“Of Course it was Illegal” is one of the many, many writing prompts I’ve assigned over the years out of pure curiosity, and lucky you: generous writers in my memoir classes have given me permission to share some of their confessions here on the Safe & Sound blog.
A number of writers came back with essays about stealing gum or candy from stores, and these shoplifters seemed to remember the scenes of their crimes pretty vividly. Hugh was no exception, but his quest was a little different. “I was seven and Dean was ten and we were deeply involved in casting lead soldiers,” Hugh wrote, pointing out that the lead he and his big brother needed to cast soldiers back in the 1930s was the same lead in the fishing sinkers sold at the neighborhood Sears store on 79th Street on Chicago’s South Side. “They were about two or three inches long,,,and slipped easily into a pocket.”
Darlene’s pre-teen crime took place at the Eckerd’s Drug Store on the corner of Florida Avenue and Bearrs in Tampa, where her family was living at the time. “Money was extremely tight for us with a very big family to care for,” she wrote, describing a 1966 fashion-statement-wooden-tigers-eye ring a friend had bought there. “I wanted a ring like that, too!” I’m not gonna fink, ahem, on Darlene. I’ll let you guess the rest.
Marijuana was illegal when my writers were young adults, but that didn’t stop some of them from smoking pot, and, in some cases, trying other drugs, too. A co-worker Bruce described as “attractive and a little edgy” invited him to relax and tuck a small disc of LSD under his tongue during a drive to see Alice in Wonderland at the movie theater. “She had access to the drug and she agreed to join me in the experiment,” he wrote. “I worried that my starchy life style would stifle the effects of chemical.” He needn’t have worried.
Some confessions were quite serious. Early in her marriage Regan discovered her then-husband had walked out with their joint checkbook. Knowing he would drain the account, she climbed into her 1963 Volkswagen bus and pursued him. Regan crashed into his 1970 Ford Mustang every time it slowed down. “Eventually I was able to get up enough steam to bulldoze him off the road and cram him into a tree,” she wrote.
Other stories involved international intrigue. Brigitte grew up in Germany, and when she received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Vassar in 1961, she came on an exchange visitor visa. She married an American, they had a son, and she didn’t bother applying for citizenship until 10+ years later in 1974.
“The real truth about my past life: I was… hmmm, I was… an illegal alien,” she wrote, insisting it never occurred to her at the time. Nor did it bother anybody else in charge. “I suppose coming from a Western European country didn’t hurt, either.”
Another story of international intrigue came from Mary. Her husband had traveled from America to West Berlin with a church group before he and Mary were married. It was 1954. He was 17. He crossed the border from West Berlin to East Berlin illegally.
Getting east was relatively easy. Not so on the way back. Police wanted his papers, and when they saw the American passport, they arrested him.
Mary and her husband recently celebrated their 80th birthdays, and she beamed in class while reading about him spinning a tale to his captors 60+ years ago about having come to the Russian sector looking for books by Engels, Marx and Lenin. “He said he’d been prevented from learning about socialism in America,” she wrote, describing his captors returning with a “scuffed carboard suitcase” filled with English language editions of Engels, Marx and Lenin and sending him on his way back to West Berlin.
A few of the essays were downright educational. Jim’s piece about his career in the airlines taught us how the decision-making between a flight dispatcher and a pilot can be reviewed later to determine which decisions are legal–or not.
Lorraine’s piece taught us something about underage drinking. She was only 11 when her relatives routinely asked her to head to the corner store to buy groceries — including liquor. While doing research for her essay she discovered that from 1872 until 1961, as long as you had “parental permission,” it was legal in Illinois for children to buy drink and be around alcohol. She sounded a bit disappointed to discover that some of her childhood “hooliganism” really wasn’t illegal after all.” I grew up thinking drinking was part of our religion,” she sighed. “And that it was illegal.”
And who knew that it is illegal to possess a migratory bird, even a dead one, without a wildlife permit? Pat did — she’s an avid Birdwatcher.
So years ago, when she came downstairs to find that a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker had died after crashing into her apartment building, she knew she shouldn’t have put the migratory bird into a shoebox to store in her freezer. “The truth is, I really wanted to see the guy who was the Collections Manager for Birds at the Field Museum,” she confessed. “That sapsucker was going to be my excuse.” Pat had met the collections manager briefly a couple times before. She noticed he didn’t wear a ring, but she thought that was probably because he spent most of his day cleaning the innards out of bird carcasses. “But he seemed single,” she wrote. “There was a boyishness to him that gave me hope.”
After six weeks breaking the law, Pat finally decided it was time to act. Here from her essay :
The next morning I took the shoebox out of the freezer and set off on foot for the Field Museum. It occurred to me that the shoebox could reveal my extravagance in spending $120 for a pair of Mephisto sneakers and my unattractively large shoe size. Well, it was too late to find another woodpecker coffin now.
And so, did Pat ever meet her dream man at the Field Museum? I’ll let you decide……