April Fool

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange enjoys April Fool’s Day, even though fooling greenhorns has lost its cultural purpose.

(LANGE) In case you hadn’t noticed, tomorrow is April Fool’s Day. When the kids were still home, it was a lot of fun. We usually struck at dawn.

Our society has a long tradition of practical jokes. Some of the stunts are inspired, and probably most are tinged with a little cruelty. You may have seen the television commercial for a Vermont bank, in which the boss of a lumber yard screws the lunch pail of an employee to the workbench. It’s a hoary old gag, but it isn’t funny. The dupe usually pulls the handle off his lunch pail when he tries to pick it up.

I was raised by a bunch of jokers, so I got smart to those stunts pretty early. At summer camp, first-year boys were forever being sent off after a left-handed monkey wrench. All the staff were in on the gag. The poor kids were sent all over camp.

Some kids never figured it out. Far easier were the demands for a piece of rugged shoreline, a can of elbow grease, and polka dot paint. I once tore the label off a can of axle grease in the tool shed, made a new one – “Elbow Grease,” – and bore it innocently back.

Robert Pike, in his wonderful book of logging history, Tall Trees, Tough Men, describes a really lovely joke. Most crews have a young hotshot whose physical prowess sadly reminds the older guys how long ago they were like that. So as they trudged through the winter woods and passed a hairy yellow birch – the kind you don’t see any more – somebody would say, “By god, sonny, I bet you can’t climb all the way to the top of that tree and back down in three minutes!” As soon as the climber was up into the top, a man down below would touch a match to the curly bark at the bottom, producing a perfect philosophical dilemma in the branches above.

Many professions have many esoteric terms, so it’s easy to dupe novices. On a ship, where the chronometers used to be wound with a special key, you sent a swabbie off after “the key to the starboard watch.” Once in the woods, I was dispatched for a crosshaul. Surrounded by pike poles, fids, peaveys, pulp hooks, and picaroons, who knew? Anyway, I never found it.

Buz Caverly, Superintendent of Baxter State Park in northern Maine, snowshoed several miles with his crew to a campground to cut firewood. Their chain saw wouldn’t start. Buz turned to the greenhorn.

“That battery must be dead. Ralph, run down to the gate camp and pick us up a spare chain saw battery, will you? Ought to be one in the tool shed.”

Ralph was off like a shot, and he was gone a very long time. Whether he figured it out that day or much later, it doesn’t matter. I just hope he passed it on.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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