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Al Batt: Marshal Wannabe at The Put It Back Store

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

A friend suggested we try paintball.

I declined. Here’s why.

I liked Roy Rogers better than Gene Autry.

I liked Gene Autry better than Hopalong Cassidy.

I liked Marshal Matt Dillon more than the other three.

I wanted to visit Dodge Center, Minnesota, because I thought it’d be like Dodge City, Kansas, where Marshal Dillon plied his trade. That would have been great. I got a  Twinkie instead. A Twinkie was the breakfast of third-place finishers. Back when I hoped for Twinkies, I was armed like my cowboy heroes wearing the white hats and some who didn’t wear white hats like Hopalong and Marshal Dillon (a man of many hats).

I owned light artillery — squirt gun, cap gun, pea shooter and rubber band gun. They were weapons of mass irritation. We were seldom told not to point a toy gun or loaded forefinger at someone in those days of yore, but we were warned constantly to be careful or we’d put someone’s eye out. Even a squirt gun was capable of that dastardly deed. I tried to offset that concern by using my squirt gun for good things — watering thirsty garden plants and as training for a future career as a volunteer firefighter. I figured that had gotten my brother his gig.

I scrimped, saved and used my meager retirement savings kept in a Prince Albert tobacco tin to buy a spud gun at The Put It Back Store. You know that place. No matter what I grabbed from a shelf, begged incessantly for (I’ll never ask for another thing), claimed to be the only boy in the world without one, or how many times I asked bravely, “Can I have this?” my mother said, “Put it back.”

The spud gun was a puny plastic pretend pistol that used air pressure to propel potato pellet projectiles with a pop from pole to pole and all points in between. I didn’t read the terms and conditions.

I had a brain cramp on a day our yellowish report cards were arriving in butterscotch-colored envelopes. I took my spud gun and a potato to school. I did so because not all the positions for people who do stupid things had been filled. My bad decision was an unplowed pasture that couldn’t wait for show-and-tell day. I had a date with destiny and wasn’t worried about possible litigation. Johnny Cash wasn’t singing “Don’t take your guns to town, son” as I left the house. Because he wasn’t, I blamed him for everything.

I sat at my desk and put my spud gun and ammo inside it. I looked around the classroom. I spotted Gary. He was drawing in a Big Chief tablet in an effort to overcome his fear of trapezoids. I liked Gary but he made a perfect target.

I loaded my spud gun by using its muzzle to pry out a tater fragment. The two girls sitting between us were problematic. Their heads were in the way of Gary’s noggin. Then one girl leaned to the left to stir a paste pot with its built-in paddle. The other girl leaned to the right to pass a note to a friend. Their heads parted like the waters of the Red Sea. It was meant to happen. I aimed and pulled the trigger.

The tuber torpedo hit Gary’s ear with the plunk of a ripe watermelon. His functional vocabulary dropped to a single word that he shouldn’t have said as his Ticonderoga #2 yellow pencil flew farther than the potato missile had.

My teacher gave me a look that could freeze water. She had amazing powers of perception and used them as judge and jury in finding me guilty. I had no alibi and errors weren’t dismissed with a “My bad” in those days or I’d have said that. If we learn from our mistakes, I’d be a genius twice over.

I was afraid I’d be sent away. Sent away to the school dungeon or, even worse, to the principal’s office where the principal wasn’t always a pal. Instead, my teacher blistered me with the scolding of the ages. She told me I could have put an eye out. The legend is that her words still echo in those hallowed halls.

She seized my spud gun. I had to apologize to Gary and I had to mean it.

“You’ll get this back when you’ve learned to behave yourself,” she said.

That hasn’t happened yet.

Al Batt’s column appears every Wednesday in the Tribune.