If you play a practical joke on someone, and he believes you, leave it at that. Never go back and tell him the truth. If you do, he’ll never believe a word you say.
I made that mistake in the first Air Force outfit I served in, the 103rd Aircraft Warning and Control Squadron. If you read this column a couple of weeks back, you know what the joke was. I actually convinced the guys in my barracks that if you spread your arms while you’re wearing your poncho, a kind of military rain cape, you could glide through the air off a second-story balcony.
I won’t go into details because I’ve already told the story. The main thing is they believed it. Well, most of them believed I had done it, but a few were suspicious. I had arranged some fairly decent “evidence” for them, mainly the absence of tracks in the snow. And people being what they are — me too — they were ready to believe the evidence of their eyes rather than common sense.
But then it snowed again and three or four guys began talking about what I had done the last time it snowed. And one or two of them sounded like they might actually try it. Well, I couldn’t let that happen, could I? If some goof had jumped off the second-story railing, from which I supposedly glided all the way over to the supply building, 150 feet away, he’d have plummeted straight down, no doubt breaking an arm, a leg, or something else he needed. So, I kinda sorta hinted that maybe, just maybe, I hadn’t really flown off that balcony.
On a scale of one to a hundred, my credibility in the barracks dropped to — maybe — six. People do not like to admit that they have been conned. And they had, remember, seen the “evidence” with their own eyes. I had rushed out on the balcony wearing my poncho, climbed up on the railing, and yelled, “Geronimo!” A minute later, when some of them strolled out on the balcony to view the corpse, I was nowhere in sight, and five minutes after that I came walking back from the supply building. There were no tracks leading to the supply building — at least none they spotted — so I must have flown there, right?
They believed what their eyes told them.
Instead of me when I finally admitted I hadn’t done it.
Frankly, I had to admire their good taste.
After that I could have told one of them his pants were on fire and he wouldn’t have believed me until the flames were charring his irreplaceables. And he would have blamed me for it!
I suppose I could have explained that I fooled them by climbing UP the fire ladder next to the balcony, and that they — being normal human beings, who rarely look up — didn’t spot me. And I could have told them that when they zipped back inside to run downstairs and see if I was lying dead in the snow down below, I slid down the ladder, ran around the back of the barracks, around the mess hall, turned back when I reached the supply building, and came slogging back through pristine, unmarked snow.
But I didn’t tell them that.
Trade secrets. You know?
So there I was, living in a barracks with 34 guys who either (a) “knew” that I had played a huge practical joke on them and was therefore not to be trusted, or (b) “knew” that I had NOT played a huge practical joke on them and was therefore not to be trusted, or, (c) “knew” that I had really flown and was keeping the secret of how to do it to myself and was therefore not to be trusted.
That’s not exactly a win-win situation.
Naturally, I had to do something to improve my credibility. And — naturally — I only made things worse.
It happened that I had read a relevant book back when I was an eighth-grader in New London. Great book! I found it in the children’s branch, a small frame building standing next to the main library, a beautiful, old-stone building which is still there.
The book was written way back in 1928 by a scientist named J. B. S. Haldane, who was one of those scientists who work hard to popularize science. It was fascinating reading for a person of any age, but for an eighth-grader who was just getting interested in science fiction, it was one very special book.
Haldane, who was a biologist, had named it “Possible Worlds,” and he had used his knowledge of science, together with a great imagination, to pack it from cover to cover with fascinating conjecture based on hard scientific fact.
“Possible Worlds” was a series of essays, each one better than the one before it. One of them was called, “On being the right size.” It talked about what a physicist would call “scaling problems,” which have to do with the fact that you can’t just make anything bigger, or smaller, keep the original proportions, and expect it to work.
For example, if you’re old enough you may remember a movie with a well-built, good looking, 30-foot tall woman in it. I don’t mind telling you the idea of a 30-foot woman boggles the male imagination. But — sadly — if you scaled a woman up to that size, her legs would have to be so thick to hold her up they would look like a pair of Goodyear blimps turned sideways.
Haldane gave an example in his book that I remembered, and I thought I could use it to show the guys that there was no way you could fly using a poncho for wings. “Look, guys,” I said, “there’s a scientist named J. B. S. Haldane who knows all about this kind of stuff. You can’t fly with a poncho. Not enough wing surface. John Haldane says that for angels to fly with wings the size they always show on them, they would have to have chest muscles sticking out four feet in front of them.”
Their answer? “Yeah, sure, Garrett. John BS Haldane. We believe you. Especially the BS part.”
Then came one of the worst mistakes I ever made. I looked over at Ross McDowell, the barracks genius, and said, “Hey, Ross. Tell ’em about Haldane, will you?”
Wait ’til you hear his answer — next week.