I’m not much of a practical joker. April Fool’s day comes and goes with little thought from me, except to be wary in the presence of anyone with a mad glint in their eye.
That said, this past Friday I enjoyed this tweet from the talented Marcus Sakey.
Today my four year old daughter, supported by my wife, fed me a toothpaste Oreo. God help me, I'm proud.— Marcus Sakey (@MarcusSakey) April 2, 2016
This is not to say I haven’t played a few pranks over the years. In college, I turned everything upside down in a friend’s dorm room — very carefully, mind you. I didn’t want to damage any of his stuff. He was amused, his roommate less, so I immediately got to turn everything right side up again. Not quite sure who the joke was on there, now that I think about it.
More recently, I amused myself one afternoon after installing an app on my phone to manage our cable box and DVR. As my son sat watching Die Hard for the 400th time, I would variously switch to the Hallmark Channel, C-SPAN, QVC, etc., all from another room. Eventually he tracked me down: “There’s something wrong with the cable.”
“You don’t say.”
Peak dad humor, that. But pretty much the extent of my pranksterizing in recent decades.
For a lot of people, dislike of pranks and April Fool’s Day may grow out of having once been victimized. A prank, even one meant as the friendliest jest, can sometimes go wrong. And what seems like a laff riot to a couple of chuckleheads might not be funny at all to their intended target.
But being a victim wasn’t what turned me into a prank curmudgeon. In my case, I was one of the chuckleheads whose hilarious joke didn’t go as planned.
Me, in the 70s. Oh, my.
For the tale we must delve back into the deeps of time, when color was blown-out yet a little faded, when people wore cut-off jeans and wide-collared polyester print shirts without irony. When Archie Bunker was a target of satire, not a candidate for president. It was the 70s.
I was living out in the country near Dayton, Ohio at the time — an area of cornfields interrupted by narrow strips of trees. Development was slowly creeping toward us from the city proper, but mostly it was woods and fields. And in one of those patches of wood was The House.
You know The House. Most places seem to have one. A hundred years old, long abandoned, surrounded by waist-high weeds and grass. The windows mostly broken, the paint blistered. Older kids would go there to party, but I was 13, so I went with a friend to set off illegal fireworks.
I had a step-brother named Eddie, a good kid, if a little wild and annoying in the way a nine-year-old can be to a wizened 13-year-old. Eddie wanted to go see the house, but my buddy Jim and I didn’t want to take him. It was a long trek through the woods, and we knew he’d want to hog the firecrackers and get whiny when we wouldn’t let him. So we told him stories about how dangerous The House was. People did things there. Dark rituals. Sacrifices, we told him. Of children! Once, we said, we snuck into the basement and it was covered with blood! Too dangerous for a little kid.
Honestly, I didn’t think he believed us. It was pretty dumb stuff. But he kept badgering us about The House, and finally drove us batty enough that we agreed to take him. But only at night, because it would be too easy for someone to see us in the day time. “You don’t want to be seen by the kind of people — if they are people — who hang out at The House.”
Our plan, of course, was to take him out there and scare the hell out of him so he’d never ask to go back. Jim and I planned it all out very carefully, by which I mean Jim said, “I’ll pretend to get possessed or something and then chase him through the woods.” And I said, “Good plan!”
We got permission to sleep out in the yard that night, which was no real challenge because we were probably as annoying to my folks as Eddie was to me and Jim. “Yeah, great. Get out of here.”
About 11 o’clock we gathered our flashlights and snuck off into the night. Most of the way was along a country road, and as we walked Jim and I talked about how we heard the cops had been up there a couple of days before.
“Why?” Eddie wanted to know.
“Found a couple of bodies, I heard.”
“Yeah,” Jim said. “All cut up, with weird symbols on them. Devil stuff, I heard.”
By the time we got to the woods, Eddie was already in a state, jumping at every little sound. This probably should have been a clue we’d overplayed our hand, but to be honest, Jim and I had the wits of a sack of flour between us, so we forged ahead, both with our plan and into the dark woods.
As we neared The House, Jim told us to hunker down and he’d go ahead and scout. “Just to make sure no devil worshippers are up there.”
This was fine with Eddie, who was definitely rethinking his interest in the whole endeavor. So Jim went sneaking off through the woods, and Eddie and I waited.
And waited. And waited.
Before too long, Eddie was all for scramming right then, and if Jim didn’t make it, well, so be it. But I said, “You never leave a man behind.” (I think I’d seen a war movie not too long before.) Eddie wasn’t convinced, but fortunately Jim kicked his plan into stage two, which was to let loose with a blood-curdling scream and thrash around in the branches up ahead.
I’ll give Eddie credit. He wanted to bolt. His legs were shaking and when I turned on my flashlight I could see his eyes were bugged out like a pair of baseballs. But he hung tight with me until Jim came lurching through the brush toward us.
Jim was doing the classic zombie walk, arms stretched out in front, knees not bending. His mouth hung open and his eyes stared at nothing. He gave us a couple of groans to emphasize the point.
“Jim?” I shined the flashlight into his face, but he ignored it. Just kept lumbering toward us until he was a few steps away. Then he looked at Eddie, pointed with one stiff finger, and kinda gurgled, “I’ve come for the child’s blood.”
At this point, Eddie’s job was to run screaming into the night, Jim and I giving chase and trying not to be too obvious about laughing. We were gonna say that once we got clear of The House, the demon left Jim’s body so it was cool. But we could never go back.
Except Eddie didn’t cooperate. Turns out we’d sold the tale of devil worshippers all too well, and Eddie had prepared for the worst. Little dude had brought a pipe wrench with him. How he pulled this off without either me or Jim seeing it I have no idea. When Jim dropped that “child’s blood” line, Eddie raised that wrench, took a couple of running steps, and swung with everything he had.
Now, from the get-go our prank was mean and childish, cruel really. Eddie just wanted to hang with the big kids and do big kid things, a desire as old as big sibs and little sibs have existed. But Jim and I had to be jerks about it. We had to be the kind of people who make April Fool’s Day such a misery for too many.
And Jim almost paid a serious price. Because Eddie had the weapon, and he had the strength and the will. He missed hitting Jim’s head by a hair. No telling how bad it would have been if he’d connected, but Jim almost certainly would have gotten a concussion. Maybe a fractured skull. And maybe worse.
It took us a while to calm Eddie down, and then get him home, and then convince to not rat us out. None of us slept that night.
I lost touch with Jim and Eddie. Been a lot of years. But I haven’t lost touch with the feeling that tricking someone can be a dangerous act, for everyone involved. Switching the TV channel from another room or a toothpaste Oreo delivered by a toddler is one thing, but when you start toying with someone’s feelings, with their fear the way Jim and I did with Eddie, it’s not a joke anymore. There should be no laughs to be had in making a fool of someone, and especially not in terrorizing them.
It’s a lesson I’m grateful I learned young, though for Eddie’s sake I wish I’d learned it just a little bit sooner.