The Blue Stones
It was 1950, maybe ’51, in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. I was a third grader at St. Stephen’s School. I always thought it kinda neat that Stephen’s school was in a town named Stevens, and congratulated myself on learning there were two spellings of a name that sounded the same. Stephen Kurz was a fellow student I admired, whose dad was a brewmaster at the local brewery, making Point Special Beer—which at that time came only in bottles. I didn’t know any Stevens.
We had moved to town in the middle of second grade, and I think being a new student is always harder if you begin well after the school year has started. As a third grader, I still felt like most of the other kids didn’t like me. Now I suspect it might have been at least partially due to my having a name like Bertolino, which was so different from the other names in class. And I recall that some of the kids called me “beady eyes.”
My parents had moved us into our second rental home in less than two years, and I didn’t like it as much as the first one, which was set about four or five feet above the sidewalks, and had stone walls which formed a corner where the two streets intersected. At that house I’d made a rope swing that allowed me to swing out over the sidewalk when girls were walking past, and the rope never broke.
One good thing about the second house was it had a screened porch on the street side and, in the back yard, a small greenhouse. The owners ran a florist shop in town, and had lived in the house before they put it up for rent. Anyway, I liked the greenhouse, and found cool stuff there, including a jar of sharply angled blue stones. In some ways I was probably still part toddler, because I couldn’t help but put one of those stones into my mouth. Gah! It was shockingly bitter.
I decided to take a pocketful of the stones to school and, at recess, gathered some of the third grade boys around to see my surprise. A couple of those guys had roughed me up in the past, and when they asked what those very interesting stones were, I remembered that. So I said: “Rock candy. These stones are rock candy.” Their eyes widened, and they wondered if the shiny blue lumps were good to eat. I said, “Sure, but they’re real bitter at first. You gotta suck ‘em, and the longer you suck, the sweeter they get!”
I doled out rocks to the four who were gutsy enough to ask for them, and then enjoyed watching their faces as they tried to suck the bitterness down to the sweet. Two of them quit after a little while, saying they didn’t think they’d ever taste good. The others who stuck with the sucking are the ones who later were taken to the hospital. The smarter two only spent some time vomiting in the first floor bathroom.
I, of course, hadn’t known my blue rocks were copper sulfate, which is poisonous when ingested. And had I known, I probably would have found a less dangerous trick to play on them. None suffered any permanent damage. As for me, I was marched off to the school library and told to kneel below a painting of the crucified Christ. My teacher whipped me with a steel-tipped, hardwood yardstick, after which I was made to continue kneeling on the tile floor for an hour. I decided I was supposed to learn what it was like to be crucified.
Oddly, I don’t remember there being any punishment at home. I believe I told my mother the entire story—she agreed I couldn’t have known the rocks were dangerous, and could see that I was just playing an innocent prank. Those four classmates stayed away after that, but others seemed to become more interested in me. Sometimes things balance out.