Of great hoaxes: An April Fool's Day remembered
April 1, 2001
There is great temptation in an April 1 publication date. Should I try to take advantage of the opportunity? There I was staring into an almost blank screen, scratching the cover of an almost blank mind and pondering "to hoax or not to hoax." That, indeed, was the question.
I was poised to take the less noble path into an elaborate quagmire of deceit and deception. And then a still, small voice riveted me. From somewhere in the deepest recesses of awareness I got the message "you don't have the skills to fool anyone but yourself." And placing temptation solidly behind me, I moved into another direction.
Perhaps the single best hoax I've personally seen was planned and executed by a college classmate. His name was Karl. We met in 1953 as freshmen at the University of Florida. The class was "adaptive physical education" for the physically impaired.
Karl and I became graduate Gators in 1957. He went on to become an international newspaper and magazine writer. Lived on a houseboat in Brussels or maybe Amsterdam. He reportedly died about fifteen years ago. The story was he fell or was tossed off his boat into a river or canal. Those of us who knew him remain both credulous and dubious.
Why was this believable? For starters, life was a continuing adventure for Karl. He was not a guy destined to die in some prosaic way. He liked making news even more than he liked reporting it. But on the other hand, if anyone ever staged a disappearance it would have been Karl.
And what were we doing in physical education for the lame and halt? At that time regular physical education was required of all entering male undergraduates. The very first semester included nine weeks of boxing. Karl had a slight limp and the folks doing the screening wouldn't let him box.
As for me, I needed the boxing class. In high school I had lost more fights than any two of my classmates. But alas, the screening protocol included vision. My PE teacher was not politically correct. "Scaggs, half-blind guys shouldn't box."
Karl and I quickly concluded we were misplaced. However, it was too good an opportunity to coast for us to challenge the system. So we agreed to take the cowardly path and not improve our skill as pugilists. Clearly not a loss for the fight game.
My tenure as a Gator was more conventional than Karl's. I hung with basketball players, Greeks and law students. Karl was cosmopolitan and intellectual. He hung with international students and the revolutionaries to be. I tried to wade in the mainstream. He explored the entire world of the university. In short, he was as unconventional as he was bright.
The mid-1950s were a time of intense anticommunist fervor in the nation and on college campuses. We Americans had awakened from World War Two to find our Russian ally was really a "comrade." As Winston Churchill noted an "iron curtain" divided the European community.
Soviet rocketry was meeting with greater success than our faltering space efforts. The Reds were kicking our tail in the "war for space." American science and engineering were under siege. The Cold War was part of our daily news fare.
And on our college campus, the student newspaper of that day was The Florida Alligator. Housed in the basement of the Student Union, the Alligator was truly a student publication. During that time the Alligator was a twice weekly publication.
Can you believe the University of Florida had a championship level chess team? It's true. One of my eccentric friends was a nationally ranked chess player. He roomed alone. Kept a huge chessboard on his upper bunk. He would sit yoga style before the board and ponder chess problems for hours.
On Tuesday The Florida Alligator announced that the Gator chess team had accepted a challenge from a touring Russian chess team. It seems the tour was sponsored by the United Nations as part of a program to open cultural exchange between east and west.
The newspaper reported the Russian team included world class chess competitors. The match, which featured well known Soviet chess champions Vladimir Ulyanov and Iosif Dzhugashvili, was scheduled for a large lecture hall with riser seating to allow spectators to see the boards of the contenders.
The match was held the following evening. The theater was filled with students eager to see our lads contend with these world class players.
The dour looking Reds arrived in ill-fitting wide shouldered suits. Following introduction of our guys and the ill-mannered visitors, the matches began.
Suddenly there was a commotion at a rear theater door and four men in trench coats swept down the stairs announcing themselves as federal agents. Our Russian guests were placed under arrest and quickly hustled from the room.
The exiting Feds offered no comment. The master of ceremonies left in shocked silence. The crowd was incredulous. An international incident had occurred.
Real? It only seemed so. Karl had not only created a deception, he had attended to excellent pre-hoax publicity. It was a great lesson in "because it is in print doesn't make it so." And on April 1 as we take note of flimflam artists, I remember Karl.
And no, for once I was not among those taken in. Thanks to an excellent political science teacher, I did know Lenin and Stalin by their given names.
Bill Scaggs is president emeritus at Meridian
Community College and a senior consulting editor for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at email@example.com.