In 1985 a neighborhood in West Sacramento was riven by an escalating prank war. The two parties—let's call them the Smiths and the Joneses—kept trying to top each other. As the competition continued unabated, it became inevitable that they would approach the verge of total war. Could tragedy be averted?
It was a purportedly friendly competition. All in good fun. The Jones family had, however, raised the bar quite a bit with their fake yard sale. Just before one summer weekend in 1985, the Joneses had plastered the neighborhood with fliers for a yard sale to be held at the address of the Smiths. Then, early on the morning of the bogus yard sale, the Joneses backed up their pickup truck to the Smiths' front yard and unloaded various sale items. These reportedly included a three-legged card table and a porcelain toilet with a cracked bowl, as well as several treadless car tires. The Joneses labeled each piece of junk with a ridiculous price sticker and fled the scene.
Given the eager nature of yard-sale aficionados everywhere, it was to be expected that Mrs. Smith would find her front yard swarming with bargain hunters when she opened the front door to fetch the morning newspaper. Heads swiveled her way when she made her appearance, scowls on the faces of the browsers. Someone asked, “Is this some kind of joke?”
Ah, yes. That's exactly what it was. Mrs. Smith summoned her husband, a self-declared conscientious objector and noncombatant in the prank war, and they proceeded to clear their front yard of trash. (I speak here only of the mock sales items, but the Smiths did also shoo away the people.)
That Monday, Mrs. Smith walked into my office for a council of war. We were coworkers in the State Treasurer's Office and she meant to enlist me in her cause. The fake yard sale represented a major coup by the Jones forces and she intended to launch a massive counterattack. But how?
It was an intriguing problem. Having never before applied my talents to the task of pulling off a large-scale practical joke, I was tempted by Mrs. Smith's proposal that I lend my hand to her effort. What, I asked, were the vulnerabilities of Mr. & Mrs. Jones? Mrs. Smith had the germ of an idea. There was one vacant lot in the neighborhood, and it was immediately adjacent to the Jones's home. The lot was owned by Pacific Gas & Electric for potential future use as a local power substation. The Jones coveted the PG&E lot, hoping to acquire it from the utility company and thereafter build a swimming pool on it. Their dreams of owning a double lot in West Sacramento all depended on PG&E deciding that the lot was surplus property and putting it on the open market.
Should we tease the Joneses by making it appear that the lot was for sale? No, we went one better: Let's get them thinking the lot was already sold—and sold to some of the least desirable tenants possible! What would serve our purpose?
In the mid-1980s, the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh were in the news. They had formed a community in Rajneeshpuram, a sprawling ranch in Oregon that they had purchased and renamed. The Bhagwan was enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame by allowing his acolytes to wait on him hand and foot, tilling the fields of the commune, and standing in prayerful and respectful attention every time he deigned to drive by in one of his many Rolls Royces. (The Movementarian community in “The Joy of Sect” episode of The Simpsons is a composite parody of many religious cults, using Bhagwan's love of luxury cars as one of its jokes about the charismatic Movementarian figure known as “The Leader.”)
The prank almost wrote itself. On our lunch break, I sat down at the computer and rapped out a letter that we output through the laser printer. Remember, this was 1985. Laser printers were quite new and their ability to create mock letterhead had yet to be widely appreciated. We used Helvetica and Times Roman for the letterhead and Courier (to make it look like a typewriter) for the body. Mrs. Smith signed the hoax letter with a flourish and we dropped it in the mail. On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, the Joneses found it in their mail box, a friendly message announcing the imminent arrival of a Rajneeshee commune (and juvenile delinquent foster home) right next door:
The Joneses were, to put it mildly, pushed to the edge of hysteria. They pored over the letter again and again. Mrs. Jones noticed something:
Neighbourhood Enlightenment Ministries
A World Circle Program
Anand Shree Presba, Associate Director
World Circle Neighbourhood Programs
Rajneeshpuram, Oregon 98801
August 30, 1985
Mr. & Mrs. XXXXXX XXXXX
XXXX XXXXXXXXXXX XXXXX
West Sacramento, CA 95691
With joy we write to inform friends in West Sacramento whom we have not yet met that World Circle has received permission to prepare conditional use plans for a vacant lot in your immediate vicinity (East Yolo Township designation and legal lot description on file) as part of our Neighbourhood Enlightenment Ministries. Preliminary discussions with East Yolo Community Services encourage us that substation plans may be subject to waiver in this instance. In accordance with the civil forms, and county ordinance C. 5212/82, we are preparing for our presentation before the county planning commission by notifying our future neighbours of the plans whose fruition they will someday be privileged to witness.
Under the leadership and divine guidance of our beloved Bhagwan, the children of Rajneesh will establish a residential hostel and commune dedicated to public service and the dissemination of knowledge and understanding. In cooperation with local government social service foster home programs, the children of Rajneesh will care for and attend to the needs of their lost siblings. The disclosure regulations require that we inform you that the fosterlings of the proposed program would range in age from 12 to 17 years old. Under guidelines established by the state government of California, and implementations thereof by the county of Yolo, we have determined that the residence whose construction we contemplate could suitably house six (6) joint foster parents and as many as twelve (12) social service fosterlings. We pray that you will open your hearts to the needs of your lost brothers and sisters and will greet them with love and understanding when they move in next door.
A public hearing on our proposal, which has already received all of the preliminary authorizations, must be scheduled before the local planning commission within the next thirty (30) days. While you are welcome to attend, we assure you that we will share news of our progress with you at all times, as the fellowship of our neighbours is a fundamental component of our ministry. For more information, you may call us at (916) 922-7484.
In the Light of Bhagwan,
Anand Shree Presba
“Bhagwan leads that others may follow.”
“They misspelled ‘neighborhood.’”
“No,“ said her husband. “That's the way they do it in England. It's the British spelling. Yeah, that's how they would do it.”
Mrs. Jones read aloud the small-print motto at the bottom of the page. It was in Times Roman and appeared to be a footer on formal stationery:
“Oh, ‘Bhagwan leads that others may follow.’ That sure is profound!” Her voice oozed sarcasm.
“Yeah, that's how they think,” said Mr. Jones.
Since it was a three-day weekend, the Joneses were unable to contact any county offices till Tuesday. They did try the information phone number, but it was always busy. (It was actually the dial-up number for the Big Blue BBS, an electronic bulletin board system loosely affiliated at the time with the Sacramento IBM PC Users Group. Even if they had managed to get through without the assistance of an auto-dialer, all they would have heard was the whine of a modem signal.) The Joneses, however, had other resources.
That Sunday, Mrs. Smith was sitting in church before services when her daughter urgently sought her out. The daughter had been dispensing church bulletins in the vestibule, but now she took refuge with her mother.
“Mom! The Joneses are circulating a petition in the vestibule! They're signing up people to protest the Bhagwan commune! I had to get out of there before I gave it all away by laughing!” The vestibule was indeed a ferment of activity. Solemn vows were taken that the Rajneeshee would never take over a West Sacramento neighborhood.
Later that same day, Mrs. Smith received a phone call from their bishop. He was recruiting her help in the anti-Bhagwan effort. The church had pledged its full support to the Jones petition. Mrs. Smith was in a quandary. Things were going too well. Would it spin completely out of control? (Had it already done so?) She cleared her throat: “Uh, Bishop, I think it would be wise to hold off a bit on this. We should wait to see more facts before we all get involved.”
The bishop knew his flock. He was instantly suspicious: “Say, do you already know more about this than I do?”
“Just let it sit for a bit, okay? Please?”
The bishop issued a stern warning to nip the problem in the bud and went quickly into damage-control mode. Mrs. Smith knew she'd been busted, although the details were still hidden. She figured she had at most another day or two before it all played out.
On Tuesday morning, a regular business day, Mr. Jones called the Yolo county planning commission with a frantic plea for more information: When would the Rajneeshee commune be up for public review? How had a major public utility been gulled into making a private sale of a prime parcel of land to a wacky mind-control cult? How much community pressure would be needed to persuade the county to quash the plans for a group home for juvenile delinquents? The planning commission staff was nonplussed. They had nothing on the docket that matched Mr. Jones's description. He read the letter to them. It rang no bells. They promised to do some research and get back to him. Mr. Jones was even more anxious after the call than he had been before. Previously he had been outraged and upset. Now he was also sure the fix was in and deals were being made behind his back.
The Joneses had canvassed their neighborhood: “Did you get your letter yet?” No one else had received the Bhagwan letter. One neighbor looked at it and said, “Oh, you got this first because it's next door to your house. Other people will probably get their letters later in the week.” Every detail was being interpreted by the participants as confirming their worst fears.
The bubble finally burst on Tuesday, when the reaction of the planning commission percolated throughout the church community of the Smiths and Joneses. The bishop talked with Mrs. Jones. “I think you should talk with your friend Mrs. Smith,” suggested the bishop. “I think she knows all about what's going on.”
And there was light.
Mrs. Jones called Mrs. Smith. After a little verbal fencing, Mrs. Jones came to the point: The bishop had spilled the beans. He hadn't really, but the notion of a hoax was now clearly out there. Mrs. Smith decided to declare victory and call an end to hostilities. The two women agreed to meet for lunch and hammer out a peace treaty.
On the designated lunch day, Mrs. Jones came by our office to collect Mrs. Smith. They paused at my office so that my coworker could introduce me to her friend. I smiled brightly and said hello. Mrs. Jones said, “How long did you work on that letter? It was quite something.”
Mrs. Smith airily replied, “Oh, we knocked it off during one lunch hour. I told Tony about the vacant lot and he wrote the letter”
Mrs. Jones's face registered disbelief: “You're kidding me. The British spelling? The goofy motto? The fake letterhead?”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Smith, ”Tony did all that. He's kind of an evil genius.”
It was a proud moment for me.
Soon after the great Bhagwan hoax of 1985 in West Sacramento, the real Bhagwan tried to flee the country, but immigration officials caught up with him at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, and took him into custody. The guru copped a plea that resulted in his leaving the country after all. He adopted the new name of “Osho” and died in India in 1990.
The original hoax letter was framed by the Joneses, who hung it in their den as a conversation piece. I don't know if it's still there or if the prank war between the Smiths and Joneses ever broke out again. Almost exactly two years after the Bhagwan hoax, I received my initial appointment to the American River College mathematics faculty, where anyone can tell you I have been a model of dignity and restraint. The wild days of irresponsible youth are over.