Foundations of Conspiracy — Finding It: Chapter 7
Last summer, during the first week of two-a-day football practices, I re-injured my knee. It wasn’t a complicated drill, just simple wind sprints. When I made a quick pivot, I tried to go one way, but my knee stayed put.
Using my car, Bart drove me to my doctor’s office where he examined my knee, took an x-ray to confirm his suspicions and my worst fears. I was out for the season that hadn’t even begun.
The coaches offered me the team statistician position to continue being a part of the team. Even though therapy would eventually get my knee back to the point where I could participate in sports, it was over for football. But at least I could still be a part of the team. And the role seemed perfect for me as I knew everyone on the team. And it would be easy for me to do, plus it would free up an assistant head coach from the responsibility.
It wasn’t like it was anything new to me. The previous season, after my initial injury in a game, I helped out the managers for the balance of the season and, for that reason, was still able to travel on the team bus to away games and sit on the bench to watch the games. I did enough work as a manager that I felt more than justified my varsity letter, despite criticism from Kevin and others who were quick to place a verbal asterisk on my achievement.
You see most of the JV players were anxiously awaiting their chance to play and earn their own varsity letters. In their eyes, my letter came on a technicality. They said the rule was intended to not penalize ‘real’ varsity players who were injured in a game. However, since I wasn’t a first or second-stringer at the time of injury and was only in the game because the first stringer was out with the flu and the second-stringer was prone to leg cramps, which temporarily took him out of the game and allowed me my chance to run a few plays only to get injured, they claimed I should not have received a letter. It mattered not at all to them that the actual rule contained no such stipulations restrictions. But immediately after the awards banquet when I was awarded a varsity letter, a few of the guys started teasing me. When I began wearing my varsity letter jacket in public, especially when I continued as an equipment manager for the wrestling team, since my injury and continuing physical therapy prevented me from wrestling for my junior season as well, it just got worse. But I refused to stop wearing the jacket. After all it cost a lot of money and it fit me comfortably.
Still, “It isn’t like you actually earned it,” became their mantra. Yet, the same guys said nothing to Bart, Jason, or any of the other team managers or trainers who also earned varsity letters. Singling me out made no sense, other than they just liked to bully me. Perhaps it was mainly because I was an outsider, having not attended elementary and middle school with any of these guys.
Bart told me to ignore them, that they were just joking around. But it still got under my skin. I was certain I could have earned the letter as an athlete had I been given the chance to play, and had I not been injured. Before that injury, I worked hard in practice. When it came about, I deserved my chance to play. Was it my fault I got a stupid fracture at the top of the bone where it joined onto my knee? It happened in a game, and I was out for the rest of the season and more.
During the summer, after seeing to everything for the team’s early morning practices, which largely entailed hauling equipment and the water cart out to the practice field, regularly there was a matchstick poker game held in Bart’s ‘office’. We were safe because no one needed us for about an hour. Jason, the team’s student trainer, Bart, the equipment manager, Kenny, Bart’s assistant, Roger, Jason’s assistant, and I participated.
Often, they regaled of ‘war’ stories from their elementary and middle school grade school days. Since I had not known any of them back then and had nothing first-hand to contribute, mostly I listened. I’m sure they exaggerated things in the retelling. That part of the game, embellishing stories whether to make them funny or just to cast themselves in a better light. But unless someone called them out for such, I would never know. A well-told story was acceptable among friends.
But one morning, Bart was talking about M*A*S*H, his favorite TV show, and the Captain Tuttle episode in which Hawkeye and Trapper John created a fictional doctor who has allegedly just joined the unit. They easily convinced everyone he was real.
“Wouldn’t it be cool to do something like that,” Jason suggested. “As a senior prank, I mean.”
“We could create a fictional student,” I suggested.
“Okay,” Bart said. “I’m liking this already.”
“What would you call him?” Kenny, one of two underclassmen in the group asked.
Everyone seemed to be looking at me, the self-proclaimed writer and perhaps the most creative of the group. “Phillip, because there is only one other Phil in the school.”
“He needs a middle name,” Jason said. “Something that stands out”
“Rudolph,” Kenny offered.
I shook my head. “People would immediately think he has a red nose.”
Everyone else laughed.
“Randolph,” I suggested.
“Okay,” Bart said. “And the last name is…”
“Something weird. Something that if anyone really thought about it, they’d know it wasn’t a real name. But I think it would flow better if it also started with an R. Like Phillip Randolph…R-R-Rutabaga.”
Bart leaned back in his chair laughing. “What kind of friggin’ name is that?”
“Exactly my point,” I said. “We get him registered for classes and create a bogus file for him in the office to make sure his name shows up on attendance reports.”
“Can we do that?” Jason asked.
“Well, I’m sure we aren’t supposed to,” Bart said.
“I can talk to Lisa. She works in the office. She’d know what sorts of forms and things that we need to make it look real.”
“Maybe she could create it,” Bart suggested.
And that was how Phil was born.
I liked Lisa a lot. I’d been on friendly terms with her for a couple of years. We went out on a few dates, and we always had a good time together, just nothing ever advanced from it. And then she started dating a guy from Wittenberg, someone her cousin introduced her to, and any hope for me was lost, not that I was doing much to make my pitch.
From talking to her, Lisa recommended not creating a real file because that would require a lot of legal forms to be filled out and someone might get in a lot of serious trouble for forging official documents. However, she revealed that whenever the administration is waiting on paperwork, like whenever a student moves into the district and the previous school hasn’t sent their transcript or other records, there is a temporary folder created bearing the students name, home address, home phone number, class, homeroom, and just the basic contact information. That seemed perfect for our purposes.
Phil had to be a senior, of course, assigned to the same homeroom as many of the guys who were on the football team. His listed home address did not exist — being between the two legitimate houses in the Possum Woods subdivision that belonged to the parents of two senior varsity football cheerleaders who throughout school were best friends as well as next-door neighbors. We chose them because, according to the other guys, they had been teachers’ pets since grade school, elevating themselves to insufferable brown-noser status over time. No one would suspect them of instigating the prank. And even if they were blamed, nothing much would come from it as both their parents were well connected with members of the school board, and major boosters of school sports programs. One girl’s father was a lawyer, and the other was the manager of a factory. As for Phil’s phone number, I picked one of the payphones in the school lobby — perfect.
On the first day of the school year, of course, Phil didn’t answer when his name was called for attendance. The homeroom teacher filled out an absence slip and returned it to the office. The second day, when Phil’s name was called, Bart said, “He’s not here.” Again, he was marked absent.
By his third absence, most of the students in the homeroom were in on the prank. After being marked absent again, Phil’s name was flagged for the office assistants to call his parents. When they called, no one noticed the lobby phone ringing, at least not until they hung up… and in the background, the payphone stopped.
The administration was not amused. But they never determined who initiated the prank. Months later, with football season winding down, most everyone had forgotten about Phillip Randolph Rutabaga and the minor stir it caused for the first week of school. But the more memorable part of Phil’s saga was about to commence — just no one, including me, realized it.
In the interim, there were more important things to consider, like how key injuries had adversely affected our football team and laid to rest any hope we had of winning the league title. Early in the season, our team was ranked in the State, something that had never happened in the school’s fourteen-year history. We defeated number two ranked Bucyrus on their home turf. In the following week, we were debuted at number seven in the state where football is almost a way of life.
Going into the second week of the season we were prepared to do what no team in our school’s relatively brief history had accomplished, defeating Central Catholic, our arch-rival. Although every game was exciting and a few games ended in ties, we’d never won. Usually, we lost by a touchdown or less. Our team believed we were better, that it was our best chance ever. Then, on a freak play late in the game, we lost a key player for the season. In the end, we also lost the game by a field goal.
Other disastrous injuries crippled our team over the remaining season, and we struggled against teams that normally we should have dominated. In a crucial match-up with Fairborn Park Hills, the eventual league champions handed us the final crushing blow to our hopes.
Despite adversity, we were poised to take second place having only two losses, one of them to a non-conference team. It was not the kind of season the Class of ’74 envisioned, but it could have been much worse. Though there were a few press clippings for the scrapbook touting the achievements of the Countryside Eagles Football Team, there would be no trophies awarded. Second place was a disappointment. All that the team needed to do to hold second place was defeat Northeastern for the second time in the season.
It was a low-scoring, wild, defensive brawl with a lot of substitutions and little offense on either side. Whenever one team put a drive together, there was a fumble or an interception that ended it. Then there were too many devastating penalties. The only score came early in the fourth quarter when Martin Kaye kicked a twenty-five-yard field goal, capping off the most successful drive of the game, leaving it once again to the defense that had saved many close games throughout the season.
Our team held against a Northeastern drive late in the fourth quarter and came up with an interception near the goal line as time was running out — second place in the league secured. A far cry from the dominance we had enjoyed in prior years, still it was a tribute to how well we weathered the numerous misfortunes of a tough season.
With one game left — non-conference and of little importance, it was almost a foregone conclusion that we would win the season finale. Our opponent was a team from Cincinnati that, for the ensuing season, was canceling its football program forever. They had several consecutive losing seasons and had not won a game in over two years. Despite Coach Blue’s admonitions during practice to not take them lightly, everyone was confident that we would prevail without any difficulty.
Curiously, after Tuesday practice of the football season’s final week, Bart and I were invited over to Mick’s house. It felt odd. Even if Mick was an old friend of Bart, and he wrote a weekly column in the school newspaper, I barely knew him. It seemed he and Bart hadn’t really hung out together since middle school. Bart was left behind for associations with the movers and shakers of the class, the cool crowd that Bart and I laughingly referred to as the jet setters — kids from well-healed, upper-middle-class families who mainly lived in the exclusive neighborhoods in the school district. Bart and I didn’t belong in that crowd.
When we pulled up outside Mick’s house, it was clear that something big was afoot. Cars filled the driveway, spilling out to park along both sides of the road. It was mid-week — far too early for any impromptu party.
Recognizing the cars, Bart rattled off a who’s who of the senior class, including all its elected officers, noteworthy jocks, and cheerleaders, including Kim and Pam, the reigning homecoming and prom queens, respectively. What did we do to suddenly be worthy of an invitation?
Mick answered the door and directed us to sit at the same dining room table as the senior class president, vice president, and several others who rarely ever talked to me outside of the necessity of working together on some school project or Mick, Thom, and Jill who were columnists on the school newspaper.
One of the three Mikes in the room was sort of a friend, but I couldn’t recall having said more than a few words to anyone else in recent memory. One of the other Mikes and I had a run-in back during freshman year. The Third Mike I knew only from classes. Next to him was Rose, and then Dale, Rob, Annette, the two Jims, Jack and Mark — the latter I’d known since I was a sophomore and spoke with regularly before and after the classes we shared, but I doubted he considered me a friend.
Even if Bart and I were considered mere acquaintances of some of these people, whatever did we have in common with the others? We had no idea that in a few short hours we would become inseparably linked to an infamous conspiracy. It started with an innocent enough thought someone had for the senior class project. From that, everything twisted and turned, ending up sideways while dragging the original concept through the muck and mire. But once the plan was formulated, we all knew it was sure to be lifetime memorable. Just I wasn’t sure that I wanted to participate.
According to the Jim who was the class president, a recent meeting of the senior class officers proposed that the senior class raise funds to have the school’s victory bell bronzed and our class be given the credit for it with a bronze plaque attached to the stand. The idea had the unanimous support of the officers. So funding was not the issue. The purpose of the meeting was to determine how the senior class would obtain the victory bell without it being general knowledge of what we intended — so that it would be a surprise.
Certainly, after football season ended, Mr. Hackman, the Athletic Director, would have no problem yielding the bell for the intended purpose. We could ask him and swear him to keep the secret. It made a lot of sense, but that was far too easy, and he was part of the faculty and administration, so the risk was too high of him revealing what we planned. As the sneakiest if not most creative minds in the class were seated around that table, it became clear they intended to steal the victory bell, get it bronzed, and return it — all without anyone knowing what was going on. And if there were any way of pulling that off, these were the guys to do it.
The conspiracy was born!
Immediately it was apparent why Bart and I were invited. “They need patsies,” Carlos intruded on my internal monologue. He wasn’t wrong. Those were exactly my reservations as well.
Bart and I had access to the bell and where it was stored. Personally, I moved it to the back of the concession stand after every home game. Yet how could I be involved and not be an immediate suspect? Only a foolproof, well-coordinated, perfectly timed, and meticulously executed plan would work. And we had less than four days to come up with something amazing or a reasonable facsimile.
Admittedly, after the deliberation, I was skeptical what the group concocted could even work at all. There were too many variables being glossed over. “It won’t without considerable magic,” Carlos predicted.
“It relies on nearly perfect timing and execution.”
The others were insisting that Bart and I be left out of the actual acts, because of our insider status. That was supposed to somehow shield us from blame.
“What universe are these idiots from?”
We also needed to make certain that we are not remotely close to the actual event and have airtight alibis for where we were and what we were doing.
“The problem with that is that after a home game everyone is gone from the concession stand,” Carlos pointed out the obvious.
“And so are the spectators. I usually wheel the victory bell from the sideline to the concession stand. Mr. Hackman meets me there, unlocks the concession stand door, and I help him wheel the bell inside because we have to lift it over the threshold. All the time the bell is in plain view until it is wheeled behind the concession stand.”
“And then, almost immediately, Mr. Hackman descends from the press box.”
“Yeah, and he hands me the pole I use to shut off the field lights and he waits for me to finish that before he locks up.”
The usual case was that at no time was the victory bell out of someone’s line of sight. To be able to steal it, some plan had to be devised in very short order to interrupt that natural flow of events, allowing Mick and one of the two Jims, the president of our senior class, the access what was supposed to be a secure area while affording them an opportunity to confiscate the bell, including the time necessary for removing it from the frame of its wheeled stand.
“You can’t seriously be considering doing this.”
“What choice do I have?”
“Uh…just say, no.”
I mentioned the one large bolt and nut that attached the bell to the frame. It was as rusty as the bell itself. I recommended that Mick bring some rust solvent, even told him what size wrench would be needed. Having grown up on a farm where I had to work on heavy equipment like tractors and combines, I could tell the size of a bolt’s nut just by looking at it.
“You’re already in this way too deep.”
Mick doubted me and decided he’d bring a large crescent wrench along just in case.
“You’ll also need a length of pipe. You’ll need that for more leverage against the nut to break it lose from the accumulated years of exposure to the elements,” I added.
“Way too involved. Are you going to embrace your magic to make sure this goes off without a hitch?”
“I’m not sure I can control things that well. We’ll see.”
“Maybe someone could spray some of that rust solvent on the thing before the game,” Mick said.
“When are you going to do that?” Bart asked.
“I know people,” Mick laughed. “You know, concession stand workers are volunteers.”
Most everyone laughed.
It took some time to detail out who was going to do what and when. Caution was foremost. Others devised a simple set of code words for discussing the victory bell while in public. Mick suggested referring to the bell as Phillip Randolph Rutabaga, Phil for short, in honor of the fictitious student that the managers, trainers, and I had previously created. That seemed fitting.
“Failure is not an option. No one will understand your intentions, only see the fact that you attempted to steal school property.”
“What we are planning could easily turn into one serious, complicated mess,” I protested.
“It will work out,” Mick said. “Trust me.”
After the meeting, as I drove Bart home, he and I discussed our individual roles while expressing the serious concerns each of us had.
“I wish I could say that after all the discussions at the meeting I am comfortable.”
“There are still too many things left to chance. Mr. Hackman usually follows a routine but not always. It’s his unpredictability that bothers me the most.”
“If it works it will be amazing,” Bart said.
“We need to have some signals set up that tell everyone else that there’s a problem and we need to abort,” I suggested.
“Finally, one good idea.”
“Well, get with Mick and work something out,” Bart suggested. “All I know is, if we pull this off, we will all be remembered as — are you ready for it? ‘The Clapper Nappers’.”
“That will comfort us while we all rot in jail.”
“You worry too much.”
“Or not enough.”
“Bart, we’re the insiders in this. Who do you think Mr. Hackman is going to question first?”
“Exactly!” Carlos said.
“Well, we just make sure we aren’t around for any of the blame to stick.”
“You honestly think that if any of them get caught they won’t rat us out?”
“Now you’re talking.”
“Look, either we are in on this totally or we aren’t. If we aren’t, then we tell Mick that and we’re out. The whole thing is canceled, and the class officers can ask for the bell to have it bronzed.”
“And we’ll be to blame.”
“Because we let everyone else down. Yeah,” Bart said. “But if that’s how you want it…”
“Nice guilt trip. What a great friend you have in Bart.”
“Look, I get it that the others want to make memories that everyone in the class can share, even if they didn’t participate.”
“And we are key in this — you and me. How many opportunities has either of us had to really shine? We aren’t great athletes.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“Well, you are hiding it well,” Bart said. I couldn’t dispute that. “We’re mainly nerds but not even the best at being that, because we’re not going to win any academic awards. Some of the guys back there have a lot to lose if they get caught. They will be the ones with scholarships, grants, prizes, and such. They can’t afford to lose any of that, but there they are, completely participating. They want to do something memorable for the whole class. I’m in even if you aren’t. If you decide against it, at least keep quiet about it and just let it proceed.”
“How can I do that, Bart? I already know too much. If it happens and I’m asked about it, do you think it even matters that I didn’t play a role in the actual theft? I have no choice. I don’t like having no choice.”
“Then we make sure it works.”
“Cue the wolfcat magic, then. Better get busy with that, Brent.”
“Shut up, Carlos!”
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