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The Greatest Practical Joke Ever

Story ID:3058
Written by:John Ward (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Biography
Location:Rome Italy
Year:1974
Person:The Ghost of Saint Gregory
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The Greatest Practical Joke Ever

The Greatest Practical Joke Ever

The Greatest Practical Joke Ever

The Greatest Practical Joke Ever

The Greatest Practical Joke Ever

I have shortened this short story a bit, because I think the task of ploughing through it all seemed daunting to some. I hope this is a more acceptable version.

In 1973 I found myself renting a room in a 16th century monastery in Rome, Italy. I was a student at John Cabot international College and living what would become the best years of my life. The monastery was run by a Catholic Priest called “Don Anselmo.” He was a stern, but fair manager with a heart of pure gold. His second in command, “Don Paolo,” was a half-wit. The other priests and monks kept to themselves for the most part, except for one who was never able to make up his mind about whether he wanted to be a man of the cloth or not and would vacillate between the rectory and the cheap prostitutes at the Baths of Caracalla which were about one kilometer away from the monastery. One might wonder why the church gave him such leeway, but he would repent and, since the Christian faith is built on the concept of repentance, atonement and forgiveness, he was always given the benefit of the doubt.

All through 1973 and 1974 I enjoyed living at the monastery and because I lived amongst Italian students exclusively I became fluent in Italian very quickly. I was 20 years of age and I was paying the equivalent of $50.00 a month for a large room on the second floor of this enormous old monastery.

The monastery itself is built as a large three story square with a courtyard in the middle. The ceilings are very high, as befit the architectural style of the era. One side of the square is enclosed by the Cathedral of Saint Gregory and the other three sides contain the cloistered area, the library, the dining areas, the kitchens, storage rooms, bathrooms and the rooms that are used by priests, monks and students as sleeping quarters. Just a short walk due North of this monastery is the Roman Coliseum, to the West is the Palatine Hill, to the South West is the Circus Maximus, and due South lie the magnificent “Baths of Caracalla.” As you can imagine, this was a wonderful location to be living in the eternal city.

The Cathedral of San Gregorio al Celio was built in the Middle Ages over the house of Pope Gregory I. The edifice runs from the North West to the South East with the courtyard off to the South West. The church is entered in front by means of a wide staircase rising from the Via di San Gregorio and the architecture matches the typical Basilican plan, which consists of a nave divided from two lateral aisles by 16 antique columns with pilasters. Just above the church entrance is the organ loft with a five tiered brass-pipe organ intricately carved out of wood. On the opposite side from the entrance is the ornate altar.

In addition to the main entrance at the front of the church there are three entrances from the monastery at the side of the church. Two enter the church at ground level; one from the North West wing and one from the South West wing. The third enters from the cloistered area on the upper level of the North West wing. These entrances are important to the story as there was a lot of entering and exiting during the hoax.

During the summertime, from June to August various student groups from all over the world turn up to study in Rome. Many of these groups stay at San Gregorio for a few days before going on to places like Cortona or Firenze. The rooms are available, because most of the Italian students have gone home to other Italian cities for summer vacation. Those of us who remained for the summer of 1974 were unceremoniously moved out of our rooms into far less attractive storerooms and our rooms were rented for the princely sum of $50 per week to the traveling foreign students.

Students came from every country in the world and if one played one’s cards smartly, one could date a different girl from a different country every night! Playing one’s cards smartly meant a short period of restraint when the first groups arrived. There were always a plethora of attractive girls in each student body, but you had to wait until the night before that group was due to leave, so that the next night would not be restricted by the possessiveness of the first girl you took out! Waiting those few days was agonizing as none of the students seemed to have packed any morals with their possessions. They were thrilled to be in Rome, away from the repression of their home towns and up for anything.

I was in the very fortunate position of being the only bi-lingual person staying at the monastery and I would be called upon to translate the regulations to the groups and translate any requests they might have of the priests. During all this translating I was the center of attention and I got to examine the “talent” in each group. I was also working on a career as a singer/song-writer and had all the romantic accoutrements requisite for the role: guitar, long hair, promotional pictures, performance dates, etc. This gave me a leg up on the other Italian students and I exploited it to the full.

On one occasion a group of students arrived from Oregon in the United States. The Italian boys called me to come and see and I was astounded. I had never seen such healthy, fit and generously endowed, Amazonian women. Looking at these women one got the impression that there must be beautiful mountains and valleys all through Oregon. The Italian students wanted to be introduced and so I did the honors, but I noticed that there was a pair of blonde sisters and their tanned, dark haired roommate who seemed to be more interested in me. I, in turn, found them very interesting in a purely topographical way and suggested we explore this mutual interest while I gave them a tour of the monastery. Their attention was quite flattering, so I showed them around and impressed them with my amazing grasp of their personal beauty and charm.

During this group’s sojourn I decided to play a practical joke and so I called some of the Italian boys together and laid out my plan. I let slip the rumor through the monastery that every night, right at midnight, the organ in the cathedral starts playing and the ghost of Saint Gregory walks down the nave. Serendipitously my good friend Roger Haas was in town and had an enormous abscess on a tooth which caused his face to be swollen, disfigured and frightening looking. When I asked Roger to play the Ghost he was overjoyed.

Later that day the three Oregon women found me and said they had heard a rumor that a ghost walked in the cathedral every night with the organ playing and could I confirm or deny. Mustering my most credible face I said casually: “Oh yes, that. Well it’s true, I’ve seen it myself. He materializes from his relics in the room next to the altar and then goes into the church.”

“Well, we want to see it too, can we go?” They asked,

“Oh certainly, just be there before midnight and you’ll get a look at him” I announced disinterestedly.

“Come with us. You know what to do, you come with us…” they pleaded.

“Oh, I’ve seen it a million times, besides I have something very important to do tonight, but you go, I know you’ll enjoy it.”

Later some of the Italian students asked trepidatiously: “Giovanni, what if they get terrified and scream? We could get into big trouble.”

I calmed them and said I would take care of it. I went in search of the girls and found the roommates in their room discussing the coming night. I said, as casually as I could: “Oh by the way, the ghost has never harmed anyone, but it does get very disturbed if any noise is made, so be sure you are very quiet…”

“Oh we will, don’t worry…” they assured me and I went off to continue preparations.

To find an outfit for Roger we dug through a store-room of discarded, cream colored, hooded monks’ robes that probably belonged to old monks who had died and been buried in the adjoining cemetery. We found one that fit him well and went to the church to rehearse the joke. Roger was to come out of the secret room beside the altar after having “materialized” from the relics of Saint Gregory located just above his marble throne. He’d then walk to a spot in front of the altar, turn left and walk slowly down the nave barefoot and with bent knees to give the impression that he was floating. His hands would be in the opposite sleeves and at the end of the nave he would have to go behind a confessional and wait until the coast was clear. I got into the organ loft, watched him and timed his blocking, while he practiced, until I had a fairly good average time. The rehearsing was done during the afternoon and we all planned to meet that night at about 11:45 p.m. to get ready for the show.

At 11:30 p.m., I carried my stereo into the organ loft with a Bach album that had the Toccata and Fugue in D minor on it. The church was very dark and I began to wonder if I would be able to see Roger at all. I was just making sure there were no scratches on the record when three Georgia Tech college students arrived and wanted to be a part of the hoax. They were in Rome studying the architecture of the Vatican and I had been translating some of the books and articles they’d had to read. I said it would be alright but they must be very quiet and play along no matter what happened. They moved to the other end of the organ loft and stood quietly waiting in the dark.

At 11:45 p.m. precisely I saw the door from the monastery on the south west side of the church open and the cream colored figure of a hooded monk walk towards the secret room. The Italian students, Emilio Brandimarte, Paulo Picciuchi and Ugo Rossi, turned up at the door to the organ loft, came in and took their positions beside the Georgia boys to wait for the show.

At about five minutes to twelve the girls came in the same door Roger had used, but they made their way into the nave and over to the north east side. They had a single, thick, church candle to light their way. Since it was too early for the ghost to appear they decided to go into the adjoining chapel, behind a curtain where there were beautiful frescos to be seen. At twelve they came out from behind the curtain and moved towards the north east rail facing the nave.

After a brief pause, to allow them to settle down, I dropped the needle on the record and turned the volume up. The powerful blast of a pipe organ filled the dark interior of the cathedral and the girls exhaled in shock, blowing out their candle, the only source of light in that entire church! I strained to see the nave and catch any glimpse of Roger playing his ghostly role, but I could see nothing. As I stared into the gloom the door to the organ loft opened, light flooded in from a single 50 watt bulb outside the loft and there stood Don Anselmo, the head priest!

“Che succede qui?” he demanded.

“Niente Don Anselmo” said I, ushering him out of the organ loft. “There are three American students in the Cathedral; we are just trying to give them a scare…” I said in Italian.

He looked thoughtful for a second and then said: “Va bene…” I turned immediately and re-entered the loft.

After closing the door and with my eyes now used to the dangling amber bulb outside the organ loft I could see absolutely nothing at all. The frightened Italian students seemed to have traded places with the Georgia students, one of which tapped me on the shoulder and pointed. Don Anselmo had re-entered and was looking stern again. Once again I ushered him out and asked: “Che?”

“Who is playing the organ?” he asked.

“Nobody - it’s my stereo.”

“O, Va bene alora.” I swear: as stern as he looked, that man was marshmallow on the inside.

I re-entered the loft and stood close to the door, straining to see the nave, when the door opened yet again! I was sure this time that the light coming in had framed my silhouette against the balcony of the loft and the joke was ruined. I asked in a whisper: “Che c’e?” Don Anselmo appeared to be looking for something and I realized he was looking for my stereo. I pointed it out to him saying “Lo vede?” and he said “Va bene” again and left. At this point I was convinced the con was up, because of the intermittent amber light that came into the loft and probably revealed me up there, but just on the slim chance that it wasn’t blown I decided we would play it out.

Of course, by this time I was sure Roger had made it to the confessional and ducked behind it, so I waited for one of the many breaks in the Toccata and Fugue, cut the volume to zero and lifted the needle.

There was about one full minute of absolute, breathless silence. I thought the girls had either fainted or left. Then we heard the sound of a match scraping and being dropped and then another until a third succeeded in staying alight. They finally got the candle lit with trembling fingers and started to make their way across the nave towards the door through which they had entered. Suddenly I was frightened! The girl in the middle held the candle, but the two on either side of her were doing the walking, supporting her under her arms as her feet pumped in some semblance of walking, but dragging behind. She looked paralytic!

I left instructions to get my stereo out of there and ran through the cloistered area to the South West end of the monastery. I couldn’t afford to be caught anywhere near the production. I was just descending the stairs from the third level, when the girls rushed up to me. They looked like they were in shock. They spoke excitedly and simultaneously with the result that I couldn’t understand a thing they were saying. I said: “slow down, slow down, one at a time.” The girl in the middle just babbled incoherently, but eventually the other two slowed to a pace intelligible to normal human cognition and described their experience to me.

“We saw it!” They exclaimed “The ghost came out of the dark and towards us. We were standing behind the railing on the far side of the nave and he came towards us and stopped and stared right at us!” I could see Roger, in my mind’s eye, milking it for all he was worth with his grotesque abscess distorting his features and his head covered by the cream colored hood.

The other barely coherent one exclaimed: “He was floating a foot above the ground!” The third said something that sounded like “Huffneva segah humanna…” The first one looked at her with concern on her face and then turned back to me continuing: “He turned away from us and floated down the nave to the front door where he just disappeared into thin air!!!” I could imagine Roger walking, knees bent slightly, to the end of the nave and slipping behind the confessional.

“And we know who is playing the organ!” the second one shouted.

‘Oh no, that’s it’ I thought, ‘the jig’s up, they know what went on.’

“Oh?” I asked casually, “Who’s playing the organ?”

“The Devil!” she shouted.

I asked: “What makes you say that?”

“I know that, because every time he hit a loud note, the organ pipes lit up red!”

I could not believe our luck. All the amber light flooding in because of Don Anselmo’s curiosity had actually helped us perpetrate the hoax! I was so glad not to have given up at that point and went to tell the Italian boys what had happened. On my way to their room I bumped into Roger and said: “That was great! You did a great job they are totally convinced they saw the ghost of Saint Gregory!”

He looked at me with his grotesquely abscessed face, confusion wrinkling his brow and said with difficulty: “That wash tonight? I thought we were rehearshing for tomorrow…”

I stood looking at him for a few seconds and a chill ran through me. “Roger, weren’t you just down in the Cathedral dressed as Saint Gregory, floating around scaring the Oregon girls?”

“What? Thish afternoon I wash… you mean tonight? No man I wash here wif Tim talking about guitar leshonsh. You mean that wash shupposhed to be tonight?” He asked again.

The hair on my neck bristled like the spears of a miniature Roman Legion. “Roger, are you saying you were not down in the Cathedral dressed in your robe playing the ghost of Saint Gregory?”

“Yesh, I just shaid sho, I thought we were putting it on tomorrow night. Why, what happened, what’sha problem?”

I walked off in a daze. What in the name of all that’s holy or unholy just happened? I went to my room and suddenly, I thought I heard a voice! I did, but it was only Paolo Picciuchi.

“That was great,” he said at my door, “they’ll never suspect huh?” He looked at me and asked: “Che c’e? Ti senti bene?” I must have looked ill.

“Paolo, you saw the ghost no? I mean you were there and we saw Roger playing Saint Gregory, right?”

“Si, si I was there and I thought I would die when Don Anselmo came in. Did they see Don Anselmo?”

“No,” I replied, “they didn’t…. Paolo, I think I need to lie down now. Let’s talk more tomorrow.”

“Va bene, ci vediamo domani” he said and walked out closing my door behind him.

As a result of this practical joke, there are three women in Oregon who have seen, with their own eyes, the ghost of Saint Gregory, and one man who will never be sure. I think I hate Roger.