Herald Journal Columns
Dec. 30, 2002 Herald Journal
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Crime and punishment (abridged edition)


When I was growing up, many of my buddies had older sisters.

Although some of these friends, like Mike Schultz, Tommy Stapel, and Jimmy Thiel, argued that it was far better to have an older brother as I did, I still felt that something was missing from my life. I did, however, have something that was nearly as good. I had the drugstore girls.

Scrimgeour's Rexall Drug served as the local after-school hangout back in the 1950s and '60s. To his credit, Bill Scrimgeour had a knack for hiring the prettiest girls in town to work at the soda fountain.

The first girl I can remember behind the counter was Carol Ernst. She was followed by a succession of Westermanns ­ Bernice, Donna-Mae, and LaVonne.

The last I recall was Lois Fruetel. Bill was a shrewd businessman who understood that these girls were responsible for 90 percent of the 18-and-under traffic that came through the front door.

I loved going in to see them. If I needed someone to guess the answer to my newest riddle, or if I needed someone to show off to, they were always available.

On my evil days, I would tease and torment them until they were just about ready to throw me out on the street, but then I'd win them back with a compliment and an impish smile.

As a grade schooler, I had a crush on every one of them until each, in her turn, graduated, got married, and gave way to the next. But I paid dearly (in hard cash) for this obsession.

In addition to the five-cent Cokes and the 10-cent double-dip servings of chocolate chip ice cream, I spent a considerable portion of my weekly allowance on the gumball machine that stood next to the door.

I didn't really consider it to be a gumball machine so much as a slot machine in disguise. Mr. Scrimgeour had cleverly turned it into a gaming machine by adding into the mix of regular gum balls some specially painted ones designated as "winners."

If you got one of the winners, you could exchange it for any 10-cent treat at the fountain.

One Wednesday after school, Tommy Stapel and I blew all of our money (35 cents each) on that stupid machine without having one single winning ball to show for it. What we did have was a jacket pocket full of 70 gum balls.

So, on a dare from Jimmy Thiel, I methodically put them into my mouth one at a time, and chewed them into a huge sugary glob. When I had hit number 70, my jaw began to tire, so on a second dare from Jimmy, Tommy volunteered to chew the disgusting mass for awhile.

For the next half hour or so we took turns chewing the ugly wad of gum, totally grossing out everyone in the drugstore. And although we had purchased a certain amount of notoriety with our pennies, we still felt cheated by that darned machine. We had to come up with a plan to get even.

Thus it was that Tommy and I put our heads together to plot our first crime. The special "winner" balls in the machine were yellow with two red circles painted on opposite sides.

Our plan was to make counterfeit copies. After school on Thursday, we went over to Tommy's house, and up in his room we rummaged through his tiny bottles of model airplane paint to come up with precisely the right colors of yellow and red for our deceitful project.

First we painted seven gumballs yellow and left them to dry overnight. We didn't really want to cheat Mr. Scrimgeour, so we were only making enough counterfeits to get our money back. Oh, how the criminal mind can rationalize.

On Friday, we had to figure out how to paint two perfect red circles on each ball. I grabbed a ball point pen off the desk, unscrewed the top from the bottom, and took out the ink cartridge and spring.

Next, I took the lower tube and lightly dipped the larger diameter end into the bottle of red paint. Carefully, without dripping, I touched it to the yellow gum ball, producing a perfect circle.

I felt the devil working in my fingers. I repeated the process until we had completed seven passable counterfeits.

Rarely had we played or worked so quietly in Tommy's room for so long a period of time; that's why his mother grew suspicious and came up to check on us.

When she entered the room without knocking and spied the oddly painted collection of little orbs, Tommy and I froze.

We stared at each other until I finally blurted out, "Eyes! They're eyes for a monster we're building." She bought the lie, and we were saved, at least for a day.

Through a little slight of hand, Saturday began as an unbelievably lucky day as Tommy and I each redeemed three winners from the gum ball machine at the drugstore.

I was about to palm off number seven when God stepped in to teach me a sobering lesson about crime and punishment.

Lyle Dibb was in the candy isle near the far end of the ice cream counter when he bent over to tie his shoe. Now as you know, there is an unwritten rule among sixth graders that if one of your buddies bends over for any reason, you have to jump on him.

So I took a good run and jumped on Lyle's back. Naturally, he lost his balance, stumbled three or four steps forward, and we both crashed into the Fischer Nut display case.

This was a large metal and glass cabinet that held heated nuts of seven or eight different types. On the top level there was a round rotating tray that was heaped full of a mixed variety of cashews, Brazil nuts, pecans, and peanuts.

When we collided with it, the whole thing tipped over, spilling the entire contents onto the floor.

At the horrific sound of the crash, Mr. Scrimgeour stomped up to the front of the store and towered over us with his hands on his hips. For a moment he didn't say a word. I think he was trying to figure out which way of killing us would cause the most pain.

Then he bellowed, "Stay ­ right ­ here!" and he walked to the back of the store. I thought, for sure, he was going back there to get a shotgun; however, in a short time he returned with a broom and a dustpan.

He'd cooled off ­ a little. Then, still struggling a bit to control his rage, he said, "Boys, you just bought yourselves all of these nuts, and if this machine doesn't work, you're gonna buy that too."

Next, he dug the balance scale out of a pile of peanuts on the floor and set it on the counter. Luckily, it wasn't broken.

He handed us the broom and the dustpan and told us to bag up all the nuts so that he could weigh them and figure what we owed. It came to $17.50 apiece.

I didn't cry until I got out the door. I walked home carrying 15 pounds of mixed nuts in a big cardboard box and one counterfeit gumball in my pocket.

When I got to my room, I emptied my piggy bank of the $11 in birthday money I had been saving to buy a toboggan. Then, interspersing it with hiccuping sobs, I partially confessed my transgression to my mother. (I left out the part about stealing.)

She had pity on me, delivered a stern lecture about misbehaving in public places, and gave me $6.50 "from the money she was saving for Christmas."

Mom then told me to go back up to the drugstore before it closed to pay off my debt. I don't know what troubled her more, the fact that I had behaved so badly or the fact that we owed someone money.

For whatever reason, it really pained me to see the tearful disappointment in her eyes. I had learned my lesson, and so ended my life of crime.

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