Not even the dull monotonous litany delivered by Sister Agnes could have darkened my mood as I sat squirming on the edge of my seat behind the tiny wooden desk in her third grade classroom. I was not intimidated one bit by her towering black and white presence as I awaited the bell that would signal the end of another enlightening day at Blessed Trinity School on Wheeling’s famous island. Her threats that we, us, her third grade students would not be allowed to participate in the Easter program unless we learned the Apostle's Creed were falling on deaf ears, at least two of that I knew for sure—my own. I had matters of more importance occupying my still developing, but already highly intelligent brain.
While the Apostle's Creed may have been important, and I certainly had every intention in the world of memorizing it, there were bigger mountains to climb that were much more central to my immediate well being and to the personal fortune that I had set out to accumulate for myself on that dark and dreary day. That rainy Wednesday morning in October started out as normal as any other school day had for me in 1963. As was my custom I stopped in front of Kline’s Market on my way to school to deposit my milk money, a whopping three pennies into the gumball machine that stood guard rain or shine outside the store’s only entrance, a regular wooden door much like the one on my house except for the bell that would ring upon its opening.
There wasn’t anything extraordinary about the machine itself, a simple black stand made of steel supporting a glass container about the size of a large coffee can and usually full of hundreds if not thousands of brightly colored gumballs. At the bottom of the clear glass container attached to the stand was a red box that contained the slot in which the penny would be dropped. Also, on the top half of the red box was a well worn stainless steel handle that had probably been turned a thousand times by at least a thousand different kids that at one time or another loitered in front of Kline’s Market—that's ten thousand dollars in pennies if you were thinking about doing the math. Once a penny was deposited in the slot above the handle and given a full turn, the marvel of mechanical engineering would set into motion gears that would allow the machine to swallow the penny, and as a reward hand over a gumball through the little silver trap door at the bottom of the red box. If I remember correctly and I believe I do, the silver trap door had an acorn symbolically engraved on the front of it. I suppose the analogy was that a child gathering gumballs was akin to a squirrel gathering nuts.
I had been keeping a careful eye on the machine for the better part of two weeks, watching with great interest, as the level of gumballs would drop an almost imperceptible amount each day. That morning as I walked to school, I noticed that the machine had been severely depleted from the previous day and that the holes at the bottom through which the gumballs passed were now visible. On the far side of the machine perched precariously above the openings was the holy grail of gumballs; the yellow-gold gumball with red stripes wrapped around it much like the red seams on a baseball.
As I fished through the pockets of my brown corduroys for the three pennies, I knew that this was truly going to be my lucky day. The first penny I knew would be sacrificed, as the Lucky Ball had not yet found it's way to one of the three holes in the bottom of the machine. I placed my penny into the slot, turned the handle unceremoniously, the gumballs rotated inside the glass container and I watched as the black gumball that had been resting in one of the holes disappeared a split second before the familiar clinking sound of hard candy coated gum meeting cold hard steel vibrated off of my eardrums. I was out a penny, but was rewarded with a black gumball, which I promptly stuck in my mouth. Defying all odds, the Lucky Ball didn't budge and the black ball was replaced with a shiny red one, adding to the green and blue ones that were already queued up in their slots. I deposited a second penny, click, click, click, plunk, clink—again the Lucky ball didn't budge and I was paid in the form of the blue gumball. Now in addition to the red and green was a plain yellow gumball waiting its turn. The blue gumball followed the black one into my mouth as I placed my third and final penny into the hungry gumball machine. This time the Lucky Ball became dislodged, but rolled onto a pile of gumballs that would require at least five more pennies to allow it to work itself into a position where it could be won. Already running the risk of being late for class and out of pennies, I gobbled up the red gumball and walked the remaining four blocks to my school, the entire way formulating in my head the strategy that would result in my being rewarded with the elusive Lucky Ball.
At school, I ate my lunch without milk, making several trips to the water fountain to wash down the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that my mother had made especially for me, just the way I like them with extra peanut butter. Throughout the course of the day, I sold my brand new blue plastic comb to Larry Murphy for a penny and my belt to Richard Morgan for two cents—half of what I was asking for it. My Deputy Dog lunch box also went for two cents and my shoestrings, two for a penny.
As I sat squirming in my desk, rather than allow Sister Agnes’s threats interfere with my calculations, I worked the numbers over in my mind like a NASA engineer trying to determine the exact latitude and longitude of the Mercury capsule splashdown. Only in this case it was how many more turns of the handle it would take to allow the Lucky Ball to splashdown into my grubby little hand. I figured three or four cents; six at the very most would be needed to guarantee myself a Lucky Ball. That was assuming that I was the only one who noticed the valuable, yet condemned Lucky Ball, and that I got to the machine first before any of my classmates. I wasn’t concerned about a kid from Madison, the public school, beating me out as they started school fifteen minutes earlier than us Catholics, and got out fifteen minutes later.
Sister Agnes finished with her lecture as the second hand started up the left side of the big clock which hung over the door. There would be no running at the sound of the bell and each class would file out of the building in an orderly fashion, starting with the first grade. My plan was simple; I would leave my seat as the second hand was one tick away from the twelve and then walk briskly to the door. I sat in the first desk in the middle row, so unless the two kids who occupied the other front row seats were also aware of the Lucky Ball and were planning the same maneuver, I should end up first in line. The second hand hit the mark and I was already standing and in motion as the bell rang.
My first two steps may have technically been considered running, but I caught myself and slowed to a Olympic walking pace until I was close enough to slide myself into the front of the line next to the door. Nobody was even a close second, which told me that I was the only one in my class aware of the treasure that awaited one lucky boy or girl outside of Kline’s Market. I pretended not to notice the hairy eyeball that Sister Agnes had placed upon me. Sister Agnes stepped to the doorway and waited as the first and second graders piled out of their rooms and then down the hall to the two huge front doors that would empty us all out onto North York Street.
As the last second grader left his classroom Sister Agnes stepped aside and I quickly fell in behind the smallish boy with jug handle ears. I wanted to push him out of the way, but the hallway was so filled with nuns it reminded me of the penguin exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo, only these penguins were not only malicious, they were armed with wooden yardsticks as well. I walked patiently, all twenty-four steps to the gates of freedom. Once outside the line broke but there would still be no running on school property. I hurried past the little babies who were being picked up by their mothers and walked at a frantic pace to the corner, where Tom Johnson, an eight grader who lived down the street from me was standing on guard with his wooden staff and red canvas flag that would remind motorists to stop at the crosswalk. I looked at Tom with pleading eyes, and motioned with my head for him to let me cross. Lucky for me, Tom enjoyed the power he got from stopping traffic even if there was none to stop, and walked authoritatively to the middle of Indiana Street then lowered his red flag to stop any car that may happen along the seldom-used thoroughfare.
I walked across the street, casually so as not to tip Tom off that I had a Lucky Ball waiting for me. He was a fast runner and if he even suspected that I was in a hurry to get that Lucky Ball, he may drop his flag in the middle of the street and run to the store himself. Once across the street and off of school property I took off like a rabbit. Halfway down the block I lost one of my shoes, which only slowed me a little. On the next block I lost the other shoe and found I was able to run faster with no shoes than with just the one. A block away from Kline’s Market my pants began to slip off but I was able to keep them from going down below my knees with one hand, and pull them back up with the other without losing a step. I barely noticed my waterlogged socks as I sped down the uneven brick sidewalk sending up sprays of water as I plowed through the mud puddles with little or no concern to my well being.
With the store in sight and my heart about to explode from the excitement, my greatest fear was now being realized with each halting step I took. I slowed to a jog and then a walk, panting for breath, my hair plastered to my forehead and sweat pouring out of every pore in my body in spite of the cool cloudy day. The machine had been filled clear to the top with new brightly colored gumballs—my one chance for a Lucky Ball ruined. But maybe not—my highly developed mind found salvation in the knowledge that the machine was filled from the top and that the Lucky Ball had to still be at the bottom hovering around one of the three holes, just waiting for someone, me, to come and drop a couple pennies in the machine. I not only had hope, I had six cents, six wonderful pennies, one of which was surely going to get me that Lucky Ball.
I slowly approached the machine—there wasn’t another kid in sight and it was all mine. I could take my time and extract every suspenseful moment there was from the situation. How many pennies before I get the Lucky Ball? Two? Three perhaps? I laughed out loud as I stood before the machine and dropped my first penny in the slot. Click, click, click, plunk, clink—a blue one. That was okay, I deposited another penny and this time received a black gumball, another penny and a red gumball, another blue one for the fourth penny—I was becoming a bit concerned at this point. I wondered if it were possible that Mrs. Kline took the Lucky Ball out before filling the machine.
I dropped the fifth penny in the slot and was paid off with a white gumball. What had I done to deserve such a cruel fate? What dastardly deed was I being punished for? I kept my room clean, did my homework, I had every intention of memorizing the Apostle’s Creed—I was a good kid. I felt my face flush red with anger and shook my chubby little fist at the sky in an act of righteous anger. “You owe me!” I shouted to my Creator. I swallowed my rage, forcing it down as if it were a golf ball sized jaw-breaker, then ceremoniously and with much reverence placed my sixth and final penny in the slot as if I were a priest and the penny were a communion wafer blessed by Pope Paul himself. “Corpus Domini nostri something, something, Amen.” I then wiped my hand on my brown corduroys and wrapped the shiny steel handle between my thumb and forefinger.
Click…click…click, plunk, clink. I was afraid to look. My faith, my trust in humanity, and my good fortune all rode on what was waiting for me behind the little silver flap. I placed my left hand under the trap door and lifted with my right. I felt the gumball fall into my palm and considered for a moment dropping it into my pocket without even looking at it. I thought about closing my eyes and stuffing it into my mouth along with the other five gumballs, creating the most colorful mouthful of spit ever in the history of Kline’s Market, but the need to know was overwhelming. I slowly opened my hand. As I did, the clouds parted and a brilliant ray of sunshine shone down from the heavens, illuminating not only the gumball machine but Kline's Market and myself as well.
Somewhere in the distance echoing off the wooded hills of yellow and orange, a chorus of angels had broken out in a harmonious rendition of Hallelujah. There it was, right in the palm of my hand, nesting in my sticky paw like a golden egg, the mother of all gumballs—the Lucky Ball. Now I had gotten Lucky Balls in the past, it wasn’t just getting the Lucky Ball that I found to be such an achievement—oh no, it was that I had planned on getting the Lucky Ball. I had invested, calculated and waited, knowing that at that very moment I was going to be standing in front of Kline’s Market with a Lucky Ball in the palm of my sweaty little hand—I had earned the Lucky Ball.
As I entered the store the bell chimed, not its usual ding, but a melodious jingle suitable for the arrival of a prince. I proudly placed the Lucky Ball on the counter where upon Mrs. Kline picked it up, held it to the light and deemed it real, not a counterfeit yellow gumball with stripes drawn on by means of a red crayon. “Have you decided what you want?” she asked. “Anything worth a nickel,” she added as she opened the glass sliding door to the display case behind the counter where she kept the candy bars and penny candy. “I’ll have a Baby Ruth, please,” I said, smiling uncontrollably as a small trickle of purple drool spilled from the corner of my upturned mouth.