|Rolfe Alumni Essay|
|Rolfeís 10 Most Wanted List
Professor of Math at the University of Maine
Rolfe High School Class of 1955
I don't want to spill the beans - oh well, why don't I spill the beans. I'll tell you right now it was nip and tuck for awhile whether I'd ever leave Rolfe alive, at least without a massive criminal record.
It all began back in the Middle Ages when I'd run home from Miss Hall's fourth grade class just in time to catch the beginning of Captain Midnight on the radio. Captain Midnight came on every afternoon at 4:15 and ran until 4:30. Considering the fact there were about three minutes of action sandwiched between twelve minutes of commercials, the Captain and his two kiddie sidekicks had little time to save America from Floyd Fiend and his fiendish miscreants. It was no wonder that I had to catch every minute of the plot. The fact the plot never budged an inch during my entire childhood didn't seem to dampen my interest.
After Captain Midnight came kemo sabe himself, the Lone Ranger, which ran from 4:30 to 4:45. Then, from 4:45 to 5:00 came The Cisco Kid and his slow-witted sidekick, Pancho; then from 5:00 to 5:15 came Buck Rogers; from 5:15 to 5:30 it was the Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters, who were forever chasing down low-life varmints with names like Big-Ear, Slim, Soapy, and Frenchy; and last but not least from 5:30 to 5:45, it was Terry and the Pirates. By 5:45 my mom was yelling at me to come for supper. By this time my brain was so crammed full of villains and once-in-a-lifetime offers for secret decoder rings, I couldn't even contemplate doing any schoolwork that night - of which I always informed my mom.
I have to admit Mom let me listen to about every program on the radio. Well almost every program. There was one program, however, she absolutely forbade me to listen to - my favorite of all favorites - The Secret Files of the FBI.
"Too much violence," was her pathetic excuse.
The Secret Files of the FBI was a 30-minute program that came on every Sunday afternoon at 3:00. Although the program was strictly verboten at our house, my friend Russell Thomas had his own radio, so every Sunday I'd race to his house and we'd listen to the program in his bedroom.
The thing I remember most about "Secret Files" was the ending when the G-Men would always break in a front door and drag some poor schmuck to the Big House. Then, as sirens wailed in the background, we would always anticipate the dire warning of the announcer: Crime-Does-Not-Pay.
Those were the exact words that raced through my mind a few years later when Fred Witt, the local mayor, gave my buddy Arlen Hansen and me the first degree for our misguided foray into the world of monkeyshines. My mother's advice about radio violence had gone unheeded, and I paid the price.
Oddly enough, the reason Arlen and I ran afoul of the law was our early interest in publishing, which took the form of delivering the Des Moines Sunday Register, for which we were paid handsomely at three cents a paper. Every Sunday morning we'd rise at the crack of dawn and race downtown and wait for two hours for the papers to arrive. We liked to get there early so we could race our bikes up and down main street, more or less waking up the entire town. It was our feeling that if the town wasn't up by this time it should be.
After the papers arrived and after we delivered them, we'd then meet back downtown and sell our extras to people on their way to or from early Mass. Most people planned on buying their papers at Morris Webb's drugstore, so Arlen and I posted ourselves in front of the store and informed people that Mr. Webb's papers didn't have a sports section and were two weeks old. Mr. Webb would then come rushing to the door, grab the customer and tell him that our papers were all wet and muddy and he had some nice clean ones inside. If Arlen and I made a sale, Mr. Webb would feint anguish and tell the customer we were driving him out of business. Finally, after Arlen and I managed to sell our extras, we'd go in the drugstore (a favorite hangout with soda fountain just inside the door and comic book reading room toward the back near the paint and wallpaper department) and get a hot chocolate. Mr. Webb never charged us. He said we looked undernourished. I have such fond memories of him.
After finishing our hot chocolates we'd often head for the back of the store where there was housed the most prized treasure in Rolfe. An entire wall of comics! I can still see them now; Captain Marvel, Donald Duck, Archie, Plastic Man, Flash Gordon, Tales of the Crypt, Wonder Woman, The Shadow, and of course, the man of steel himself, Superman. The fact Mr. Webb was trying to sell the books didn't stop us from inspecting every last one. Of course we never bought any, especially after we'd already read them. Sometimes the room was so packed with kids sitting on the floor reading the latest arrivals we couldn't find a place to sit down. Most kids tended to go for the always popular Superman or Captain Marvel, but my tastes ran more for the cerebral comic. I was a Spider Man myself. Spider Man wasn't your usual macho, cape-wearing super hero, but was just an ordinary guy who happened to get bit by a radioactive spider, transforming him into someone able to climb walls by sticking his fingers between the cracks and having the strength of 50 men. Then there was the always irascible Donald Duck and his triplet nephews - Huey, Dewey and Louie. That was an Arlen favorite. Especially the miserly Scrooge McDuck, the richest duck in the world, whose favorite pastime was burrowing in his three cubic acres of cash.
Well, back to my life of crime. One Sunday morning before the papers arrived, it started raining so Arlen and I waited inside the post office, where we started looking at the pictures of fugitives on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Much to our surprise, we saw a resemblance between one of the pictures and Donald Spencer, the local postmaster. So we found a pencil and with a few minor adjustments (including nose job, mustache, and horn-rimmed glasses) the resemblance was downright uncanny.
Our fabrication of Don Spencer was so much fun we decided to apply our skills to some of the other pictures. Without much effort we found a likeness between a small-time mail embezzler and believe it or not, Morris Webb. This fugitive was also given the standard list of facial deformities, and after a short time it was impossible to tell him from Mr. Webb himself.
By now it was evident that Rolfe was harboring a nest of swindlers, con artists, and other undesirables on the lamb from the FBI. So in order to warn everyone in town, we sharpened our pencils and worked with heightened intensity. We drew mustaches, warts, elongated noses, pointed ears, and every physical monstrosity known to medical science. Within a few minutes we matched all ten fugitives with every prominent person in town. But unlike the dull, stodgy, 10 Most Wanted pictures on the FBI list, our villains took on the aura of a House of Horrors one generally associates with a carnival sideshow.
One shifty-eyed character, wanted for inter-state drug peddling, was repackaged as Ralph (Rabid Ralph) Mortensen, the local school superintendent. Another fugitive, wanted for indecent exposure in twenty-five states, was no less than Rolfe's own mayor, Fred Witt. But our real pride and joy, the FBI's number one fugitive, wanted for trafficking pornographic material, was transformed into the local Methodist minister, Reverend Peterson.
Soon the papers arrived, and we took off on our routes. By the next day, in our minds, the incident at the post office was ancient history. It was our feeling that anyone with half a sense of humor would appreciate our efforts. We learned later, however, that not everyone in Rolfe had one.
It was 8:00 the next morning when the phone rang at our house. Surprisingly, it was Mr. Witt, the mayor. Even more surprising, he wanted to see me. I suspected he wanted me to mow his lawn so I jumped on my bicycle and took off up the street west of the schoolhouse. As I arrived at his house, he told me to come in. This invitation seemed a bit odd from someone who wanted his lawn mowed, but I followed him into the house. He led me into the living room, where, sitting in one chair was the postmaster, Donald (Dirty Don) Spencer, and on the sofa was a pale-white mannequin that looked an awful lot like Arlen.
Now, I'll admit to not having the brains of a rocket scientist, but it didn't take me long to spell out what was going on. T-R-O-U-B-L-E. I sat down on the sofa next to the mannequin.
Mr. Witt then sat down behind a desk. His alias, Fat Fred, didn't come to mind as he unfolded a piece of paper and started to read.
"Gulp," came from somewhere. I don't know if it came from the mannequin or me, but possibly both. The mayor began to read. It was some kind of legal document.
... pursuant to federal laws of the United States ... tampering ... postal property ... FBI ... penalties ... 5000 years ... fines ... a zillion dollars ...
C-R-I-M-E D-O-E-S N-O-T P-A-Y reverberated through my head.
"Postmaster Spencer has told me that you boys are quite the artists," Mr. Witt said at last. Two heads nodded in unison.
"He also said you boys have quite a sense of humor," he continued. Two heads nodded again.
"You know," he looked straight at us, "I could turn you boys over to the FBI."
A trickle of sweat about the size of the Ganges ran down my face as I envisioned a dozen G-Men kicking in the front door of our house and dragging me off. Then, as sirens wailed in the background, neighbor ladies would tell their kids, "That boy never minded his mom and went ahead and listened to The Secret Files of the FBI. I told you, Crime-Does-Not-Pay."
"However," Mr. Witt continued, "Postmaster Spencer has agreed that if we can find the proper punishment for you, we can leave the FBI out of this." Both Arlen and I gave our most servile look in the direction of Donald Spencer. It was no Dirty Don today - no sireeeeee - it was Mr. Postmaster Spencer.
"I want you boys to realize that what you did is no laughing matter," Mr. Spencer began. "Those pictures were put there for a purpose. I'll have to punish you for what you did." Then the penalty came down.
Mr. Spencer told us that for our involvement in The Great Postal Defacement of 1950 we would have to wash the windows and sweep the floor of the post office for the remainder of the summer.
"You boys seem to have plenty of time on your hands on Sunday mornings before your papers arrive," he said wryly. "I'll just leave the broom by the back door."
I guess we were right about the people in Rolfe, they did have a sense of humor, a sick sense of humor.
Epilogue: I left Rolfe after I graduated from high school in 1955 and never saw Morris Webb again. My good friend Arlen Hansen became a writer and professor of English. I wish he could have written this story instead of me. It would have been so much better. Unfortunately, Arlen died in 1993 from cancer. I regret too that Arlen and I will never talk and joke with Mr. Webb about the Great Sunday Paper Wars of the early 1950s. I guess thatís the way it always is. We keep putting things off until it is too late.
Editorís note: The 10 Most Wanted is a great story, and Iím glad Jerry wrote it. I doubt if Arlen, who was an esteemed professor at the University of California - Stockton, could have done better. The beauty of the story is in the tender simplicity and attention to detail about an era not only of Jerryís childhood but of the formative years of many of us who claim Rolfe as our hometown.
Morris was one of my favorite men, almost like an adopted grandfather. Whenever I stopped at the drug store and hopped onto one of the barstools at the soda fountain to order a cherry Coke, lemon-lime phosphate, ice cream sundae or chocolate malt, I always felt like Morris and the staff sincerely cared about me when they asked how I was doing. Once when I was a sixth-grader, Morris and his wife Jane invited me to come for a weekend to their cottage at Lake Okoboji and said I could bring a friend. So Linda Rickard and I went along with these elder citizens (not so very old at all it seems now that I am 55 and probably about the age Morris and Jane were at the time). One night the four of us worked on a jigsaw puzzle and were only about 1/4th done when Linda and I decided it was time to go to bed. We assumed there would still be work to do on the puzzle in the morning and had mixed feelings about the work needed to complete the project, but when we arose and looked down from our perch in the loft at the card table, we realized that Morris and Jane had either stayed up very late or were pros at doing puzzles. In either case, they had finished the puzzle during the night. It seems like a simple enough anecdote with many possible interpretations. I guess I was left with respect for the Webb's enthusiasm for life, willingness to reach out to young people, enjoyment of simple things such as jigsaw puzzles, perseverance and willingness to stay up late which seemed a bit spunky as if they were breaking curfew, and their wizardry at doing puzzles. Within a few months after the trip to the Webb cottage, both of my grandfathers (the one on the farm between Rolfe and Pocahontas and the city one in Ogden, Utah) died. Then 11 months later in February of 1958, Morris died unexpectedly during heart surgery at the University of Iowa Hospitals. Today his surgery would be considered routine. The news that Morris was dead jolted me, and it was a time of grief over the loss of two grandfathers and a quasi-grandfather. I know what Jerry means when he writes about missing Morris.
Fred Witt died in 1968 of cancer, and Don Spencer died in 1987 of a heart attack.