There was a shooting. It happened in just a few seconds, there in the cafeteria of Havermale Junior High School, in mid May 1948, and I was the shooter. I shot the history teacher, Mr. Burns. It was a stupid, stupid thing to do, but all my buddies were goading me on, so I did it. BIG mistake!
How could this appalling lapse of judgment happen to an otherwise relatively normal adolescent? I was on the baseball team and the coach nominated me co-captain (an inherently confusing term) and I was liked by everyone in the school, except the criminal element, who hated me because I was popular and obeyed the rules without any fuss. So, how could this Goody Two-Shoes boy shoot the history teacher in the back of the neck from halfway across the cafeteria? With a spit wad.
Earlier that day a supply of rubber bands came our way. I don’t remember why, but we all had a pocket full and were having great fun snapping them at each other in the hallways between classes. Someone had learned how to fold paper just right and then wet it with a little bit of spit, which made it stick together better and fly much faster and further. We called it a spit wad and I think that is a standard term nowadays. Perhaps this was known to all teenage boys of that time, but this was my first experience with this form of adolescent combat.
It’s a simple weapon. Just stretch a rubber band between your thumb and forefinger, then take the folded spit wad and put the fold on the rubber band, pinch it, pull, aim at your foe and release. A well made spit wad might go thirty feet. However, the accuracy is very poor. To get an idea of how poor, hold out your fist to arm’s length and observe its silhouette. You would probably only hit ten percent within a target that large at twenty feet. Because they are not rotating like a rifle bullet, spit wads don’t self-correct their direction of travel and instead veer off target at a constantly increasing angle.
Mr. Burns was not close when I fired, and I didn’t really aim at him because it was an impossibly long shot in the first place, but at the goading of my buddies I snapped a round in his general direction. Holy Toledo, Batman! This spit wad covered half the cafeteria in its wanderings before it found Mr. Burns’s neck. But it was a hit, a very palpable hit. We all shrank into oblivion as he whirled around.
It wasn’t difficult picking out a table of hunkered down boys in a noisy lunchtime cafeteria, so he marched directly over to us. Who did that? We all shrank into our seats! Did you do it Timmy? – No. – Did you do it Johnny? He knew all our names because we were in his class just ten minutes before. He asked a couple of other kids in this same accusatory way. Perhaps he didn’t ask me because I was the good kid, but then he said, If you don’t tell me who did it, you will all report to my class immediately after school. All my buddies, who had been goading me into this heinous crime were now looking rather sheepish, then scared and then accusingly toward me, and so was Mr. Burns. I did it Mr. Burns, but it was just a joke, I didn’t mean to actually hit you. It was just a joke. My office, 3:05 and don’t be late!
After an appropriate lecture, he drew a neck-sized circle on the blackboard and said my punishment was to make spit wads and fire them at the target from the back of the classroom until I hit it three times in a row, and then I could go play baseball. It took a half a minute to make these spit wads, chew them a while while making another, (I remember he gave me some really foul tasting paper to make my missiles out of) and I sat there for an hour a day for three days making and shooting spit wads at this little circle. I never hit it a single time, and I was trying. It was simply impossible. So, in an act of kindness, he offered me three whacks with the paddle which I thankfully accepted, and went on with my life.
So, what did I learn from this little episode?
When your friends encourage you to do something stupid, don’t do it!