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OPINION: Fooling some of the people some of the time

George Mathewson In 2004 a man fishing from the boat launch in Centennial Park hooked into a big fish. A really, really big fish.

George Mathewson

In 2004 a man fishing from the boat launch in Centennial Park hooked into a big fish.

A really, really big fish.

It took some time but the stunned angler eventually pulled in and landed a four-foot-long bull shark, one of the known man-eating species.

A photo in The Observer showed the guy posing on the dock with his toothy catch, and the story cited a marine scientist who explained the shark had probably entered the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River canal.

A few discerning readers noted the story’s dateline, April 1, but many did not. In the weeks and months that followed several hundred people contacted the newspaper. Some were amused and some were curious but many were downright angry, either irate about being fooled or incensed that dangerous sharks lurking off Sarnia’s waterfront would frighten away tourists.

I’ve always loved a good April Fools’ joke, and there have been some beauties over the years.

All Fools’ Day began in 16th century France when New Year’s Day was moved to Jan. 1 from April 1 by the new Gregorian calendar.

News travelled leisurely in pre-Twitter days and many people continued to celebrate New Year’s on April 1, making these poor unsuspecting souls the butt of various jokes and pranks.

Some aficionados claim the best April Fools' of all time was the Swiss spaghetti story. In the 1950s a BBC TV report showed peasants in an orchard pulling strings of dried spaghetti off of trees and laying the harvest in baskets, with a plummy British voice-over explaining that a mild winter had produced a bumper spaghetti crop that year.

The BBC was flooded with calls from viewers who wondered how they could grow their own spaghetti trees, and the network’s own director-general checked the encyclopedia to see where spaghetti comes from.

I remember well a hoax executed by the Buffalo Sabres in the 1980s. The NHL team issued a news release informing the world it was replacing its arena ice with a revolutionary plastic surface called Sliderex.

Like all good April Fools’ spoofs Sliderex was just plausible enough to ring true. Media outlets fell for it and one reported the only flaw was that a lit cigarette could burn a hole in the material.

Perhaps my favourite, though, was the news story in 1998 that reported the state legislature in Alabama had voted to change the mathematical value of pi from 3.14159 to the “Biblical value” of 3.0.

You guessed it. Hundreds of people called the Alabama legislature to complain.

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