I’ve always had a dark sense of humor, one that at least verges on morbidity and typically leaves it in the rearview mirror. And I do mean always. My mom told me once that when I was about three, a friend of hers came by, and while Mom went to fix some tea, I was talking to our guest. I said something about my “Pawpaw,” and she asked if that was what I called my Grandfather Harris.
“Yes,” I said, “But don’t ask me what I call my Granddaddy Moore.”
Naturally, she bit. “What do you call your Granddaddy Moore?”
“Dead.” Hey, I warned her.
But apparently, I was full-on warped by the time I got to elementary school. I’ve mentioned before that I had a spectacularly good first grade teacher. But once the folks at Hermitage Elementary realized that I was… unusual… they decided that I might need some additional intellectual stimulation. So a second-grade teacher, who was in charge of what nobody called a gifted program back then, came up with some other things for me to do. Sometimes I’d go to “enrichment” with the older kids (where I met, among others, my lifelong friend and occasional commenter Micheal Dearing), and other times, she’d send stuff down to my first-grade classroom.
On one of these latter occasions, I got an envelope with “Secret Clue” written on it in big red letters. When I opened it, I saw something about like this (although the actual wording differed, I’m sure — it was 41 years ago, after all):
Sgd ancx hr hm sgd gzkkvzx.
Another attached note told me that the clue had been sent in code, and that I’d have to crack the code. After a while (cut me some slack — I was six), I figured out that all the letters were off by one place, and that the plaintext was “The body is in the hallway.” Mrs. Stanley gave me a pass, and I reported my findings to Mrs. Riley, the second-grade/enrichment teacher.
Additional messages followed, along with hints about the different codes employed for the clues. For example, this was where I first ran across the pigpen cipher. All the messages were basic substitution ciphers, and they led me to other clues and other codes. I eventually worked through them and narrowed down the location of “the body.” Finally, I received one in the original cipher that directed me to a storage room across the hall from my class. Mrs. Stanley gave me the key, and I let myself in.
The shelves were empty, but there was a filing cabinet. I opened the top drawer (not hard, because I was tall for a six-year-old) and found…
I brought it to the enrichment teacher and was congratulated for completing my mission. I do remember being a bit disappointed, though. I may even have asked why it was only cardboard — heaven knows why I would have expected elementary teachers in the Nashville burbs to be stashing actual cadavers, but as I said, I remember feeling a little let down.
Maybe that’s where crime writers come from. But in retrospect, I realize how lucky I was to have had those teachers in those early years. Later, I’d have some genuinely terrible teachers, who seemed to resent having to deal with a kid like me. But when things started, I had really good ones — and that means a lot.