My 6 year old fingers held the nickel at the coin slot of the school’s candy machine. I wanted so badly to release it and pull the lever for the candy bar. I knew that I shouldn’t do it, because the coin was a refund from over paid milk money that my 1st grade teacher had given me to take home. I wasn’t really going to put the money into the machine. It was just my way of drooling over the candy while waiting for the school bus to take me home.
Suddenly my friend, Austin, smacked my hand and the coin tinkled down into the machine. I was frozen in shock as he pulled the lever which dispensed the candy bar. I couldn’t have felt worse if I had just robbed the local bank at gun point. I knew that the money should have gone back to my parents. They were the ones who had provided the milk money in the first place. As I stood and held that candy bar, I wanted nothing else but to put it back into the machine and to get my nickel back… my parent’s nickel. I wouldn’t let Austin have any of the candy bar. I didn’t eat it either. I didn’t want it anymore. I just stood and tried to figure out how to get my money back.
I had a long wait for the bus because first grade got out much earlier than the older kids but we all rode the same bus home. I was still sitting next to that candy machine when a man came and opened it up to refill it. He thought my glum demeanor was because I wanted a candy. So he offered to give me one for free. As I held up my own candy bar, I told him that I didn’t want the candy, I wanted my money back. I think he thought I was greedy and unthankful. He was obviously disgusted with me. I didn’t care. I was still feeling full remorse for stealing that nickel from my parents. Clearly, they had done a wonderful job teaching me honesty by the time I was 6 years old and going to school.
In spite of my parent’s policy of strict honesty, over the years we had seen many examples of dishonesty on our small farm. One of my earlier memories of it was when one of Dad’s loyal employees, Wanda, came to him and warned him about some of the other ladies who worked on our egg candling crew. Dad had made it an employee benefit to “just take the eggs you need for your family, home.” Wanda told Dad, “They’re robbing ya blind. They must be taking eggs for every relative they have.” But Dad seemed more concerned with honoring his promised “egg benefit” than he was about some of the employees taking advantage of him.
In our little farm egg store, we had an old (even back then in the 60’s it was considered old) cash register. This cast iron monster must have weighed 200 pounds. At night the till was locked, but I guess at least sometimes the money was left in it. One night, the whole cash register was stolen. Investigation showed that the thief walked in the half mile through the back fields leaving light foot prints in the snow. The foot prints back out through the fields sank into the snow much deeper as he carried his loot to his waiting get away car. The thief made off with several hundred dollars. Several weeks later, the sheriff found our broken open cash register where it had been dumped off along with some checks. Of course, all of the cash was gone.
Once a farm employee, Greg – a college student who worked for us part-time, reported that one of our egg delivery money bags had been stolen. In the ensuing investigation he finally admitted that he had taken the money. Dad got the money back, and he didn’t press charges. In fact, he even let Greg continue to work for us, just not around any of the money. Dad wasn’t in a hurry to condemn someone who had made a mistake.
Another employee was one of many who ran home delivery routes for us. She had worked for years when there was a disagreement over loading her delivery van in the morning for the day’s route. I was too young to know the details of what her grievance was, but when she quit, we started getting calls from customers that we had no record of. She had many cash only customers on her routes who were delivered our eggs as she pocketed the full amount of the payment.
Our little farm store also sold a few other things along with the eggs. Milk and other dairy including ice cream was a logical tie in. We also had a nice display of candy, which was popular with the neighborhood kids. Once we discovered that certain candies were disappearing along with the coin in our cash register. (We now pulled all the currency out of the cash register every night, but left maybe 5 or 10 dollars of coin in the open drawer. Dad said if someone broke in to steal the cash, he wanted the drawer open so they wouldn’t destroy the cash register trying to get to the few dollars that might be inside. So we always left it open at night.) So we tried to stake out the farm at night to catch our thief, but he had been so inconsistent that it took a week or two to get any good leads. One night while out on patrol, we found a neighbor kid in our yard. Allen would hang around a lot anyway, so when he said he was just out for a walk (1/2 mile from his house and in our farmyard at 10:30pm) we were suspicious but didn’t have any real evidence that he was our “cat burglar.” Then finally, we found where he must have been getting through our “Fort Knox” nightly lock-up. Our egg processing building had a small freight door rather high up on one wall. This 2 foot square door was our obvious “Achilles heal.” We took great pleasure in blocking the door from the inside including a sign that Allen would read by flashlight when he tried to enter. “Ha, Ha, Ha Allen. No more free candy.”
Down inside, Allen was a good kid who finally got it right. He actually came to my Dad several years later with an admission of guilt, an apology, and several hundred dollars in restitution.
My dad had been burned so many times that you’d wonder if his occupation was firefighting. I was once using an old shovel to clean the floor in one of our chicken coops. Dad was there helping with a push broom. He said to me, “Be careful with that shovel. I paid $1300.00 for it. I look down at the old rusty shovel in shock. He then told me that he had loaned a friend the money and had received the shovel as collateral. Obviously, he knew he’d never see the money again.
Dad learned from these experiences and made adjustments. One thing I remember him always saying was to keep the temptation for people to be dishonest to a minimum. “Keep it out of sight. Lock the doors. Help keep the honest people honest.”
As I reflect back on my childhood days on our farm, I want nothing more than to continue the legacy my parents perpetuated from their parents. We always had enough money to meet our needs and once in awhile even a little extra for some fun, but we were never considered wealthy. But the wealth of learning how to live honestly in spite of dishonesty all around me is a great treasured gem I received as a child. It’s what made a six year old recognize whose nickel it really belonged to at the candy machine so many years ago. My subconscious rings with maxims like, “An honest days work for an honest day’s wage.” Like my dad, if I say I am going to do something, my honor is at stake. So, “My word is my bond.”
Truly, I have inherited a great wealth from my family. The best part of this wealth is that no matter how trusting or gullible I am with other people who might want to steal my treasures, they can’t steal this one from me. If I lose it, it’s my fault only. More than money, land, or jewels, I want to be able to pass this treasure on to my children, and theirs.