The Grape Caper

He was easily convinced to commit the crime.
The Grape Caper

Until I reached the age of 9 in 1962, our family made our home at the corner of McNary and Mechanic streets in Princeton, Ky. We lived in a drafty house with a dusty attic into which we rarely ventured.

One of the house's biggest attractions was a big porch that wrapped around the side and front of the residence. Many a summer day was spent on that porch, acting out every sort of imaginary scenario. And although that porch was perhaps no higher than 4 feet off the ground, it served many purposes in our fertile imaginations. One day it might serve as an army transport plane from which we parachuted into dangerous enemy territory below; on another, it was Mount Everest, whose height we struggled to master; on yet another, it might be a seagoing vessel from which we plunged into murky ocean depths, reliving the adventures of Lloyd Bridges and his Sea Hunt television series.

The porch was not the only attraction this house contained. It was owned by Miss Mary Wilson Eldred, from whom we rented the property. Miss Eldred also happened to be our neighbor, with her backyard bordering our side yard. A wrought iron fence enclosed much of Miss Eldred's yard and separated the two properties. Although the two houses were no more than 30 yards apart, to a boy of 4 of 5 they seemed more like worlds apart.

Miss Eldred's backyard was a visual delight. Filled with trees of every sort and dotted with beautiful roses and flowers of every color, it seemed a virtual wonderland. Expertly manicured by Miss Eldred's gardener, it almost evoked an idea of a forbidden paradise. It was an adventure just to accompany my father to Miss Eldred's house to pay the monthly rent. This sojourn carried with it the hopes of being admitted into that luscious garden for a few brief minutes, or at least to view its pleasures through her back sunporch. Rarely was this privilege granted, and my older sisters, Linda and Vicky, and I were relegated to viewing its wonders through the fence.

Nestled in the back corner of Miss Eldred's garden was the greatest treasure of all. Miss Eldred had several grapevines growing on wooden trestles that spanned perhaps 10 to 15 yards along the back of her property. Each summer the vines would burst forth with some of the most tantalizing grapes your eyes ever beheld. Too irresistible to avoid, it was our luck that the fence along this part of the property gave way from wrought iron to regular wire. It was also our fortune that this part of the fence was older, with several broken spans, and was covered with honeysuckle. Providing both camouflage and cover, it made an easy passageway from our side yard into the back corner of Miss Eldred's lot.

Coaxed by my sister Vicky, who at age 7 seemed much more knowledgeable and worldly than I, a raid on Miss Eldred's grapes was mapped out and planned. Vicky's logic always seemed to make perfect sense to me: "Little brother, you're small. They won't see you. You can be in and out before anyone notices."

We were usually joined in these escapades by a few of the neighbor kids -- the Nelsons from across the street or the Greens from a few houses down on Mechanic Street. Our neighborhood friends usually concurred that I was best equipped to carry out our clandestine mission.

So, with a wary eye out for Miss Eldred's maid, I would crawl beneath the fence and attempt to procure a handful or two of these delicious grapes. Meanwhile, my sisters would be setting up a small play table and chairs on which we would partake of our bounty.

Fear of detection made me move with utmost caution. I had already seen enough TV episodes of Jack Webb's Dragnet and Broderick Crawford's Highway Patrol to know that crime didn't pay. The last thing I needed was the sound of sirens piercing the neighborhood calm. Or some man in a dark suit placing me under arrest, saying, "Just the facts, kid," as he clicked the handcuffs around my small wrists!

Occasionally, Miss Eldred's maid, who always seemed to be busy in the back kitchen where she had a good view of the garden, would notice something amiss and step out the back door and scold us. "You kids scat! Leave those grapes alone. Git on back home now before I tell your Mama!" However, I am convinced she more often than not turned a blind eye to our escapades. After all, the grapes were bountiful, and the few I was able to cart back across the fence would scarcely be missed.

And if she ever told Miss Eldred about our grape raids, we never heard of any complaint. Perhaps if she did know, she chose to ignore it and let us enjoy the bounty of her vines.

With my mission usually a glowing success and several succulent grapes safely in our possession, the table would be set in the back corner of our lot. Play dishes would be carefully placed on the table as if a banquet were about to occur. Each plate was adorned with two or three grapes (the most my 5-year-old hands had been able to carry) and complemented by glasses of ice water. I, my sisters, and whatever neighborhood pals had joined in our mission would enjoy a brief summer repast that in our imaginations surpassed that fit for royalty.

Today whenever I retire to the fridge and take out a bunch of grapes, I am transported in time to our backyard at McNary Street and to Miss Eldred's garden vineyard. And I must admit that no grape has ever tasted as good as those we in our youthful innocence had pilfered from her fruitful vines.

I have not seen that backyard now in 50 years. I have driven by on occasion, but I have not noticed the condition of Miss Eldred's yard today. In my heart I hope it remains much the same, and I also hope that the grapevines still bear fruit. And I hope that some neighborhood kid still sneaks beneath a fence and samples a summertime treasure.

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