Wednesday, April 01, 2009

I play the fool

Is it April 1 yet?

Something was jammed in my mail box in the university math department break room. I bent down to take a better look. A sorry-looking old football had been wedged into it. When I pulled it out, the ball plumped up a bit to an approximation of its normal inflated dimensions, but it was obviously not up to full pressure. I fished out a memo or two that were also in the mail box, tucked the errant football under my arm, and started down the hall to my office.

I was in a curious sort of academic limbo in those days. Although I was no longer a graduate student in the doctoral program, I had been hired by the department chair as an instructor. I was still hanging out with my friends in the grad program, but I was now quasi-faculty. It wasn't a bad job and I knew some people were hired year in and year out as lecturers, making it possible for the real faculty members to do as little teaching as possible. That kind of insecure year-to-year employment didn't appeal to me for the long run. I had other plans. In the fall I would be leaving for a job with the California legislature, a prospect I regarded with mixed emotions.

The first former classmate I met in the hallway said a cheery hello to me and remarked, “Great idea, Zee! Count me in!”


I reached the door to the stairwell and started the ascent to the next floor. A grad student was pounding rapidly down the steps. He gave me an unwelcome but friendly punch on the shoulder.

“I'm on board, Zeno! Definitely!”

Weirder and weirder.

I exited the stairwell at the next landing and started down the corridor. This was TA territory and my office was on its periphery. The occupants of my former TA office whooped as I went by.

“Hup, two, three, four!” they cried.

Oh, right. I had a damned football under my arm.

I was not particularly amused. I stashed the football in a desk drawer in my office and put it out of my mind. Later that day I returned to the mail room. In those days before e-mail, it was possible for important things to show up in memos written on actual paper. Still, I was surprised to see several slips of paper in my box. They were the torn-off bottom halves of a mimeographed form that had been tucked into the grad student mail boxes early that morning. I tracked down the top half in the wastebasket. I instantly recognized the style of a former office partner, although he was pretending to be me:
Date: April 1, 1978
Subj: Math Dept Intramural Touch Football Team
From: Zeno Ferox, interim lecturer

Wouldn't it be a good idea for the math dept grad students to join the fun and form an intramural football team? I would be willing to serve as the manager and my former office partner, who has experience with high school JV teams, has volunteered to be the coach. If you're interested, tear off the form below and leave it in my mail box. See you on the gridiron!

To anyone who knew how little I cared for sports, it was an obvious over-the-top hoax. Of course, that was also its charm. And hadn't I been seeing walking the hallways with a football tucked under my arm?

The grad students cheerfully joined in the fun and pretended to believe that I had solicited them to join a campus football team. They filled out the forms and tucked them into my mail box. And here's what the form said:
Please indicate how you would like to participate in our new math dept intramural football team by filling in the appropriate information. Would you like to be

a linebacker?

Height: _____ Weight: _____

a cheerleader?

Measurements: _____-_____-_____

a tackling dummy?

IQ: ______

There were a couple of other items, too, but I forget. The prank itself, though, will never be forgotten.

And the old football? The friend responsible refused to own up and so never reclaimed his ball, which was evidently an artifact of his younger days. The ball sits today as an odd souvenir atop one of my many bookcases. On the rare occasion when someone spots it, the old story gets retold.

April Fool, Zeno! You're a football team manager now!

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