The guilt stayed with me for months. It had been a moment of anger and rage. I remember the Saturday walk from the house across our gravel driveway to the mailbox on the other side of the road.
Wrapped around my father’s bills were the newspapers my parents got. Flipping through the envelopes, it did not take long to realize my hopes had been dashed again. It had been over six weeks since, with the help of my mother, I had cut the required proofs of purchase off the side of the Kellogg cereal boxes and mailed them to the company to get what I longed for, a plastic swimming Fred Flintstone.
Only three or four inches in height, it came in either yellow, red, white or blue and resembled Bedrock’s favorite resident, except, instead of feet, Fred had flippers. When it was put together, an arm was raised above his head and the other was down at his side and inside was a rubber band. When you spun the arms manually in reverse, it would tighten the rubber band. You would then place him in a tub, and this plastic marvel of technology would swim, his arms whirling in circles until the rubber band unwound.
I had a bright yellow one a few months earlier. I remember the sheer joy of watching Fred swim across the kitchen sink. It was a thing of beauty to behold, well, until one of my older brothers grabbed it out of the water. Before I knew it, he was racing through the house with Fred. My short elementary school legs could not keep up! Fred was placed in a new body of water, the toilet. As I crossed the threshold, my brother looked at me, smiled, and pushed the lever. FLUSH! I gasped. Poor Fred swam for his dear life as the water pulled him down.
By the time I reached the bowl, all I saw was Fred’s hard, yellow flippers as he disappeared. He fought valiantly, but the current was too great. It was a voyage to the bottom from which he would never return. This was murder, cold-blooded murder. I balled up my fists and took a swing at my brother. It didn’t matter if he was in high school and several years older than me. He was going down. I would love to say what happened next was a glorious embodiment of the sweet science, that I bobbed, weaved, and jabbed like Sugar Ray Leonard.
But that was not the case. He just extended his arm straight out, his hand on my forehead, and laughed as I swung wildly at the air. Nor did a single blow ever come close to making contact. Our epic battle only ended when my father bellowed from the family room to knock it off. He was trying to watch TV after a long day at work. For the life of me, I could not fathom how my father could be more interested in some cowboy movie than finding justice for Fred. The least he could have done is remove the toilet from the floor to see if somehow Fred had clung on in the pipe for dear life!
If I was going to get another Fred Flintstone swimmer, it meant consuming six more boxes of cereal and cutting off all of those proofs of purchase all over again. My mother had this strange notion that the cereal her children ate needed to be healthy. No Franken Berry. No Boo Berry. No Count Chocula. No Lucky Charms. No Sir Grapefellow. No Cookie-Crisp. No colorful characters on the sides of our cereal boxes beaming back at us. No marshmallows turning the milk in our bowls pink, brown, or pale blue.
I used to pray to Jesus every morning that somehow my mom would absent-mindedly make a mistake at the grocery store and place a cereal box with the word “Sugar”on the side in the title in the cart. I fantasized on the bus on the way to school when other kids spoke of the sugar at the bottom of their bowls as they slurped the milk. I dreamed of a world with Quangaroos and Crazy Cows in it.
The Soderstrums had the choice of Wheaties, Rice Crispies, Cornflakes, or whatever off-brand cereal acted like a scrub brush on our insides and made us the most regular youngsters in the entire school district. I even remember a box of Total in the pantry, but I doubt any of us were brave enough to consume it. I honestly believed the community wide whistle that let the farmers know to come in for lunch was set by my brothers and me raising our hands in class to use the restroom.
The cereal I loathed the most was Raisin Bran. The reason was that we lived in an old farmhouse with fields of corn on all sides of us. This meant we had mice, especially after harvest season. The cats and traps could not keep up with their constant invasions. There were countless nights I could hear them scratching inside my bedroom walls.
Once, and my mom will confirm this when the annual “Try on stocking hats and gloves day” happened, my mom brought out the cardboard box with the clothing items that were supposed to get us through the winter. You stood in line until it was your turn, a stocking hat was placed on your head and gloves were thrown at you. If any hole in the garment was not too large and everything somewhat fit, off to the school bus.
I adjusted my new hand-me-down hat and informed my mom of a lump in my hat. She took it off my head, shook it, placed it back on my head and told me to stop complaining. I again told her that there was a lump in my hat. We went through the same process for a second time. The third time, as telling her there was a lump in the hat, I grabbed my headwear, shook it at her, and a mouse flew out, landed on her foot, and scurried across the floor. I don’t remember a lot of what happened next as she hip-checked me to the floor as she ran screaming from the room.
So, I did not trust Raisin Bran. Plus, it was just plain gross cereal. Yet, for Fred, I ate it every morning, bowl after awful bowl. Finally, after the last box had been emptied, everything was mailed off. Then came the long painful wait, usually eight weeks. About week four, a kid would get antsy. I did.
I was still fuming at my brother, plotting my revenge. I dreamt of tying him to the ground and dumping fire ants all over his body, even with not a single fire ant within six states. I thought about quicksand. I pictured myself standing there, watching the earth swallow him, and make sure the last words he heard were, “This is for Fred.” Again, hard to find quicksand on a Midwestern farm. There were also thoughts about cannibals, vampires, or sharks. No luck there. Then, as I looked at the mail that Saturday morning, I saw his name on the envelope. I glanced at the words on it. It was too perfect. God sent me this droplet of revenge from the heavens!
This was one piece of mail he was never going to receive. I looked around and tore it up. I tore each piece into smaller pieces and then into even smaller pieces until it resembled confetti. I threw the pieces up into the air and watched the wind carry them across the yard. My revenge was so sweet. Someday, when he was really, really old, like thirty or forty, and on his deathbed, I would tell him what I did. His last thought would be that his life would have been different, happier if he hadn’t taken his angelic brother’s Fred Flintstone swimmer.
It was then I suddenly realized I loved my brother! He was my hero. I wanted to be just like him. How could I have done this to him? That letter would have changed his life forever. What had I done?
The guilt lasted for weeks. The weight of what I had done clung to me like a heavy coat. To this day, I have never told my oldest brother how close he had come to being a millionaire. Ed McMahon on the envelope had said he was already a possible winner of the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. He would never open the door to find balloons and Johnny Carson’s sidekick holding a giant check and it was my fault.
Epilogue: The new Fred, who was blue in color, arrived about a week later. He lasted only a couple of days. Apparently, he was last seen strapped by his own rubber band to a bottle rocket heading towards the heavens. Granted, I had the matches and it was my bottle rocket. In my heart, I know it was someone else’s fault.
Trevor Soderstrum is a Story City native who has been writing columns for about 10 years or so. He’s been all over the world, and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He loves to share his stories.