There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

I was a lunchtime loser until one day when I hit the jackpot

Every day that I was in grade school, my mother would pack me a sensible lunch with carrots, an apple and a tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread. It was very healthy, but screamingly abnormal as far as I was concerned and branded me forever as a lunchtime loser. I lusted after the lunches of my friends with their PB&J sandwiches on white, no-nutritional-value bread, corn chips and Ho-Hos, all carefully packed in their "Lost in Space" and "Doctor Doolittle" lunchboxes. I prayed that my mother would, for once, just stop being a health nut and make me a regular lunch. Really, was PB&J on Wonder Bread too much to ask for?

Most kids can comfortably walk into their kitchens without fear of being accosted by root vegetables, but that wasn't the case at our house. My mother was always at the ready with carrots—not even uniformly julienned carrot sticks, but whole, skin-still-on carrots. She'd pressed them upon you whether you wanted them or not.

It wasn't until I was at a Girl Scout Day Camp in Alum Rock Park in Northern California when it looked as if my greatest lunchtime dream was going to come true. I was going to get some snacks.

Alum Rock Park was once the site of a Victorian spa, mainly because of its many hot mineral springs. The only trouble is that one of those minerals is sulfur, so that the springs, while beautiful, have the distinct smell of rotten eggs.

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After a morning of creek-walking and doing arts & crafts, it was time for lunch. I grabbed the brown bag that had a big "C" for Chris on it and went to sit behind a large oak tree. I opened the sack expecting to find my regular healthy lunch, but at the top was a brand-new box of crayons. A gift? From my mother? How thoughtful and appropriate—and how unexpected of her. My mother had never left a gift or love note or anything like that in my lunch before, but hope, like the mineral waters at Alum Rock Park, springs eternal.

Underneath the crayons was a baggie of Oreo cookies. I was shocked. We sometimes had whole-wheat fig cookies, naturally sweetened—the kind that you scoop out of the big bins at the natural foods store—but we never ever had Oreos. My mother was highly suspicious of the creamy white filling and considered it some kind of toxic paste. Luckily, I had eaten Oreos at my best friend's house and could recognize them as the fantastic, delicious cookie they were.

Oreos! What a gift! And my birthday wasn't until September.

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Since it was obviously backward day, I decided to start my meal with dessert. Still slightly uneasy with this new style of normal lunch and trying to ignore the rotten egg smell, I didn't take the time to pull the cookies apart and scrape the filling off with my teeth; I ate them whole, enjoying every quick bite.

I dug further into the sack and pulled out a bag of plain Lay's potato chips. There weren't that many potato chip flavors in the late 1960s: barbecue and regular. But it didn't matter, I thought potato chips were the food of the gods, and I quickly gobbled them down.

When I pulled out the sandwich, I thought my heart would burst. It was peanut butter and jelly on Wonder bread, just like in the commercials they showed on Saturday mornings between cartoons. White bread, not the dense, way-too-wheaty wheat bread we usually had, and not the old-fashioned peanut butter that you had to stir with a butter knife because the oil always separated out. The most amazing element in that sandwich was that it was made with real grape jelly, not marmalade. This was a classic sandwich, one that any elementary-school kid could trade easily, although I had never had that particular experience.

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But one question buzzed inside my head, "Where were the carrots?"

I quickly ate the sandwich as if, at any moment, it might be snatched by a pack of marauding junk-food starved hikers. And as I was chewing my last bite of this wonderful meal, I heard a girl on the other side of the tree cry out, "Wheat bread! Yuck! Are those cucumbers on my sandwich?! And carrots?! This isn't my lunch!"

I knew immediately whose lunch it was, and I tried to blend into the nature surrounding me just like the salamanders and lizards.

"I can't eat this," she said, "it's so gross."

For a moment, I toyed with the idea of staying silent and not coming clean. No one would have to know that I had eaten her lunch.

"Mrs. Mapes! I think someone stole my lunch," the girl shouted.

I went over my options in my mind: if I kept silent and was found out later, I'd be ostracized and thrown out of Girl Scout camp. I'd be banned forever and forced to live wherever it was that lunch stealers lived. I had to admit what I had done and hope for mercy.

I carefully walked over the roots of the tree, with my hand on the trunk, and watched as the girl crumpled up my lunch as if it was garbage. She had a sour look on her face with her mouth contorted into a "Mean Girls" scowl.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I think I ate your lunch." I handed her the only thing that remained of it—the box of crayons.

The girl and her three friends stopped talking and the friends swiveled around to get a better look at me. I saw what I thought was pity in their eyes. No one said anything for what seemed like an eternity, and then the girl finally said, "Oh, uh, that's OK, here's your lunch," as she tossed the crumpled bag at me. I caught it with one hand but even that display of athleticism couldn't change the fact that I had committed a major day camp faux pas.

Feeling ashamed for my inedible lunch, I went back to my spot behind the tree, fished out my carrots, which were now broken, and started to chew. I listened to the girl laughing with her friends.

"Cucumber tuna sandwich on wheat bread! Yuck! Who eats that?!"

I stayed silent eating my carrots and wishing that the smelly waters of Alum Rock would swallow me whole.