Stolen Things

Leaving the house one day, I noticed something lying on the sidewalk. Drawing closer I found the torn, discarded wrapping of a Christmas gift. A little further along the walkway lay the shipping envelope. Its address was that of a rental home a few blocks away. Incensed by the thief who’d been stealing gifts intended for others, giving efforts, I wished I’d been more observant. I could have caught the person responsible and returned the stolen goods.

In this life, we are affected by the things we gain and lose, both spiritually and materially, and though many focus on the former as being of most import to the soul, it is the loss of more earthbound things that sometimes makes the stronger impression on one’s heart and mind.

From an early age we’re taught that if we’re good, we can acquire and enjoy good things. But those good things an be taken away if we misbehave, thus capitalizing upon the fundamental need in most humans to acquire material possessions. Some are deemed needs, others wants, but regardless, they are sought after just the same. As one gets older, the “give and take” formerly administered by parents is replaced by one’s own “program” of acquisition. Some folks collect things as a hobby. Others hoard. But most of us just buying what we need or want, many of these items purchased solely because they give us joy.

One of the main differences between children and adults lies in how we lose things. If a child misplaces some object, they may find it and they might not, but either way, it’s due to a level of inexperience generic to the young. When an adult loses something, though, gone are any valid or acceptable excuses. When I misplace my glasses- for the fifth time today, most likely- there are jokes made about early-onset Alzheimer’s or stress. I may believe that I have a valid reason for misplacing those spectacles, but come now- I’m an adult. I should know better. If someone has taken my glasses by accident or on purpose, I’m still the loser. If I misplaced them, I’m seen as careless. If they were stolen, I’m again viewed as careless, since some degree of due diligence would have prevented the theft from occurring in the first place.

But of all the ways to lose material possessions, theft has to be the most painful. Aside from the associated financial and sentimental distress, there’s the question of why.

“What did I do to deserve this?”

“Is this some form of karmic payback for my being a wicked person?”

“Is someone out to get me?”

And the questions don’t stop there. One wonders where their stuff is now, and who is the miserable creep that relieved them of it? One may even entertain thoughts of revenge. “If I could only get my hands on that so-and so…”

In the end, though, the queries and self-recriminations and payback scenarios do little to make one feel better. Since most victims never get their stuff back, one has to eventually let go and move on with their life. But how is this healing accomplished? In my experience, it has been helpful to try and look at each of these incidents as a learning experience. “Easy for you to say,” you may mumble. “What have you lost, lately?”

Well, I can tell you that during my time here on terra infirma, I’ve had plenty of experience with theft.

While I vaguely recall being lectured by Mom in a supermarket when I was three of four about why lollipops didn’t belong to us until she paid for them, my first true memory of theft came a few years later. A friend and I were one day climbing around on a steep hillside next to the highway near my house, when I came upon an 8” x 10” canvas bag. It had a zipper at the top and a padlock of some sort on it, and looked like it had been cut open with a razor. There was printing on its face but neither of us grade-school types understood what it meant until I carted it home and showed it to Mom, whose eyes got nice and big as she grabbed the phone and called the police. Evidently the bag belonged to one of the local banks- which just happened to have been robbed some hours earlier. Once the police arrived, and took great pains to explain that I was not in trouble, they had me return to the hillside and show them where I’d found the bag. As the sunlight faded and searchlights rippled back and forth across the embankment, more bags were found. In the end, I was congratulated for being a good citizen and given a fiver by one of the officers. The whole affair made me feel pretty happy about being a good citizen- and the money didn’t hurt either. On the heels of this came lectures from my dad about the virtues of honesty. He said that things would always go better for me if I told the truth- even if I was in the wrong. As usual, the intellect bought into the concept long before the heart did.

In the meantime, though, I began experiencing the pain of losing things to those who evidently wanted my possessions more than I did.

There was the 1-2” thick collection of trading cards I had amassed. Being a combination of cards from the James Bond and Man From Uncle series, I loved laying them out and looking at the pictures, enjoying the first feelings of pride and the thrill-of-the-hunt mindset that come with building a collection. Besides the text on the back side of the cards, the Uncle series had an extra pull. Certain cards could be assembled to form a picture, in this case a photo of Napoleon Solo, Illiya Kuryakin and their boss (Leo G. Carroll), standing beside a globe of the world. Never able to resist the attention-grabbing benefits of show-and-tell sessions at grade school, I took the cards with me into the classroom and subsequently wowed the troops. Some were fans of the show while a few others were merely impressed with the large amount of cards. In either case, those fourth-graders knew I had the collection and that I kept it in my lift-top desk. And I had no problem with keeping the cards at school, since one or two of the kids told me they’d be safe there.

But after being absent from school for a few days, either due to sickness or a hunting trip with Dad, I returned to find that the cards were gone. And of course, no one knew where they were or where they’d gone to. I held out hope for a few days, but soon realized that lacking the requisite skills of a Sherlock Holmes, I’d never see them again. There were at least 15 suspects in that room alone, with nary a lead in sight.

So went Lesson #1: Thou shalt not leave prized possessions in your desk at school.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one to be relieved of things. Other kids had to learn the hard way, just like me. Especially when the Duncan yo-yo fad hit our school. Those students lucky enough to talk their parents into buying a toy that neither little Susie or Johnny understood how to use or care for, started losing them to sticky fingers some days and weeks later.

While I would like to say that Father’s lectures on honesty made a deep impression on me, I would be dishonest if I told you they worked right away. Some skulls are thinker than others, mine being of the more dense variety. Not only did I fail to understand that stealing had long-term consequences regardless of an object’s value, but there seemed to be little or no understanding about what property ownership entailed. Yes, I knew that stealing was wrong, but if one didn’t get caught, then the matter of guilt was more relative than relevant.

So it was that sometime during my early teenage years I experimented with shoplifting. I’d buy an item, but have concealed in the palm of my left hand a small battery, while paying for a more visible item with my right. And though there were only a few attempts, the thrill of getting something for nothing whetted my appetite for more.

During visits to my grandmother’s house around this time period, I would find myself with long stretches of nothing to do and would go for long walks, one of which took me by a grade school playground and then, just up the street, the church our family was attending. Knowing there was a coin box inside the building, I one day pushed up on a classroom window and it slid open. So in I went, having no compunction about taking donated money from the church. And though it was only 50 cents or a dollar, the principle was the same. A blind spot was developing on my conscience.

Then there was the Saturday I accompanied my mother to the building where she taught elementary school. Bored out of my mind, I was wandering the school grounds when I spied a concession cart- one of those that you see parked next to the baseball diamond, dispensing candy, sno-cones and popcorn. I don’t know what came over me- maybe a simple case of the munchies- but I decided to see if its door was unlocked, which it was not. Then I went a step further and tried to squeeze through the small door, which was actually quite flimsy. And somehow I wriggled my way inside. Once on my feet in the darkened interior, I suddenly understood the “kid in a candy store” feeling, for there before me were row after row of gum and candy bars. Unable to resist the forbidden fruit, I took a couple items, then exited, not wanting to get caught, yet totally disregarding the fact that my actions were in plain view of anyone in the neighborhood. As these waiting sessions for my mom’s exit from school were always lengthy, I had enough time to go inside the building, then return again  to the cart for another candy grab. And though I felt fortunate to not have been found out, it would have been better (in the long run) to have been busted on the spot- and if my mother had discovered what I’d been up to, the death penalty would have been enacted right there on school property, regardless of current prohibitions against corporal punishment.

There were warnings every so often about what my current course could lead to. Like the time some kids were left at my place while our parents went for a drive. The three boys- whom I barely ran around my house, having a great time, and after the initial get-acquainted period, I invited them to go out to the woods behind our property. One boy stayed behind, and I thought nothing of it until later when their car was pulling out of the driveway and I went upstairs to find that the little monster had gone through everything in my room. I was furious, being on the receiving end for once- but the incident did little to change my point of view.

Around that time I was caught up in a neighbor kid’s efforts to consume every single chocolate mint bar he was supposed to be selling for a fundraiser. This lack of ethics accordingly led to us breaking into a storage room in the barn behind his parent’ rented  house, hauling the landlord’s tent, surveying equipment and lots of tools out to the woods, where we set up a thieves camp of sorts. Though I feigned ignorance, unaware of who the property belonged to, it was my utter lack of respect for someone else’s personal belongings that damned me. The day of reckoning came when the landlord returned to town for a visit and found his storage room and many family mementoes in ruins. The search for the guilty didn’t take long, and once my friend ratted me out, I confessed to the owner that I was the guilty party. And though I hadn’t instigated the break-in, I knew I had done wrong. To this day I’ll never forget the attitude of understanding and forgiveness that fellow displayed. He could have screamed and yelled- even called in the authorities- but instead he had me help clean up the mess we’d made and restore things as best we could. And he accepted my apology.

But even then my lesson wasn’t completely learned. A year or two later I was hanging out with a few fellows who had taken shoplifting and general theft to a new level. Being easily swayed by the thrilling allure of getting something for nothing, so it was that one fateful day I rationalized my way out the front door of a store with a purloined cassette, straight into the arms- or steely grip, as it was- of an elderly security guard. By the time I’d taken that awful ride in a sheriff’s car to the county jail, endured a humiliating wait in the police station, and was then taken home by Dad- who all the way to the house was telling me how much my actions would hurt my mother- I was finally in a receptive mood. From that day forward I swore I would never steal again, a vow to which I was faithful- the few slipups along the way reminding me that the devil is always listening, one of his favorite pastimes being to knock us down once we make significant  declarations of resolve.

As to the school of hard knocks, there’s always a new class available, another course in humility just around the corner. In my case, there was graduate work to be done, more particularly with regards to how it feels to be on the receiving end of larcenous acts. One of the first lessons came when I discovered, a short time after the cassette incident, that there really is no honor among thieves. Having nothing better to do one afternoon, I decided to wow the troops with a display of my prized possessions. A while after this latest show-and-tell session, some antique coins, currency and my great grandfather’s pocket watch- the one with the windup key- turned up missing.

Lesson # 3: Never leave your friends (and their friends) alone in your room after showing them your treasures- at least until you’re all adults and supposedly know better. Trust is something learned and earned, but just as easily lost.

This lack of honor led to another small lesson. After finding one of my motorcycle’s rear-view mirrors gone, one of my larcenous associates confessed- and I use the term loosely-  that he’d watched someone walk up to my bike and remove said mirror. When I asked my “friend” why he hadn’t stopped the other person, he just shrugged and laughed, saying something about not wanting to get involved. And for some strange reason he couldn’t understand why I was mad at him.

Some two to three years later I was living in a small college town where my only means of transportation- a ten-speed bike- was stolen. After lengthy detective work and some divine intervention, I discovered where the bike was and was able to steal it back one glorious night. A few months later, I was headed for a trip out of the country, and asked my roommates to please send home the bike, as well as the tool kit my parents had given as a high school graduation present- but the stuff disappeared, courtesy of one of my supposed “friends”. Some time later I also discovered that a watch I’d been given for Christmas by my parents was also missing

A few years later it was another of those friends that made off with the pellet gun my father had given me when I was young. The karma continued when, during this same point in time, I took an expensive portable stereo to church one day for use in a lesson about music. I set everything up in a downstairs classroom, then went to the main floor for Sacrament meeting. Imagine my horror upon discovering a mere 45 minutes later that the stereo- which I had finally paid off- was gone, only the power cord remaining. Following a frantic search, I realized I’d again been ripped off, matters getting stranger the following week when I announced to the class of teens what had occurred. All of them were shocked and dismayed- all except for the one kid who’d turned up missing the week before, and who now bore the news with an ill-concealed smirk on his face. This was the same kid whose mother had called earlier that week to tell me she suspected her son. But lacking evidence or the stomach to initiate a potential confrontation in the youth’s home, I let it go- a mistake I would always regret, since my inaction let the kid off the hook, an opportunity to scare him straight having been forever missed.

For a while all was quiet on the stealing front. I learned to forgive, if not forget, and was keeping a closer watch on my belongings. But sometimes there is little one can do, especially if someone wants your stuff bad enough. And so it was that I returned home to my apartment one day to discover that the place had been burgled and vandalized, my roommate’s coin collection missing, along with the portable stereo I usually kept in my car, but had left at home this particular day, thinking it would be safer there.

Lesson #4: Despite the best of precautions, things still happen.

Then came a respite from theft of some 20 years in length. Sure, little things continued to disappear, our home having the requisite number of black holes, one of which things small and large would drop into for months on end before one day reappearing only after they’d been replaced or no one cared about them any more. But for the most part, we were thief-free. Then the car prowlers started coming around. Neighborhood involvement and constant vigilance were the only ways to rid our streets of them, but even then, there will still flare-ups.

One day I returned home after working graveyard shift, and noticed an expensive lawn mower sitting on the sidewalk near my home. Hauling it inside until the owner could be found, I called the police department, but soon hung up after the officer told me how difficult it would be to find the owner, then joked about how he could use a nice mower, etc., etc. Wanting to return the stolen equipment but unsure where to start, my wish was granted a week or two later. While collecting canned goods for a local food drive, I happened to tell one of the neighbors about the mower and discovered that it was his, stolen one night from his back yard.

Then came the trip we took with our Subaru to Utah. Following an abortive attempt at the trip some weeks earlier due to the car overheating, I had the vehicle repaired and off we went. The car never ran better and we returned some time later, refreshed and relaxed. It was only a day or two after this that I walked out to the driveway and discovered that our family’s best functioning car was gone. Stolen. I felt sick to my stomach as I called the police. Then I went to work, where I told fellow employees about the terrible thing, only to have most of them at first say how bad they felt, then snigger about the incident, saying that was to be expected considering the part of town I lived in. Then followed the usual recriminations and anger and revenge scenarios, some of which were quite elaborate, due to my bounteous imagination. A month or so later the car was found, but since we had only that morning collected the insurance check, we had no interest in getting the car back- especially when the police told me the VIN plates had been removed from the car, and that in order to get the Subaru back I’d need to pay a couple hundred dollars in impound fees.

The hits kept coming when, a while later, I was riding my bike to work. For the first time in years one of the tires went flat. Leaving it in the brush alongside the road, I frantically tried to find a ride to work, my five or six year record of perfect attendance on the line. But it was not to be. And after walking several miles to the job site, I got a ride back with my boss, only to find the bike gone.

By this time in my life, having things taken away was getting to be routine, but it still made me boil with rage. This probable accounts for a new hobby I soon embarked on, and one not deficient in irony.

Having been sensitized to shoplifters through recent visits with my wife to grocery stores,  where I watched various and sundry candy munchers in action (sampling everything they could get their grubby mitts on), I became more and more incensed. Why were they stealing so much and so brazenly, and why did no one say anything or try to stop them? The few times I dared comment on some shopper’s liberal sampling of candy, nuts and the like I was met with either indifference or hostility, one larcenist giving me the evil eye, then following me around the store in a fit of unrighteous indignation. Realizing I needed to adopt a more subtle approach, I hung back, waiting for a better opportunity.

So it was that one day at the local mall I spied a fellow with a skateboard entering the video store I was in. After looking around, he crouched behind a display to look at the DVD’s. My wife and I left the store a few minutes later, but I felt a weird vibe and turned around to watch the skateboard guy. His back to me and the store entrance, he pulled a sack out of the front of his shirt and began loading it with DVD’s. As my heart leaped and my eyeballs popped out of their sockets, I watched him slowly fill the bag with hundreds of dollars of merchandise and realized it was time to act. I waved at the store employees, who either didn’t see me or thought I was mental and ignored my entreaties. Then I caught the manager’s eye, but he too was too busy to leave the store. Then I looked at the thief. He was nearly finished loading up. Desperate to do something before he got away, I walked up just behind Skateboard Guy and in a loud voice yelled “WHAT THE @#&* ARE YOU DOING!” Two things then happened. The manager started walking toward us and Skateboard Guy started shoveling the DVD’s back onto the rack, seconds later running past me and through the mall, the store manager giving chase. Mission accomplished I joined my wife in another part of the mall.

Having busted one shoplifter, I was now hooked, and in true vigilante fashion went on to foil several other attempts over the next few years. The satisfaction I have felt is worth all the risks I took. And why does busting thieves feel so good? Not because I am being judgmental or feel superior or want to make others suffer. No, the satisfaction comes from taking action when it is needed- action that helps restore civil order and protect property. If this country does not survive, it will not be due to evil acts , but an unwillingness to stop them.

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