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Tom Vartabedian

Keep this under your hat.

St. Patty's Day this year can best be marked as the time I lost my head.

From the neck up. A clean break. Kaput! Right there in a room full of 275 Irish revelers.

Two weeks before the grand spectacle, I received a telephone call from a prominent Irishman who wanted to borrow my body for a leprechaun's outfit to go with a skit they were doing.

"A little man can do big things," I said, offering my 5-foot-8-inch, 165-pound frame for a good cause. "Count me in."

I had no idea what to expect, except that I would accompany a giant rabbit named Patrick O'Hare and we would be mocking the critical issues of the day. I was to be O'Hare's press secretary and tail along with a pad and pencil in hand | pantomime-style. My actions would be my words on this day.

Since my retirement two months ago, I have maintained a low profile. Hiding in a costume would keep me invisible. Nobody would know my identity until the very end, when I would be unmasked.

"You can't tell a soul, not even your wife," said O'Hare. "You're a leprechaun sworn to secrecy."

I kicked my heels and nearly toppled over in O'Hare's cabbage patch kitchen.

This was no "small potatoes." The Exchange Club went to a costume designer in another state and rented a leprechaun costume for $100. It looked just like the character in the film about an impish evil sorcerer who terrorized the land.

A leprechaun is a mischievous elf of Irish folklore, often dressed like a shoemaker with a cocked hat and a leather apron. According to legend, leprechauns are aloof and unfriendly, live alone and pass the time making shoes.

They also possess a hidden pot of gold. Treasure hunters track them down by the sound of their shoemaker's hammer.

O'Hare called three days before the shindig and asked for a rehearsal. For a couple of ad-libbing characters, the rabbit was getting under my "hare."

"We've got to be in sync," he said. "They'll be voicing me from a narrator behind a hidden microphone and you pretend to take notes. Just act natural."

That seemed simple enough, given that I've played a similar role in real life for 40 years. But never have I interviewed a rabbit, much less St. Patrick himself. He goes back about 1,500 years and I doubt they had newspapers back then.

O'Hare showed up on the big day and I was right behind him. We stepped in a room off the main salon area where two attendants, also sworn to secrecy, were called to assist us.

Off went the pants, sweater and shirt, right down to my underwear. On came the costume that must have weighed a good 15 pounds | without the head, which came last with a mesh opening by the eyes for limited vision.

The head was attached to the body with Velcro. I not only was about to impersonate a leprechaun, but felt like the mischievous elf.

"Bring on the crowd," I said to myself. "This chump is ready."

A crowd of schoolchildren ushered us inside, and up to that point, my identity was well concealed.

An Irish band started playing and in we marched, me behind O'Hare with his arms flailing like a fanatical rabbit gone berserk. I went into a mild shuffle, too, as applause rang out.

A photographer was capturing every sequence on film. I took advantage of a Kodak moment and cocked my head in front of the lens, just for a close-up.

I leaned too far.

All of a sudden, the Velcro came undone and my head fell to the floor as I stood there in absolute chagrin. The laughter was enough to rock Gibraltar. In one fell swoop, the gig was up. My hand | er, face | had been revealed.

Now, instead of picking up my head and running for cover, O'Hare came to the rescue with a line of his own. "It pays to have a good head," he quipped.

And with that, we proceeded to do the skit with one important lesson: When being photographed, keep your head on straight and don't look the other way.

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