To say my personal spiritual psychology was warped during my early years would be a fair statement. In the deep, dark, concrete reinforced caverns of my mind, karma barely existed and stealing stuff was okay…as long as I didn’t get caught.
Nobody ever role modeled criminality for me, either. I was just naturally twisted.
My first real adventure in my life of crime, stealing stuff, happened in the third grade. Karma? Whoever heard of karma in rural Montana, circa 1953? A whole pack of shoplifting mentors showed me the way during our school lunch breaks. Drummond Grade School was not a closed campus, and many of the older kids would head on downtown to Sullivan’s Grocery, using their numbers to disguise the theft of chewing gum–mostly Wrigley’s Spearmint and Juicy Fruit.
I was inspired! Free gum!
However, I was also, like most sneak thieves, a coward at heart. It was too scary for me to try lifting a pack of the yummy stuff with all those other kids around, older guys mostly, who would no doubt see me doing what they were doing and maybe even rat me out just for the evil older-kid fun of it.
They do that, you know.
So, being the brilliant criminal mastermind that I was, I went back to pull off my first heist one day when no other “shopper” was in the store–and of course got caught in the act. The Sullivans chewed me out, I promised desperately and oh-so-sincerely never to steal ever ever ever again, they let me go, and that was that. They never told anybody, either…
…or so I thought, until my Mom told me otherwise. Fortunately, I was in my forties at the time and not quite as terrified.
Can you spell America’s Dumbest?
Fast forward to Bozeman, Montana. In January of 1970, I had at the age of 26 done my service in the U.S. Army, a few jobs under my belt, a wife and child with one more on the way, and one more batch of college credits to go before graduation from Montana State University with a B.S. degree in psychology. Money was plenty tight…and I was shoplifting intermittently to keep the family fed.
No, I never got caught. Not after the gum incident, I assure you. Nor had I often stolen so much as a used newspaper between 1953 and 1970.
But this was different. We had to eat, and there was just not a lot of money left over for food after paying the bills. I had a theory: The Universe would let me get away with it if I didn’t push it, stole just enough to keep our bellies away from our backbones.
It worked, too…in a sense. That is, no one caught me in the act, police were never involved, and I did graduate on time plus land a really decent job immediately after finally earning the sheepskin.
The first crack in my PTA (Perfect Thief Armor) came a few years later as my eight-year marriage ground to a reasonably ugly halt. In one of the many intense moments between us during that last year together, my soon-to-be-ex made some reference to me being an honest man.
“Don’t call me honest!” I snapped. “You’re always calling me honest! Don’t do that!”
She stared at me. “But you’re about the most honest man I ever met in my life!”
So…I told her about the shoplifting. How most of those great T-bone steaks had not been paid for with profits from my little door-to-door Amway business as I’d claimed but had jumped up under my jacket on the way past the grocery store freezer.
She looked really, really thoughtful. “I wondered how come you seemed to know exactly where every security camera was located in every store in town,” she admitted.
It got worse from there.
The Hammer Falls
During that same year, 1972, I read a lot of books that discussed karma and reincarnation. Of the two, karma seemed to suck the most. Sadly, there was no escape, no copout for the evildoer…and all of those truisms came crashing through my ignorance barrier with a nasty thud! We’ve all heard them, of course:
“If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”
“What goes around comes around.”
“Do unto others (including grocery stores!) as you would have them do unto you.”
There was one good thing about all this sudden understanding: When bad went to worse until I finally filed for bankruptcy in 1980, I couldn’t say I didn’t have it coming. In fact, it was perfect symmetry: As much as anything, I’d stolen stuff during late 1969 and early 1970 to protect my credit rating…and in return, my credit rating became a true cellar dweller for a good long while.
The folks who say you get back three for one when you cast your bread upon the waters are lowballing the figures. I stole perhaps $300 worth of food in total, had to sell my only pistol to pay the $500 fee to the attorney who handled the bankruptcy filing, and messed up my credit for years. Had I handled the money problem ethically in 1969-70, gotten behind on the bills in order to pay for those T-bone steaks with actual cash, I suspect I’d never have gone bankrupt.
Yep. That was it. Once it became clear that karma was real–there’s even a Law of Karma and Lords of Karma to enforce said Law–“going straight” was the only reasonable option.
Not that I claim to be a purist. President Lyndon Baines Johnson was hardly my favorite politician of all time (that would be Sarah Palin), but he did have one saying I’ve always appreciated. The quote may not be exact, but close enough:
“Any time a man tells me he’s honest, I reach to make sure my wallet’s still there.”
True that, just as true as the fact that shoplifting chases can be entertaining to watch.
But if you happen to be the proprietor of a grocery store, rest easy. Your T-bone steaks are safe, and I don’t even have any teeth left with which to chew gum.