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Volume xviii, Issue 13 ~ Apri 1 to April 7, 2010

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The Art of Practical Jokery

A shaggy dog story

Practical joking was a popular sport in my family.

It wasn’t practiced at the NBA level of Gilbert Arenas, but it was, like high-finance basketball, a men’s game. My father, Gene Martin, and later my husband, Bill Lambrecht, were the jokers.

My mother, Elsa Olivetti Martin, and I were the butts of the jokes.

Of my father’s long list of jokes played on my mother, one stands out.

In the 1950s, our St. Louis restaurant, The Stymie Club, prospered. So new cars came into the family every couple of years. For himself, my father bought Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles. For my mother, he bought Fords. Nice Fords.

Around the middle of that decade, Mother picked up her best friend, Virginia Dalton, in the newest Ford convertible. Both women had worked their way up from poverty, married compatible business partners and eventually owned flourishing restaurants of the sort they’d waitressed in for many years. Both were shapely and fashionable. Both dressed well, in different day and night outfits, for double shifts at their own restaurants most days.

When they took time off, day or night, they’d visit somebody else’s restaurant, and eat, drink and visit away a couple of hours. For this spring lunch, they’d dressed in suits, hats and gloves and good costume jewelry — plus not a little bit of the real thing. They were expecting to see people they knew and have a good time.

The afternoon met their expectations. But as they were driving home, with the top down and savoring the feel of summer, the skies darkened, and a big wind wooshed up.

“Elsa, we better stop and put up the top,” Virginia said.

“We don’t have to, Ginny,” said Elsa. “Gene got me an automatic convertible. When the first drop of rain hits, it rises on its own.”

They returned home drenched, and forever after Elsa told that story to illustrate Gene Martin’s key character trait: “He has no conscience,” she said. “He doesn’t care what he does to you.”

Elsa got the last laugh on that one. For all her friends and family already knew the moral of the story that Gene Martin told at her memorial service — to illustrate how gullible Elsa had been.

Mother and I aspired to jokery. We just couldn’t score.

She labeled herself as having no sense of humor; one of her proofs was that she no longer read newspaper funny pages — though the reason she’d stopped was that Gene Martin, who read them and anything else with print on it, had laughed at her for doing so.

The label wasn’t accurate. In my mind’s eyes, she’s often crying with laughter at a joke somebody else — often Gene Martin or Bill Lambrecht — told.

“You know, Elsa, that fish I caught was so big that the picture of it weighed three pounds,” Bill might say. “Is that true?” Mother, an avid fisher, would ask. “Or are you teasing me?”

More accurately, Mother meant she couldn’t pull or tell a joke. So I still remember the April 1 she fooled me. I was about 10 and was searching for ruses I might try when her shout shocked me with terror. The dogcatchers! They’d captured Fuddy Duddy, my sweet-tempered, wire-haired mutt with the curly pug tail. Oh mother! I wailed, all in a dither, till Mother triumphantly proclaimed April Fool!

Like mother like daughter, I love a good joke. I’ve never succeeded in telling the two or three jokes I adore (one has to do with a bottomless sedan chair) because I break down in helpless, roll-on-the-floor laughter before I reach the punch line.

But every few years, I score an April Fool success.

Sandra Olivetti Martin

editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com

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