A Memorial Service — Finding It: Chapter 27
The weekly, published accounts of the abduction of Phillip Randolph Rutabaga continued until, in January, while I was recovering from my hernia surgery, a strange ransom note appeared in the editor’s inbox. Fred collected it along with everything else. She entered the workroom where I was seated editing some other things. She pulled up a chair next to mine.
Fred was brilliant in so many ways that it was difficult to quantify. She played violin and cello masterfully. She wrote extremely well. She painted landscapes and portraits. She knew some obscure, trivial things — and coming from me, a guy who remembers virtually everything said to him, that is remarkable. There was always something new and amazing that I learned from her.
Like me, she was a farm kid. Unlike me, she was always popular with almost everyone else in our class. She deserved to be an editor of the school newspaper. I was never sure why I was chosen except that maybe the advisors knew that Fred and I would function well. We divided up the workload between us and covered for one another whenever necessary, which happened sometimes because of my wrestling schedule or her concert performances and competitions with the orchestra. We always made it up to each other in some way. We were always respectful, cordial, warm, and friendly. I couldn’t recall arguing with her, though we didn’t always agree on things involving the newspaper.
When she opened the ransom note she chuckled. I’m not sure she bothered to read all of it. It was a challenge. Whoever did it had no concept about layout or design. She intruded the page into my visual space. “This must be for you,” she said as she dropped it there, interrupting my reading of an article Mrs. Hines asked me to look at.
Done up in letters from varying font sets and sizes, cut out from different magazines, pasted to a nondescript blank page of generic 20-pound white typing paper, was an unexpected curiosity. Looking like any good ransom note should, I guess, I wondered which of the conspirators made it. Perhaps it was a collaboration of several. I only had suspicions. But it was clearly a signal to me that a decision had been made to go forward with a plan I’d concocted back in December and suggested to Mark.
The text couched an apparent offer to return Phil to the safety of his loved ones, but it was under some bizarre conditions to which no sensible person would expect the school administration to agree. The note clearly stated that one of the original purposes of the abduction was to demonstrate how easy it could be accomplished. Further, it demanded the school admit blame for exposing Phil to risk.
The note was designed to infuriate Mr. Hackman, which was part of the plan — the setup.
Wasn’t it time to end the newspaper accounts of the continuing saga? What better way than to report Phil’s apparent demise and stage a memorial service for the apparent purpose of returning the corpse, while also embarrassing Mr. Hackman.
Fred and I co-authored a piece intended to persuade a more tolerant state of mind from the administration, conducive to serious negotiations for the return of the departed’s remains. It was a risky venture, requiring a good deal of anonymous cooperation and assistance from outside of the conspiracy. For those reasons, the idea, as well as details of the plan, needed to be communicated to all members of the conspiracy through the special code we devised at the outset of the caper. The newspaper’s serialized account of Phil was used one last time.
The school newspaper published the ransom note in its entirety. As expected, the administration ignored its demands and assumed the unelaborated dire consequences were a bluff. That’s where the memorial service came into play. As one of the principals of Phil’s creation, I felt I could do anything I wanted with the character. The following day I drafted an obituary. What remained to be determined was precisely how we would carry out the charade of returning the corpse to the cold-hearted, inconsiderate administration that we knew would never accede to ransom demands.
As the end of February drew nigh, everything was set in motion to hijack the annual Sadie Hawkins Day Dance and turn it into a memorable memorial to be held on the last Friday of the year’s shortest month. The Phillip Randolph Rutabaga Memorial Service became an event unto itself, one that no one involved would soon forget, nor would any of the original conspirators decide to attend.
Annie, my past pseudo girlfriend of mutual social convenience, handled all the planning and execution of the details. She was gifted at arranging parties, dances, and such. She and I met only once for the planning, at her house. After taking some notes while listening to my general idea including my interest in creating a vehicle for whomever the kidnappers were to return the remains, she looked up at me. “I got it from here.” And she was on her own. Everything pertaining to the actual dance was her doing as I wanted no part in it.
Annie enlisted a whole other group of people to create the centerpiece attraction for the evening. Her army of volunteers redesigned the stage in the school gymnasium to look like a funeral home’s viewing room. There were flowers and wreathes ordered as well as a black shrouded stand constructed to accept the casket when pallbearers would carry it into the gymnasium. Annie missed no detail.
Bart’s meager contribution was arranging for the casket and the hearse, something worked out well in advance with the aid of Hal, a friend whose father was a local mortician. He worked closely with Annie getting her everything she needed to decorate the stage in a way that served to create a somber atmosphere of respect for the deceased. Hal would also serve as the driver since the hearse was insured for him as one of his many jobs working for his dad. I’m not sure when it happened or how, but in February, as a result of their working together on the project, Annie started dating him.
Despite the risks, enlisting the services of non-conspirators to execute the process was true genius. It didn’t surprise me that none of the original conspirators wanted anything to do with the memorial service. What was a complete and welcomed surprise was how many people Annie recruited who eagerly wanted to participate. Like most of the school, they hungered for any knowledge they could gather about Phil, regardless of how tangential to the truth. Ironically, almost everyone in school wanted to be an insider, except for those who truly were.
Due to general apathy toward ‘silly’ school dances, seniors were not well represented at any school function. So, there was nothing suspicious about any of the Clapper Nappers missing the dance.
The hearse bearing a coffin would arrive at the school gymnasium and pallbearers would escort the casket by cart to the stage for the procession of final viewers to pay their respects. It was a ‘closed casket’ affair because, after the abductors were done with him, Phil did not look like himself — as the text of the final installment of the newspaper saga revealed. It hinted at what the senior class intended to do all along, give Phil a serious facelift and permanent golden tan.
Of course, there was never any intention of returning the victory bell at the service. That was all misdirection. Meanwhile, in the background, the newly bronzed bell would be returned to its rightful place, though I did not know when or how that would happen — and, honestly, I didn’t care.
Considering the grief that I received personally from Mr. Hackman over the disappearance of the victory bell, the memorial service seemed fitting retribution. He needed to be convinced that it was about to be returned as part of the memorial service that was now, thanks to Annie’s masterful arrangements of the combined dance and funeral for Phillip Randolph Rutabaga, about to become part of Countryside folklore. It was a grand scheme that, if executed perfectly, was a daring means of setting everything up for the inevitable return of school property, just not how the administration might be expecting it.
You see, back when Bart was a sophomore and had the responsibility of tending to the bell before and after games, he made a duplicate key for the concession stand lock, mainly because he found himself waiting on Mr. Hackman when he could be doing other things like putting away the sideline markers, chains and such, which was his other job. According to Bart, Mr. Hackman never asked how he got the concession stand door open, probably assuming he borrowed one of the coach’s keys instead. But while he was at it, Bart created impressions of every other key on Mr. Hackman’s keyring, and from those, he created the full set.
It wasn’t part of the original plans for the Clapper Nappers, but they didn’t need to know. No one did except for Bart and me. And the only reason I knew was he mentioned it once in passing. He told me his dad had a friend who was a locksmith and of course, Bart knew the locksmith’s son who also knew how to rekey a lock and make duplicate keys without the original. And so, all Bart had to do was supply the impressions for the keys to be made.
It was a good thing, otherwise, I would have had to filch keys from someone who had a full set, like Mrs. Hines, and basically, do the same thing Bart did with Mr. Hackman’s keys. In fact, one night as I was driving Bart home from one of our practice sessions for One Thane I pointed out to Bart that the whole drama of the theft after the last game, and everybody getting cold and wet, could have been avoided. We might have even been able to ‘borrow’ the victory bell, have it bronzed, and back on the bell cart before anyone realized it was missing.
Do you know what Bart’s response was?
“Where’s the fun in that?”
I thought about pulling into somebody’s driveway and beating the crap out of him. I thought about driving way the hell out into the boonies and making him walk all the way home. But I didn’t. He was still my friend.
And so, when the Clapper Nappers finally determined that it was time to return the bell, it mysteriously materialized back where it belonged, which, as I later learned from secondhand hearsay, happened to be a couple of days before the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance and Phillip Randolph Rutabaga’s Memorial Service. I suspect it happened overnight. Although I never asked who did the honors, I figured it was Mick and one of the two Jims, the same pair who liberated it in the first place, which seemed poetic and fitting. So that’s the story I’m going with.
As for the combination dance and memorial service, a part of me might have liked to see everything unfold, but I was way too close to the plans and the conspiracy to risk it. Assuming Mr. Hackman would blame me anyway, I needed a clean alibi from having any direct association. I had a great excuse for not buying tickets to the dance. I was attending Tipp City’s dance with Pam, and so, I’d be an hour’s drive away from Countryside, adding further distance and credibility. If I were involved in the memorial at our high school’s dance, would I not want to witness it?