7 Biggest Pranks That Awesome

1. Hollywood sign altered to read 'Hollyweed'

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Los Angeles residents awoke early Sunday to see that one thing, at least, looked different in the New Year: the Hollywood sign.

Armed with four tarpaulins, a prankster had climbed Mount Lee under the cover of night to edit the iconic landmark, which was changed to "HOLLYWeeD.”

Security footage recorded at 3 a.m. Sunday showed a “lone individual” climbing up the mountain, scaling the sign’s ladders and hanging tarpaulins over the O’s to change them to E's, said Sgt. Guy Juneau of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Security Services division.

It could have been a New Year’s Eve prank, Juneau said, or the work of “a thrill seeker.”

The surveillance footage showed a man dressed in black, tactical-style gear. One of the tarpaulins was decorated with a peace sign, and another with a heart. 

Because the sign was not damaged, the incident will be investigated as misdemeanor trespassing. The police have no suspects.

Some Angelenos joked that the alteration reflected California’s recent vote to legalize recreational marijuana.

The New Year’s Day change is far from the first time the Hollywood sign has been edited by artists and pranksters.

The sign, erected in 1923 as an advertisement for a housing development, originally read “Hollywoodland.”

Mother Nature became the sign’s first editor, knocking out the H in a violent storm in 1949. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce restored the letter, but removed the “land” the same year.

On New Year’s Day of 1976, the sign became “HOLLYWeeD” for the first time — the work of Cal State Northridge student Daniel Finegood, who scaled Mount Lee with $50 worth of curtains.

The modification was his project for an art class assignment on working with scale. He earned an A.

The first iteration of “Hollyweed” was also the first day that California classified possession of up to one ounce of marijuana as a misdemeanor, rather than a felony.

In 1983, the sign was draped with the words “Go Navy” before the annual Army-Navy game. Later that decade, Caltech students edited the sign to spell out the name of their school.

In 1987, the sign became “Holywood” to mark a visit by Pope John Paul II. But the prank was undone before the pontiff arrived in Los Angeles.

In the decade that followed, edits to the sign got political at least twice. The first time was in 1990, when Finegood scaled the peak again and changed the sign to read “Oil War,” to protest the Persian Gulf War.

Five days before the 1992 presidential elections, supporters of independent candidate Ross Perot draped sheets across the landmark to spell out “Perotwood.”

Tired of the unsanctioned changes, city officials eventually enhanced security with a fence, alarms and a surveillance system that captured Saturday’s prankster.

Most recently, in 2010, the Trust for Public Land modified the sign to read “Save The Peak.” (As the banners went up, Angelenos snapped photos that read “Sallywood” and “Save the Pood.”)

That edit publicized a fundraising effort to purchase Cahuenga Peak, the 138-acre parcel just to the west of the sign, following reports that the land’s owners had been planning to build luxury housing there. 

2.  A History of MIT Pranks

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A police car with its lights flashing balanced on top of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Great Dome. A balloon reading “MIT” appearing out of the ground, midfield, during the 1982 Harvard-Yale football game. A perfectly recreated upside-down lounge room, complete with billiard table and snoozing cat, installed on the underside of an arch during MIT’s 2010 Campus Preview Weekend. These “hacks,” as they are known in MIT lore, showcase a combination of meticulous science and anti-authoritarian whimsy, both of which are synonymous with the university. MIT pranks have been memorialized in various sanctioned galleries around campus as an integral part of the university’s history, and rightly so. Although the terminology and ethos of the hacks were only formalized after World War II, pranks at MIT have been around since the university opened in 1865.

While writing my novel The Technologists, a thriller about the first students at MIT, I looked for early recorded pranks to incorporate into my story. The history of hacks published by MIT Press, Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT, reaches back to an incident in the 1870s in which students sprinkled iodide of nitrogen over the grounds of a military drill, causing explosions under classmates' boots. But as something of a purist about firsts, I sought out earlier examples of the college's signature pranks including, if possible, the inaugural one. Was there a Big Bang of MIT pranks?

As I chased the answer, I realized that the students’ shenanigans provided not just a chronicle of cleverness, but also shed some light on the history of scientific education in America. The military drills were natural draws for mischief during the era of its first classes. Massachusetts granted the institution land in the newly developed Back Bay of Boston for its original building and in return mandated that its students learn military maneuvers. The grant, part of a federal initiative, was a coup for what was at the time a highly experimental college promoting the outrĂ© notion of laboratory teaching, but that did not make the required drills welcome to the students. In one prank contemporaneous with the sprinkled nitrogen triiodide, students dropped a “giant torpedo” from the fourth floor to surprise their marching classmates gathering in the main hall. This sounds dangerous, and although the student memoirist spared more details, it must have been impressively well-planned not to cause any harm, presaging one of the unofficial rules of the modern hacks.

An even earlier recorded prank target was MIT’s first professor of mechanical engineering, William Watson. Watson was called “Squirty” by the students for his enthusiastic handling of chemical-wash bottles, and he was teased for the dapper style of dress he had picked up when studying science in Paris. Robert Hallowell Richards, a member of MIT’s first class, remembered this practical joke: “Professor Watson arranged a blackboard that was lowered and raised by means of a rope and a cast-iron weight, operated over a pulley. The first time he pulled the board down, the weight bobbed up over the top. This was too much for the conspirators. They stole into the room between classes and expended much artistic labor on the surface of the weight. The next time Watson pulled the blackboard down, up shot the weight, pleasantly decorated for the occasion with a picture of a monkey and the inscription, ‘Squirty Watson.’ ”

Both the torpedo and the blackboard pranks required some skill in engineering, but after reviewing student diaries, letters, faculty records, and alumni notes, the earliest cluster of pranks I can identify—between the years 1865 to 1868, when the first cohort of young men matriculated and graduated—form a surprisingly tame list. It seems impossible to isolate a single incident as the first, but the ones I traced back the farthest include moving a safe to block a stairway; bringing a monkey and hand organ into a hall (another ploy to annoy “Squirty” Watson); a bell being positioned to ring over the head of the professor of foreign languages; and the theft of a key, one possibly needed by the faculty or staff to open one of the laboratories or the large lecture hall, which was thrown down a well.

None of these would have made it into the MIT “Hall of Hacks” hosted by the university's museum until 2001. With the possible exception of the bell, which I imagine as rigged to toll when the professor made a certain movement or perhaps leaned on his podium, these ruses don't appear to have required much scientific or engineering know-how. We would be safe to surmise that the freshmen of the class of 1868—who arrived when there were no other students but the freshmen—did not yet have the training that would have allowed them to, say, mix the nitrogen composite of the 1870s.

But there is something else to note in the banality of the original hacks other than just their lack of scientific aplomb. In its early days, the public considered MIT not only strange, but doomed to failure. People saw the Institute, in the words of one of the first MIT professors, as “the refuge of shirks and stragglers from the better organized and stricter colleges,” and, as another early polytechnic professor wrote bluntly, “a resort for college weaklings.” Even the focal word in the Institute's title, “technology,” could be off-putting in its unfamiliarity, dating back only to 1829 when used to indicate the application of sciences and mechanical arts to improve industry and manufacturing. It was not uncommon in the school’s early years for a father to abruptly pull his son out of the Institute once he realized how radically MIT diverged from established universities—not just in advancing a “practical” curriculum based on scientific experiments, but completely omitting ancient languages and requiring no religious worship. Rather than attempts to show off scientific acumen, the earliest MIT pranks were the acts of students trying to remind themselves that they were not so different from their peers at “better” colleges and universities, where silly pranks were rampant. Across the Charles River, not far from the future home of MIT, Harvard students threw boots out of windows at policemen and set off fireworks in professors' offices.

But if some of the students wanted to emulate their Ivy League counterparts, the faculty could not afford to do the same, a fact on which the evolution of pranks at MIT hinged. Catching and purging pranksters was a priority at more established institutions. In 1805, Yale authorities expelled James Fenimore Cooper after a retaliatory prank involving gunpowder, and Harvard repeatedly tried to shut down the so-called “Med Fac,” a secret society devoted to mischief-making around campus. By contrast, the first groups of MIT “conspirators” had considerable leeway, if not impunity. “The surroundings were very unsuited to aid in what might be called the policing of the school,” explained one of the original students. He also noted that the authorities “never made the mistake of regarding a prank as a crime.” The student's point about policing is certainly true: MIT occupied a series of rented spaces before moving into a building on Boylston Street 10 times too large for the student body, making it extremely difficult to monitor students when they were not sitting in a laboratory or classroom. But it was more than a matter of failing to catch the culprits red-handed or being philosophical about tomfoolery. The Institute simply couldn't survive a disciplinary policy resulting in suspensions and the loss of much-needed tuition—at times there were not enough funds to pay its faculty.

In retrospect, MIT's penury may have been a blessing for its identity. The early generations of students used their unusual freedom to hone an entirely different style of pranks than their counterparts at other colleges, and this style became a tradition that grew with their exceptional scientific abilities. Rather than being pushed underground like Harvard's now defunct Med Fac, brainy pranks became a welcome part of MIT's culture. These days, they're lauded not only in the university's museum but by its admissions office. That might constitute the greatest stunt ever pulled off in the academy. 

3. How to sneak an art exhibit inside a museum 
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Here’s how artist Harvey Stromberg deceived the Museum of Modern Art, as written in New York Magazine in June 1971:
“With the help of a friend, but with no assistance from the museum, Harvey Stromberg put on his exhibition himself. A New York artist, he describes his work as “photo-sculpture.” To prepare the exhibition, he spent some weeks in the museum, disguised as a student with a notebook under his arm, peering nearsightedly at pictures while at the same time measuring and photographing museum equipment: light switches, locks, air vents, buzzers, segments of the floor and bricks in the garden wall. These photographs he printed actual size, covered the backs with adhesive, and one day he sauntered through the museum adding 300 trompe l'oell photographs ("photosculpture") of museum equipment to its walls and floors. (The floor pieces were a mistake: “I didn’t realize that when they buffed the floors they would buff them right off." says Stromberg.)”

Rosalind Constable, the writer of the article, was amused:
“I began to talk about that phony air vent adorning the facade of the august Museum of Modem Art, and l couldn’t help laughing. Stromberg looked at me quizzically, then his face broke into a broad grin. "I really have fun doing it." he said. "When I install a piece, my adrenalin is racing. In fact, its very hard for me to come up with serious reasons why I do it."

4.  Engineering students hang car from bridge

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SAN FRANCISCO — Upholding a 20-year-old tradition, engineering students from the University of British Columbia tethered the hull of an old, red Volkswagen Beetle to the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge on Monday. Witnesses told the California Highway Patrol that about a dozen people pulled off the prank in the middle of the night. Bridge workers cut the 2-inch-wide nylon webbing and let the car drop into the water during the morning rush hour.

The Coast Guard kept the area clear until the hunk of metal sank.

Every year, engineering students at the Canadian university hold E Week and hang Beetles from buildings and other places around Vancouver. This year, the students took their gig on the road.

"The more international the stunt, the better the press coverage," said Chad Brown, an engineering student celebrating the feat.

Fog mostly blocked the televised sight of the VW, emblazoned with an E and a maple leaf, dangling 100 feet above the water.

The pranksters could be fined and ordered to perform community service. The penalties for such pranks increased after a 1996 episode in which actor Woody Harrelson and several other activists climbed one of the bridge's cables to protest logging.

Brown, 22, would not say which of his classmates pulled the prank. "They still have to get across the border, you know," he said.

5. Covering the 1961 Rose Bowl and the greatest prank in college sports history

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The card-stunt prank executed by a band of Caltech students at the 1961 Rose Bowl is widely regarded as the greatest hoax in collegiate history.

It is so celebrated that many overlook the game in which the Washington Huskies defeated the No. 1-ranked Minnesota Gophers, 17-7. That game, on the heels of the Huskies’ stunning 44-8 win over the Wisconsin Badgers in the 1960 Rose Bowl, would mark the end of the Big Ten’s dominance over Pacific Coast Conference teams in what has long been called The Granddaddy of All Bowl Games.

I was a young Seattle Times general-assignment reporter at the ’61 Rose Bowl, sent to Pasadena by my editor, Mel Sayre, to find stories that “wouldn’t be covered by the sportswriters.” “Human-interest stories is what I want, Dunc,” Sayre said. “Don’t miss a thing!”

In those primitive no-cellphone, no-internet days, I flew south five days before the Rose Bowl game, spent hours taking notes with a stubby pencil, wrote my stories on a typewriter loaned by my L.A. hotel, and hand-delivered each piece of copy to a nearby Western Union office, where it was telegraphed to The Times.

Hey, Bill Gates was only 5 years old.

There was much to write about:

The famous Rose Bowl Museum devoted considerable space to the Huskies’ one-eyed quarterback Bob Schloredt, co-Player of the Game with George Fleming in the 1960 Rose Bowl (Schloredt would repeat in ’61). A trip to MGM studio with the Husky “royalty” who chatted with actor Glenn Ford. A behind-the-scenes tour of the area, where floats were being adorned with thousands of roses for the Tournament of Roses Parade. A visit to that new wonder of the world, Disneyland (which had opened only five years before). Along with assorted quotes from band members, yell leaders, an attractive baton-twirler and Husky alums who arrived early and were living it up.

The only story I missed was THE BIG ONE.

While the great card-stunt hoax was unfolding before 100,000 fans in the Rose Bowl and an estimated 30 million listening to Mel Allen and Chick Hearn on NBC television, Gov. Albert D. Rosellini was telling me he had bet a box of apples and the governor of Minnesota a fish of some sort on the outcome of the game. The governor added helpfully, “They’ve got a lot of lakes in Minnesota you know, Don.”

My game-day story would appear in Tuesday’s Times (New Year’s Day 1961 fell on a Sunday, when no bowl games were played). The final addition to my notepad would be a post-game ride with the Husky team back to their Long Beach hotel. For the record, a jubilant coach Jim Owens talked a bit during the bus ride, but the weary, sore players were more interested in sleeping than answering questions.

Back in my hotel room, the typewriter hummed. The stories were dropped off at Western Union and, my stomach growling because I hadn’t eaten since 6 o’clock that morning, I heard the telephone ring. It was 8 p.m.

“Hi, Dunc,” Mel Sayre said, chuckling. “I’m looking forward to reading your story. It must have been something to see!”

“Yeah, sure, Mel,” I replied, trying to hide my confusion. “You know me. Never miss a good story.”

I hung up and screamed to the walls: “What the hell happened at the game that would prompt Mel to call.” It must have been something truly out of the ordinary, and I had better find out what it was, because to him “failure” is a four-letter word.

Racing from the room, my stomach in a knot, I boarded an elevator and shouted, “Hey, any of you folks who attended the game, did anything out of the ordinary happen that you’re aware of?” Dead silence.

In full-blown panic mode, I bolted into the lobby. “Please, did anyone here who attended today’s game see anything out of the ordinary or maybe humorous? At length, one man smiled and said, “I think maybe the card-stunts are what you mean. They got screwed up somehow near the end and quit abruptly. I think they spelled Caltech in the last stunt. Pretty funny.”

That must be it. I rushed out, bought an L.A. Times and flipped through the pages. I found a very short story. The University of Washington’s halftime card-stunts were cut short, it said, after the cards started coming up with apparently unplanned images. It is believed some Caltech students were responsible.

Back in my room I asked the hotel operator to dial Caltech, preferably someone connected with student housing. The phone rang a few minutes later. I told the woman at Caltech what I wanted.

“Oh, I think I know just the boys who might have done that,” she said. She dialed a number and I explained my dilemma to the young man who answered.

“Hey, you want to talk to the guy who planned it?”

Giddy with delight, I replied, “Yes! By all means.”

The next voice on the line belong to Lyn (Lyndon) Hardy, ringleader of a tiny band of techies who had assured themselves a place in the Great Hall of Fame reserved for people who think way outside the box.

Hardy had posed as a reporter for the Dorsey High School (L.A.) newspaper and called on the yell leaders who had the UW stunt cards and directions in their Long Beach hotel room. He said he wanted to write about how the stunts were done. They told all.

A short time later – when the yell leaders were gone from their room – Hardy and two fellow students picked the lock on the door and stole the direction sheets. There were to be 15 card stunts at halftime. They decided to let the first 11 go off as planned. They would tamper with 12, 13 and 14 and also leave stunt 15 alone.

Back at their student housing, they and their friends went to work. There were 2,232 instruction sheets, each with its own set of 15 directions. And each would have to be modified.

Stunt No. 12 was supposed to be a slow spell-out of “Washington”. Wouldn’t it be much better if it spelled “notginhsaW“? Of course, it would.

No. 13 was supposed to be the head of a Husky dog (the UW mascot ). Since Caltech’s mascot was a beaver, why not modify it a bit, giving the dog beaver-like buck-teeth?

No. 14 was reserved for the dagger in the heart. Whatever the yell leaders had planned was dumped and “CALTECH” was substituted.

It’s a shame the UW called off the card stunts after Caltech appeared, because the final stunt – showing an American flag – had not been altered.

Hardy said Caltech students had been pulling pranks for years. Among them were disassembling a Model T Ford and reassembling it in its owner’s room, and putting a fake cornerstone upside-down on a nine-story building.

You can find a list by going online to Caltech Legends. You will learn that when UCLA played Illinois in the 1984 Rose Bowl, Caltechies – no doubt inspired by the ’61 hoax – hacked into the scoreboard to show the halftime score as Caltech 38, MIT 9.

I called Hardy at his home in Torrance, Calif., the other day and introduced myself as the “no-longer young man” who 53 years ago had called him in desperation the night of Jan. 2. He had, he said, gone on to earn a PhD in physics, work in aerospace and write “fantasy novels” under his full name (Lyndon Hardy). His first book, “Master of the Five Magics,” was published when he was in his late 30’s, and has sold over 300,000 copies. He recently finished his fourth book.

Now a grandfather, Hardy said he seldom talked to his daughters about his memorable college prank, although he was occasionally reminded of the stunt when someone doing a history of famous pranks gave him a call.

Breaking into the room where the cards and directions were stored were heart-pounding undertakings, Hardy said. On the eve of the Rose Bowl game, he and his two partners in crime noted that there although there were no lights on in the Long Beach hotel room he needed to break into, he couldn’t be sure the yell leaders weren’t inside asleep or wouldn’t be coming down the hall and catching him inside the room.

It had, he said, taken many hours to make the changes on the instruction sheets and then exchange the new sheets for the old ones. He and others in his dorm were still working at it during a dance they hosted on New Year’s Eve. A girl at the dance learned what they were doing and was so excited she ran out the door, intent on calling all her friends.

“We begged her not to do it,” Hardy said. She turned out to be from Minnesota and agreed to keep quiet because the joke was on the other school.

I told Hardy I’d written my story of the hoax on an empty stomach, walked it over to Western Union and then flopped on my bed, fully clothed, only to be awakened at 5 a.m. by a ringing telephone.

It was Mel Sayre, my editor. “Helluva story, Dunc,” he said. “Sure glad we had an eye-witness down there.”

“Thanks,” I said, feeling slightly guilty as I hung up. Should I have told him?

I never did.

Hardy said he was now 73. I said I was nearing 89.

We laughed. Two old guys reliving youthful sins.

6.  The Best College Prank Of The 1790s (With Bats, Poop & Grass)

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In yesterday's post, I crowned an Oxford geologist William Buckland as Most Daring Eater Ever. And he was. But I think he deserves one additional, albeit smaller, honor.

When William Buckland was a kid, an undergraduate at Oxford in the late 1790s — around the time George Washington had just finished being president — he pulled a prank that was so rude, so smart and so biologically sophisticated for his day, I think he deserves a second crown, this one for Best Use of Grass Ever.

Here's what he did. William Buckland got himself — I don't know how — some buckets of bat guano. Guano, you should know, is animal poop, very rich in nutrients, excellent as a fertilizer. Back in the '90s (the 1790s), these fertilizers, mostly bird excrement from pelicans and seagulls, were new to British gardeners. They had fertilizers, of course, but guano on a grand scale was new, an idea imported from the Americas, from Cuba and the Andes, where farmers used poop extensively.

In Britain, pasting poop on a spring lawn was not "done." But that's what Buckland did.

He took bat poop and spread it across his Oxford College lawn, but not evenly. Instead he used the guano to spell, first a giant letter, G. Then a U. Then an A. Then an N. Then an O.

One imagines the Oxford authorities were aghast, wanted the poop removed immediately, so the lawn was scrubbed and order restored. But fertilizer is fertilizer. Once applied, it seeps into the soil and does what it's meant to do. The lawn must have looked normal for a while, but as the weather improved and the sun came out and the grass began to grow, a distinct pattern emerged. The college could mow and mow, but some tufts of grass stubbornly kept growing higher and thicker than the rest. And from a distance — say from a classroom window anywhere around the quad, you could see — all spring, all summer — like a graffito that can't be erased, the word GUANO, spelled out in grass. Oxford couldn't make it go away.

This happened more than 200 years ago, but as pranks go, it's a classic, because it was a) deeply irritating; b) sassy in execution; and c) disturbingly long-lasting. Plus, it advertised a new technology.

So good for you, William Buckland, for championing both ends of the gustatory experience: Eating and Pooping.

We salute you!

7.  Revealed after 50 years: The secret of the greatest-ever student prank

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It was probably the most ingenious student prank of all time.

In June 1958, Cambridge awoke to see a car perched at the apex of an inaccessible rooftop, looking as if it were driving across the skyline.

The spectacle made headlines around the world and left police, firefighters and civil defence units battling for nearly a week to hoist the vehicle back down before giving in and taking it to pieces with blowtorches.

The shadowy group of engineering students who executed the stunt were never identified and the mystery of how they did it has baffled successive undergraduates and provided fodder for countless tourist guides.

Now, 50 years on, the group have reunited to disclose their identities and reveal how they winched an Austin Seven to the top of the university's 70ft-high Senate House.

At an anniversary dinner this month, ringleader Peter Davey revealed he had hatched the plan while staying in rooms at Gonville and Caius College overlooking the Senate House roof.

He felt the expanse of roof 'cried out' to be made more interesting and decided a car would do the trick, recruiting 11 others to help realise his plan.

The group chose the May Bumps week, when any passers-by were likely to be drunken rowers celebrating after their races.

After finding a clapped-out Austin Seven, the group had to tow it through Cambridge to a parking space near Senate House but hit on the idea of sticking signs on it advertising a May ball to explain its presence.

Mr Davey, now 72, said a ground party manoeuvred the car into position while a lifting party on the Senate House roof hoisted it up using an A-shaped crane constructed from scaffolding poles and steel rope.

A third group, the bridge party, passed a plank across the notorious Senate House Leap - an 8ft gap between the roof and a turret window at Caius - and helped the lifters ferry across lifting gear comprising three types of rope, hooks and pulleys.

Policemen who heard a commotion as the equipment passed above them questioned some of the ground party but were distracted by careless drivers nearby and left them alone.

Three carousing rowers spotted the car swinging about 40ft up, despite the efforts of two girls on the ground team who had been recruited to hitch up their skirts a couple of inches to distract passers-by - a ploy more likely to work in 1958 than now. The rowers were fobbed off with the explanation that it was a tethered balloon.

The stunt almost went awry when the team tried to swing the car through the apex of the A-frame, over the Senate House balustrade and on to the roof.

They had failed to erect a rope check line running from the Caius side which would have steadied the vehicle. It crashed on to the roof from 5ft above it and, fearing they would be discovered, the lifting team hastily pushed it to the apex before grabbing their equipment and fleeing over the plank bridge.

The next day the bizarre sight enthralled crowds of onlookers as attempts by the authorities to construct a crane to hoist it back down failed.

The then Dean of Caius, the late Rev Hugh Montefiore, had an inkling who was responsible and sent a congratulatory case of champagne to their staircase, while maintaining in public he knew nothing of the culprits. Unsurprisingly given their inventiveness, many of the group went on to enjoy illustrious careers - and Caius officials said the ' renegades' had turned into generous benefactors of the college.

Mr Davey, from Mousehole, Cornwall, was awarded a CBE and an honorary doctorate after setting up automation and robotics companies while another, Cyril Pritchett, was a lieutenant colonel in the Army.

Two of the team of 12 live abroad and could not make the reunion dinner at Caius.

One, David Fowler, had died and was represented by his widow Denise.

The reunited pranksters said their only regret was that the car was not left in place for ever.

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