By Bernie Suttle
It was 1939 and I was going to start grade school where, as my mother said, “You will learn something new everyday, and meet many nice children, just like you.”
The first part was OK but I didn’t know about the second part because I was sure there was no one like me and I wasn’t interested in finding out I wasn’t the center of the universe. I’m not going to tell you all about my impressions of going to school. I’ll tell you that later. But I will tell you about one part that made me begin to doubt my superiority and invincibility; that was lunchtime.
Forty or so of us would gather each noon under the big, oak tree at the picnic tables assigned for our class, outside, of course because this was the eternal springtime that was California. Under the guiding eye of our teacher we would uniformly wait with our lunch boxes in front of us until given the word to open them up and eat.
It was around this time and place that I began to have doubts about myself, my family and my mother, all caused by my lunch and my lunch box.
The first thing that caused my insecurity was the shape and configuration of my lunch box. Mine was truly box-shaped like three books piled on top of one another, in color not masculine black or dark forest brown but light, wimpy, urine green like the ones girls had and not like the ones our fathers had. Fathers’ boxes were rounded on top so that a thermos bottle could be smartly snapped in place. My lunchbox let the thermos role around freely, smashing sandwiches into paste. Those with the manly boxes were smug in their superior equipment.
Sometime during the first week of school, when removing my thermos from the box, I heard sounds similar to the tinkling of an off-key music box. It’s beyond me, but every year I’d end up with a defective thermos and no matter how carefully I handled it, it would break. Then at home I’d get yelled at and told I wasn’t careful like my sister and that I wouldn’t get to have a thermos until next year when I was older and more responsible. I would thank God that I was free of the thermos and milk mustaches for the rest of the year.
Then there was “trading or swapping,” mostly instigated by girls, where there was an exchange of items between lunch boxes, usually with much giggling: fruit for cookies, carrot sticks for a cupcake, a sandwich for a fried drumstick. This scared me. I knew that if I ever traded even one thing from my box and my mother found out (and she would) her blue eyes would tear up and then I’d probably have to go to confession. The food erudition of my mother and the economic straits of our family saved me from this.
My lunch had two sandwiches made of brown bread (good for me) and home made strawberry jam. The jam would bleed through the bread and the strawberries, squeezed out with every bite, would try to escape by sliding out the edges of the bread. I’d end up with dark, red, sticky fingers, palms and wrists, not a tactile delight. Two of these sandwich globs were put in a singular, brown Helm’s bread wrapper and placed in my box at the peril of my tinkling, rolling thermos. Others had individually wrapped sandwiches, with crispy lettuce leaves, roast beef, cheese or ham slices between virginal snow white bread with all hint of crust removed.
One day, when unwrapping my sandwich glob, Jerry Bride, wrinkling his nose and staring at my sandwich asked, “What kind of funny bread is that?”
“It’s Healthy, Helms Brown Bread. It’s good for me.”
“It looks like fur. Do you have to eat it?”
You can see why I never got into “lunch swapping.”
Sometimes in life we don’t know something is really over, done with, until there is an outstanding event that makes the finish totally clear.
This happened to me one day when I was seated across from a girl. We were eating our lunches under the big Oak tree. I don’t recall the subject but it was a serious conversation. It was for me at least because I didn’t usually have anyone, let alone a girl eating lunch with me. I guess the word was out that I was the boy who was eating fur sandwiches with blood dripping from his fingers.
Her sympathetic blue eyes moved continually between my eyes and my hand holding the notable sandwich. Suddenly her eyes swung to the left side of my head where, simultaneously, I felt a splattering impact that began to slide down my head just in front of my left ear. I reacted by putting my hand there.
Big mistake. I then knew I was the unwitting recipient of the deposit from a bird. Inexperienced with such an incident and wanting to be “cool” I asked if she had a napkin I could use. She didn’t scream in horror or break out in derisive laughter, but handed me a paper napkin from her lunch box; then she excused herself and moved to another table.
I knew then for sure I’d never be able to expect to trade lunches with anyone. All were aware of not only what was in my lunch box but also what had been on my head.