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Local View: Life of crime foiled at confession

From the column: "We howled about it all the way home, about not getting caught, like the sorry criminals on “Dragnet” or “Hawaii Five-O.” The next morning, though, I felt sick."

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At the end of every October, I grow anxious. Irritated.

The reason, I tell everybody, is that it will take a month of restless sleep before I acclimate to the time change.

But the underlying cause, I suspect, was a bit of trouble around this same time of year in 1962, after I made the cut for my eighth-grade basketball team.

I wasn’t much of a player. Surely, I was strong and dogged from playing in the yard with my brothers, and I did all right on defense. But I could not dribble, shoot, rebound, or pass, and I was neither tall nor particularly fast. My pal Jack said I only made the team because Coach Walsh knew my father, who was a “big shot” as a village trustee. Everybody else in the locker room laughed when he said it, so I laughed, too. But after a couple of months of never playing and being strictly relegated to the practice team, or “reserves,” I thought maybe he was on to something.

Practice was every Tuesday and Thursday night at the gym, when I’d work up a sweat and feel like part of the team.

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The last Tuesday in October, after the clocks were moved back, we ran out of daylight by the time practice ended. The good players, including my pal Tom, who was the starting guard, were picked up by their parents. But TJ and Jack and I, the “core” of the reserves, packed our duffel bags and headed home in the dark on foot.

TJ’s older brother had been a six-foot-four eighth-grade basketball legend at our school. TJ had all that to live up to, but he was only an inch taller than me and relegated to the reserves. He was blessed with a different kind of talent, though: He could talk like Maynard Krebs on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” show, or Amos, the old farmer on the “Real McCoys,” or just about anybody we knew. And though shorter than his brother, he had long arms that swung out when he walked, so that with his flattop haircut and grin, he resembled the comic book character Jughead, only with muscles.

All the way home, TJ imitated the coach yelling at the players and cursing at the reserves, which gave me and Jack cramps in our sides from laughing.

“For cripes sake, the game is basketball, not air ball, McGrath,” said TJ, in Coach Walsh’s booming voice, and Jack dropped to his knees on the parkway, holding his stomach.

Maybe you had to be there to find it funny, or else just realize that this was raucous, rolling release after being foils for the starters — and being yelled at by the coach to stay frozen in our zones so the varsity could practice set plays.

Halfway home, TJ wanted to stop at Jerazol drugstore for a bottle of 7 Up, and Jack and I covered our mouths to keep from laughing as TJ proceeded to talk to the old pharmacist in his Amos McCoy dialect. It was disrespectful, but the old guy hadn’t a clue.

After TJ got his soda, and we’d gone a block down the street, Jack opened his duffel to show off the ice cream bars he had snatched from the chest freezer while TJ was flummoxing the old man.

Just as proudly, I whipped out an O’Henry and two Payday candy bars I had slid from the rack into my coat pocket.

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We howled about it all the way home, about not getting caught, like the sorry criminals on “Dragnet” or “Hawaii Five-O.”

The next morning, though, I felt sick, less from the stolen sweets than from guilt for what we had done, and I resolved to never do it again.

But the following Thursday, something about our intoxicating laughter, about our unity as the shunned reserves, and our escaping with our loot into the cold and darkness all somehow superseded the risks, and the 10 Commandments, and the athletes’ rules of conduct posted on the bulletin board — rules left back at the gym with the coach and his hollering and the varsity players’ parents picking them up each night.

Being outcasts, as long as you were not alone, felt powerful. Not like love, but something fiercer.

It was weeks before anyone caught on, and the drug store must have called the school. The coach convened an unusual meeting at practice, calling for any player who knew about the shoplifting at Jerazol to step forward.

TJ raised his hand.

“Coach, are they giving a reward for catching these varmints?”

Jack erupted, stifling his laugh with a coughing spell, and Coach ordered him into the hall to get a drink of water. I was able to hold my breath till TJ shut up and Coach got back to lecturing us about good athletes being good Catholics. I avoided looking at TJ’s mug, but then the word varmints rang in my head, and I, too, had to be excused to the water fountain.

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Our team won two tournaments that year and nearly won a third. I rode the bench, cheering on Tom, who led the scoring.

With no more practices, and no 3 Musketeers, I felt worse about our secret and went to confession. Fr. O’Brien administered penance but said I also had to make restitution, which I had to look up. And for five or six days, until Jerazol was fully restituted, I biked there pretending to browse, til I could slide a quarter or two onto the counter.

I don’t know if it restored Jerozol’s bottom line, but I had to hand it to Fr. O’Brien. He sure knew how to stop a life of crime.

David McGrath is formerly of Hayward, is an emeritus professor of Native American literature at the College of DuPage in Illinois, and is an author and frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. His essay, “His Intimacies with the Lake and Stream,” recently made the list of "Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction" in the Best American Essays 2022 contest. He can be reached at profmcgrath2004@ yahoo.com. This was published originally by the Chicago Tribune.

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David McGrath

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