Eschew Obfuscation

In the movie Die Hard With A Vengeance, John McClain is in a real pickle. The gritty NYC cop, played by Bruce Willis, is targeted by a criminal mastermind who calls himself simply, Simon.

In the initial scenes of the film, McClain is thrust into a situation where, through a series of events, he and a Bronx shopkeeper, played by Samuel Jackson, are required to play a sequence of ‘games’ in order to prevent a large bomb from being detonated in a school.

These shenanigans continue for the first two-thirds of the movie, keeping the two main characters, and every member of the NYPD, very busy trying to save the children. Here’s the thing, there was never any bomb and the whole thing was a ruse, a distraction, a decoy, a diversion, an obfuscation designed to give the bad guys the time they needed to steal all of the gold from the Federal Reserve Bank in lower Manhattan.

The plan was brilliant. Even if everyone suspected that the bomb threat wasn’t real, what choice did they have but to act.


Only a heartless maniac would call the bluff on a bomb threat to a school, right? Of course if they’d known it was hooey, they could have covered more than one thing at a time, but in the end the authorities threw every resource they had at the obvious, single, bogus, threat that had been presented to them, and the bad guys stole all the gold.

Last week my wife and I were having dinner with some friends. These particular friends have children who are a little older than ours, and they moved to Rochester maybe seven years ago, so their oldest son completed high school in a different city; for the sake of the story, let’s call him Rufus.

Rufus was a good kid; he earned good grades, had nice friends and treated his teachers with respect. In his entire school experience, Rufus had never been in any kind of trouble. In the private Catholic boys high school that he attended, they had a demerit system for tracking bad behavior. In any given year, students were allowed a maximum of twenty-four demerits. As he was heading into the final stretch of his senior year, Rufus had not received a demerit, but not just that year… not ever.

Tradition in this school held that on one day, towards the end of the year, the seniors would execute pranks of one kind or another, on each other, the underclassmen and the school in general.


A very boring senior prank.

Being a normal eighteen year old, albeit a very well behaved one,
Rufus decided that he needed to do something for senior prank day,
after all he had demerits to spare…
and it had to be spectacular.


In the weeks leading up to the day, he spoke of his intentions to nobody. As the day drew closer, he began to bring a few people into the fold. He told his closest friends that he was planning on something, but he told them not what. When the day arrived, he had to tell his younger brothers that something was going on, but he kept the information to a minimum. He told them that he was going to drop them off at school, but then he needed to run an errand; they cared not a lick.

He dropped them off and then ran the single errand he had been planning for weeks. When Rufus walked through the front doors of the school, he saw what he was expecting; a row of tables where administrators were inspecting duffel bags and backpacks, to make sure nothing nefarious was brought into the school.

As Rufus approached the table being manned by the principal, he faced the only variable in his plan that he could not control. Rufus placed his backpack on the table and began to unzip it, leaving his sports duffel bag on the floor.

The principal looked at Rufus, smiled, chuckled a bit and then said “are you kidding me, I don’t need to check your bag.” It was game on!


Rufus walked until he reached the center of the second floor of the school. In one smooth motion, he reached down and unzipped the duffel bag releasing three adult white ducks into the school. He zipped the bag back up and went directly to homeroom.

He was thirty yards away from the scene of the crime when he heard the first scream. The place went nuts.


The ducks were flying and pooping everywhere. Within ten minutes there was an announcement that all students were to go to their homerooms immediately. Once all the students were accounted for, the principal came on the PA system and said, “the student responsible for the release of the ducks should come to the main office immediately or face substantial disciplinary action.”

You could have heard a pin drop when Rufus rose, and walked out into the hall. He marched straight to the main office, proudly opened the door and proclaimed, “I released the ducks.”

They couldn’t believe it. Rufus, the kid who had never done anything wrong, had released flying, quacking, pooping ducks into the orderly, Catholic, boys-only, high school.
But he wasn’t done.


It was at this point Rufus executed the best part of his plan. After admitting his guilt, he looked at everyone on the main office and said, “Yesserie, I released four ducks into the school.” Rufus then took his place in the chair next to the principal’s desk. The chair that was reserved for those sure to receive demerits. As his khaki pants met the faux leather surface of the seat, Rufus felt a strange sense of pride.

What four white ducks look like.  Of course there were only three.

What four white ducks look like. Of course there were only three.


The janitors, teachers, administrators scrambled and quickly caught the three ducks, and then proceeded to spend the next hour scouring the school from top to bottom searching for the fourth.

Only after they had checked every inch of the school three times over did they return to Rufus and tell him that the had only found three of the four ducks. To which Rufus replied, “four ducks? I’m pretty sure I only bought three.” He reached into his pants pocket and retrieved the hand written receipt from the duck farm, and read it out loud, “three white ducks with 24-hour return option, huh.”

As far as I’m concerned that was the best part of the prank. The brilliance was in knowing how the school personnel would react, and feeding them exactly what they needed, to do what they did.

The prank looked like ducks, but it was really getting the school to get itself.


There is a scene in the movie The Princess Bride where Prince Humperdink is asked if he thinks something might be a trap. He replies to the challenge by saying, “I always think everything could be a trap… which is why I’m still alive.”

Prince Humperdink... briefly brilliant.

Prince Humperdink… briefly brilliant.


It is a remarkably insightful line from a character who is otherwise a pretty solid moron, but he makes an excellent point. It is human nature to accept what we take in at face value, but things are rarely that one-dimensional.

Diversions have been a tool of war for centuries, however they also occur all around us every day. Sometimes they are intentional and other times random, but no matter the motivation, taking a few steps back, and a few deep breaths to assess the many potential sides of a situation will always serve you well.

I can’t promise that you’ll never be fooled. But maybe, just maybe, after catching the three ducks, and it is clear that there are no more; you’ll be the one to go back and interrogate the source before wasting an hour looking for a phantom foul.

Just so you know – both the administration and Rufus’ parents were so stunned and impressed by his prank that he received no school demerits, nor parental punishment. To this day it is considered the greatest prank every perpetrated by a senior.

Copyright © 2014 - Stephen S. Nazarian - All rights reserved.

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