A fondness for foolishness

Illustration by CK Wolfson
Illustration by CK Wolfson

By Whit Griswold - March 30, 2006

For me, April Fools Day comes not a day too soon. Punch-drunk from scrunching up against the cold and dark for five months, I'm so sick of winter that any light lift feels like a life ring. So no wonder a silly diversion like pulling pranks on April Fools Day is so welcome, so enticing.

Practical jokes have always appealed to me, especially when I'm serving them up. Maybe there's some deep meaning about my attraction to such silliness - you know, puer eternus and all that - but I think it's just a way to let my friends know much I care about them. I just love inventing goofy stories and getting people to believe them. Here are a few of my favorites.

Back in the mid-1970s, a bunch of folks up-Island used the classified ads in the Gazette to fool one another on April 1. There was a run on phantom Yard Sales for a couple of years. Then an old friend of mine, the late Betty Ann Bryant, escalated things when she advertised a free birding tour with Albert Fischer on the Onassis property. Others professed to sell unlikely things for outrageous prices - say 10 acres in Seven Gates for $4,999. Recalling some of the more creative hoaxes we'd heard about, I got laughing with Jack Koontz, an old friend and fellow charter fishermen at the time, over dinner on Saturday, March 31, in 1979, or maybe it was 1980. And we decided to take a crack at it - hey, we could put on as good a yard sale as the next liar, and we had the perfect target - Betty Ann and Danny Bryant.

Back at his rental house in Abels Hill, we found a pile of scrap plywood, a couple cans of paint, and we went to work - starting around midnight. We made paint brushes out of paper towels - somehow. And we made signs, and signs, and signs. Some of them were four-foot square, others much smaller. Inspired by signs we'd seen on two-lane blacktops in the Carolinas, we scribbled:

YARD SAIL TOODAY - Guns/AMMO - Cheep BOATS/FIREWORKS - Big DAN 'n' BETTY ANN sez stop on in - Slo, only 1/4 mile to go - Free Gum/Coffee - STOP 'n' SAVE - DEALS, DEALS, DEALS.

And a dozen or so more, enough to nail up on eight or ten phone poles leading to their house from both directions on South Road. It was approaching 4 am when we finished putting them all up. We were done in, but we were feeling pretty proud of ourselves, and we couldn't wait to see what happened in the morning.

Only trouble was, we slept till noon. By the time we got out to check out the scene of the hoax, the signs were heaped up in the Bryants' yard, ready for the dump. What a let-down. Worse yet, we never got proper credit as perpetrators. We had to take our satisfaction in snippets of information we picked up over the next few days - like the fact that the minister at the West Tisbury Church had encouraged his parishioners to flock on up the road and help out the Bryants. Ah, that was more like it.

But to this day, neither Bryant has ever acknowledged that they'd been had. And I never fessed up.

Back in that same era, a college classmate named Jim Preston, who was living in Paris, needed an instate mailing address to purchase a year-round weekly ticket for the Massachusetts lottery, and he chose me. Once a year, I'd resubscribe for him, and he'd pay me back, but not before I reminded him that he was chasing fool's gold. Then, in late March one year, an official Mass Lottery envelope came in the mail. It would take weeks to forward it to France, so I just slit it open and had a look. Congratulations, it said, you have won....$6.

Six bucks, I thought, how ridiculous, but what a perfect opportunity to pull Jim's leg. I composed a telegram, and off it went: "Big bucks are yours, details to follow."

He tried to call me several times later in the day, but I was out, and this was back before answering machines, remember? Then I guess he went to bed, dreaming about which car to buy first, the Rolls or the Porsche. Around 10 pm I got a call from his brother, who lived in Providence. How much did Jimmy win, he wanted to know. I said, listen Barry, you gotta hear this, listen to what I did. Then I told him the story, including the part about the $6. There was a long, poisonous silence, and he mumbled something like, "Oh, yeah," and hung up. What a killjoy, I thought.

And my glee took another jolt the next day when Jim got me on the phone: he was crushed and there was no talking this normally jolly, upbeat guy out of it. Lesson learned: Watch out when you fool around with money.

Maybe the easiest mark I've had over the years is my pal Tom Luckey, who lives in Branford, Conn., just outside New Haven, where I grew up. When we were living in Italy three years ago, I got him but good, all for the price of one trans-Atlantic phone call. I'd nailed him a couple of times in years past, but I figured his guard might be down. So I got my most frantic voice cranked up and dialed away. And boy, didn't the stars line up just right for me: no one answered, so I didn't have to deal with him voice to voice. I could just leave a message. Which was: Tommy, hi, listen, I only have a minute before I got to get back in this meeting. Something's come up about Mother's will, some legal snafu, so I flew back yesterday. I was in Boston last night, but I had to come to New Haven to meet some lawyers today. I think everything's OK, but it's kind of tense, and it's all coming down this morning. I've got a flight back to Italy tonight, but I don't have to be back up to Logan till 6:30, so maybe we could meet for lunch, if you get this. Tell you what, why don't we meet at Louis' Lunch at 12:30...OK? Hey, I can't wait. I gotta go. Bye.

Sure enough, he and his wife, Ettie, took the bait. She even got a bit gussied up before they hopped in the car and headed for New Haven, about 20 minutes away.

I waited until midnight in Florence to call him and ask if he'd enjoyed his lunch.

But my favorite April Fools Joke of all time was aimed at me, and it was a direct hit. Back around 1970, I spent a few winters in our family place in Lambert's Cove. One year, somewhere in the middle of March, which seems to malinger from Mid-February till mid-May on the Island, I got a call one morning from my sister Molly, who lived in Cambridge. Had I heard the sad news?

"No. What?"

"Mrs. Brown died yesterday."

"Hunh?"

"You know, Mrs. Brown, across the road in Lambert's Cove."

"Oh yeah, right, jeez... Mrs. Brown." Ever since I could remember, Mrs. Brown was 90 years old. Wasn't she about 115 by now?

"And the funeral is Saturday, and we're all coming tomorrow, Mother and...."

"Mother?" MOTHER! Oh, my God. Mother of God! "Mother? And she wants to stay here?"

"Well it is her house," Mol said. And her house was a mess. I kept the dishes clean, but that was about it. I hadn't vacuumed the place since Christmas. I'd sealed off one bedroom after a failed attempt to make a down comforter for my girlfriend. There was outdoor gear piled everywhere, and my dog had taken over all the couches.

I muttered something about how people didn't come to the Vineyard in March.

"Mother does...when she has to." Her voice stung.

I hung up and got up. Then I got down to business. I swept, I wiped, I dusted, I mopped, I vacuumed, I sprayed, I washed, I rinsed, I dried, I aired, I plumped, I fluffed, I shined, I made beds like there was no tomorrow. Oh, my God...tomorrow! Mother, I mewled.

I skipped lunch, I ran out for more cleaning supplies, I skipped dinner, I wished I lived somewhere else, far away. I hated my life.

But I kept cleaning. Until I finally collapsed around 8 in the evening. A little later, the phone rang. It was Molly, all cheerful, even gay. "Hey, Cuthbert, how's the house looking?"

"It looks OK, I think, and don't call me Cuthbert."

"Are you sure? Did you make all the beds? Clean the kitchen? Get some food?"

"Yeah, well, yes, sort of, I think...." And then she started to laugh. "What's so funny? I've been killing myself all day and...."

"Don't you know what day it is?"

"Well, I don't know, the end of March, maybe it's April first."

"And what happens on April first, you fool?" And then laughter consumed her. She came up for air long enough to ask, "Hey, have you seen Mrs. Brown lately? How is she?"