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Punishment la Mode

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The last time we raided the cafeteria was also the most perfect. As it turned out, our only mistake was our generosity.

It was winter at the academy, one of those unnumbered days of February when the snow on the ground is a month old, and dry, broken stalks of corn in the fields beyond the river rattle on the frozen crust, while meandering corn husks scud and roll across the campus to catch against the wallowing snow fences.
That February the wind was persistent, but the sky remained unchanged. The broken clouds were the same, day after day. It was the time of year when a mug of hot chocolate sounds better than a dish of ice cream. That’s something else I don’t understand—why ice cream?
Why a cafeteria raid in the first place? We were seniors. Spring would come, and with it, graduation.
Could it have been the weather, the ancient snow, the hidden lawns? Perhaps, but already the Wisconsin winter was tired, and inside the buildings were warm fluorescent lights and steam on the windows.
Were we misfits? We were in love. At least I was.
Degenerate? Our most immediate response to petty thievery when discovered in freshmen and sophomores was pity more than disgust. Why it happened I don’t know, but here is what happened.
I was working for the maintenance department. Our job that frozen afternoon was to defrost the cafeteria’s walk-in freezers. We broke slabs of ice off the shelves and walls and carted the chunks out in a wheelbarrow. I forget whose idea it was, but it worked. We put a layer of ice cream on the bottom of the wheelbarrow and concealed it with freezer ice. We wheeled a month’s supply of Nutty Buddies, Eskimo Pies, and Fudge Bars past the supervisors, through the kitchen, and out the cafeteria door.
We cached the loot in a snowbank and made plans to pick it up that night. Our mistake was a classic one: we flaunted our plunder. On the next trip I threw two sherbets to the sweaty-faced freshman girls scouring pans in the back corner. The girls caused a scene and were discovered.
When we denied there was more, Mr. Lindner, head of maintenance, handed us a shovel and pointed to the snowbank. “We’ll see,” he said. “Dig.”
My second scoop came up loaded with Nutty Buddies.
“Yes, Mrs. Fahrbach. Like playing pirates,” said Mr. Fischer, the principal. He held the phone in a distracted way. “Stealing.”
The 4:30 sundown froze away behind his head, and the fluorescent lights now seemed harsh. The office had the immaculate flavor of an operating room. Mr. Fischer swiveled his chair, covered the mouthpiece, and looked
across the desk at me. “She’s crying,” he said. “Does that make you feel good?”
He held the phone away from his ear and waited for my mother to recover. “Yes, yes. No, I’m afraid we cannot allow that. I’m sorry.”
And so I was expelled. I left his office, packed a suitcase, and two hours later left the academy on a night bus for Chicago. Goodbye, Beth; goodbye, friends; goodbye, choir practice and basketball; goodbye.
I took an empty seat on the bus and pretended to sleep. I had not even had an answer when Mr. Fischer asked me why I did it; I had shrugged my shoulders. Mr. Fischer took this gesture for insolence, but it had been an honest answer. Why was beyond my reason; I had no explanation.
It was during a long layover in the Chicago bus station that I had a startling experience. I had just bought a Nutty Buddy. With the cone in hand, I sat down at one of those coin-operated television sets and picked up the middle of a movie about a pair of bungling jewel thieves. I did not miss this connection; neither did I take it seriously. I had left the academy as something of a hero, and I was determined to relish what benefits I could.
I was just beginning to enjoy the cleverness of the thief when someone grabbed my arm and twisted me out of my seat. When I turned to assert myself, I looked into the face of a Chicago police officer.
“Where’s the stuff? Give me that cone.”
He threw the ice cream under my seat. “Turn around.”
“What? There’s been a mistake.”
I noticed several people staring, and the mother of the boy sitting next to me pulled her son away from his television toward the restrooms.
“There’s some mistake, I think, sir.”
The officer had opened my suitcase. “What’s all this?” He placed a stack of shirts on the floor. “Where are you going, young man?”
The suitcase was full. I had packed as much as I could, and there was an embarrassing miscellany of pictures, socks, bookends, and birthday cards—the necessities of dormitory life.
Then the officer removed my transistor radio disguised as a Sears catalogue. It was against the rules to have radios in the dormitory, and we had many ways to hide them. The police officer opened the book, and out tumbled my precise assemblage of speakers, wiring, and batteries. There was a snicker from an onlooker.
“What do you do, boy? I think you better talk to me.”
“Isn’t this illegal, sir?” I asked. “I don’t understand; something is wrong.”
There began to stir within me a tremorous longing for the comforts of Mr. Fischer’s office: the cushioned chair, the clean floor, the family portrait on the wall, the bookcase filled with academy yearbooks and volumes of Ellen White’s writings. Why had I been so disgusted with the golf putter Mr. Fischer kept in the corner, a friendly token of community? This Chicago police officer failed to connect with things I understood; he lacked tradition, and I missed it.
Before an explanation was necessary, the incident was stopped by another officer leading a suspect in handcuffs. There had been a mistake. As the arrested man passed, I looked at his face, and for a second our eyes locked. And to my horror, he winked.
The officer left without apology, and I stuffed my belongings back into my suitcase as best I could and walked outside. The streets were cold, but there was sweat on my back and neck. I walked fast, and by the time I was chilled, I was across the street from the Sears Tower.
I spent my last three dollars and took the elevator to the top of Chicago. The observation deck was dim and quiet. The night was clear, and below, the lighted city spread into the distance, flat as a table. The great dish of Lake Michigan lay black, silent, rimmed with lights, and on every side stretched away the homes, streets, and neighborhoods of people.
As I looked off the west side, a woman, obviously alone, showed me where she lived. “We live near the park on Ogden Avenue,” she said. “One block south. I just came up here to see it.”
I nodded, and we looked down into the lights.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Wisconsin,” I said. “Well, Michigan now.”
“Oh. Our house is yellow.”
I chose a view and sat down on the floor. There was heavy traffic on Kennedy and Dan Ryan. Airplanes came and went at O’Hare. The jets drew up into the night sky and flew west, then east. Los Angeles, Tokyo, Milan, New York. Below, a tiny police car with flashing lights sped down the avenue. The car passed and turned toward the Loop. I experienced the thrill of a bandit whose hideout has been overlooked by the sheriff’s posse.
It had occurred to me that being expelled from academy was, in effect, the same as arrest and confinement here in Chicago. A community had acted to remove a threat from its midst. And now my identity as a threat had been confirmed by the cheap, unsought thrills of escape and the sly wink of a bus-station criminal.
What bewildered me was how I had managed to place myself on this side of the law. A vague suspicion came over me that maybe life could be a serious thing, and that one did not have to go far to discover things one did not understand.
Much later when I left, the woman from the yellow house was still glaring out to see where in the world she was from. With the city of lights, it seemed the stars had all fallen on the plains of Chicago. A butterscotch moon hung over the suburbs.
I could see my father was serious as the midnight bus approached the bus-stop café in Berrien Springs. Mother stood close beside him, and as the bus came to a stop, he removed a comb from his pocket and ran it through his hair, a sign of nervousness.
Their eyes avoided the bus windows, and they looked unprepared to meet their wayward son. This became obvious as I stepped off the bus. Instead of greeting me, Father asked the driver whether the roads were icy and told him to drive carefully. Mother, for her part, embraced me, a tissue clenched in her hand.
Father and I fumbled over who would carry the suitcase; then we moved toward the car. Conversation changed subjects erratically but covered the silence. No one mentioned the academy. They told me the neighborhood news. Kimberly had moved away; Johanna had wrecked her brother’s truck; last week there had been a shower for Amy Dennis.
It was late, and as we passed through the neighborhood, there was only an occasional glow of a television or bathroom light in the homes of these neighbors. Was it because of the late hour that these dim lights, along with my mother’s gossip, struck me as particularly remote and inaccessible, or had I truly been cut loose from community?
We turned in the driveway and went into the house. Houdini, our dog, greeted me joyously and without reservation. His naïve enthusiasm was a comfort, and I scratched his ears in return.
I thought we would say good night, but Mother poured us each a glass of milk, and we sat down at the kitchen table. An explanation was in order.
“Well, its good to be home,” I began.
“Oh, really?”
“Why don’t you tell us how it is you happen to be here?”
“It was an accident, Mom. Well, we had a perfect plan.”
“You accidentally planned?” No humor hid behind her voice. “Dan, we can understand pranks, but stealing? It just isn’t right.”
“We weren’t exactly stealing.”
“No?” said my father. “What do you call it these days?”
My mother said, “Didn’t you have enough food to eat?”
“It was just ice cream,” I said.
“Ice cream, ice cream.” Father paused, and I thought, We all scream for ice cream, but he said, “Life is not a bed of roses; it is not a dish of ice cream. You will learn that. Stealing.”
We finished our milk and prepared for bed.
As I was brushing my teeth, Father came in and told me they loved me. He said, “You’ve caused us some trouble, but your mother and I are glad you’re home.” But even as he spoke, he looked in the mirror and pulled a comb through his hair.
Downstairs in my room, the desk lamp glowed, there were fresh sheets on the bed, and the electric blanket was on high.
The next day I enrolled in the local day academy, and two days later took a job at a nearby restaurant, the Family Inn. My responsibility was the ice-cream counter. The Family Inn offered 29 flavors of ice cream set in small barrels behind a glass counter. I had not expected such a sudden test of character.
The bus ride from Chicago had been the proper time for resolutions, and I had set about to bring some order to my life, a hint of maturity. At the top of my list was the decision to stop eating ice cream. I set up this device to serve as a measure of my sincerity. Thus my new job was difficult. I dipped double dips of walnut, Butter Brickle, and raspberry ice cream, and resisted. But sometimes in the afternoons after school, when outside the wind blew on the highway and there were flurries of snow, business would be slow, and often the room would be empty, and then there would come the delicate smell of orange (or was it lime?) sherbet.
It was not habit that drew me to the counter to peer into the various barrels of colored ice cream; it was a naked desire for a mouthful of that cold, melting flavor. As the weeks passed, my appetite was honed and edged by the discouraging situation at school. The social order was fixed, and the friends I knew from before had changed. I was the new kid in the middle of the year. Because I had been expelled from another school, I drew attention that I neither enjoyed nor felt I merited. Letters from Beth became shorter, and the news from the academy I understood less and less.
I began going out with a tall, vacant girl from American history class. Her personal history was indefinite. She was new at school, and from the East. Someone had told me she had written for Rolling Stone, but when I asked her, she said it was not true. We spent lunch hours in her car driving to the river and into town. She came to the Family Inn at closing time and had a cone. Wishing to keep my ice-cream resolution but happy for the company, I would pour a glass of milk and join her. Later I made up milkshakes. This bending of the rules disgusted me, and when she began seeing a boy from the high school, there were no more milkshakes, and I hardly missed her.
This small, pointless struggle would have likely continued through spring, and who knows how long, except for the following series of events. First, clearly and in an outright manner, I broke my resolution. Second, I returned to
Wisconsin Academy. Third, for the first time in my life I understood that choice is the child of forgiveness.
I broke the resolution in a predictable enough way. The Rolling Stone writer had been gone for a couple of weeks, and outside the restaurant, winter gave way in its most tiresome way: a continual rain pelted the last fossilized
snowbanks. An afternoon customer who had ordered two dips of mint chip changed her mind and wanted only one scoop. I placed the unwanted ice cream in a dish, and when the woman left and the ice cream softened, so did
I; I was helpless.
The ice cream was even better than I remembered. I finished the mint chip and tried the butter pecan. Then straight chocolate. My reform had failed. I licked the spoon. As with the cafeteria theft, this failure was unintentional. My actions were deliberate, yet nonetheless beyond reason.
It was on the very day of this miserable episode that I received an offer to return to the academy. When I got home from work, Mother handed me the latest issue of the academy paper. And there folded between the Senior
Spotlights and sports column was a letter from Mr. Fischer.
The offer came as a surprise. Mr. Fischer’s mercy had never seemed an active part of his makeup. The letter said that Wisconsin Academy would be happy to have me return and graduate with my class. No doubt I would stay out of trouble. The school paper said baseball season was starting next week, that the girls’ open house had been a success, that graduation was 42 days away.
I called Charlie at the Family Inn and quit my job. I told my parents. “Good,” they said. And although they already knew about the letter (Mr. Fischer had called, no doubt), they were, nevertheless, relieved. Mother teared, and Father
touched the bald spot on his head.
Father said, “It’s up to you. Do you see? This time you decide where you will go. You decide what you will do. A second chance.”
That night I awoke in the middle of a rainstorm. The window was open, and damp air brushed my forehead. I could smell the leaves and spring. And outside my window, the collected rain from the roof of this house, my home,
splashed in the downspout.
I got back to the academy in time for the annual spring picnic. It was a grand day. Mr. Fischer officially suspended classes and work assignments at morning chapel. With that, the students and faculty marched outside into a perfect day. We took our meals on the spring lawns. Clusters of games started on the playing fields. A flock of long-tailed kites sailed up on a warm breeze until they were mere specks above the fields.
In a late inning of the junior-senior softball game, I looked toward the infield from my position in center field. Behind the backstop, students and faculty watched the game from colored blankets on the hillside below the dorms.
heard cheers and laughter. Mr. Fischer’s voice barked from behind the plate as he called a strike. It was late afternoon, and the low sun warmed my sunburned face.
“Good pitch, Ronnie! Let’s go!” I yelled. The wind had dropped, and the kites
were reeled in, wobbling on the last shallow breezes like bright fish. This scene was full of color, and I found myself waving to my schoolmates, the teachers, the buildings, and the kites. I waved both arms. A scattering of arms waved in return. Then there was a crack of the bat, and an easy fly ball floated out of
the infield, paused in the sky, and fell into my mitt like a gift.
After supper when the cafeteria began giving away free ice cream (Nutty Buddies, Dilly Bars, and cones), there was no problem; I was full.
This story originally appeared in the October 14, 1980, issue of Insight. At that time Dan Fahrbach was a writer living inAnacortes, Washington. In 1981 he joined the staff of Insight and served as editor from 1982 to 1985. Currently he is working with the Jessie F. Richardson Foundation, a nonprofit in Clackamas, Oregon, to pilot a caregiver training program to improve the health and well-being of underserved older adults in Nicaragua.
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