Friday, April 1, 2011

Poisson Avril

The tradition of April Fool's Day dates back to the 16th century, probably in France.  Given their affectations and inexplicable attraction to Jerry Lewis, this makes perfect sense, as does their preferred nomenclature for those gulled by pranks on this day: poisson Avril or April Fish.

When I was 10 years old or thereabouts, every Saturday saw me getting up bright and early so I could race downstairs, grab a bowl of cereal and head to the family room to watch cartoons.  The newly accessible American network channels meant that I could watch a block of childrens programming dominated by animation from 7:30 to noon, where sports typically took over and I would head outside to play.  And none of that pseudo-animation crap like Professor Kitzel either, although in retrospect, the quality probably wasn't all that far behind other offerings, like Spider-Man or Rocket Robin Hood.

Just as a sagely parent will find cunning ways to work unwanted vegetables into a child's meal, so too would the networks include a number of educational or informational vignettes scattered amongst the cartoons.  I assume this was some sort of requirement, but perhaps it was just cheaper than original programming.  Schoolhouse Rock was probably my favourite, and I still crutch on it for rules of grammar from time to time.  Other snippets might focus on sports or current events or health and nutrition, but one fateful Saturday morning there was a historical feature about April Fool's Day, since it happened to be April 1st. 

It wasn't a very long segment, probably less than 5 minutes, and they talked a bit about the history of April Fool's Day, but what really grabbed my attention were the 'classic' pranks they described.

The year before, Dad had called home early in the morning, Mom put me on the phone, and he growled, "How many times have I told you about leaving your bike leaned up against the side of the house?"

It had been more than once, and I said so, and assuming I had done it again, I said I was sorry.  "Well," he said, "I didn't see it there and drove over it with the car this morning."

"Aww, no..." I started to whine, but Dad cut me off curtly.

"April fool," he said, and hung up.  I ran out and checked, and sure enough, my bike was safe in the garage.  Feelings of relief mingled with anger at being so readily duped.

A year later, the idea of payback had an undeniable appeal, so I watched intently as the featurette described lame japes like short sheeting the bed, changing the times on alarm clocks and such.  Then they got to one that was simple in execution but significant in affect, so I raced upstairs to set it up.

My parents have always had a tremendous sense of humour, and they are both very sharp, but that has never stopped them (or me, truth be told) from dipping into the shallow end of the humour pool, as it were.  Pranks and novelties were a big part of growing up in that house, and squirreled away in various corners, drawers and high shelves were a number of items of incredibly questionable taste.  Compared to these, the fake ice cube with a fly trapped inside, the innocuous sugar packet which was impossible to open, and even the venerable whoopie cushion were practically Swiftian in their wit. 

One of my favourite recollections was Mom getting eggs out of the fridge for breakfast one morning and quickly lobbing one underhanded to Dad, singing out "Think fast!"  Dad, who had his hands full of the Edmonton Journal at the time, dropped the paper, and shot out a hand to catch the egg before it hit the table, only to discover that is was actually made of plaster.  I couldn't tell you whose face was funnier, Dad's look of consternated frustration, or Mum's expression of Puckish satisfaction.  Not big laughs, to be sure, but if there are enough of them, it turns out that the volume will carry you a fair ways.

Anyhow, when my parents came downstairs, I was already at the table polishing off a bowl of Honeycombs.  Mom rarely had much breakfast, but started a pot of tea for herself, and popped some bread into the toaster.  Dad went to the pantry and got a box of Special K and poured himself a bowl.  I snuck the funnies out of the Journal (the colour comics were in the Saturday paper at that time) and kept my face down so as not to tip my hand.

A few moments later, Dad looked up at Mum with an expression of distaste and said, "I think the milk's gone off; my cereal tastes odd."

Mum nodded.  "My tea as well," she said, and began to pour it down the drain.

My moment of victory was at hand!  "April fools!" I crowed.

They regarded me with stony silence, and a look of reluctant expectation.

"I put a layer of salt into the sugar bowl!  I saw it on tv, it's a classic prank.  April fools!"

They slowly turned and looked at each other.  Mom, exasperated, poured her mug of tea out into the sink while shaking her head.  Dad looked down at his cereal, then up at me, who sat grinning, and waiting for him to reciprocate, with a "Good one, son!" or some such.

Alas, this was not to be.

Dad slowly, carefully, pushed his bowl of Special K across the table to me.  I looked up quizzically at him.

"Eat it," he said.

Thinking he was still joking, I said, "But Dad, it's got salt in i..."

"EAT IT." he bellowed. 

Please note the lack of exclamation point; this was not a shout, so much as a thunderous amplification of volume, with almost no change in vocal inflection whatsoever.

Man, I tore into those salty flakes like a dog eating a dropped sausage, pausing only long enough to tearfully apologize between spoonfuls, droplets of sodium enhanced milk going every whichaway.  And you had better believe I ate the whole thing.  I can't recall if he suggested I drink the milk from the bottom of the bowl, as was (and remains) my custom, but I'm pretty sure I did regardless.

I don't think an April first goes by that I don't think about that morning, but it still makes me laugh and think of my parents.  My pranks these days tend to be somewhat more low key, and don't usually require me to sort salt from sugar afterwards.

1 comment:

  1. I loved Professor Kitzel. It was just a warm-up for the rest of the cartoons. If I ended up getting up too early, all that was on was "University of (on?) the Air" Which I watched with a bowl full of sugar-basted Cheerios. The sludge at the bottom was the best.
    On another note, I hate April Fools. I'm not a fan of pranks in general, and considerably less so when I'm the target.