Somebody had torn the screen on the boys’ bathroom window at Pistol River School. In 1980, the school was already 40 years old. The building wasn’t sagging, but to us, it felt like it was a century older than us. So little things like tears in window screens added up to big destruction on a massive scale. At first it was a little rip. And as a team, because boys can’t keep their fingers out of holes, we all worried at the nylon mesh until the hole got larger and larger. At least I like to believe this is what happened. We all had to speculate as to what really happened. Eventually there was a big hole, shaped like someone had shoved their head through the thing in order to look at the sheep field outside.
Mr. Hyde gathered up all the boys, even the ones from first to third grades, and we lost all our recesses. the girls got to play outside. All the swings, the tether ball, the merry-go-round and the monkey bars belonged to them, and them alone. As soon as lunch ended, we marched upstairs. As soon as we told the little kids to keep their grubby little-kids hands out of our desks, we crossed our arms and lay our heads down, in silence. We watched the second hand slide by like an evil keeper of our punishment.
At the end of each recess, Mr. Hyde would question us. “All you have to do is confess. As soon as you tell me who tore a hole in the bathroom screen, you may all go.”
Nobody said a word, of course. We were angry and insulted by the very idea, not that we would rat out our friends–we would gladly do this to get our recess back–but that we had done nothing to deserve it.
It was the constant topic while we ate our lunches, as slowly as possible. Nothing was more agonizing than sweaty heads on sweaty desks.
“It could have been a girl. It could have sneaked in from the outside.”
“Right,” sneered Brett. “Like that would happen.”
“Well, it’s possible. We all know none of the boys tore that hole.” I offered.
“This is true,” Brett conceded. He must have been particularly miffed because Brett never conceded anything, ever.
“Well if it isn’t the girls, and it isn’t one of us, then who is it?” said Luke.
“It might have been one of the teachers. Maybe Mr. Hyde did it, and he didn’t want to get in trouble from the school board.”
“Yeah. I can see that,” said Luke. He always believed anything.
Then Woodie hit on what might be the truth. “Maybe, it’s an outside job,” he suggested with his casual North Carolina twang.
“Who in the world would bother to come around here?” Asked Brett. “And what’s an outside job?”
“An outside job is the opposite of an inside job, you know, like in the cop shows. Someone OUTSIDE the school did it. And I know just who the culprit is! Les Walker.” He said it with a nod. His enormous shock of white hair lent truth to his argument. And all the boys nodded in silent agreement. Woodie was the brains of the outfit.
Les Walker was a guy who lived up the hill from our school, with his mom and dad. He was all black hair and sideburns, and had lived in Pistol River all his life. He sat outside the Pistol River Store with his dad, who cussed at us, as if we were a pack of demons. Les just stood there and nodded, as he he drank bottle after bottle of RC Cola. He was a few years older than my dad. When he was a baby, Ralph and Phyllis left him in a hot car with the windows rolled up, and he never recovered. He talked like a four-year-old, but loudly, each word was the honk of a goose.
One day, he was watching us play baseball, on the Walker side of the fence. Their sheep field adjoined Pistol River school. Mr. Hyde stopped our game and walked up to Les, all short, red and bristly, and said “Les, you are not to be on, or near the school property.”
So Les walked back up the hill to is place, shoulders slumped, with a bottle of cola in hand. I thought Mr. Hyde was being unnecessarily mean and I told it wasn’t very Christian of him.
Mr. Hyde just looked at me with a scaly gaze, and whistled our ball game back into play.
But our whole problem pointed to Les.
“Maybe I could talk to him,” I suggested.
“Yeah. Okay. Anything, as long as we can go back to recess,” said Brett.
Along with the Dalbys, Woodie and I rode the bus together toward Carpenterville, and we had to sit and wait at the Store, while Grandma took the rest of the kids to their homes.
So that day, after school, we kicked up gravel as we walked across the street. Les was there, sucking on his bottle of pop. His dad greeted us with a string of profanity.
“Hey Ralph. Hello Les,” I began.
“HI!” shouted Les.
“Dirty mother***” said Ralph. He drooled when he cussed because only half his face worked.
“Les, we have a question for you.”
“My name is Lesley!” he told us.
“We know. Les… Do you think you could do us a favor?”
“Mamo and papa got cows!” he exclaimed.
“Do you think you could, you know, tell Mr. Hyde that you were the one who tore the screen? So we can have recess again?”
“And sheep! I like sheep!” said Les.
“Goddamn sheep,” agreed his father.
“So, do you think you can? It would mean a lot.”
“Do you want an RC? Papa will get you one.”
And Ralph fished out a dirty sumbitch dollar, from his right front pants pocket. Les marched right into the store and handed it to Floyd, and got us two bottles. “It’s not for me, it’s for my friends!” he announced proudly.
Floyd just nodded, saying nothing. He never said anything. He would have rather been fishing.
The pop bottles were cool to touch, and were beading with sweat on that hot Pistol River afternoon. We drank them fast because the school district didn’t allow food or drinks on the bus. Grandma didn’t care, but rules were rules, she explained.
“So… What do you think?” I asked Woody.
“I think that went well,” and he nodded to his half finished bottle.
“I got no teeth!” shouted our new friend as we boarded the bus.
“That’s right! See y’all tomorrow?” Woody shouted back.
“Bye!” waved Ralph and Les. We both waved back.
It was another week before we were allowed to get our heads off the desk. It just happened one morning, at ten o’clock recess. Mr. Hyde just glared at us and said “What are you doing in here? Aren’t you going to recess?” And so we did.
I could imagine how the confession went down. Les, hair combed, and dressed in his nicest suit, had a visit with Mr. Hyde, where he told him about his friends, and how he had accidentally put his smashed his face through the bathroom windowscreen.
“My good sir, I had been trying to stop a rampaging sheep. I had him pinned against the back wall of the school, but the bugger was just too quick for me. But don’t worry, Mr. Hyde. I will make monetary restitution. With money. But I feel for the children. If, perchance you would give them leave to remove their heads from their desks? Here is a million dollars. Don’t tell papa. He would be quite cross if he found out.”
And Mr. Hyde’s eyes glimmered as he accepted the money, and then the two gentlemen shook hands and shared an RC Cola.
And that, my friends, is how teamwork and soda pop will get your recess back, every time.