea, and never end up doing the deed." Could that have been the case here?

Belief in this story relies on our acceptance of its premise — that police would take the unsupported word of a caller unknown to them over whatever their city's Department of Works (or local equivalent) told them about which intersections were being torn up and when the
work would be underway. Roadwork doesn't usually come as a surprise to those charged with patrolling the streets; they're generally well informed about which avenues will be undergoing maintenance, because such knowledge is key to the performance of their duties.

The jape also shares more than a passing resemblance to the Revenge on Jerks legend, a wholly apocryphal tale in which two people who have angered the teller are deliberately set upon each by means of each of them's being told a series of fibs. Such tales are immensely satisfying to contemplate because they suggest that armed only with our native wiles, we can make fools of those who annoy us or who have authority over us. They're empowering, thus we delight in them.

Barbara "delight up my life" Mikkelson

Sightings:   In the 1998 film Dirty Work, Mitch Weaver (Norm MacDonald) sics police on a fraternity party after first informing the frat boys that criminals dressed as cops have been robbing homes. Weaver and his buddy, Sam McKenna (Artie Lange) then proceed to join in the ensuing mayhem by appearing dressed as police and aiding in the beating of the students.

Last updated:   30 June 2011

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Sources:

    Bishop, Amanda.   The Gucci Kangaroo.
    Hornsby, Australia: Australasian Publishing, 1988.   ISBN 0-900882-50-6   (p. 94).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (p. 302).

    Steinberg, Neil.   If At All Possible, Involve a Cow.
    New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.   ISBN 0-312-07810-2   (p. 218).