Childhood Memories -- a story by Colin Kelly

Memories from when we were children can influence our lives... and those of our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sometimes it takes a while for the message to get through...

One of the best things when I was younger was sitting at the dinner table hearing my mom and dad talk about their day, and telling them about my day. Even better was when my grandad would visit and the stories he would tell about when he was a kid. Most of his stories were funny, about funny things he and his friends would do, or funny things that happened to him, and all had a moral which, I now realize, was aimed at me. Now, in retrospect, I am certain that the humor in his stories meant more to me than their moral conclusions. But it's the moral conclusions that I still remember.

I’m going to tell you one of his stories, one that I’ll never forget. Sit back and hear my grandad’s story the way he told it to me some years ago, in October, 2000. To get the most from this story, let’s go back into the past and pretend that we’re sitting at the dinner table with my then ten-year-old grandad and his dad, my great-grandfather who was telling this tale, in Los Angeles in October, 1949.

“It was about a week before Halloween that my dad, your great grandfather, Colin, told what was, for me, the most memorable of his stories. I remember the details the same as if he had told it last night, instead of over fifty years ago. It was, for a ten year old boy in the sixth grade, hilarious. It is now, these many years later, that I realize he was telling me something, a moral that he hoped I would understand. Here’s his story, as I remember him telling us at the dinner table.”

“It was 1921, and I was fifteen years old and in the tenth grade at Franklin High School in Los Angeles. School dress codes and rules of deportment were more restrictive in those days than today. The former principal at Franklin had become rather lax about enforcing those codes and rules as he approached retirement, and students, us boys in particular, had become what was called ‘sloppy in dress and deportment’.

“A new principal had taken over at the beginning of the school year, and he and his staff had decided to do something about this situation. Clark, one of my friends, worked in the office one hour a day (they called it ‘commercial studies’). He saw a copy of the proposed regulations and told us about them during lunch that day. The rules for boys included no short pants; belts or suspenders were required and pants had to be worn at the waist; shirts had to be fully buttoned including at the collar and tucked in all around at all times; shoes had to be black and polished; socks had to be worn with shoes and kept pulled up; hair had to be cut trim and neatly combed at all times; caps could not be worn in the buildings; no slingshots were allowed on campus; anyone caught roughhousing would be sent home and had to bring a letter of apology signed by their parents upon their return the next day; and lots of other things like that. We considered these rules to be draconian. It was typical of the new principal, who was a no-nonsense taskmaster who all of the students, boys and girls, disliked intensely. We spread the word about the new regulations and all the kids were in an uproar about it.

“The new principal decided to have a meeting of his staff to plan the announcement of the new regulations, and Clark found out that it was going to be right after school on the next Monday, which was Halloween.

“We got together to talk about what we could do, and decided there really wasn’t anything that we could do that would change things. There were going to be new regulations, we weren’t going to like them, and that was that. As we talked about it, Art said we should pull some sort of prank since they were meeting on Halloween. We talked about doing things like blocking the doors to the cafeteria so they couldn’t get out after the meeting, or setting off a stink bomb, and many other overly complicated and impractical actions.

“Will said he said he had an idea. His father was a pharmacist, and because he worked with his dad in the drugstore he knew about a chemical, phenolphthalein, that would make people’s pee a bright violet color. Will said it was a liquid, and he could filch a bottle from the drugstore and his dad would never notice. We decided that this would be a great prank. The only question was how to get them to take it since Will said it was supposed to have a slightly bitter taste. Clark said that the principal always had the cafeteria staff make coffee for his meetings, and coffee was already bitter so no one would notice that phenolphthalein had been added. Will said that no one would be hurt by it since it was something the pharmacy sold people and it was some sort of medicine. We thought that would be hilarious, and we talked about how the principal and his staff would react when their pee came out bright violet color.

“So we put the plans into place. On Halloween afternoon Clark, Will, Art, Joe, Frank, and I snuck into the cafeteria kitchen after school. The kitchen help had left for the day, and the principal and his staff hadn’t arrived yet. The coffee was percolating in a big urn, and it took just a few seconds for Will to empty the bottle of phenolphthalein into the brew. We snuck out and all rushed home so we wouldn’t be around when the meeting started. That way they’d never know who did it.

“Will didn’t know that phenolphthalein was sold as a powerful and very fast acting cathartic. It doesn’t take much of a dose to rapidly cause uncontrolled diarrhea, and the quantity put into the coffee was much more than needed to have that effect on the principal and any his staff who drank the coffee. It turned out to be quite a mess, as people couldn’t get to the bathrooms fast enough. Clark heard about it from the cleaning staff, about the scene in the cafeteria, and we were all ashamed about what we did. We were also scared that we’d be found out, but the cause was attributed to something they ate, or that was in the water used to make the coffee, since that sort of thing was not unknown in Los Angeles in the early 1920’s. The result was that we never talked about what we did with anyone, including each other. Until now.”

“Colin, I guess the moral of my dad’s story was something like ‘don’t do anything you’ll be sorry for later’ but that was lost on me. My only thought was that his story was just about the funniest thing I’d ever heard, and the next day at school I told all my friends. They, being typical ten and eleven year old boys in the sixth grade, also thought this was a hilarious story. We began talking about how we could get some phenolphthalein, but soon gave that up since none of us has a father who was a pharmacist or who would have access to anything like that chemical.

“However, Dad’s story, which I told my friends Jay, Norman, and Gary, with perhaps the tiniest amount of embellishment, did get our imaginations running at top speed. Halloween was on the next Monday, and we were ready to go, and not only for the treats that we’d collect, but for a few tricks, which we called pranks, as well.

“We lived in Highland Park, the same part of Los Angeles where my dad had lived in when he was growing up. It is a very hilly area, and the hills which run mostly east and west have steep slopes. So houses could be constructed on those hills, the city built roads that ran along the ridge tops, with cul-de-sacs that extended down off each side of the ridge top roads, until they had to end because the slope became too steep. The cul-de-sacs were mostly short, typically having three to six houses on each side and one or two at the lower end.

“Mondays were garbage pickup days in Highland Park, so we had the fodder for what became one of our favorite pranks: rolling empty garbage cans from the top of a cul-de-sac so they’d clatter down to the downhill end and, if we aimed them just right, onto the lawn or even the porch of one of the houses at the end. It seemed that there were always several empty garbage cans available to us. And these were genuine garbage cans, made of tinned steel and a lot smaller and lighter than the fancy plastic trash cans we have today, and much noisier when rolling down a hillside cul-de-sac. Of course, the garbage can rolling was only done after we’d gone around to all the houses and collected our candy and cookies and popcorn balls. We’d run far enough to still see the result and hear the rude comments of the homeowners.

“Where there were empty garbage cans but no downhill street where they could be rolled, they were used in another prank. We’d light a string of firecrackers, drop them into an empty garbage can, put on the cover, and run to where we could see the results. The noise was loud, and for kids our age, wonderful. The steel that garbage cans were made from was thin, so the exploding firecrackers made a wonderful cacophony that would cause people living in the immediate area to come running out to see what was going on. This would be followed by the usual yelling and rude comments.

“I’d always thought of myself as a good kid with lots of friends, who did well in school and obeyed his parents, a nice boy who always did the right thing. Now that I remember some of the pranks that I’d pulled with my friends, especially at Halloween, I’ve come to realize that maybe I hadn’t always been such a nice boy when I was growing up. My folks never knew about what my friends and I did when we’d go out trick-or-treating at Halloween. I never told them, and they never heard about them from anyone else.

“We never did anything like what my dad and his friends did, but the things we did weren’t very nice. By the time I was twelve I could remember the most common rude comment we’d get at Halloween was ‘little hooligans!’ By then I was embarrassed by the pranks we’d pulled, and I guess ‘little hooligans’ is exactly what we were. Maybe the moral of my dad’s story finally sunk in, even if it took a couple of years. And I think we turned out all right, my friends and I, just like my dad and his friends had.

“So, Colin, I guess the moral of my story is: ‘When you’re young, it’s hard to learn from what others have done; sometimes you have to learn from reflection about the embarrassing things that you have done.’”

Those stories that my granddad told me have stuck with me. And I did listen, and I did look for the morals in each of his stories. And I am certain that I’ve learned from them, and without the reflection about embarrassing things, things I have not done. Thanks, Grandad!


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This story and the included images are Copyright © 2008 by Colin Kelly (colinian). They cannot be reproduced without express written consent. Codey’s World web site has written permission to publish this story. No other rights are granted.

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