On being ... an April fool

By Ingrid Sapona

I have mixed feelings about April Fool’s Day. On the one hand, I love the whimsy of a clever prank. On the other hand, I always worry about people engaging in malicious mischief under the guise of an April Fool’s Day stunt. As well, April Fool’s makes me wary because I know all too well that innocent capers can easily backfire. (Don’t ask…)

That said, over the years I’ve enjoyed being taken in by harmless, creative hoaxes others have come up with to mark the day. For example, years ago my favourite Toronto newspaper ran a photo of a squirrel doing something particularly odd (even for squirrels). I don’t remember the details, but I distinctly remember seeing the photo, reading the explanation in the caption and, though dumbfounded, believing every word of it. I also remember feeling like a gullible lout the next day when I read that the photo had been an April Fool’s joke.

Since then I’ve had my guard up, viewing every photo and bizarre news story on April 1st as a possible hoax. To the best of my recollection, that doctored squirrel photo was the last April Fool’s the paper ran, until this year when it ran a photo of a church with a sawed off steeple. This year’s photo allegedly showed a lovely old wooden church in Newfoundland whose massive, cone-shaped steeple was lying on the ground alongside it. The caption claimed that vandals had gotten in and sawed the spire off. My immediate reaction was: Yeah, right. Ha, ha -- April Fool’s! (Come on, say it with me: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.)

The next day I asked a friend whether she had seen the photo. She said (with a remarkably straight face): “No, but I heard about it. I can’t believe someone would do that to a church.” Wanting her to know that I wasn’t going to be taken in by her playing along with the hoax, I said, “Well, they made it look pretty real -- but the paper was clearly trying to have a bit of April Fool’s Day fun.” To which she replied, “It wasn’t a joke -- someone really did that to a church in Newfoundland the other day.”

Yup – the photo was real. On March 31st someone sawed the steeple off a 116-year-old Anglican Church in St. John’s. It seems there’s been an ongoing dispute between the town and the diocese and the vandalism might have been related to that. (The diocese wants to tear down the vacant church to expand the adjoining cemetery but the town wants to keep the historic landmark.)

I had to laugh when I realized my “misreading” of the photo made me the April fool. Not only that – there wasn’t even a jokester setting me up. The culprit was my own mind and the victim was my ego. Ah well, another year until I have to worry about fake news stories or photos, I thought. But the very next week there was another incident that was so nuts I thought it had to be a belated April Fool’s Day fabrication.

The story was about U.S. fighter jets dispatched to escort a United Airlines flight from Washington, D.C. to Denver after a passenger who was caught smoking in a washroom “joked” that he had been trying to light his shoe on fire. Come on, I thought. In this era of airport screening that includes having to take off your shoes before you can even get on a plane, surely no one would be stupid enough to joke about that -- especially not on a flight in the U.S. and especially if you’re a guy from the Middle East.

But, once again, I later learned the story was true. Obviously, given that F-16s really did end up escorting the plane to its destination, I guess the flight crew (not to mention a U.S. Air Marshall that was on board) wasn’t thinking: “April Fool’s”, nor did they see the supposed humour in the Qatari gentleman’s actions or words. (As it happens, the wisecracking passenger had the last laugh: because of diplomatic immunity he got off without being charged with anything. If he had been charged, do you think maybe he’d have claimed that in Qatar they celebrate April Fool’s the whole month?)

You’re probably wondering what these two crazy stories have in common. Well, both drove home for me the role context, expectation, and suspicion play in how we interpret things we see and hear. Given that it was April Fool’s Day, when I saw a photo of something unheard of, I took it to be a fake. On the other hand, when a guy on a plane is caught “lighting up” in the washroom and then makes a wisecrack what would normally pass as ridiculous, those on board are not likely to see the humour.

So, with two weeks yet to go in the month, I say: beware the April fool. You never know who -- or what -- it might be…

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


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