Foolery and fun

The original April Fools, legend has it, were medieval Europeans who refused to accept the calendar switch that moved the New Year from late March to January 1.

Whether just dimwitted or determinedly defiant, their example eventually galvanized global recognition of the first day of the fourth month as an international occasion for hoaxes and practical jokes.

In the ensuing centuries, April Fool’s Day pranks have been practiced by untold millions, and with the advent of mass media, there have been some real doozies.

I remember reading George Plimpton’s story in the April 1, 1985, issue of Sports Illustrated about Hayden Sidd-hartha “Sidd” Finch, a rookie pitcher with a 168-mph fastball signed by the New York Mets. The Mets conspired with Plimpton and SI, giving Sidd a number 21 uniform and letting the magazine use pictures of real players and a coach in the article.

Like thousands of others, including news directors at the major television networks, myriad Mets fans and even a couple of big league managers (who worried aloud to the commissioner about batter safety facing a hurler with such blistering speed), I missed the huge clue spelled out in the story’s opening subhead:

He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga—and his future in baseball.”

A week later, SI ran a small article announcing Sidd’s retirement, but it was a full two weeks before the magazine formally admitted the hoax.

Last April 1, 30 years after the original SI story, ESPN introduced the Mets marvel with the Tibetan fastball to a whole new generation of April Fools by airing a “30 for 30” television short on Sidd Finch.

Forty years ago today, British humor was brought to the forefront when an April Fool’s joke of galactic proportions was played during a BBC radio broadcast.

An English astronomer announced on an early morning talk show that at precisely 9:47 am, a peculiar and singular alignment of the planets would momentarily counteract the Earth’s gravity. He suggested that listeners who jumped in the air at that exact moment would experience a floating sensation. Hundreds of callers phoned in to jubilantly explain they had, indeed, experienced the phenomenon.

Beginning at the millennium, Google started a tradition of April Fool’s Day online hoaxes.

That year Google unveiled a new “MentalPlex™” feature on its home page, with a spinning hypnotic spiral and these instructions: “Peer into MentalPlex circle. DO NOT MOVE YOUR HEAD. Project mental image of what you want to find. Click or visualize clicking within the MentalPlex ”

When you clicked on the animated spiral, the search result generated one of several different error messages, including:

• Error 01: Brainwaves received in analog. Please re-think in digital.

• Error 005: Searching on this topic is prohibited under international law.

• Error 144: That information was lost with the Martian Lander. Please try again.

• Error 008: Interference detected. Remove aluminum foil and remote control devices.

• Error: MentalPlex™ has determined that this is not your final answer. Please try again.

Below the error message was a list of April Fools Day search results. It’s still accessible online. Just Google “mentalplex” for a link—and a laugh.

In the years since, Google has put forth numerous jokes and pranks each April 1.

In 2005, it introduced Google Gulp, a beverage that utilized real-time DNA analysis of the user to optimize search-engine results.

A year later Google Romance appeared on April Fools Day, offering a “Soulmate Search.” In 2008 it added a “I’m feeling lucky” button to its calendar feature, which, when clicked while adding an event, created a date with one of several film stars.

Last April 1, Google announced that after working with “56k researchers and T1 enthusiasts across the world to … reduce Fiber speeds up to 376 times by withholding photons from the fiber strands,” it was introducing a Dial Up Mode. The resulting “power of slow” would “give people an opportunity to pause and take care of the little things.”

If you haven’t logged on to today, it’s probably worth seeing what hoaxes the online giant is perpetrating this year.

Two decades ago, Taco Bell ran a full-page ad in the April 1 edition of six major American newspapers announcing that, “in an effort to help the national debt,” it had purchased the Liberty Bell. Beneath a large photo of the historic cracked bell, the ad assured readers that even though it would now be named the “Taco Liberty Bell,” the national treasure would remain open to the public.

Calls of concern and outrage poured in, including official inquiries from a couple of congressional aides.

In a lighthearted spirit that our current political clientele would do well to appreciate and emulate, White House press secretary Mike McCurry played along when questioned about the story, acknowledging an ongoing privatization effort.

“We’ll be doing a series of these,” he replied. “Ford Motor Co. is joining today in an effort to refurbish the Lincoln Memorial. It will be the Lincoln Mercury Memorial.”

It’s a day of good humor. Enjoy it as such!


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