By this time in August, I would already have had my lunch box. It would have been tartan-plaid enameled tin with a matching thermos. The first time it was opened, it already smelled like day-old tuna fish. The smell of the tuna fish came with the lunch box, just like the smell that came out of the thermos. The first time the thermos was opened, it already smelled like chocolate milk.
I did not need a lunch box. I ate my lunch in a cafeteria, with dozens of other first-through-sixth-grade children. We ate fried chicken and rehydrated government-issue mashed potatoes. We ate meat loaf with green peas that came from cans left over from the Korean War. For dessert, there were squat paper cups of vanilla ice cream, only vanillaotherwise there would have been fightsserved with paper-wrapped, balsa-wood paddles.
After lunch, while their teachers had second helpings and drank cups of coffee, the children would wait at their tables, squishing uneaten peas into uneaten mashed potatoes and sucking on slivers of vanilla-flavored balsa wood. Every year, usually before the second week of September, at least one choking first-grade child would have to be rushed to the hospital. All boys and girls in grades one through three would be required to create their own get-well cards during the arts-and-crafts hour. Adversity would have been transformed into opportunity. In science class, after she returned from the hospital, the no-longer-choking child would be allowed to show the scar where the tube had gone in.
Clearly, in such a world, a red, black, and yellow tartan-tin lunch box could serve no real purpose. Still, by the middle of August, it sat there, waiting, on the corner of a cabinet in the kitchen. It was there, my mother explained, in case my teacher should ever decide to take 23 second-graders on a spur-of-the-moment picnic. It was there, she said, because school lunchrooms did not always provide the proper nutrition. It was there, my mother figured, so that I could be sure to have a Moon Pie handy in case of a sudden nuclear attack by the Russians.
I did not get the picnic, and I did not get the attack by the Russians. I did, however, end up being a 7-year-old child with a 38-inch waist.
The lunch box was standard equipment, as requisiteand as uselessas a pencil box with an attached sharpener and a built-in see-through-plastic ruler. It served no more purpose in my life than a three-ring binder with a snap-in protractor. But still it was there. Each morning it was packed, and I carried it away. There were other coddled and cared-for children in my 7-year-old sphere of acquaintance. They, however, carried brown paper bags, rattling sadly with one measly Mars bar, rolled down tight around an already bruised banana, or greasy with the oozings of a half-melted pink Hostess Sno-Ball. On the playground at 10 o’clock recess, they had hardly anything to trade that anybody wanted. I was the only one with a bologna sandwich, a side order of cole slaw, and a slab of chocolate cake. I was the only one with a thermos full of iced tea and a Tupperware container full of ham hocks and green beans.
My mother had selected my lunch box herself. She had selected it from all the other choicesfrom among Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Gene Autry and Smiley Burnett, Ozzie and Harriet, Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans, Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners, and William Bendix in The Life of Riley. My mother did not feel that a mid-morning snack was anything to laugh about. When she read about starving children in Pakistan and parts of China, my mother did not smile. She found no humor at all in the thought of children making it through a morning without pimiento cheese.
If my mother could have found a Walter Cronkite lunch box, she would have bought it. Instead, she had to settle for tartan tin.
Other children watched my lunch box in amazement. When I opened it, they saw nothing for which they could ever hope to trade. They knew instinctively that a strawberry-center Ding Dong could in no way compensate for a hamburger patty with home fries and a jelly jar of gravy on the side. They knew that a bag of Cheese Waffies could never tempt a 7-year-old who already had his own 4-by-6-inch block of lasagna.
I watched them in pity, nibbling on their paltry potato chips and candy bars and cupcakes and then rushing away to see-saws and jungle gyms, where I knew they would only make themselves hungry again. I, meanwhile, was well aware that a 10 o’clock recess only lasted 30 minutes. I was also aware that I had to make it through a left-over pork chop, a cup of lima beans, a square of cornbread, and a slice of lemon meringue pie. Otherwise, I might get back to the classroom and collapse halfway through Dick and Jane and the Man Who Sold Monkeys. Otherwise, I might have to take home something half-eaten. Worse yet, while hungry children were on a playground playing kickball, I might have had to throw something away.
I ate my lunch box full of mid-morning snack, sitting on the steps, looking out on the playground, keeping out of the sun. The only other person sitting on the steps was Leora Oatesly, who was on free-lunch and was never picked for anybody’s side in anybody’s game of recess kickball. Because she did not have a Mars bar, a banana, or even a Twinkie, Leora would sit on the lowest step of the school-building porch, idly dragging her feet back and forth in the school-yard playground dirt.
I had no reason to talk to Leora, but I learned that, if I asked, she would help me finish my roast beef and mashed potatoes. If I had three brownies, I learned, Leora would gladly eat two. Sitting there in the shade of the school-building porch, we could finish the entire lunch box, even if it contained a green-salad course. Working together, in less than 20 minutes we could get the job done.
By the end of the third grade, I had a 32-inch waistline, and Leora weighed 186 pounds. She could no longer button her car coat, and the seams had split out on the sides of her dress.
When my mother saw Leora on Spring Play Day, she said it was sad that free-lunch children had such dreadful nutrition, that they had to make entire meals from packages of fried pork rinds, that they had to eat powdered milk and imitation-egg substitute, that they had to accept the leavings nobody else could possibly want. On my report card, however, my third-grade teacher had written, “I know you must be proud. John Auston is learning to share.”