The midnight oil was burning as I sat at the desk and paid the bills. Twenty-seven fifty to Pepco. Thirty-three eleven to C&P Telephone. It wasn't the most scintillating work I'd ever done. Washington Gas . . . . Woodies . . . . My eyelids were beginning to droop. I put my head down on the desk for a second . . . .

"Hello, Robert!" boomed a stentorian voice belonging to a man in a brown suit.

"Hello, sir," I said. "I recognize the voice, but I'm afraid the name escapes me."

"I am Homer McPopkin, Robert. You don't remember me? We spent several years together. Think hard, now . . . ."

"Of course! You were the principal of my high school! Good to see you again, Pops! Whoops, sorry, make that Mr. McPopkin. It's just that we always called you Pops behind your back. Old habits die hard, you know."

"I understand entirely, Robert. Just as I am sure you will understand entirely when I tell you that there's been a terrible mistake."

"Terrible mistake?"

"Yes. I've journeyed here to tell you that you did not actually graduate from high school. As you know, the new term begins this week, at our school and at schools all around the Beltway. You will have to return with me to repeat your senior year."

"I didn't graduate from high school? Then what was that piece of sheepskin you handed me all those years ago? You know, reach with the left and shake with the right -- all that stuff I practiced so hard."

"Handing you the diploma was a mistake, Robert. Mistakes happen. But there was a far bigger mistake. It seems that you never completed the American history requirement."

"You've got to be putting me on. I took American history every year I was in high school. You want proof? Columbus discovers America, 1492. Lincoln elected, 1860. Depression begins, 1929. Roger Maris hits 61 homers, 1961. Do I pass?"

"Don't become riled, Robert. Simply sign this form, and all will be well."

"Wait a minute! This is a registration form. It says I'm going to take Basic American History with Mr. Morrison Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 11 a.m. How in the world can I do that when I have columns to write on those days? Besides, I already took that course, and I took it from Morrison! I remember the girl with the blonde hair who always sat in the front row. Pops, let me tell you, man to man, the course wasn't much, but this young lady was . . . . well, let's just say she made your mind wander, know what I mean?"

"Perhaps that is why, according to a review of our records, you never passed the final exam."

"And where do your records say I was that day? The Bahamas?"

"Robert, I wouldn't be bothering you about this if it weren't a serious matter. And it is. We are not talking about a library fine here. We are not even talking about the time you terrorized the bus driver with earsplitting rock and roll throughout the senior trip. No, this is a matter of overweening disregard for basic scholastic procedures."

"Give me a break, will you, Pops? If I'd spoken like that back in high school, every English teacher in the joint would have flunked me."

"But our records show that you passed English -- and that you use English, or a reasonable facsimile, in your career. The history requirement was not met, however. Why not tell an old principal the truth, Robert? Why didn't you pass the history final? A bright boy like you?"

"I have the right to remain silent. I have the right to a lawyer. If I can't afford a lawyer -- and you'd better believe that I can't, Pops -- one will be appointed for me."

"I suspected you might be this way about it, Robert. You newspaper types are even more stubborn than the chairman of the PTA. All right. I must play my trump card."

"Go right ahead."

"I have been authorized by the school board to tell you that if you come back and finish American history, the girl with the blonde hair will be in the front row."

"You're kidding!"

"No, Robert. You see, she didn't pass the final exam, either. Oh, you both sat down and took it. But her paper was full of hearts with arrows through them that said, 'Bob and Caroline Forever.' And your paper was full of the strangest sentences. 'The reason for the Louisiana Purchase was . . . . Caroline.' 'The main issue during the Boston Tea Party was . . . . Caroline.' I suspect Morrison gave you both passing grades only because it was getting late, and his head was drooping over his desk . . . ."

I awoke with a start. The stack of bills hadn't gotten any smaller. To heck with it. Washington Gas could wait. I trundled off to the sack.

Four days later, Pepco called. Wanted to know why I'd made my check payable to 'Caroline.'

"Did the devil make you do it?" asked the Pepco clerk.

"You'll never understand this," I said, "but Columbus and Roger Maris made me do it, a long time ago."