(If you’ve never read or heard me tell my hilarious story about the hairy catfish, here it is. And I promise it is all true!)
Patrick had an easy smile and a winning way about him. He was easy to like. But his Achilles heel was his gullibility. Not that being gullible is a bad thing. As a matter of fact it can often be an endearing quality.
However, for a pair of pranksters like Jim and me, taking advantage of a gullible person is something we simply cannot resist. The summer that Patrick began working with us, little did he know what he was getting himself into.
Patrick enters our office with his usual broad smile.
“Have you all ever seen someone feed their pond-raised catfish?” He asks, his eyes dancing with excitement. “I was at Glen’s this weekend and he took me out with him when he fed his fish. It was amazing! The way they come to the surface and gobble up the feed they look like pirhana!”
Jim and I concur with Patrick’s description, having both seen the same display in the past.
Then, without a change in expression or tone, Jim asks Patrick, “Did you see any hairy catfish?”
I cut a quick glance at Jim and see a small twinkle in his eye.
Patrick, on the other hand, is befuddled. “A what?” he asks, thinking that perhaps he has misunderstood.
Jim calmly goes on, “Hairy catfish. They are unusual but occasionally you’ll see them around here.”
Patrick tries to treat Jim’s comment as a bluff. “You’re crazy! I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
But you can see in the back of Patrick’s eye the doubt that comes from being gullible. So he turns to me to help get some confirmation of his position. Clearly he turned to the wrong place.
“Jim’s right. They are more common the closer you get to the Mississippi River, but I have seen some around here.”
Patrick protests, “My dad and his friends are always fishing and I’ve never heard them talk about hairy catfish. You guys are just pulling my leg.”
Jim dismisses Patrick’s protests with, “You can believe what you want.”
Nothing more is said about the issue in the ensuing days, though Jim and I share an occasional chuckle about Patrick’s almost believing us.
Three weeks later Patrick comes in and the first thing he says is, “I went home this weekend and talked to my dad about hairy catfish and he says there ain’t no such thing.”
I can’t help but think what his dad must think about his son who considers hairy catfish being a possibility.
The key to a good practical joke is stringing the person along the narrow line between plausible and impossible. I can’t help myself. I have to see how far we can take this thing.
“I’m not surprised Patrick.” I say. “Has your dad ever fished any ponds or lakes close to the Mississippi?”
Ah, there is the faint flicker of doubt in Patrick’s expression that I’m looking for. He can’t help himself either.
Jim chimes in, “It’s not like they are hairy all over like a dog. They just have a little hair. So sometimes people don’t see it.”
Patrick tries to appear resolved. “I just don’t believe it.” But it is clear to Jim and me that he is on shifting sand.
A few days later Jim and I are fishing. It is a slow day on the water. Suddenly I get a tug on my line. I raise it up and there is a small catfish, about twelve inches long. Normally we throw those back, but as soon as we see it we look at each other and say, “There is our hairy catfish.”
Another thing about a good practical joke is that it takes on a life of its own. Neither Jim nor I have ever talked about “making” a hairy catfish. We hadn’t intended to take things that far. But when we have the perfect specimen virtually dropped in our lap, we decide to take things to another level.
I agree to take the fish home and freeze it whole until we can figure out how to create our “hairy catfish.”
As the alignment of the planets would have it, the ideal prosthesis presents itself the next week.
Jim’s attic has become infested with a family of flying squirrels. These creatures are small and cute and don’t mind being around humans. These qualities are fine until 3 a.m. when they start doing calisthenics and creating more noise than a marching band. In order to save his marriage and sanity, Jim declares war on the critters.
(At this point in the story PETA people should probably stop reading.)
Jim places traps and poison in the attic. His efforts are immediately rewarded.
He comes in one morning and hands me the tail of a flying squirrel and says, “This is for our hairy catfish.”
In case you aren’t familiar with the anatomy of a flying squirrel, let me enlighten you. Its tail is about three inches long and when laid flat actually resembles a feather.
We hear Patrick driving up so I quickly stick the tail into my pocket, still unsure how I’m going to use it.
That night I take the catfish out of my freezer to thaw by morning, but forget to tell my wife I have laid it in the sink. Her shriek from the kitchen the next morning gets me out of bed better than a cattle prod.
After she leaves the kitchen (her color looks a little ashen to me), I lay the fish on some newspaper on the kitchen counter. Measuring the squirrel’s tail I see it is a perfect fit, running from just above the eyes to the dorsal fin.
But how to get it to stick – that is my challenge. Catfish are as slick and slimy as the upper lip of a two year old with a runny nose.
I get my wife’s hair dryer and lay it beside the fish. Then I scrounge through our “junk drawer” until I find the hot glue gun.
As my wife is heading out the door to take the girls to school, the high pitch whine of her hair dryer coming from the kitchen causes her to pause. She peers into the kitchen to see me waving her hair dryer slowly back and forth over the catfish. She opens her mouth to speak, but I stop her.
“Just keep on walking,” I say. I am on a mission!
Once the fish is dry to the touch I put a bead of hot glue from his dorsal fin to his head. I carefully lay the squirrel tail in place and pat it gingerly.
The moment of truth comes when I try and pick up the catfish by his hair. It works perfectly. Burt Reynolds never had a better fitting toupee!
I wrap my prize in newspaper as carefully as my wife would wrap a fine piece of china. Excitement builds in my chest as I head to work.
Patrick hasn’t arrived yet and I eagerly show the fish to Jim. “Oh this is going to be good,” he says slyly.
We roll the fish back up and lay it on a shelf beside Jim’s desk.
Within a few minutes Patrick comes in, innocent as a lamb to the slaughter.
Another key to a good practical joke is to not hurry it along, so Jim and I share some pleasantries with Patrick. Then, as though, we’d forgotten about it, Jim says, “Oh yeah. We’ve got something to show you.”
Because Patrick has now been working with us a few months, he is immediately suspicious and takes a step back. He laughs nervously.
I take the lead. “Jim and I caught a hairy catfish and we thought we’d bring it to you.”
Patrick follows my pointing finger to the rolled newspaper on the shelf beside him. He makes a quick sidestep away.
“I’m tired of you two talking about the hairy catfish. There isn’t any such thing.” But he never takes his eyes off the newspaper bundle.
“Whatever,” Jim says. “But there is one in that newspaper, if you want to see it.”
“I’m not about to open that paper up! I don’t trust you two!” (Oh where has that innocent boy who came to us a few months ago gone?)
I reach for the bundle. “Here. Let me show you. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” And I begin slowly unrolling the bundle onto Jim’s desk.
When Patrick sees the catfish with its perfectly coifed hairpiece he springs backwards as if he’s seen a snake about to strike. His eyes are wide with incredulity. He leans forward to get a closer look but still keeps his distance.
“That’s not even real,” he says. He laughs nervously, looking back and forth to me and Jim.
Giving him our best poker faces, we feign hurt.
“Go ahead and touch it,” Jim urges him. “See for yourself and you tell us what it is.”
Patrick touches the fish lightly and quickly retracts his hand. Another nervous laugh escapes him.
Emboldened that the fish didn’t move, Patrick eases closer. He touches the hair. Then he gingerly tries picking it up by the hair.
Jim and I hold our breath. The hairpiece remains secured and the fish is suspended by it.
Patrick drops it and looks at us in amazement. “I can’t believe it! It’s really true! A catfish with hair! And I thought you two were just pulling my leg. That is amazing. I wouldn’t have ever believed it if I hadn’t seen it. Wait till I tell my dad!”
Jim and I just can’t bring ourselves to end the charade. With herculean effort we refrain from bursting into laughter.
We echo his amazement at the unusual fish.
I wrap the fish back up and place it in the trunk of my car. My great-uncle George and uncle John Andy, two legendary practical jokers, would be proud of me!
A couple of hours later, Jim and I go to drink coffee at the local coffee shop where the men of our town gather to gossip.
We find ourselves at a table with Joe and John. Joe, old and grizzled, is a renowned hunter and fisherman. So, of course, the conversation ends up on the topic of hunting and fishing.
That’s when Jim surprises even me by saying, “Have you guys ever seen a hairy catfish?”
My immediate reaction is to try and kick him in the shin! Playing a prank on naïve Patrick is one thing. But trying to fool these two old timers is out of the question!
John says sagely, “I’ve seen walking catfish down in Florida.”
Joe scoffs. “There’s no such thing as a hairy catfish.”
I keep my mouth shut, but Jim presses on. “We caught one the other day. It’s out in David’s trunk, if you want to see it.”
“Jim, Jim! You’ve bitten off more than you can chew this time,” I think to myself.
Joe and John say simultaneously, “I’ve got to see this.”
Like the boy who knows his parents are going to find out it was his baseball that broke the neighbor’s window, I drag myself along with them.
I open my trunk and unroll the newspaper bundle to reveal mine and Jim’s creation. I close my eyes and wait to hear the guffaws of laughter from Joe and John. When no laughter comes, I open my eyes and see them both craning their necks and focusing their bifocals to get a better look.
“That’s the beatinest thing I’ve ever seen,” Joe exclaims.
John chimes in, “Yes it is.”
They ask if they can pick it up for a closer inspection. “Sure,” I say. Why not? We’ve carried the pretense this far. How far can it really go?
They then begin speculating how such a creature came to be. John says, “Maybe it’s a cross between a catfish and a beaver.”
I have to cough hard to conceal my laugh. I see Jim wiping tears he’s so close to losing it.
Joe says, “We’ve got to carry it in the coffee shop and show it to everyone else.”
He grabs it up and heads that way without waiting for permission from me or Jim.
As we approach the door I can see that all the men are peering out the windows, trying to figure out what is in my trunk that has created such an interest. Joe walks in the middle of the crowd, scoots some coffee cups out of the way and plops the hairy catfish on a table. “Take a look fellas. It’s what they call a hairy catfish.”
No one is about to challenge Joe’s authentication of the creature, so they simply marvel at it.
Then one man in the back of the crowd says, “Oh I’ve seen those before. There’s a lot of them down in Florida.”
I just roll my eyes and think, “The first liar in this bunch doesn’t stand a chance!”