The King School Elementary lunch line was a place I hazarded but a dozen or so times in my life, and with good reason. The choices were few and categorically untempting: pizza, if you were lucky. Thin, crispy wafers passed off as hamburgers. A weekly, breaded delicacy known only as "fish." The kitchen, located in the dungeonous bowels of the old building, was where vegetables were sentenced to torture and death. How many millions of unsuspecting beans - green, baked, lima - were lost? How many carrots cooked nearly colorless? I can still see the lunch lady, typically mole-ridden and hideous, ladling portions of smelly wet corn onto white trays.
There were other choices, too, often of the potato variety. "Fries" that were baked. Jawbreakers posing as tater tots. Hash browns? The grease from a shredded lunch line tuber was known to leach through even the sturdiest of Styrofoam trays.
Puddings, Jell-0s and fruit cups rounded out a meal that our public officials deemed satisfactory for a growing child. In short, no vitamins, a few elusive strands of protein, and ten times the recommended daily allowance of offal.
But I'm belaboring the point, aren't I? I was a brown bagger.
Actually it would be more correct in those days to call me a lunchboxer. Every couple of years I had a new model, but my first and very favorite was adorned with the helmet of every NFL franchise. Naturally, it came with a matching thermos.
Packing a lunch had its obvious advantages. There was little risk in a ham sandwich, an apple, a carrot and a juice box. PB & J. Salami and cheese. Chips. Raisins. A Handi-Snacks (I was one of many who collected those red plastic cheese spreaders). Most everything was harmless and easily traced back to the Acme supermarket in West Akron.
But the strategy was not infallible. That much became clear one fateful winter day.
The year was 1982. Ronald Reagan was president. Ketchup would soon be called a vegetable. I was seven years old and in first grade. There was no cafeteria at King School. Lunch was eaten in classrooms, which were patrolled by a pair of monitors, unholy horrors known as 6th graders.
Throughout the duration of my public schooling I tried to keep a low profile. My lunches were usually suited to that purpose. There were few surprises when I flipped open that tin lid, and that's the way I liked it. Mom reliably prepared a sandwich (crust intact), carrot and celery sticks, some form of pretzel (rod or twist, I wasn't particular), and, when I declined to buy milk at school, a juice box (always 100% juice. No Lil' Hugs, no Kool-Aid). My repast was healthy almost without exception. Oh, at times there would be a slice of leftover pizza. On rarer occasions a bag of Ruffles. Normally I knew that a good square meal was in store. Normally.
Ah, trust--such a fragile thing. So difficult to build, so easily destroyed.
Lunch that day commenced as usual--monitors arriving, teacher departing, monitors hollering in a daily attempt to silence us. Those wretches doomed to the lunch line would vanish and return ten minutes later, trays laden with tasteless morsels. Meanwhile, the rest of us fetched lunch pails from our lockers.
Appetite peaking, I flipped open the clasp to find my lunchbox conspicuously spare. Within lay a Minute Maid orange juice (not my favorite, but satisfactory) and my thermos. Wonderful, I smirked. Two drinks. Had mom suffered an uncharacteristic lapse? Had my sister ended up with two sandwiches in her lunch? Not likely. Then it dawned on me--soup! That was the answer. Inside the thermos was a piping hot bowl of chicken soup. That would hit the spot on a wintery day. Heck, I would be the envy of the class. So what if there was no spoon to be found? It was the tiniest of oversights.
I unscrewed the lid, but was not met with a brothy waft of hot soup. I peered inside and there discerned something metallic in color. I upturned the vessel, and out slid a long bit of tinfoil. Dumbstruck, I glanced around. Had anyone noticed this bizarre circumstance? Surely they would soon.
I began to unwrap this mystery provision. My mouth became dry. So dry I resorted to my juice box. What doom hid within this silvery shell? There was only one way to know, and so I continued, quickly, as to determine my fate one way or another.
When at last I had peeled away the aluminum layers, I froze, terror-stricken, a familiar odor rising out of the folds of foil. I sat there, inert, staring at my lunch.
A hot dog.
No bun. No mustard. Damp, and, in spite of the thermos and the added precaution of foil, cold. Hopelessly cold. My lunch. Juice and a hot dog--cold.
Then it happened, what I dreaded. A glance from a neighboring desk. A double take, and then? Hey, look what he has for lunch! Like that, my world came crashing down.
Laughter erupted. Monitors, baffled as to the source, soon joined in. What was I to do? My options were few: feign a seizure or endure it. I endured. What I did not do was eat the wiener, now being passed around the room as proof positive of the rumor. Yes, it really is a hot dog! Yes, it really was in his thermos! Eww!
That afternoon my mother showed little remorse. It's all we had, she claimed, and, it's just the same as bologna. Flimsy as her excuses were, she dismissed my laments with a wave of the hand.
I feared the next day, but my attempts at staying home were rebuffed. Months passed before the furor died down, and, as far as I know, my hot dog lunch still lives in infamy within the walls of King School Elementary.
Needless to say I took responsibility for my own lunches thereafter. Such a breach of trust was beyond redemption, though my mother and I have avoided a total falling out. My precious NFL lunchbox was discarded (how could I drink from that tainted thermos again?), replaced by an inferior and all plastic Pac-Man model.
The tale is a sad one to tell, and painful to relive. Yet, I believe one must learn from experience, and pass on what one has gleaned. So please, dear reader, let my humiliation be a lesson to you: if all the fridge contains is a hot dog, send the poor child to the lunch line!
This story is 100% true. No details have been altered in its telling.