STEWED PRUNES – THE STORY
I would wager that this is the first story, and perhaps the last story, you will ever read where stewed prunes are a major factor. It happened at my boarding school tucked away in Venezuela’s Andes Mountains. Parents were a loooong way away and this was during a time in Venezuelan history when telephones were few and far between and calls were exceedingly expensive. The poor dorm parents were responsible for caring for 40 boys, each of whom was creative, adventurous, smart and boosted by a tsunami of testosterone. In a pecking order which lends credence to Darwinian theory, each boy had to earn his position and rank through creative behaviors, most of which were frowned upon by conservative fundamentalist tradition in which “No” was the default position on most everything. For the boys, dorm life was a wild unfettered romp of adventure and excitement; but for the poor dorm parents, place names like Purgatory, Attica, and Alcatraz come to mind. I do not know what the dorm parents had done in a former life to merit the bad karma with which they had been cursed by being at my boarding school. As evangelical Christians my dorm parents believed in salvation through grace and not merit, so the self-flagellation of accepting an assignment at the boarding school baffles me to this day.
One night, in an attempt to improve efficiency, the dorm parents had pre-set the tables in the dining room for the next day’s breakfast. Not a bad idea. What was not a good idea was placing two stewed prunes in each boy’s bowl. I’m not sure why prunes were even offered to us, since teenaged boys living in the tropics, drinking water of dubious quality, and eating street vendor food were seldom if ever in need of the medicinal benefits proffered by boiled prunes. Regardless, the tables were set and the prunes were in place.
Lights out in the dorm was at 10:00. The expectation was that the six boys in each room would instantly succumb to the sandman and quietly and gently fall asleep in submissive quietness. That may have happened once or twice. Usually, it was laughter, story telling, reading books by flashlight, sneaking out of the room in order to raid another room, playing practical jokes on each other and in general doing anything but drifting quietly off to sleep.
The night the prunes were in the bowls presented a unique and never to be repeated opportunity for creative behavior. The temptation was truly irresistible. My best friend and I crept silently from our beds, out the door and down the hallway towards the dining room. The dining room was a large room with oven-baked red clay block walls plastered with cement. The acoustics were horrendous, and any noise seemed to be amplified exponentially. In an attempt to deaden the noise, large sound-absorbing panels had been attached to the walls; but it was too little too late. A whisper became a shout, a mealtime burp a Mount St. Helens explosion, and gentle discourse during meal time a football stadium cacophony.
I have been cursed with a physical condition which qualifies me for neither disability pay nor a handicapped parking spot. My ankles and knees sometimes pop and snap like a bowl of Rice Krispies in cold milk. In the dining room, with its horrendous acoustics, my popping ankles sounded like the soundtrack from a battle scene in Saving Private Ryan. Each step produced a loud pop which echoed and reverberated in the echo chamber dining room. We approached the dorm parents’ table, which was centrally located in relation to all the other tables. We ate the prunes in the dorm parents’ bowls and spit the pits back into their bowls.
As we were putting the finishing touches on our crime, we heard a door open. It was the door; the door from whence Smaug appeared. My popping ankles had awakened the dragon from his deep slumber. He was the one creature we feared, the one being who held our fate and destiny in his hands. The fire-breathing dorm father was awake and he was heading our way. In panic we turned and ran back towards our room, hoping to be in our beds before the dragon could detect who the nighttime prune thieves were.
Not only were the acoustics horrendous in the dining room, but the roof leaked in places. It had rained earlier in the day. In our panicked race back to our room in our stocking feet, we did not notice the puddle in the hallway. Squish. The second we stepped in the puddle we knew our fate had been sealed, as there would be no way to conceal the trail of wet footprints leading directly to our beds. Like an inmate being led to the gas chamber, I knew the end was in sight with no way out whatsoever. Yet I ran. It was the running of the knowing doomed.
I jumped into my bed, my friend, Ron, jumped into his. Hearts pounding, deep breathing escaping our nostrils like steam from an old locomotive climbing the Rockies, we tried to calm ourselves, all the while anticipating with dread that which was as unavoidable as sunrise on the day of a geometry test.
Like the doorway to a medieval dungeon our bedroom door opened. Our dorm father, with the certitude of a bloodhound trailing a wounded fugitive leaving behind his scent, approached my bed without a moment’s hesitation. The soggy trail of footprints on the polished terrazzo floor left what might as well have been a large neon arrow pointing right at me, shouting out in flashing red lights “It’s him, It’s him.” Pretending to be asleep was futile; nonetheless, I tried.
“Dress”–that was my nickname taken from my last name, Dresselhaus–“What were you doing out of bed?” “Huh, what? Huh.” Pretending to be waking from a deep sleep was a last desperate attempt to deny and delay the predestined. “I know it was you, Dress. The footprints end at your bed.” Nailed. Caught wet-footed. Guilty as charged. Sentence pending. “Tomorrow we will deal with this. Now stay in bed.” Smaug left the room, the smell of burning sulfur lingering behind him as a reminder of the inescapable fate before me.
The next morning, before the prayer, the dorm father instructed all the boys who hated stewed prunes and didn’t want to eat them to dump them into Dress and Ron’s bowls. Like grain falling from a conveyor belt into the hold of a China bound freighter, the mound of prunes grew and grew. I’m guessing that Ron and I each had twenty or more stewed prunes in our bowls. The sentence was carried out. We ate them all.
After breakfast we went to school. The dorm father had contacted the school and obtained permission for us to make as many journeys to the bathroom as needed due to the predicted and near certain effects of overdosing on stewed prunes. We survived the day. I don’t recall how many trips to the bathroom I made that day, but I do know it was many. I have not eaten a stewed prune in over 40 years.