Dying art? Do people perpetrate April Fool pranks in the grand style of days gone by?
Are we too serious, too depressed, too downtrodden to lighten up for one day and prank someone? It takes thought, planning and verve to pull off a great April Fool.
My father, Mike Scala, always had a trick or two up his sleeve on April 1st. His best stunt became known as the ‘miracle of the tomatoes’. He planted tomato plants in pots every year so his plants would have a great start since Chicago springs could start and stop several times between April and May. My dad and uncle argued about the best way to grow and nurture the plants. Being Italian, tomatoes were key in our diet and the two brothers had a friendly competition.
The year of the ‘miracle’ began differently. He had a series of shelves built in under the stairs leading to the basement. He’d set up grow lights to shine on every inch of the shelves onto which he’d crammed peat pots filled with rich, dark potting soil and one lucky tomato seed. Did I mention there was a priest from the neighborhood church who blessed seeds? I think he got a cut of everyone’s harvest.
What was different this year was that he’d planted them earlier than usual and he’d staked each one with a piece of green florist wood. Newly sprouted tomato plants are spindly and tender. We all thought his departure from the usual was strange but he insisted it was a new method that would yield more and larger tomatoes and yield them sooner. He explained, at great length and usually at dinner when my brother and I would sooner eat fast and get back outside to play, that he was adding special soil nutrients and using only rain water to feed his plants.
This was the late 50’s and our city water was fluoridated, a chemical that my father said delayed blossom time. He ground up bits of egg shells, orange rind, nuts, and fish heads using his ‘miracle’ mixture to amend the soil of each tiny peat pot. He added his coffee grounds and Nonna Santa’s used Lipton tea bags. The sprouts grew to sturdy little plants standing tall with the aid of the florist sticks.
On April 1st he rose earlier than usual and perpetrated the hoax. He carefully added the ‘miracle’ to each plant. My father had passed a needle and thread through cherry tomatoes he'd purchased from a market outside of our neighborhood and looped the thread around the stick allowing the tiny red orb to hang near a set of leaves giving the illusion of fruit on the vine. He added two or three tomatoes to each plant then waited for the miracle to be discovered by Nonna Santa who lived upstairs from us. We lived in a three flat and her custom was to come downstairs to have breakfast with our family. She always wore her house dress and mules and left her hair in one long braid. Her habit during the growing season was to visit the tomatoes in the basement. And this day April 1st was no different.
Her shouts of, “Miracolo. Un miracolo dalla St. Fiacre” bounced up the stairs and into the kitchen. We rushed down the stairs and stared at the sight of twenty baby plants drooping from the weight of bright, ripe tomatoes. My mother whispered, “Miracolo” and made the sign of the cross.
It was about this point that my grandmother reached for the tempting fruit and before my dad could stop her the prank was undone and he shouted, “April Fool”.
My brother and I laughed long and hard mainly at the look of incredulity then chagrin on our grandmother and our mother's faces—maybe a little at ourselves. Amid language that I couldn't’t translate my little grandmother chased her son around the basement brandishing one of her soft sided mules. Had this been later in the day she would have been wearing her daytime slippers and those hard heels were murder on your shoulders or backside.
Eventually we all went our separate ways except my grandmother. We found out that evening at dinner that she’d spent the day fooling her lady friends, Assunta, Florence and Philomena, inviting them to hurry and see the ‘miracle of the tomatoes’.
My dad never topped that prank but he did get us with other ones through the years. He enjoyed the planning and the inevitable shouted punch line, “April Fool.”