Box top freebies are a thing of the past, but during the Great Depression, breakfast cereal box tops were almost legal tender. Mail off a couple to Battle Creek, Mich., and you'd get back some really keen stuff: games, toys, decoder rings, sometimes even a gold-bordered certificate (suitable for framing) attesting that you were a bona fide member of some exclusive club or covert organization.
That is how, at age 11, I became a Junior G-Man. Not just an ordinary Junior G-Man, mind you, but a Melvin Purvis Junior G-Man. Melvin who? For the unenlightened, Melvin Purvis was an intrepid G-Man (G-Men would later be called FBI agents) who had gained fame for having taken down the notorious bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd.
This was the era of the gangster, and Pretty Boy Floyd had lots of company: Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, Alvin Karpis, John Dillinger, Handsome Jack Klutas, and that fun couple, Bonnie and Clyde, to name a few.
They were a colorful lot and had nearly the cachet of today's rock stars. They even had groupielike fans who followed the murderous exploits of their favorite gangster with morbid fascination. But "low profile" was a concept that eluded the gangster mentality. Thanks to the gang members' lavish lifestyles and penchant for supercharged Auburn Speedsters and gum-chewing peroxide blondes, the G-Men had little trouble ferreting them out.
I hadn't heard of Melvin Purvis until I chanced upon his photo on a box of Huskies breakfast cereal. Square-jawed and steely-eyed, he seemed to be pointing directly at me, like Uncle Sam in the famous poster. "Hey, kids!" he was saying. "Fight crime in your neighborhood! Become a Melvin Purvis Junior G-Man!" My neighborhood was Encampment, Wyo., population 389, and although crime wasn't exactly rampant in our quiet little town, I nevertheless felt it my civic duty to heed the call.
Becoming a member of this select group, I learned, would take two Huskies box tops. I wasn't crazy about Huskies - wheat flakes spiked with the bark of some tree, I suspected - but its name alone convinced me that it was a he-man cereal that would give me the necessary moxie to become a crackerjack Junior G-Man.
After ingesting two boxes of Huskies, I mailed the box tops to, yes, Battle Creek. Several weeks later, a thick envelope arrived. In it were the guidelines, a parchmentlike certificate (suitable for framing, of course), and an official-looking badge.
The badge was beautiful. It was enameled brass, light green with gold lettering that anointed me a Melvin Purvis Junior G-Man, Novice. I proudly pinned it to my shirt and left for school. My classmates were not impressed. Something was wrong.
Wait a minute - what's a novice? I looked the word up. Aha! So that's the problem! Advancement to the next higher rank was imperative. But it wouldn't be easy. Four Huskies box tops were mandatory. It took some serious eating, but I eventually did it.
The new badge was identical to the first, except that it was pale blue. I was now a Melvin Purvis Junior G-Man, Lieutenant. I pinned it on my shirt, next to the first badge, and swaggered into my classroom. Nothing happened. Two badges, still no reaction.
Once again, an advancement in rank was called for. It would take six Huskies box tops this time, a staggering challenge. But I eventually amassed the magic number. Off they went to Battle Creek. The new badge was magnificent. It was like the other two, but was frosty white and elevated me to the highest rank attainable: captain! Seeing the three badges that now marched across my scrawny chest, my classmates finally began to take notice and, fearful of my authority, began to avoid me.
I was never quite sure what my responsibilities were, other than to "be on the lookout for criminal activity" and "report any suspicious behavior to your teacher or parents." In short, I was a rat fink in training. Elsewhere in the guidelines, Melvin admonished us to "be vigilant, keep your eyes and ears open, take notes and names at crime scenes, and by golly, kids, keep eating those Huskies!"
For a time I patrolled the streets - street, actually - of Encampment, always vigilant, but nothing ever happened. I soon lost interest.
I decided it would be more exciting to become an aviator, like Lucky Lindy or Tailspin Tommy. Fortunately for me, "The Air Adventures of Jimmy Allen," a popular radio series aimed at fantasizing kids such as me, was offering "How to Fly" instructions for box tops of a more palatable cereal.
Nevertheless, during my tenure as a Melvin Purvis Junior G-Man, not once did a gangster bent on bank robbery come roaring into town in his Duesenberg, a blonde floozy at his side.
Of course, the fact that Encampment didn't have a bank may have played a part in this. But I like to think my three badges scared them off.