Early Unorganized Crime

When John Sweetman was trading his smoked salmon sandwich on homemade bread for a peanut butter sandwich on punky store bread, it wasn’t because he didn’t prize his Dad’s smoked salmon; it was just that he had salmon on homemade bread all the time.

As a young pre-criminal, I was tying beach dried willow roots into packages of ten sticks which I would sell at school for a dime.  We called it smoke wood because the inside was porous and the short stick smoked like a cigar.  All our transactions were held behind the gym, since the teachers wouldn’t allow us to sell stuff on school grounds.

“I can show you how to turn pennies into dimes,” John told me one day as we bicycled down to his house.  When we got there, he hauled out a small bottle of acid and a separate small bottle of mercury which cost John a dollar.  The penny didn’t look too good after the acid had been cleaned off with baking soda; it was all pitted and looked like it had lain in the street, and been run over by many cars.  John poured a small amount of mercury in the palm of his hand to roll the battered penny around in until it shined like a “dime,” fresh out of the mint.  It didn’t matter to us that the treatment was many times the cost of a dime.

We bought our candy from the shop teacher who had it as sort of a sideline; we kids called it “moonlighting.”  The “chicanery” started when the bullies stiff-armed the younger kids for their penny candy and sold it to other kids for money.  We called the bully, “Jawbreaker”…he died in a logging accident at 16.

When Jawbreaker had good hard candy, he would suck on it until it turned white and then slip it back in the original wrapper to be re-sold to an unsuspecting kid.
We had games like marbles or flipping pocket knives for sport.   A guy with a large bag of marbles dangling from his belt became a symbol of wealth as we tried to beat him out of his marbles. Mumblety-peg was a way to get rid of an old knife you might not care too much for.  That’s why we only took our old “crappy” knives to a game, in case we lost, for mumblety-peg was dangerous.  A knife could be had for 50 cents and we preferred carbon steel to stainless because it was easier to sharpen and we took pride in the condition of an edge.  The sharper the better; one test was arm shaving; the occasional bleeding cut was expected.  In fact, it wasn’t unknown to cut our arms on purpose for the mixing of blood and thus becoming blood brothers, an old Indian custom, or so we were told.

Playing mumblety-peg consisted of standing opposite of each other with feet spread apart, holding the knife tip between two fingers just above the right shoulder or left, if that was your best arm and flipping the knife at the opposing person so that it stuck in the ground as close as all get out, to the other person’s foot.  The person who got the closest won the bet and took the other person’s knife.  If you got stuck in the foot, the other person was disqualified.  If you moved your foot, you lost your turn.  Only folding knives could be used and the knife had to turn over at least one time in flight.  It was a prize to win a genuine Case knife.

Jean Sherman, Vashon’s near centenarian, reminds us:  “If you bring a knife to school now, its grounds for expulsion.”