When I was in second grade, I had this terrific lunch box with a race car theme. The lid featured a white Le Mans style racer leading the pack, jumping right out at you. My friends said it was 'tough.' The really tough part was that it came with little magnetic cars and a race course board game on the back. We would crowd around the lunch table in the cafeteria, eating baloney sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and racing around the back of my lunch box. "Oil slick! Go back 3 spaces!" we would scream. "Awww tough!"
Bobby Murphy, who had ears the size of fly swatters, made a rule that to enter the race you had to put a cookie on the table; whoever was leading after each lap got to eat a cookie. This was fine with me, since my mother was always buying cheap Hydrox cookies instead of real Oreos. In the heat of the race, no one seemed to notice that one of the cookies in the pile tasted like burlap anyway. "Pit Stop! Lose a turn!" "Awww tough!"
Mitchell Oshetski had a Munsters lunchbox that was cool, but definitely not tough. There weren't any magnetic racecars to play with, just a picture of that roadster they drove in the TV show. "That Munsters roadster is really tough," he would offer each day at the lunch table, but no one would respond. Maybe it was because he always had Frito crumbs on his face that he wasn't much of a style setter. Still, he was welcome to play the race car game because he contributed Nutter Butter Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies to the ante, and they were the toughest cookies of all.
On the first day of third grade Mitchell showed up with an "Apollo: Mission to the Moon" lunch box that had its own magnetic rockets and board game. Race cars and oil slicks became merely cool, while tough was reserved for spacemen and asteroids. Now everyone crowded around Mitchell at lunch time, waving cookies and clamoring for a magnetic rocket playing piece. Mitchell changed the ante rule so that only Oreos and Nutter Butters were allowed. He called it the "Burlap is not Tough Rule."
"Those magnetic race cars are really tough" I would offer each day, but no one would respond. I asked my Mom to quit buying Hydrox cookies and start getting Nutter Butters instead.
Soon other kids were emulating Mitchell's Frito crumb look, trying to master the intricate task of turning processed corn meal and saliva into paste. Bobby resorted to gluing the crumbs on with rubber cement until Mitchell called him on it, saying that using rubber cement in this manner was not tough. It was common knowledge that the only acceptable use for rubber cement was to smear it on your desk and then roll it into a giant bouncing ball flecked with eraser bits and a dead fly or two, so we all toadied up to Mitchell and agreed with him. Bobby sulked right up to Christmas vacation.
After the Christmas holiday, Bobby came to school with an Estes Rocket lunch box, including a real balsa wood rocket that flew hundreds of feet in the air and a parachute that brought it safely back to earth. The rocket engines used gunpowder, which was definitely tough.
Bobby didn't have any Fritos glued to his face that day.
He assembled the rocket slowly, letting the tension mount to unbearable levels. Finally he looked around the hovering crowd. "Does anyone have... a match?"
Having your own matches in third grade qualified you as beyond tough to super-tough, tougher even than putting playing cards in your bike spokes or having a Dad who was a fireman. We all hung our heads. After a painful silence, someone remembered the lunch lady. We debated the sinfulness of taking her lighter--first communion and its associated first confession was just next month--until Bobby said that taking the lighter couldn't be a sin because lighters didn't exist when Moses made up the Commandments. The "Whomever Purloins the Lighter Gets to Launch the Rocket Amendment" passed on a unanimous voice vote.
Bobby returned to the table a minute later, lighter in hand. "I promised her we would be quiet," he warned. We all nodded solemnly.
The rocket spewed flame and roared toward the ceiling, smashing a bank of fluorescent lights before veering sideways to set the stage curtains on fire. The nosecone popped off and the parachute opened as advertised, the rocket drifting back through the smoke and falling debris until it landed softly onto our table.
"Awww tough," we murmured in unison.
We launched the rocket every lunch period for weeks afterward, always keeping our strict promise of quiet. Mr. Cole, the janitor, eventually placed wire mesh over the fluorescent lights and the spring recital was a big hit despite the smoldering curtains. We found that we could put the cookie ante into the rocket's nosecone so that whoever caught the rocket on the way down got to eat the cookies--the famous Cookie Payload Regulation, or CPR. It was glorious fun chasing the rocket around the cafeteria, leaping across flaming tables to snatch the drifting rocket and its cookie prize.
Only Mitchell was unexcited about the rocket. He sat alone at the lunch table caressing his lunchbox. "That old asteroid game sure is tough," he offered through Frito encrusted lips. None of us could hear him, now that we had fly swatters taped over our ears to look like Bobby.
One day in March, someone jostled the rocket at lift off. It bounced off the window and skittered along the lunch table, spewing smoke and flames like a crashing jet. Everyone dove after it, scattering limbs and lunchboxes and the occasional charred Twinkie. Running atop the table to join in, I accidentally smushed a girl's peanut butter sandwich. It really wasn't that bad--I peeled most of the bread off my shoe and offered it back to her--but her wailing irritated the lunch lady.
Alternating boys and girls at the lunch table was worse than going hungry. We ate in miserable silence, our fly swatter ears drooping more each day until we stopped wearing them entirely. I tried pushing the magnetic racecars around my lunchbox alone, but that simply added to my gloom. With no hope for partners to play his magnetic astronaut game, Mitchell began bringing the old Munsters lunchbox. A girl sitting nearby said, "I like the Munsters. They're funnier than the Addams Family."
I started to spray for cooties but Mitchell didn't notice.
"Yeah," Mitchell said, sitting up and brushing the crumbs from his face. "They're tough."
"That Munsters roadster is really tough." She smiled at him.
Mitchell smiled back.
Bobby and I didn't say "tough" much after that.