The April Fools


Pick ’em: Ross Wells, Rubber Chicken, Author

There were several stories about how the tradition began, but after at least two decades, a group of 10-20 friends still gathered each April 1st at an outdoor café in Washington, DC to prank the passerby with the wallet gag.

The wallet gag: Tie a length of fishing line to the hinge corner of a well-used billfold – 8-10 lb. test monofilament will do – and then tape the torn-off corner of a $20 or $50 bill to an inside edge, letting the number stick out plainly. The wallet is discreetly pushed out to a sidewalk. Then you wait.

We called it “trolling for suckers” and it evolved into a half-day event that stretched from lunch hour to rush hour. There were kazoos, whistles and other assorted noisemakers, a rubber chicken and a significant bar tab. When a passerby reached for the wallet, he or she came up empty-handed to a soundblast of semi-musical mockery and a rubber chicken, loosed from the awning, flopping at face level with a rope around its neck.

We had only one general rule for the afternoon. Prank only the sentient and hurt nobody. Okay, two rules. So when someone whispered “cardiac,” it meant a frail person was approaching. The wallet could stay out, but the chicken stayed in its roost and the noise was reduced to sober-like human sounds. Yes, we profiled our prospects. It was our duty as responsible adults.

So there she was strolling, a woman in her 80s with a cane, a heavy coat for the early spring chill. The “cardiac” warning had made the rounds and we waited. She reached and watched the wallet skate under the railing. She rose up only halfway and stared as the chuckles and “April Fools” calls greeted her.

But no smile. Instead she rose upright, clutching her chest. The cane tip shot up to the hem of her coat as her hands clasped together. Her face was pained. Ours too. We fell silent and jumped up to steady her.

Then she smiled. A sparkling melt in her eyes and face and a laugh that said “Gotcha.” So we breathed. Then we understood. Then we applauded. One of our ringleaders at the rail leaned over to shake her hand for a job well done. She gripped and pulled back in a start as his joke-shop hand buzzer went off in her palm. Then we all laughed together.

(A version of this post appeared originally in the April 2015 edition of AARP Bulletin)

Peaceful Transitions in Glen Canyon

(A travel story, now 25 years old. I’m inspired to post it here after a trip to visit my grown son in New Mexico reminded me how much I miss the West.)

The scenery off the bow of our 50-foot houseboat shifted slowly northward as our captain found her “attention arrested by some new wonder.” She indulged her urge to explore and “we found ourselves in a vast chamber carved out of rock.” Slowed to an idle, our boats’ wake lapped back to us from the canyon walls.

The view is of the bowl of stone and natural wonders that hold the waters of Lake Powell. The quotes are by John Wesley Powell, the Civil War veteran  and explorer who wrote more than 110 years ago about the land some 400 feet beneath the surface of the lake in southeastern Utah that bears his name. In Powell’s time, Back then, the only water here was a placid stretch of the Colorado River on its way to the Grand Canyon 75 miles south and then to the Gulf of Mexico.

Powell named the Glen Canyon after the verdant ribbons of vegetation that lined the river and poured over from the ledges and dooryards of ancient aboriginal homes. These cave dwellings of the Anasazi farmers were chiseled from cliffs vaulting hundreds of feet off the canyon floor.

With a gentle shove from the two 75-horsepower outboards, we moored on a sandy beach at the foot of a semicircle of cliffs that rose from the canyon pool about half the height Powell had seen. After lunch and a midday swim in the shadows of the August sun, the grotto narrowed to a crevice in the rock. We gathered in the wheelroom of our pontooned home to plan our voyage. In our first of seven days on the lake, we found ourselves wandering, lured by silent finger canyons off the main lake and ignoring the itinerary we had set at poolside in Page, Ariz. the day before our trip began. After the huddle, except for a consensus about visiting Rainbow Bridge, the largest natural arch in the world, we firmly decided not to decide. Continue reading

Enough ‘Emotional Terrorism’

National Journal Online

By Steve Snider
October 6, 2010

In the late 1990s, Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church posted a news release to its site announcing plans to picket the funeral of my father, Dick Snider. My Dad was a Topeka newspaper columnist for many years, writing 750-word takes three days a week on politics and local characters past and present, taking not a few pokes at the pompous and self-dealing. Phelps and his picketers were a Topeka staple for years before going national to spread their targets of hate and ending up as plaintiffs in Snyder v. Phelps. The Supreme Court will hear an appeal today from the father of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder to reinstate a $5 million judgment won against the Phelps group after they picketed Matthew’s funeral. Snyder was killed in Iraq.

My father said Phelps started targeting him for columns that chided Topeka authorities for allowing the picketers to roam the city in placard-waving packs to harass “accused” homosexuals. A newspaper profile of Dick Snider when he turned 80 put it this way: “As a youngster in Oakwood, Okla., the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross at the Snider family home, forcing one of the few Roman Catholic families in the small town to move elsewhere. Little wonder why Snider maintains little tolerance for fools and bigots.”

In that same profile, I was quoted in the family manner, welcoming the Phelps picket to my Dad’s eventual funeral, saying that at least there would be a crowd at Mass. And there was. As we drove down Southwest Jackson in the funeral limousine in November 2004, there, on the grounds of the state capitol across from the church where my parents were married and my father would be eulogized by my son, stood a couple dozen people — most with my Dad’s photo stapled on fence posts and thrust into the air along with signs like “Fag Media Will Burn” and “Dick Snider Has Gone to Hell.”

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Candidates are much like actual human beings

Campaign Message Manual

(In 1995, the Democratic National Committee asked my political and media consulting firm MacWilliams Cosgrove Snider Smith Robinson to write a series of training manuals for campaign leaders and staff. Between us, we authored and edited a half-dozen manuals on subjects from Field and Fundraising to Message and Media. Below is an excerpt from one I wrote on the subject of Messaging with a link to the full manual above in blue.)

“Despite the criticism you hear of modern elections, they are very much a matter of substance. They are won by campaigns that accomplish the fundamental and very difficult task of persuasion; convincing voters that their candidate is better than the opponent.

“Winning campaigns develop and deliver a message that communicates to voters the sense that the candidate shares their values. As the late Paul Tully, former political director of the DNC, wrote; “…a message is a limited body of truthful information which is consistently conveyed by a candidate and an organization in order to provide the persuasive reasons for an audience to choose, and act on behalf of their choice of, our candidate.”

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