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Full Circle: Jack Webb’s Whistle
The real reason crime doesn’t pay

My father was a cereal killer. Every morning, come hell or high cholesterol, he would turn on our yellow Bakelite AM radio, put a large punchbowl in front of his face and fill it to the brim with half a box of Corn Flakes. And a sliced banana. And five giant strawberries.

“Son,” he would say, “breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Besides supper.”

I shook my head like I cared, then I grabbed the cardboard Corn Flakes box and stuck my arm in it up to my gristled elbow. There was treasure buried in that box. And I finally got it. The Official Jack Webb “Dragnet” whistle, in all its pearled plastic glory. It didn’t matter that Jack Webb never blew a whistle on the TV show. This was “official.” I would take that whistle to school, packed right next to my oily tuna fish sandwich, and blow it in the ear of every kid in the class.

But breakfast? Corn Flakes were for grown-ups. I became a junkie. A sugar junkie. The 5-Hour Energy of the ’50s.

While other kids were cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, I was a Sugar Smacks guy. Sugar Smacks had the sweet distinction of bearing the most sugar by weight of any cereal on the market. I just loved them. So did my dentist.

Kellogg’s would learn an important nutrition lesson from this. If they took their Corn Flakes, a best-seller with adults, and added a ton of sugar, they’d have a cereal kids would crave. Sugar Frosted Flakes became my favorite. The cereal that put a smile on my face, a skip in my heart and diabetes in my pancreas.

But to a kid still in cords, the most important thing in that box was the prize. And there were some great prizes. Frosted Flakes had frogmen. Wheaties had a tiny microscope. Wheat Honeys had a two-stage rocket. And Wheat Chex had a secret decoder ring, just in case you were captured by a Russian spy.

And then it happened. The day our mothers had warned us about.

“Don’t put the prize in your mouth,” they said. “You’ll swallow it and die.” We all listened. Except Billy Flanagan.

One tepid Tuesday, he came running across my lawn. His face was bright red and he couldn’t speak.

“Khhhhhhtt,” was all he could say. He must have a sore throat, I thought.

“Do you have a sore throat?”

“Khhhhhhtt.”

“A marble, maybe he swallowed a marble.”

“Did you swallow a marble?”

“Khhhhhhtt.”

“I hope it wasn’t a cat’s eye. Those are really hard to find.”

By now, his face had turned crimson, and he was starting to go into convulsions.

“Somebody call the police,” my mother yelled.

By the time the ambulance came, a large crowd had gathered.

“We should pound his back seven times,” my mother said, “then he’ll spit it out.”

“That’s an old wives’ tale,” Fannie Futterman said. “He should drink a glass of buttermilk. That’ll wash it down.”

“Khhhhhhtt.”

As Billy Flanagan neared death, the ambulance driver gave him what would later be called the Heimlich maneuver. And then it happened. A small plastic item came flying out of Billy Flanagan’s mouth. Must have traveled 10 yards in the air. I ran over to find it, searching the tall blades of grass. And there it was, a little worse for wear, my Official Jack Webb “Dragnet” whistle. He had stolen it from me.

I picked it up, rubbed it on my pants and stuck it in my pocket.

“Hey,” the ambulance driver said, “give the kid his whistle.”

“No way,” I said.

“Are you OK with that?” he asked Billy Flanagan.

“Khhhhhhtt.”

November 2017
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