Photo credit: store.cdbaby.com
By: J. Bryant Ray
This is a true story based upon an account as told to the author by one of the participants. Names and places have been changed to protect the guilty parties.
This is a story of five boys who were as close as five boys could have been in the summer of 1963. They played sports all thru their high school years; not all of the five played the same sport, that is, until they were introduced to the game of golf in 1962. The superintendent of the county school system was an avid golfer and decided that the local high school needed a golf team. Five of us were selected out of a group of some twenty-five applicants and we proceeded to learn the game of golf. Several weeks went by; in addition to instruction we received from the Superintendent we had also secretly received some tips from a pro at one of the local courses. By now our gang of five had reached the point that we could play together in a multitude of ways to make our skills work to our advantage during a tournament. We continued to practice weekly so we could maximize our effectiveness in the tournaments that Coach Carter had in the works.
In fact it was following one of those Saturday sessions at Jumping Jack Hills that our troubles began. We had just finished 27 holes and each of us was feeling pretty good about our collective game. We stopped at a burger spot on the way home from the course; across the street was a small store where one of the guys said he had bought beer before. We decided what could it hurt to pick up some beer for the trip home, after all we did have food, and what goes best with burgers; “BEER!”
We are driving along singing, eating burgers and drinking beer without a care in the world. Somewhere around the halfway point Bill announces he has to take a leak.
I am not positive who had the not-so-bright idea of attacking mailboxes, perhaps it was the beer talking. As we continued on our way, mailboxes were appearing pretty much equally on both sides of the car. They proved to be a bit of a challenge until you got the rhythm of speed and distance. It was great fun as we continued this game for the next 45-minutes until we approached the outskirts of town.
We still had about 10-15 stones remaining; Ralph suggested we turn around and take a shot at the ones we might have missed! As we headed back it began to be abundantly clear just what we had done. In front of us lay a literal waste land of broken posts, scattered mail and bent mail boxes, some completely broken away and carried two or three yards down the highway. Returning quickly to the car we drove below the posted speed limit back into town. No one spoke the rest of the way home, each of us exiting Paul’s car without so much as a good-bye! That night and most of the next day I remained quiet; but still suffering a great deal of internal torment over what we had done. I was certain that this type of destruction would not go without punishment, the severity of which I was yet to realize! However, in the coming days this matter would come painfully into focus.
On Thursday of the following week the principal over the intercom made the following announcement:
“Attention all students, will the following gentlemen please report to the office; Paul Johnston, Joe McDuffie, Bill Bedford, Ralph Ferguson…and Tommy Johns!”
I felt this huge lump rise from the pit of my stomach up into my throat; my palms began to sweat, my forehead turned cold and clammy and I felt nauseous, all at the same time. This was not so much for what I knew was coming next but more a concern for what the resulting punishment might be. I wasn’t sure what we faced from Mr. Patterson but I was painfully aware of what lay ahead for me when my Dad learned of our little escapade.
Heading down the hallway, the principal’s office was just ahead, and from here I could see Mary Lou Ross, a teacher’s aid and Bill’s girlfriend; she appeared to be crying. The drama was almost overwhelming. As I entered the outer office I glanced thru the Principal’s doorway and my worst fears were realized; for inside stood the Sheriff, Principal Patterson, Coach Carter and one man dressed in a suit with a badge showing.
Mr. Patterson, using his best baritone voice says; “you boys come inside we need to ask you a few questions.”
I look at Paul, he’s looking at Ralph, Bill is practically in tears, Joe is standing as straight as he can, nervously twiddling with a pencil; a habit he has had since kindergarten. Coach Carter is staring right at me with a look of disbelief!
Mr. Patterson introduces each man in turn; “boys this is Mr. Wilkins from the Postal Inspector’s Office and I’m sure you know Sheriff Crawford. Boys I think you know why we’re here. The sooner you tell us the truth, the better it will be for all parties concerned. Mr. Wilkins, will you begin?”
“Thank you Principal Patterson. Boys, I represent the inspection arm of the United States Postal Service, it is my job to investigate claims filed by individuals or companies whenever we suspect fraud or terrorism has been committed within the mail service. On Monday morning I received a call concerning the destruction of several mailboxes. It seems that quite a number, 37 to be exact, of mailboxes were vandalized and a lot of mail was destroyed in the process. What, if anything, do either of you boys know of this?”
A brief moment of silence followed by the sound of sniffling, Bill Bedford is ready to break down.
Paul speaks up first; “It was me sheriff, I was driving the car. We had just left the golf course and were headed home, we thought it would pass the time a bit if we had a diversion, we didn’t plan to destroy property.”
Sheriff Crawford says; “I’m glad you spoke first Paul, I’ve known you boys since you were kids, and I’ve watched you grow up. Besides, we already had your license tag.”
Next I speak; “Sheriff, Coach, Mr. Patterson we were wrong for thinking this would be just harmless fun. I guess we were just charged up by the fact that our golf game had steadily improved; we have been practicing quietly and were celebrating a victory of sorts hoping that we could show Coach how much we had jelled as a team. We were looking forward to the next tournament.”
Joe speaks next; “Coach, I am sorry we let the team down, we let you down we’ve even let the school down. Most of all when we turned back toward the road and saw the results, we just got scared, we knew we had done wrong; but we couldn’t fix it.”
Bill, sniffling and sobbing he can only say; “I’m sorry and I am ready for my punishment.”
Ralph is a bit more belligerent; “Coach we just had a bit of good fun, it was innocent, some of those mailboxes were just a piece of tin nailed on a 2X4 post.”
Mr. Fountain stands to speak; “son what is your name?”
Ralph asks; “me? My name is Ralph Ferguson.”
“Son why are you so confrontational? These other boys, they have confessed and seem genuinely sorry for their actions. But son, you have missed the point! It is not about the mailboxes,tampering is a crime punishable by a fine and prison or both. I am sure in your mind some of them were merely pieces of metal nailed to a 2X4 post. However, the contents of these boxes are considered private property.”
I look over at Ralph; he is as white as a sack of fresh picked cotton. I believe he has finally understood the gravity of the situation. The rest of the team is standing in various stages of solitary disbelief. The sheriff stands to speak; “boys, your parents have already been notified; each of them has been asked to come to the post office tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 PM.”
After the sheriff and the man from the postal service exit the principal’s office, Coach Carter begins; “boys I am extremely disappointed in each of you, I had thought you were above such a childish act of destruction. I realize that I was wrong, at least some of you had the courage to confess. However, you can rest assured that there will be disciplinary action taken.”
Principal Patterson says; “you boys are excused for the rest of the day and tomorrow as well. I don’t want you discussing this with any other students, do you understand?”
Almost in unison our response was; “Yes sir!”
I make that long walk home.I walk in the back door of my house and immediately see my Mom standing in the kitchen. The look she gives me says it all; I’m doomed!
Mom says; “how could you have done such a thing?” As I attempt to speak, words will not come; Finally I manage to get out; “Mom, I am so sorry; it was just a case of group thinking, we all just reacted without giving any thought to the consequences of our actions. I am disappointed in myself, not to mention how I feel about letting people down who have always believed in me.”
Mom responds; “I am not sure what your Dad will say, he just called me and told me what the sheriff had said.”
I go to my room to await my fate. It wasn’t long before I hear my Dad come home. There I am, waiting in my room like a convicted serial killer, a murderer of mailboxes, awaiting the call for that long walk to the gas chamber, not even a final meal; hoping against all hope that somehow maybe the Governor will offer me amnesty, the one last chance at redemption that only he can give.
The door to my room opens, my Dad is standing in the open doorway just looking at me with that piercing stare, that look of disappointment, I have seen it many times.
Dad finally speaks; “son, what were you thinking?”
“That’s it, I wasn’t thinking, at least about what the results would be.” I said.
I continue; “Dad, when we turned around and drove back down the road, it was surreal, like a scene from a bad movie. I had no idea of the destruction we had caused. It wasn’t until I saw the mail strewn all along the highway like a bag of garbage that had been struck by multiple cars that I realized the seriousness of what we had done. By then it was too late to fix, we just panicked and ran away. My Dad just walks away and says; “we’ll talk about this in the morning, you know we have to meet with the Sheriff and the postal inspector tomorrow afternoon?”
I am guessing that most of my friends are experiencing similar responses as their parents confront them with the gory details! Stories of lives lost, dogs gone astray, property ripped from its foundation and strewn about like debris from a terrible weather incident.
Somehow, in my twisted way of thinking, I come up with; “if we added a line about a trailer and a pick-up truck, we would have the makings of a good Country song!
I have no idea where this sarcasm comes from; this is serious stuff! It wouldn’t be the first time my thoughts came out of my mouth and got my ass in trouble!
It was a very long and sleepless night; however, when I awoke the following morning I actually felt a little better. I guess that confession is actually good for the soul; I was both relieved and a bit puzzled that I had not received the beating I had anticipated. We ate breakfast without saying a word; I suppose my Dad didn’t know quite what to say. Sometimes the silence is much worse than receiving the punishment.
It seemed that it took a lifetime for 2:00 PM to finally arrive, I had this sick feeling in my stomach, as my Mom and I drove to the post office to meet Dad; at 1:45 PM we walked directly to the upstairs meeting room. There I saw my other team members; Paul was there with his Dad, he had a fresh mark on his face and a swollen left eye. Bill was there with his grandfather. Bill was still sniffling. Joe was sitting across the table flanked on either side by his Mom and Dad; they looked upset. Ralph was there, alone; my guess is his Dad was hung over as usual and his Mom was probably too beat up to appear in public.
In a few minutes the Sheriff came in along with Mr. Wilkins. The local Postmaster, Billy Boyd was also in the room. Mr. Boyd was my Sunday school teacher, I was immediately further embarrassed by what I had done.
I thought to myself; “How could I have been so stupid?”
The Sheriff spoke; “thank you for arranging your schedules to attend this meeting. I have spent the morning talking with a number of the families along Route 446; You boys made quite a mess out there, lucky for you that most Saturday mail delivery is circulars, and promotional pieces, the so called ‘junk mail’.
Mr. Wilkins rises to speak; “my name is Thomas Wilkins, I am the Southern Regional Director for the US Postal Inspection Service; my responsibilities include; fraud, theft and acts of terrorism as they apply to the safety of the US Mail. My office is in Jacksonville, FL. When I received the call from Postmaster Boyd I assumed this would be a routine investigation, we would interview witnesses, ask the sheriff to interrogate suspects, find the responsible parties and proceed with a court date. Cases of this type typically result in convictions, fines and, in certain cases, incarceration. My job is pretty routine and at times monotonous. However, sometimes a case seems different from the beginning; this is one of those cases.”
He takes a sip of coffee and continues; “you boys have shown a remarkable amount of maturity in the way you have taken responsibility for your actions. Rarely do I see this reaction; more often than not the case develops into an exercise of finger pointing eventually being settled by the courts at a great deal of cost to both sides. In these cases the only winners are the attorney’s. I see this case as a bit different. It is clear to me that while damage was done and property was lost, I don’t sense the anger and thoughts of retribution that normally accompany similar situations. I actually believe that a valuable lesson is here for the taking; that is the course I would like to pursue this afternoon.”
I raise my hand, like a schoolboy asking permission to speak.
Sheriff Crawford says; “what is it son?”
I stand at my seat and begin; “I know that we have done a very terrible thing, it all started without any thought of the outcome. I know these guys as well as anyone including my family; as a group and individually I believe we are truly sorry for what we have done. I would like to make a suggestion if I might.”
Mr. Wilkins says; “go ahead son, what is your suggestion?”
I look at Paul, Joe and Ralph; “I would like to propose that we replace the individual mailboxes for each of the ones that we destroyed. Hopefully this small gesture will be received as our way of apologizing for a minute of foolish mischief that went terribly wrong.”
Postmaster Boyd rises; “I believe that you boys are truly repentant for your actions. However, before we start down this path, I want to ask that each of you agree to go see each family and make the suggestion directly. Then, and only then, do I believe this situation can be resolved.”
Mr. Wilkins looks around the room; “I need to hear from each of you.”
Paul says; “yes sir, I agree with Tommy.”
Joe is next he raises and looks directly at Mr. Boyd; “sir, I am deeply sorry for having taken part in this act. I know that you are a Sunday school teacher and all, and I don’t attend church with any regularity, but I want to make this right.”
Bill Bedford looks up and says; “I’m sorry for what I did and I will accept whatever you think is fair punishment.”
All eyes are focused on Ralph Ferguson.
Ralph stands, wiping his nose he begins; “I am sorry that my Mom couldn’t be here, she isn’t feeling too good today but, she told me that no matter what, I had to do the right thing. Yesterday I was trying to be a tough guy, trying to show my buddies that I couldn’t care less about a bunch of mailboxes. Who cares about a few pieces of tin and some unwanted mail lying on the ground anyway?”
I’m thinking; “Ralph, you’re about to blow it! Shut-up Ralph before you get us all in more hot water with Coach and everyone else!”
Ralph continues; “I had a tough time sleeping last night, before yesterday I wouldn’t have given what we did another thought. When we turned Paul’s car around, it was my intention to go back down the road and finish off any mailboxes that we had missed. I was all about trying to perform additional destruction; I guess I was releasing some of the anger that has been inside for quite a long time. When I saw what we had done, it was kind of like looking at the results of a storm or something, Usually you think of a storm as being a natural thing, something that can not be controlled; what we did, the destroying of property for no reason except for the pure enjoyment of having done it; well that got to me, for the first time in my life I realized that I can control my anger, I can channel it to something more useful. I credit Coach Carter for having shown us that we can accomplish things. Yesterday Coach dismissed me from the team, I wasn’t angry, I felt defiant! Today it’s much different, I agree with Tommy.”
A long silence filled the room. I could hear throats being cleared, faint sighs, mixed with coughing and sniffles. Kind of like after the preacher finishes his sermon, perhaps more like the end of a summation to the jury by the prosecution; sort of a that’s that, its in your hands now!
The Sheriff rises; “OK then, it’s settled. I want you boys to come to my office tomorrow morning at 8:00, we will drive out to each family and speak with them, I want them to see your faces and hear from your mouths what has been discussed here this afternoon.”
We drove with Sheriff Crawford out to the various homes whose property we had destroyed without provocation. I had gone by the local building supply and picked up a catalog of mailbox styles and colors. One by one we knocked on the doors each of us taking turns speaking to the families, offering them a choice of color and style. In some cases the mailboxes had been returned to their original spot but mostly the damage was still visible; the dents, dings and marks of the stones that were thrown were still there; signs of what we had done. Accomplishments of a once harmless prank that turned to something more sinister; however, with only a few exceptions, our plan was met with agreement of the families.
All in all we had to replace 25 individual mailboxes. The owner of the local building supply was a big booster of sports for the high school. He agreed to sell us the mailboxes at dealer cost, even volunteering to allow us to ‘work off’ the cost at the store that summer.
For the next couple of weekends we proceeded to replace the mailboxes one by one; some families pitched in to help, others provided plenty of iced tea and water as we made our rounds to each location. I shall never forget this experience as long as I live. One particular family still has a place in my heart. Their name was Simpson, there’s was the one mailbox that Ralph had referred to as a piece of tin nailed over a 2X4. When Ralph and I approached the house we were met by a gaggle of kids; most without shoes and none appearing to be beyond the age of five. We looked in and saw the father, he was in a wheelchair watching TV; in a couple of minutes the mother came to the door, she was wearing an apron and wiping her hands, asked if we would like something to drink.
Ralph replied; “no ‘Mam, we are here to replace your mailbox; we have white or black, do you have a preference?”
The lady replied; “either one will do, all we get is bills anyway.”
We thanked her and walked down to the highway. We took special care to make sure this mailbox was placed the proper distance from the edge of the roadway and that it was plumb and set in concrete. We even placed adhesive letters “Simpson” on either side of the mailbox. Someone later placed a few flowers around the perimeter of the new, shiny mailbox; I suspected Ralph.
Ralph and I often think of the Simpson family and each time we pass their house on the way home from the golf course we take up a collection among ourselves leaving a little surprise in that mailbox. It makes us feel good that we did the right thing, especially for the Simpson’s’. At least not everything they receive in their mailbox is a bill!
For the next several years, each Thanksgiving and Christmas, we’ve collected food, toys and clothing for the Simpson family, always leaving them on the front porch in the dead of night!
If CONFESSION is good for the soul, then REDEMPTION is truly good for ones character!”