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My Mini Manti Moment

As we watched the events unfold around Manti T’eo and the love of his life / figment of his imagination, Lenay Kekua, many of us drew the same conclusion: either he is one devious son-of-a-gun, or he’s one of the most gullible people on the planet. It was OK for me to believe that and say it – but the first time I heard it expressed by someone else, I had one of those uncomfortable flashbacks.

Mariemont Junior High SchoolI was in seventh grade and waiting for the activity bus to take us from the junior high school in Mariemont to our homes in Terrace Park. We had an hour to kill between track practice and when Mr. Sutton, the bus driver, would arrive to pick us up. The normal routine was to walk over to Kroger’s, pick up a Hostess pie and a soda, then sit and wait for the bus with about ten other students.

This particular day was the Friday before Mother’s Day. Outside of Kroger’s we passed a shopping cart, sitting in the parking lot, that was full of boxed rose bushes. As we headed back to the bus stop, one of my buddies said, “Hey, these are free!  That’s awesome!” He grabbed two boxes and kept walking.

It didn’t make sense to me, but there was no sign on the cart, so maybe he was right. And after all, why would the shopping cart be a good twenty feet from the front door – and in the parking lot – if they weren’t disposing of them? So I grabbed two and moved on.

We got to the bus stop and I stuffed them into my gym bag. My mom loved roses. She even liked to grow them. This would be awesome. But something didn’t feel right, as my “if they’re in my gym bag, no one will notice” action might have suggested. And then the snickers started. The same guy who told me they were free now started the whisper campaign that I’d stolen some flowers from Kroger’s. I started with a couple feeble excuses, “But he told me…” and “He did it, too.” Suddenly, I felt like an idiot.

KrogerWith all eyes on me, I reached into my gym bag and pulled out the two boxes. They really were pretty sorry looking (think Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, with no leaves and no buds, like a box of dead twigs). I trudged back to Kroger’s, crossed the parking lot, and I was ten feet away from the shopping cart when I heard someone scream, “Hey, thief, put those back!”

I looked over and there was the manager of Kroger’s, running out of the store. I wasn’t upset. After all, I was bringing them back. I explained my mistake, dropped them into the cart, and prepared to leave. He grabbed me by the back of my shirt and dragged me into the store. I stood at the doorway of his little in-store office, praying that no one recognized me. Mothers shielded their kids from me and geriatrics gave me the evil eye.

I looked at the manager’s name tag. Harmon.

“What’s your phone number?” he barked.

No, not that. “Uh, why?”

“Because I’m going to call your parents.”

They’d never understand.  You stole a Mother’s Day gift? And broke her heart, too.

“Come on, I was bringing it back. I just misunderstood.”

“Did you steal the sign, too?

I shook my head. Uh-oh. There used to be a sign

The man slammed his desk drawer shut, and screamed at me, “Either you’re a chronic liar or you’re the dumbest kid I’ve ever seen.”

Are those the only two options? Was I supposed to respond? Should I agree that I’m a moron?

school busHe sent me on my way and I had a tease-filled, humiliating bus ride back home. To mom and dad. Wonderful.

Rather than wait for the manager to call, I told my parents what happened. My mom got quiet and stared at the floor. I honestly believe that she was struggling not to laugh out loud. But I was too busy to notice at the time, because my dad lost it. I heard a lot about trust, bad decisions, and consequences. I even got a “there’s something you’re not telling me, because I know you can’t be that naïve.”

As I went to bed I figured that I had already suffered the consequences: an hour-long foot-stomping, red-faced tirade by the old man. I was wrong.

The next day my dad said we ought to drive over the manager’s house so I could apologize. Apparently my dad served in the School Booster Club with him and had his home address.

“Dad, he really doesn’t want to be bothered on the weekend. I’m sure…”

Oops. More foot stomping. He interpreted that I still hadn’t accepted responsibility so we were going RIGHT NOW.

We drove to Fairfax and Mr. Harmon was working in his front yard. He had the same last name as one of the hottest girls in the class ahead of me, and she lived in that general area. If they were related, I prayed she was nowhere around. And I wasn’t about to ask.

hedge trimmersMr. Harmon was trimming his bushes with a pair of massive hedge trimmers. He was wearing a white, wife beater t-shirt. He looked hot. Uncomfortable. Mean.

I watched him whack finger-sized branches off his bushes.

Crack. Crack.

The last thing that I wanted was my dad to get involved, so I asked him to stay in the car. He obliged.

Mr. Harmon turned as I approached.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“Yeah. I’m Karl Sprague, the kid from yesterday. With the roses.”

“Yeah?”  Crack. Crack.

“My dad wanted me to come over and apologize. I’m really sorry for what I did.”

I wanted to pour on the excuses. To tell him I was mistaken. Some kid – and a new kid at that- lied to me. It wasn’t my fault. Maybe it was food poisoning from the inferior products in his store that made me delirious. But I bit my tongue.

He glanced over at my dad, sitting in the car.

“How upset was your old man?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” I whispered.

“You’re not a chronic liar, are you?”

“No, sir.”

He didn’t have to say it. No, I’m not a liar. I’m the dumbest kid you’ve ever seen.

He put his hand over his mouth so my dad couldn’t see – and he laughed.

He then escorted me over to the car and gestured at me with his hedge trimmers.

“I think we’re squared away. I accept your boy’s apology.”

My dad gave him a grim nod and we were done. I swear I heard Mr. Harmon laughing as we drove off.  I’d have laughed, too, if I had been in his shoes. Within five minutes we pulled into a Burger Chef and my dad bought me three cheeseburgers and a strawberry shake. We talked about the Big Red Machine. As far as he was concerned, the incident was over and forgotten.

For the next forty years, the incident was a reminder to keep my BS meter intact, and to continually ask, “what’s wrong with this picture?” It also serves as a reminder that other people have different ideas about what they consider funny.

My ridicule lasted for a long bus ride with my buddies, and ended in a fast food restaurant. I don’t think Manti’s going to be so lucky.  Maybe the nationally televised Katie Couric interview had something to do with that. Future teammates will have a field day at his expense, and future girlfriends will always have a doubt. As people judge whether he’s dishonest or dumb, calculating or clueless – he can’t win.

If Manti came to you for advice, what would you tell him?  What would you recommend?

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jeff #

    If Manti asked me for advice, I would recommend that he read a blog calle “The Short Distance.”

    February 2, 2013
  2. Karl Sprague #

    Jeff: Thanks. It might be a place to start, since there are a stories at The Short Distance about a lot of people who’ve helped shape my life, and taught me useful lessons. It may help to get Manti around the people who grew up in Mariemont back in the 70s and got exposed to people like Jack Orrison, Jim Allison, and Art Davies. Or maybe it was just the Graeter’s and Skyline Chili… and Little Kings Ale. :)

    February 3, 2013
  3. Hi Karl, If Manti asked me for advice, I’d go one more step from Jeff’s recommendation to read your blog and advise him to take the next plane to Florida to hang out with you…right away! Your story reminds me of the time mean girl Pat conned me into not paying the 15- cent bus toll even though I knew it was wrong. The last minute, she paid her toll and I got in trouble. I can still see the tall, skinny, old-as-the-hills bus driver stop, walk all the way to the back of the bus and hold out his hand while all eyes were on me. Yep, a powerful lesson in listening to your inner voice!

    February 6, 2013
    • Karl Sprague #

      Kathy, I might send Manti up to NY first to sit with you. It is amazing, isn’t it, that you can remember the incident with Pat, the bus driver, and the fifteen cents, so vividly? I can remember the color of the box that those sickly little twigs came in (blue) and the gym bag was an ugly brown and had a fraying handle. I’m glad you’ve taken that inner voice and turned it into your inner writer – and we all benefit!

      February 7, 2013
  4. Wonderful, wonderful story. Makes me want to give Manti a break. Love the epigraph and may steal it — as I share this post.

    February 7, 2013
    • Karl Sprague #

      Thanks, Shirley for your kind words – and sharing the post. Steal away! Thanks as well for sharing your insights into memoir writing on your blog. Although I’m not writing a memoir, much of it it helpful for the writing process, period.

      February 7, 2013
  5. New here via a link on Facebook.
    Great story and what a wonderful reminder that we are all human and it could happen to any one of us.
    Actually brings back a personal memory that I might have to write about now.

    February 7, 2013
    • Karl Sprague #

      Janet, I’m glad you stopped by, and thank you for the comments. This is a further reminder of the power of story – and the connection from comments… on a blog.. from a Facebook link. I’ve been to your website and Because I Can is an amazing story… and yes, I’ve now ordered a copy! – Karl

      February 7, 2013
  6. Susan Ford #

    I am wondering how we all even know about this. It was a prank among kids.. So much media attention given to something that could have just died as soon as Manti discovered the deception.

    February 7, 2013
  7. Susan Ford #

    Oh…now I see….it was already public knowledge. I still say there shouldn’t have been interviews and all the attention….should have been allowed to die. People forget things that don’t get attention, and this could have been forgotten faster.

    February 7, 2013

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