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Published in Print: November 1, 1999, as To Catch A Thief

To Catch A Thief

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The new superintendent loved God, America, and family—and the taste of stolen goods.

It would be oh-so-easy to slip into an unguarded school and lift a few frozen hamburgers from the bloated meat locker.

The first rumblings about the new superintendent in the Nebraska hamlet where I began teaching in 1968 did not come from the mostly rookie teaching staff. Unsure of what constituted proper superintendent behavior, we toiled for several months in a state of suspended disbelief. The students, quite naturally, sounded the initial alarm. They reported Superintendent Dwight blithely wheeling a busload of wide-eyed football players into the path of an oncoming semitrailer-said semi avoiding collision only by hitting a ditch and tearing up 10 rods of new barbed wire.

His vehicular malfeasance extended to driving the school's drivers-ed car everywhere, including to the Black Hills for a family vacation, and charging the fuel to the school's credit card. That should have been a fairly strong clue that the man was a thief. However, our suspicions were temporarily diverted by the old religion-on-the-sleeve trick. Dwight was born again. And again. A Bob Jones University graduate. Said he spent most weekends praying with his family. Had the tapes to prove it.

He played them at the beginning of every teachers' meeting to put us in the right mood. The tapes had that fuzzy quality unique to the school's Korean War- surplus tape recorder.

"Now Petey, what are you thankful for?"

Petey, a 4-year-old, seldom had a ready answer. "I just don't know, Father. Do I have to? I can't decide. I never can decide."

"What about your food, Petey? Aren't you going to give thanks for the wonderful supper we had tonight?"

"But I don't like beets. I hate beets. You said we weren't going to have any more beets and then we did. Beets, schmeets. I hate beets."

"What about the meatloaf, Petey? Didn't Mommy cook it just right?"

"OK. Thank you for the meatloaf."

"Very good, Petey. Now, what else are you thankful for? How about those new Keds you got for your birthday?"

It went on like that for 20 minutes.

Our staff sweetheart, the ingenue French teacher, had been born comely but without a fuse of any length. Ten minutes into Dwight's revival-come-staff-meetings, her normal fidgets grew ever more St. Vitus-like. Legs crossed and recrossed to rhythmic gum-chewing. Out came the formidable saw to rasp and abrade her nails and everyone's nerves. Dabbing perfume on each wrist, she gave every teacher around her a languid opportunity to sniff.

Dwight carried on, of course. A full-blown typhoon couldn't upset this guy. Only when the French teacher was seized by violent coughing fits-of the "Cough-co-oh-wa-ta-bunch-a-cough-crap!" variety-would Dwight's composure crack. The wide vista of his round, highly polished brow furrowed. His squirrelly grin froze solid. The sturdy bristles of his military haircut, having stood at stiff attention through long-winded prayer, collapsed and leaned morosely against one another.

Hope, like the urgent spring jonquil, pushed its way into every sermon-weary chest. We knew that once the haircut melted he would go straight into a wrap-up mode, devoted to the announcements necessary for a smooth-running educational establishment: rescheduled basketball games, upcoming parent-teacher conferences, lunchroom waste. The latter regularly made the agenda.

"Mrs. Boom says the students are throwing too much food in the trash. We need to be on the lookout. If students don't eat all their food, they won't have a balanced diet, and they won't learn very much, will they?"

Mrs. Boom says the kids are throwing away too much food. Sounds like sensible behavior. Mrs. Boom, the school cook, transformed cafeteria food into works of art, using only cheap United States Department of Agriculture commodity food. Enjoy Oriental cuisine? You'd have loved the USDA hot dogs swimming in sweet-and-sour sauce. No cake or brownie, no matter how humble, left Mrs. Boom's kitchen without the addition of a healthy dose of USDA dried potato flakes and a rich coating of USDA lard and brown sugar frosting. But the pièce de résistance, the one that vaulted her to the dizzying heights of her profession, was her triumphal entree of USDA sauerkraut smothered in USDA peanut butter gravy.

Dwight, the only person with the temerity to sample the stuff, pronounced it delicious. Everyone else, from quaking kindergartner to audacious French teacher, scraped it off in the trash, moving quickly lest they fall under Mrs. Boom's beady gaze. She might be 80 years old, but once she got her tongue unlimbered, the woman left blisters.

No one messed with Mrs. Boom. The school board gave her budget increases every year, hoping she'd purchase edible food. Every year she proudly handed back a check for the several thousand dollars she'd saved by relying exclusively on USDA commodities. Every year, they thanked her profusely, hoping all the while for a much-belated retirement or crippling stroke. Not content with saving money on food, Mrs. Boom hauled sackfuls of her ancient, pink bloomers to school for use as no-cost dish rags. She was, in a word, formidable.

So it was surprising that Dwight took the chance of stealing food from her pantry. We can imagine he started down this criminal road with some small, insignificant act. Perhaps Mrs. Dwight had run out of hamburger on a Sunday night. Maybe Petey was bleating for his meatloaf. It would be tempting and oh-so-easy to slip into an unguarded school and lift a couple of pounds of frozen hamburger from Mrs. Boom's bloated meat locker. Easy. And stupid. For Mrs. Boom counted hamburger as thoroughly as she counted the servings of her culinary triumphs that found their way into the fragrant slop bucket. Eagle eye. Abacus brain.

Come Monday, Mrs. Boom had a crime to solve. Nobody's dummy, she decided Dwight was the likely culprit. Coming up with proof, however, would take time and good luck. Meanwhile she locked up the freezers, something she had not done in her 40 years of school chefing. Made her heart a little heavy, but what else could she do?

Had the Dwight household been more self-reliant in the meat-buying department, he would not have been in the school kitchen the very next eve ning. When the freezer doors resisted his first efforts, Dwight later confessed, a prayer for greater strength fled heavenward. Dwight tightened his mighty grip. With one smooth, upward thrust, he ripped the handle off the freezer, leaving the meat locker in damaged but securely locked condition. Two stubborn freezers later, all Dwight had to show for his efforts were three twisted handles and not one sorry package of USDA commodity meat.

What Petey and insipid little brother Sammy had to say when their devoted father returned empty-handed to a ravenous, meatloaf-less household remains pure conjecture.

What Mrs. Boom said next morning when confronted with this fresh outrage was fairly straightforward: "I'm calling the sheriff."

In those gentle times, the sheriff's duties comprised ferrying drunken county judges home before they could commit too much vehicular mayhem and carrying meals to grumpy wards of the county, sentenced by these same judges. Not every day did they have a chance to solve a real crime, much less an attempted robbery of a major government institution.

Faster than you can say J. Edgar Hoover, Mrs. Boom's spotless kitchen bloomed ominous dark splotches of fingerprint powder. While Superintendent Dwight cowered in his office, five or six of the school's more rambunctious students volunteered airtight alibis and pointed sturdy German-American fingers in Dwight's direction. Eventually the doorway darkened. Brooding of ficialdom, clad in a uniform of chocolate brown and highway yellow, demanded an audience with Superintendent Dwight.

The interrogation, Dwight's secretary reported, ended almost before it began. Confronted with the likely outcome of fictional FBI lab tests, Dwight allowed that he had done the deed. Hamburger had gone missing the previous night. Mrs. Boom in a state of upset. No suspects in sight. What would prevent the thieves, Dwight had asked himself, from repeating their crime?

He'd come to school on a late-night mission of gravest responsibility. Perhaps he'd catch them in the act. Hadn't the postmaster reported a strangely painted Volkswagen van roaming the town at odd hours? Packed with unsavory, draft-dodging scum? And when he entered the building, hadn't he heard a suspicious noise? Sandals running on the gym floor? So when he tried to check the freezers for missing meat and encountered surprise resistance he rushed the job. Mistake, sure. If he had it to do over again, he'd wait for Mrs. Boom and her trusty key. But if the insurance coverage was insufficient, he'd be doggoned happy to pay the difference for some new handles. Only fair.

Later that week, I slouched at the rear of the home ec. room. Yet another interminable teachers' meeting. The subject: crime and the prevention thereof. Unsavory un- American elements spotted in the vicinity. We were to keep a sharp eye. Quite a bit of flag wav ing. We were, after all, at war with the Chinese Communist surrogates in Vietnam.

While he chirped away on crime and patriotism and the latest educational claptrap, minds began to drift. Dwight, unlike most incurable gasbags, occasionally checked the temperature of his audience. This time he caught the drift. His remarks slowed, then bogged down. Freedom, which had beckoned from beyond the grimy windows for the last 45 minutes, seemed within our reach. The French teacher plopped her voluminous purse in her lap, the official signal for any meeting to wrap up pronto.

But there was Dwight, turning on the tape player. This tape, he said, was supposed to help us recognize all the good things we stumbled across in the course of a day.

"The more blessings you acknowledge," he said, "the better teachers you'll be."

Before our brains could take up the full heft of Dwight's jewel, here came Petey's tinny recorded whine.

"I just don't know, Father. Do I have to? I can't decide. I never can decide."

"What about your mother's meatloaf, Petey? You ate two big helpings. Aren't you thankful for that lovely meatloaf and those delicious mashed potatoes?"

"Potatoes, schmotatoes."

"Now Petey, you've always liked potatoes. What about those peanut butter cookies your mother baked up just for you. Aren't you thankful for those?"

Peanut butter? Did he say peanut butter?

Fifteen benumbed educators straightened in their seats. The French teacher whispered in the shop teacher's ear. The shop teacher, who knew everything worth knowing, nodded. The French teacher then hissed at the biology teacher, who mumbled to the librarian. The math teacher overheard and told me. Didn't Mrs. Boom stash her peanut butter hoard under the stage? No locks. Just stacked up willy-nilly. Must be a thousand pounds of the United States Department of Agriculture's finest commodity peanut butter sitting there, completely vulnerable to certain clumsy burglars.

Mrs. Boom took an emergency inventory that very evening and called the sheriff. Not an easy crime to investigate. Close quarters under that confounded stage. Our custodian had last cleaned there during the early Eisenhower administration. The duly elected sheriff ventured into the stage's bowels.

When he finally emerged, his spiffy uniform sported an even coating of dust balls and mouse pellets. Behind him, looming in the under-stage gloom, was a much-diminished Mount Everest of canned USDA peanut butter, each can covered with a light frosting of FBI fingerprint powder.

It promised to be an interesting couple of days.

Vol. 11, Issue 3, Pages 50-52

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