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My first grade criminal career

The story you are about to read is true. The names have not been changed... because it's funnier that way.

When I was in first grade, I bought a milk with my lunch every day. It seems I ate a lot of Andy Capp's Hot Fries at school at that age too, but they're not part of this story... just a memory.

The milk thing was a Big Deal™, and this is because I was entrusted with five cents to buy it — every single day — by my parents. It doesn't seem like much money today, but when you were a kid in 1970s West Virginia buying your milk at school on your own, that nickel was vital.

So, you can imagine my horror when I got to school one day and realized I'd forgotten my nickel.

The way it worked was this: you gave your nickel to your teacher near the beginning of the day, and in exchange, you got a paper milk ticket. This ticket was used in the cafeteria to get the actual milk. I didn't think much about this convoluted process at the time, but seeing it as an adult now, I understand why it was in place. It served a couple of different purposes. First, it got the money out of the hands of the kids, who were just as likely to lose it or play with it or finance Iranian arms deals with it until lunch. Second, it gave the cafeteria a good count of how much milk was being sold at each grade level. I guess the money streamed from each classroom to the cafeteria, which served as a centralized collection point for the funds as well as a distribution point for the milk. From the cafeteria, the money went somewhere else I suppose, and at that age I neither knew nor cared who got it beyond that. Maybe it was Jimmy Carter. All I knew was one nickel got you one ticket, and one ticket got you one milk.

Except when you forgot your nickel.

The tickets were printed on yellow paper and each one had the words "One extra milk: 5 cents" printed on it in that weird-smelling mimeograph purple color. I saw one every day and had a pretty good idea what they looked like. So without a nickel to my name, I had a brainstorm: I could probably make my own ticket. After all, it was just paper, and I was certainly capable of writing at that age, and I even had yellow and purple crayons, so I could make it look just like a real milk ticket. Hell, I could even imagine saving up nickels this way and maybe getting some bags of Hot Fries with the proceeds. (Maybe that's why I associate Hot Fries with this story.)

A few minutes of work, and I had a pretty passable replica of a first grade milk ticket on a slip of paper I'd colored yellow. Everything was written in a light purple to mimic the mimeograph machine. I capitalized everything properly, and I even included the colon for punctuation. It seems like I was so confident that I even added a period at the end of the sentence — the nerve of them, not punctuating the end of the sentence.

When lunch came around, I dropped my forgery into the milk ticket box with the rest, grabbed my half pint of milk, and smugly ate my lunch, knowing I'd fooled the entire school administration, the US Department of Agriculture, and perhaps even President Carter.

Later in the afternoon, somebody knocked on the first grade classroom door. In walked a man I'd never seen before, someone wearing a tie. He whispered something to my teacher, who nodded. The man then spoke, holding up my forged milk ticket. "Which one of you did this?" he said. After a moment's hesitation, I put my hand up. "You need to come with me to see Mr. Ritchie," he said.

Mr. Ritchie was the school principal, and he was not someone you wanted to trifle with. Corporal punishment was quite real back then. Mr. Ritchie had a paddle hanging on the wall of his office, and there was wild speculation on the playground about who had been dealt the business end of it. The business end of Mr. Ritchie's paddle had fire painted on it. In the back of my mind, I suspected it would actually burn you.

When I walked into his office, Mr. Ritchie sat behind a big wooden desk, and the wood was the darkest color wood I'd ever seen in my life. "Why don't you tell me about this milk ticket," he said. I looked up behind him, saw the paddle hanging on the wall, with the fire painted on the end... and I gave the man a full confession. From the moment I realized I'd forgotten the nickel, every little detail of how I made it, how carefully I'd printed. I even told him I put a period at the end because it was a sentence and it needed a period at the end.

Mr. Ritchie took all this in and sat there in silence for what felt like an hour. Finally, he stood up and said, "If you find that nickel and bring it directly to me tomorrow morning, we'll just pretend none of this happened."

This seemed like a very fair deal to me, so I promised him I'd bring the nickel to him first thing in the morning. And I did.

And... I'd like to point out that the milk tickets from that day forward read "One extra milk: 5 cents." With the period.

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