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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

April Fool's never gets old
Duluth News Tribune, April 1, 2006

I've been bad on April 1. Or I used to be. I've grown out of it, which is a good thing because I work for a mainstream American newspaper.

In this country, newspapers have enough problems with reporters making up stories, and they don't go for April Fool's pranks. But the rest of the world does. British tabloids have all sorts of fun with fake stories, and it's very popular in Africa. A few years ago the Star in South Africa reported Nelson Mandela had bought the country of Mozambique. In Tanzania in 2003, the Guardian thought it was funny to report that Seattle had been nuked by North Korea and millions of people were killed. Remind me to avoid open mic comedy night in Dar es Salaam.

For whatever reason, radio stations on this side of the Atlantic seem to share that sick kind of humor. Two Boston DJs were fired, deservedly so, for reporting the mayor had died in a car crash. On a lighter note, ESPN Radio broke the story last year that Pete Rose had been declared eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sorry, Pete, just a joke.

My college paper had a lot of April Fool's fun, so much so that we put out two editions -- one in the spring and also at Halloween. There is absolutely nothing we printed I can repeat here. When I started my first job, as editor of a hospital employee newsletter, I tried it there. For one report, I borrowed a real human skeleton to pose for a picture and wrote "Three clerks missing in sub-basement of medical records." My boss didn't think it was too funny.

My best April Fool's jokes had nothing to do with the media. One was when I was in eighth grade. I had discovered our local pet shop sold catnip in a bag that looked just like -- well, uh, another leafy green substance. My cats wanted it and so did a kid named Steve. At 10:30 a.m. April 1, 1971, in the playground, at recess at LaSalle School in Chicago, I delivered. Steve was impressed.

"That's a lid!" I recall him saying of the dime bag, the going rate for which was $10. I collected and a whole group of kids who were in on it with me shouted: "April Fool's!"

The joke was over when we came back to class. I was tossing the bag from one hand to the other. "Robin, what is that?" a stern Miss Samuels asked.

"Catnip!" I said cheerfully.

"And what are you doing with catnip in school?"

"Oh, I brought it for Steve. He thought it was -"

The next thing we knew we were both down in the principal's office.

A gag I pulled 20 years later also got me in trouble. It was after the first Gulf War and I worked for a peace organization that did a lot of campaigning against American involvement in Iraq. Their tax status had once been questioned by the IRS and it was a touchy subject that I warned my boss to be careful about. Then April 1 came around.

On my layout table I cut out an IRS logo. Then I typed a letter, careful to spell my boss' name wrong in at least two different places. I pasted it all together and made a copy through the fax machine and put it in my boss's inbox.

"It has come to our attention that you may be in violation of your nonprofit status," it read. "You may avoid action by simply refraining from using your tax exempt status, or you may appeal to your local IRS office. See other side."

On the back it said "April Fool's," but my boss didn't get that far. He locked himself in his office for a half-hour and sweated bullets. When he came out he yelled "Robin!" and put his hands around my neck in a less-than-peaceful manner.

OK, as I said, I'm grown up now and I've stopped playing jokes. Besides, there just isn't time or space in the paper. I have to stop writing to make room for the report about the Bigfoot sighting on Rice Lake Road. It's on Page 18A.

ROBIN WASHINGTON is editorial page editor of the News Tribune.

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