Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Birthday Surprise
I told this story to a friend the other night, and he suggested I write about it. He said surely the statute of limitations has run out. I hope so.
I was always the youngest in my class, and was also big for my age. Because of my size and the small number of kids in the school, I participated in sports and “social activities” with kids several years older than I. I always felt kinda proud of that fact. Dad, not so much. He pointed at my grades that slipped when basketball season started my freshman year, relating that decline to my spending so much time with the older kids after practice and in the evenings. Several of the boys had cars or had access to a car, and driving up and down the short streets in Harrold was a big deal back then. Grades didn’t seem as important at the time as having older friends that included me in their evening forays.
My after school job at the store included keeping the liquor shelves stocked. I would do a count of each brand of whiskey and wine, then go to the basement and fill an order to restock the shelves upstairs. We tagged each bottle with a stringed tag that named the brand and listed its price on it. When a bottle was sold, the tag came off and was hung on a nail, and the brand and number of bottles sold was recorded at the end of each day. It was an efficient way to reconcile the total sales each month.
My fifteenth birthday was coming up, and several of my older “friends” thought it was time I had a taste of booze. Hey, if they thought that was the thing to do, I was for it! How to get something to drink… they looked at me, waiting for me to realize they wanted me to get a bottle for us from my “stash” at the store. No way, I wasn’t going to steal something from my own dad! No, we wouldn’t steal anything, we would pay for it, they said. We would just be bending the law by drinking underage. I didn’t like the idea, but the more they talked, the more they put their arms around my shoulders, friendly-like, the more I started thinking it wouldn’t hurt anything, just this once.
We planned the deed down to the last detail. I was alone at the store for an hour each evening so Dad could have supper (being underage and running a store that sold liquor, I was already breaking the law!). It was December, so the caper would take place under the cloak of darkness. The boys would drive up the alley behind the store, knock on the back door, I would bring the booze, (we had decided on a gallon of Mogan David wine), to the door and they would give me the money. They would take the bottle and wait for me to get off work in a few minutes. It worked like a charm. The handoff was made, the tag hung up, the money was put in the register, and a few minutes later, Dad came back to work. I tried to be casual, taking my time putting my coat on and ambling out the front door, starting for home before ducking and running around the side of the building, imagining the taste of the “forbidden fruit” that was awaiting me on my fifteenth birthday with my friends joining in the celebration. I was brought back to reality when I came around the building and saw my “friends” driving away with my bootlegged bottle of booze. I can still hear their laughter as they drove out of sight.
I was crushed. Not because I wanted to drink, I secretly didn’t, but because my “friends” weren’t really the friends I thought they were. Or, maybe they did me a big favor. As I moped my way through school the next day, I realized both of the boys were absent. They were home “sick”. Apparently celebrating my birthday without me was a little too much for them to handle. Years later, I began to realize that those two boys unknowingly did me a big favor. My fifteenth birthday party taught me about friendships and taught me to follow my own instincts. It also taught me crime doesn’t pay!
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A short essay by Justin Tupper, Vice President, United States Cattlemen’s Association