As a child, I never pictured myself as a two-bit petty flimflammer sitting in the hoosegow. Yet, at the unripened age of 9, there I was, doing hard time in the Fox River Grove jail.
How does a future cowboy/spaceman/ballplayer wind up in the dark shadows of suburban lawlessness in the 1950s? Let’s follow the sad trail from innocence to incarceration …
Up to that point, the only trouble that had found me was when I accidentally burned down my grandfather’s garage with my homemade flamethrower. Then there was the time I put bubble bath in the neighbor’s outdoor water fountain. And the tree rope snare that caught my dad as he was carrying groceries to the house.
Not to mention the numerous broken windows, the canned whipped cream nitrous oxide propellant experiments or when I was caught red-footed making paint tracks on the driveway.
Be that as it may, one would be hard-pressed to predict that these misdemeanor brushes with impish misdeeds would lead me to one giant leap for delinquency. But, alas, thus was the path I chose.
It happened when I was in the fourth grade. I would always stop by my friend Larry’s house to pick him up as we walked to school together. We were both skinny whippersnappers who were forever out to one-up the other, and it would be this rascally competition that sparked our prepubescent crime wave.
Each morning, as we walked along the sidewalk on Route 14 to school, we would pass Earl’s Newspaper Store.
We cared little about the news, but this store was the mother lode of penny candies, from Bulls-eye Caramels to Atomic Fireballs to Root Beer Barrels.
But it was the morning newspapers left outside the store on the metal stand that caught our attention, followed by the tin cup on the top shelf, full of pennies and nickels and dimes from customers getting their papers before the store opened … unsupervised, unprotected, innocent loot just calling our names, which, by the way, were soon to become, according to our friends, Baby Face and Pretty Boy.
In an instant, our hands were in the cup … the cold, hard cash slipping through our fingers into our pockets like gold nuggets into a gunny sack.
The world stopped spinning, as we couldn’t wait to cash in on our heist.
But the world suddenly started spinning again as we turned and saw Earl standing behind us, hands on his hips, his lips curled into a snarl that would make Dillinger quiver.
He grabbed us by the collars and yanked us down the sidewalk to the next building, which just happened to be the police station.
Our heads spun as the police chief hurled us into the cell, slammed the door and walked to his desk. Throughout this whole episode not a word was spoken to us. It was like death by mimes.
Pretty Boy and I just stood there, staring through the bars of the cell, wondering what our last meal would be.
“Baby Face,” my friend said, “I guess this is it.”
“Yep, Pretty Boy,” I sighed. “There ain’t no escapin’ The Rock.”
Then we both looked at each other and burst into tears.
Eventually our parents sprung us. It was classic Fox River Grove tough love, and it worked. I didn’t steal anything ever again, except for several stolen glances at Wendy Little in science class when I was in seventh grade. But that was love, and even a former baby-faced hard-timer deserved a chance at that, right?
• Michael Penkava taught a bunch of kids and wrote a bunch of stuff. If he had to choose his last meal that day, he would have asked for a Swanson TV Dinner, Pik-Nik Shoestring Potatoes, Hostess Snowballs, and wash it all down with a Nehi strawberry soda. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.