Dear Mr. Rockford

A young boy turns to his TV hero to help solve a mystery.

Pair of U.S. quarters
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Dear Mr. Rockford,

My name is Chris Hopper and I am seven years old. I live in Winter Harbor, Maine. I watch your show on TV every week with my brother Mike. He is twelve, and he helped me with spelling some of the big words in this letter. I know you live in a trailer on the beach in California, but I don’t know the address, so Mike says he will mail this for me and make sure it gets to you.

I am writing to you because I would like to hire you to help me solve a mystery. I know your usual fee is $200 a week plus expenses, but that’s for grown-ups. Since I am just a kid and my allowance is only 50 cents a week, I am hoping you can do it for less. With this letter I am sending you a $5 bill I got in a birthday card from my grandma. I hope that is enough to get you started.

Let me tell you about the mystery. As you know, the bicentennial is coming up this summer. It’s our country’s 200th birthday and I am very excited. Maybe you have seen the ads on TV or in magazines about the commemorative bicentennial coins. These are special coins that will become collector’s items, just like the Mickey Mantle rookie card. My Dad says he had a Mickey Mantle rookie card when he was a kid, but his mother (my grandma) threw all his baseball cards away when he joined the Navy. He’s still mad about that, and he brings it up every time grandma visits.

Anyway, Dad bought a set of commemorative bicentennial coins. They came in a nice frame with green felt behind them and glass over the top. They are uncirculated coins, which means no one has ever used them to buy anything. That makes them more valuable. There are three bicentennial coins: The silver dollar, the half-dollar, and the quarter. All of them have 1776-1976 as the dates on the front. The silver dollar has President Eisenhower on the front and the Liberty Bell under the moon on the back. The half-dollar has President Kennedy on the front and Independence Hall on the back. You have probably seen the bicentennial quarter with the drummer on the back. Even I have one of those.

When Dad got the set in the mail, he kept saying how happy he was that his mother was never going to get the chance to throw away his bicentennial coins. My Mom said he was being silly and there was no way the coins were ever going to be valuable because the Treasury made so many of them, but Dad just said wait and see. He hung the set up on the wall over his workbench in the basement.

Last week we had show and tell at school. We were supposed to bring in something to celebrate America’s birthday. A bunch of kids brought flags, which got boring after a while. Robert Duff brought in a tricorn hat he got at Washington’s Headquarters in New Jersey. Becky Sawyer dressed up like Betsy Ross. I brought Dad’s commemorative bicentennial coin set. I asked Mom if it was okay, and she said yes, just as long as I put it back on the wall before Dad got home from work.

I memorized all the facts about the coins that I told you earlier in this letter. Even though I had a hard time saying the word “commemorative,” I think I did a good job. Mrs. Strout seemed very impressed, at least more impressed than she was with the kids who just brought in flags, although she didn’t say so. After show and tell, I put the coin set in my desk. We had reading and math, and then it was time for recess.

I went outside to play kickball, as usual. I always used to get picked last until Marshall Wescott moved to town. Marshall is the only boy smaller than me than in the class, so now he gets picked last, even after Kelly Gifford, the only girl who plays with us. I was having a good game. I made it to second base, and I would have scored when Kelly kicked the ball over Marshall’s head, except Marshall tripped her when she was running to first. She started to cry, and Mrs. Strout broke up the game and sent Marshall to the principal’s office, even though he kept saying it was an accident. Kelly went to the nurse’s office because she scraped her knee, and the rest of us just stood around until the bell rang. When I got back to my desk, the coin set was gone.

Mr. Rockford, I would like you to help me solve the mystery of who stole the coin set. Right now, my main suspect is Ed Chipman. The reason is because he stole a Batman comic book out of my desk last month. It was the one where Batman visits Crime Alley on the same night every year and we find out it’s because that’s where his parents were killed when he was a little boy. The reason I know Ed Chipman took it is because he was reading it on the bus on the way home from school. I didn’t say anything because he’s bigger than me, but I knew it was mine because I accidentally tore a piece off the back cover, and I could see it was torn in the same place. Plus, Ed wasn’t playing kickball with the rest of us. He was playing on the monkey bars, but one time I looked over and I didn’t see him there.

How can I prove that Ed Chipman stole the coins? I hope you can get back to me soon. Dad hasn’t been down to the basement yet, so he doesn’t know the coins are gone. Mom says not to worry because he can just order another set, but I don’t want him to get mad at me or at Mom. Can you help me, Mr. Rockford?

Your friend,

Chris

* * *

May 24, 1976

Dear Mr. Rockford,

Thank you for the autographed picture, which came in the mail today. I was a little confused at first because it looked to me like you signed your last name as Garner, not Rockford. My brother Mike explained to me that you are probably working undercover and using a fake name, like you sometimes do on the show. That makes sense. I hope your case is going well.

There have been some new developments in my case. First of all, Dad noticed his coin set was gone, and I confessed. At first, I told him I didn’t ask Mom for permission because I didn’t want them to fight. They don’t fight very often, but once in a while they do, and it always upsets me. I don’t mean they punch each other or anything like that, but they yell. One time they had a fight about Mom’s sister (Aunt Dottie) coming to visit, and they yelled a lot, and Mom left and didn’t come back until after dinner. I was really scared she wouldn’t come back at all, but Dad said she just had to do some shopping.

I guess that was true because when she finally came home, she had a present for me. It was the Evel Knievel dragster, which is sort of like the Evel Knievel stunt cycle I already had, except a race car this time. I’ve never seen the real Evel in a race car, but it was still fun to wind it up and watch it crash, even though the parachute never worked right. I left it out in the yard one night and it was gone the next morning. When I told Dad about it, he said that’s what you get for not putting your toys away.

Anyway, when Dad found out that Mom did give me permission to bring the coins to school, he didn’t yell. He just shook his head, like he was disappointed in both of us. I told him I was on the case and that you were going to help me find the coins, but he just said I should have hired Columbo instead. I’ve never seen Columbo, so I don’t know if that’s true, but I was kind of upset when I got your envelope and there was no letter inside, just that signed photo.

But I figured that means you’re busy with your own case, so I just have to do what I think Jim Rockford would do. One thing I see you do almost every week is tail the suspect. That was my plan on Saturday morning. I rode my bike over to Ed Chipman’s street and hid behind the bushes between his house and the one next door where Dale Torrey used to live. Dale was in an Alka-Seltzer commercial that was filmed right here in Winter Harbor. It was on TV all the time, and Dale couldn’t go anywhere without getting recognized. One time he went to a Red Sox game in Boston, and he even got recognized there. About a year ago he moved to Hollywood to try to be in more commercials, but I haven’t seen him in any yet.

I hid there for about half an hour until I saw Ed Chipman and his whole family come out of the house and get in their station wagon. If I had a Pontiac Firebird like you, I could have tailed them, but all I have is my Schwinn. I didn’t know where they were going, but I did know their house was now empty.

I left my bike in the bushes and snuck across the yard to the house. I found an open window and looked inside. It was messy, with an unmade bed and toys all over the floor, so I knew it was Ed’s bedroom. I felt scared and guilty for thinking about climbing in the window. I would be in big trouble if my parents ever found out, but even if they didn’t, I knew it was the wrong thing to do.

But that’s when I saw my Evel Knievel dragster on the floor of Ed’s bedroom.

I didn’t know for sure it was mine. Ed’s mother could have bought it for him, just like mine did for me. But I had to take a closer look. I knew that’s what you would do, Mr. Rockford. Even though a lot of the time you end up getting punched in the face or arrested by Sergeant Becker or both, you always solve the case in the end. I had to take the chance, so I climbed through the window into Ed’s bedroom.

I picked up the Evel Knievel dragster and looked it over. The grass stains on Evel’s jumpsuit looked familiar, but I couldn’t be sure. I decided not to take it even if I could prove it was mine, because I already told Dad it was gone, and he might have questions if all of sudden it came back. I would have to make up a story, and I’m not a very good liar. Maybe I can get it back later, after Ed goes to jail for being a thief.

Next I searched the bedroom. I went through everything — his closet, his dresser, his toybox, and I even looked under his bed, which is where I found my Batman comic book. I did take that, because it’s part of my collection and I never told Dad it was missing. Dad always says to save all my comics because they might be worth something one day as long as Mom never throws them away. One time he said that in front of Mom and she told him he had to get over his stupid baseball cards one of these days. He got mad and went down to his workshop to drink beer and listen to the Red Sox on the radio.

When I got out from under the bed, I accidentally knocked over a glass that was sitting on the end table and it fell on the floor and smashed into a million pieces. It was one of those McDonaldland glasses with Grimace on it, and those glasses break so easy. Dad says that’s how they get you to keep coming back, but I think it’s the fries. I would eat them every day if I could. Anyway, as soon as the glass broke, I heard a dog start barking and come running down the hall and then I heard him jump on the door and his nails scratch against it. I’d forgotten all about Ed’s dog Caesar and now he was barking real loud and jumping on the door and I got scared. I didn’t know if he could get through the door, but I thought the neighbors might hear him and see the Chipmans weren’t home and think there was a burglar and call the police. I had searched the whole room anyway, so I climbed out the window and ran back to my bike and rode home as fast as I could. I hoped no one saw me.

Mr. Rockford, I don’t know what to do next. I searched Ed’s whole room and didn’t find the coins. Do you think he might have already spent them? If he did, they’re not uncirculated anymore and won’t be worth as much even if I could get them back. I hope you can help me, Mr. Rockford. What would you do next?

Your friend,

Chris

* * *

June 14, 1976

Dear Mr. Rockford,

I haven’t heard from you, but I’m writing again because something happened that has changed everything.

Today was the last day of school before summer vacation. Mrs. Strout showed us a movie in the morning — Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Some kids in the class had seen it before, but I never did. I did read the book, which was called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The movie was different in some ways. There were some funny parts and good songs, but also some real scary parts where I had to cover my eyes, like when they go through the tunnel on the chocolate river.

After lunch, it was time to clean out our desks. I took off my book covers and stacked up my books so Mrs. Strout could put them on the shelf for next year’s class. I put all my spelling and math quizzes in my book bag in case Mom wanted to see them. Then I heard Mrs. Strout say real loud “Marshall Evan Wescott,” and I knew he was in big trouble because she used all three of his names.

He was in trouble because he had my father’s bicentennial coin collection in his desk. Mrs. Strout made him give them back to me and she tried to get him to say he was sorry, but he kept saying no, he didn’t take them and didn’t know how they got in his desk. So Marshall got sent to the principal’s office again.

When Dad got home from work, I was sitting at the kitchen table with the coin collection in front of me. He asked what happened and I told him and he said congratulations for solving the case. But I didn’t solve the case. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt, because I didn’t think Marshall did it.

That night Marshall’s mother called and put Marshall on the phone to apologize to me and Dad. I could tell he was just saying he was sorry because he got punished and didn’t want it to get worse. Dad said he hoped Marshall had learned his lesson. But I told Marshall I believed him, and I was going to prove he didn’t do it. When I hung up, Dad asked me why I said that. I said Jim Rockford wouldn’t stop until he got the truth, and I won’t either.

Your friend,

Chris

* * *

July 4, 1976

Dear Mr. Rockford,

Today was our country’s 200th birthday. It was an exciting day. There was a cookout down by the town wharf, with games and music and fireworks shot off the wharf after dark. It’s past my bedtime, but I’m too excited to sleep. I’m writing to tell you that I finally solved the case of the stolen bicentennial coins.

A few things have been bothering me since the last day of school. Everyone in town was at the cookout today, so it was my chance to get the answers I needed. I found Mrs. Strout first. She was sitting in a lawn chair eating a hot dog. She asked how my summer was going and I said good, but I needed to ask her something. I asked her if she looked through all the desks in our classroom the day the coins were stolen. She said yes, after school she checked them all, but didn’t find the coins. So I asked how they could have gotten back in Marshall’s desk on the last day of school. She said she must have missed them the first time because Marshall’s desk was always so messy.

Marshall’s desk was really messy, but I think she didn’t find them because they weren’t there at all. Marshall got sent to the principal’s office that day after tripping Kelly Gifford. The principal’s office is close to the door that leads to the playground and our classroom is all the way down the hall. So Marshall would have had to get past the principal’s office, go all the way down the hall, take the coins out of my desk, put them in his desk, and go back to the principal’s office. That didn’t make any sense to me.

Kelly got sent to the nurse’s office. That’s past our classroom and around the corner and down the hall. But I didn’t think Kelly stole the coins out of my desk. I still thought I was right the first time. Ed Chipman didn’t play in our kickball game. He could have snuck back into the school and taken the coins and put them in his desk, then snuck back out to the playground. But I thought something else happened while he was in the classroom, and I needed to know if I was right.

I found Ed after the sack race. Even though I was scared of him, I walked right up to him and said I knew he stole my Evel Knievel dragster, and I was going to tell his father unless he answered my questions. He said how did I know, and that’s when I knew I was right, and it really was my dragster on his bedroom floor. I said forget about it, you can keep it if you just answer my questions. So he said fine, ask.

I asked him if Kelly saw him stealing the coins when she was on her way to the nurse’s office. His face turned red and I thought maybe he would punch me, but finally he said yes. He said he found out when she sat next to him on the bus. She told him to give her the coins or else she was going to tell Mrs. Strout she saw him take them out of my desk. He gave them to her and that’s the last he saw of them until Marshall found them in his desk.

So now I knew what happened. Kelly was mad that Marshall tripped her during the kickball game. She saw Ed stealing the coins and came up with a plan. She got the coins from Ed on the bus, and sometime before the last day of school, she hid them in Marshall’s desk so he would get in trouble.

I know I promised Marshall I would prove he didn’t do it, but I decided to keep it to myself. He was innocent of this crime, but he was still a bad kid who hurt a girl on purpose. She got back at him. Dad got his coins back. Case closed.

There’s one more thing I figured out. Your real name isn’t Jim Rockford. You’re an actor named James Garner who plays Jim Rockford on TV. It’s like when I played an elf in the school Christmas pageant. Just make-believe. That’s why you never wrote back to me except to send me that autographed photo, and that’s why you signed it James Garner instead of Jim Rockford. I hope you will write back one more time and return my five dollars. I solved this case all by myself.

Your friend,

Chris

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. (Part II)

    I had some distractions writing the latter part of my comments and left out an important part of the boy’s final letter where he tells Garner he knows who he really is (an actor) and ‘Mr. Rockford’ is just make-believe. He also asked for his $5 back which was a birthday gift, because he’d solved the case all by himself.

    This was a 2nd mystery of his true identity, and distinguishing fantasy from reality. All the more reason for acknowledgement of both by James in a letter, including a surprise $10 check (an almost $50 value in 2022).

    Now I have a confession to make. The story was so well told and believable, I nearly lost sight it WAS only a story. My bad, for getting too caught up. I also agree with the 3 guys who commented after me. Thanks fellas. Stay tuned:

    I was/am a big fan of Angie Dickinson and her ‘Police Woman’ series (1974-’78). Do have to wonder if any 7 year old girls (or boys) ever wrote letters to her as ‘Sargeant Anderson’ or even ‘Sargeant Pepper’ for help? That was her beautiful (and sexy) character’s name after all. I may be wrong, but for all I know I may be right. Mm hmm.

  2. Very enjoyable story with lots of bicentennial nostalgia. Quite the neat little twisty mystery too, in a homage to those then popular 70s mystery TV series. Wonderful job, Mr. Von Doviak!

  3. I enjoyed this story. It brought me back to that time. Scott Von Doviak is a master story teller. Check out his other works of fiction.

  4. I enjoyed this story, set in mid-1976 during the Bicentennial and Ford Administration of so long ago. 46 years. That’s halfway back to 1930 now, and definitely seems it. Actually, the era still has enough relatable ties to kids this age Mark Twain wrote of, well before that if you remove the television aspect.

    Scott, you really get into the head of this 7 year old boy, Chris, and write the story in an authentic way a kid would back then. Although it may seem naive and quaint now, this boy was dead serious about wanting to make the situation of the missing/stolen coins right, so he wrote to ‘Mr. Rockford’. He obviously looked to Garner’s character as being a real detective, and why wouldn’t he?

    The story is mainly told through Chris’ letters in which the first two unfortunately aren’t answered. The fact is, he was an excellent little detective himself and ultimately got the coins back purely with his own sleuthing. We don’t know if James Garner ever even received the letters or not. I’d like to think that if he did, he’d have written the boy (if not advice) a little encouragement. Definitely a note of congratulations after the 3rd letter once the coin set was found, telling him “See, you’re so good at this, you didn’t even need me!”

    The story ends with the July 4th letter, so we technically don’t know if the third time was the charm in his finally getting such a response. I’d like to think that he did, and Chris still has the letter in a safe place all these decades later. If it were me, I’d have definitely written the kid back knowing he’d written me 3 letters (!), and how thrilled he’d be with my congratulatory response. I’d also have felt sad and guilty if I hadn’t, disappointing him.

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