Thursday, April 1, 2021

From the Mail Bag for April Fools Day

Dear David,

I love the idea of the prank roundup! Here are some of my favorite pranks and writing about pranks:

Feynman taking his roommates' door (this is an excerpt from his memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman), published 1985:

Many of the comic short-short stories in Saki's collections (being the pen-name of Hector Hugh Munro), including in particular my favorites, "The Unrest-Cure" from The Chronicles of Clovis (1911), "The She-Wolf," "The Open Window," "A Touch of Realism" all from Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914), and "Bertie's Christmas Eve" from The Toys of Peace and Other Papers (1919). They're a bit like P. G. Wodehouse or John Collier but with a streak of brilliant wickedness reminiscent of Oscar Wilde:

Although it is more directly inspired by Saki than by Benchley (the two were worlds apart but not entirely divorced; Benchley was influenced by Leacock, and Leacock by Saki), you're also free to include this story of mine, "The He-Bear" (attached).

I don't have links but any roundup of pranksters is of course woefully incomplete without Horace de Vere Cole, who orchestrated, among many other larks, the Dreadnought hoax as well as a party where the guests, strangers to each other, eventually discovered that their names all contained the word "bottom."


Daniel Galef


(1400 words)

The sun in her splendour shone her radiant face on all creation, thawing frozen lakes and misers’ hearts, nursing the winter wheat from the sleeping earth, turning the flowers’ heads in humble worship, and turning the back of my neck to roast beef.

I was a guest in the palatial country cottage of a Russian Countess while certain financial halma puzzles were being teased apart in London on my behalf. A simple rest cure for overtaxed nerves practically necessitated that I conduct the hassle of the trip, and force myself against my will to swallow prescriptions of Slavic sea air, the Bolshoi Ballet, and breakfasts in bed of poached Fabergé eggs.

And yet this afternoon I was not appointed in the Countess’s gingerbread villa, a glass of tea inexplicably stirred with jam in the one hand and a smartly moustachio’d hussar in another. Instead, I was stumbling through the untamed wilds of a pitiful bald little monadnock known locally as the Czar’s Pate, from which, my host assured me in the tones one might use to discreetly disclose an indiscreet item of society gossip, one could catch a glimpse of the sea.

In fact, I had already seen the sea the previous week, but I suppose the distinction arose in that from the Czar’s Pate it could be viewed from a safe distance, thus avoiding the pinches of crabs and American holidayers.

And yet I would have given all the gallimaufry and guano of the seaside my enraptured adoration in exchange for the torment I now endured in its stead—also staying with the Countess was a curly red-haired beast of a fellow who was supposed by our mutual host simply by virtue of his nation (he was German, I think, but to her all the sons of Saxony were alike in blood brotherhood) to be a perfect touring companion for me during my stay, and vice-versa. Yorick (or possibly Orrick, or York, or Ulricht) had been staying at the villa for a full week before I arrived, and it is not impossible that the Countess recommended the arrangement out of a sense of self-preservation—but to suspect that sweet old lady of such shrewdness would suggest a Slavonic capacity for torture at a degree not recognized since Ivan the Terrible.

Because I had once stolen a newspaper from my neighbor at the London Rhopalic Club, or perhaps for some other indiscretion now remembered only by my personal devil, my guide possessed, and shamelessly abused, a small Dutch melodeon which apparently permitted only two different tunes—“Ach, Du Lieber Augustin” was the first, and the second, to quote Yorick’s toothy witticism, “isn’t.” Had I the breath to retort, I might have pointed out that the first wasn’t quite, either.

My eyes assaulted by sun, my ears by the screeching squeezebox, and the rest seen to by the Sisyphean burden of my hiking-pack and the local bird of biting gadflies, I cherished the few senses I had left to me, until those too surrendered at a final onslaught by my merciless companion. Retiring for a few minutes in a small clearing that with more pleasant circumstances might have been described as idyllic (and with more pleasant company would have been ideal), I looked on in mute horror as Yorick withdrew a brown paper package from his rucksack like an Israelite priest revealing the fires of the Covenant. He had brought a string of smoked herrings for his reeking luncheon, which he unfurled as if laying out the procession carpet of some greater yet Prince of Hell.

As it happens, I do not care for smoked herrings. As it happens, some others do, chief among them being the aberration Yorick and the Russian brown bear. It was not the former hulking, hairy beast that stumbled in from the bushes at the edge of the clearing like the Turkish Knight making his grand entrance at a Christmas masque. The he-bear did not stop to offer a formal introduction, but made straight for the herrings, sniffing at the air like a ten-foot-tall bloodhound. More than anything, however, the interloper provoked uncanny resemblance to my great-aunt Lady Toopsilily, who has been known to don a fur coat of even bulkier dimensions and, at least after a certain number of flutes of champagne, lope in an almost identical manner.

The bear peeled back its black lips to bare its arsenal of teeth the size of chessmen and reared up on its hind legs to the height of a lamppost, looking hugely changed from its relatively benign appearance on the guildhall’s arms down in the village square. Even at her most fearsome, for example when she discovered the butler nipping at the port, my aunt Toopsilily did not achieve quite this level of ferocity—and, as the butler at least was still alive, albeit in a shaken and repentant state and also in Hastings, I almost wished that it were her rearing and roaring in the clearing and not the flesh-eating Russian beast before us.

The protocol for such adventures had been mentioned in passing in a penny novel I had once read set in the Canadian frontierland. “Quick!” I hissed. “I need you to unhook my pack. We mustn’t make any sudden movements. If we back slowly out of the clearing together, we run much less risk of setting off the beast’s territorial instincts.”

There came no reply, and, without taking my eyes from the beast, I tried to turn to see if Yorick had fainted dead from fright. What I saw was his hastily cast-off backpack falling to the earth as he ran at full speed through the clearing and out in an Yorick-shaped hole in the shrubs, leaving me to fend for myself.

Of course, I might have done the same thing had I been favored by fortune with such a head start. But I didn’t, and a hypothetical insult really doesn’t count for much when measured against the unmistakable reality of one.

Luckily, I am well practiced in standing very still from my days in the St. Ballyhoo College common room performing competitive tableaux vivant, and had kept my hand in after being sent down by pretending to be out of the house when the vicar came round for tea. And luckier yet, unlike anything else I had absorbed in those dim, departed days, be it Greek or green chartreuse, this talent for impersonating the statue of Nelson in Dublin had not so soon passed from me, which prevented me from resembling Nelson even further than intended by having my arm torn off at the shoulder.

After relieving our haversack of the string of herrings, the bear made a contented and leisurely path out the other end of the clearing and disappeared into the brush, leaving in his hairy wake all the bits and bobs spilt from the mauled rucksack, including Yorick’s accordion—miraculously intact in the middle of the broken, scattered supplies. Like Auntie, the he-bear’s presence and demeanor alone had constituted the bulk of the distress, and in his absence I found a sort of respect for the forthright manner in which the bear pursued his aim, without recourse to half-cloaked intimations and garden-party politics.

As Yorick had in his haste departed without his pack and thus without the benefit of our map, I set off in a direction I favored due to the pleasing coloration of the flowers along the trail. As fortune would have it, it wasn’t very long before I happened upon Yorick, eager and uneaten and sitting at the bottom of a steep run of gravel, holding his right leg. His grimace, untranslated from the Teutonic, seemed as likely to have been out of sheepishness at confronting me whom he abandoned as it was to have been out of physical pain. Like a thorough medic, though, I gave the limb a few trial blows just to be certain.

“Ah! Careful, chap! I twisted my right leg.”

“I might have gotten devoured!”

“Yes, but you didn’t. And a hypothetical injury really doesn’t count for much measured against the unmistakable reality of one. My leg will be useless, why, for days.”

I was forced to admit his argument, and reluctantly acknowledged that we were even.

When I took my leave from the Countess and Yorick the following week, holding my handkerchief to my eyes to disguise my lack of tears, he had yet to drum up the expense of a new melodeon to replace that so callously destroyed by the he-bear.

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