Sunday, April 3, 2011


As a child I was a kleptomaniac. My first and only partner in crime was my first girlfriend, Lori Jackson, a beautiful little girl with a squatty, Black father, German mother twice his size, older twin sisters, and a younger brother. They lived in the little village outside Bitburg Air Base (Bitburg was home to the famous Bitburger Pils beers) that sported a popular playground to which our elementary school hiked at least once a year (We called these Volksmarches, they were mandatory, and we got medals for them). Lori had an unfortunate history. One year her house burned down, the fault of her little brother. Lori was also run over by a tractor while playing in a field near her house. While I cannot validate the accuracy of my eight-year-old recollection or the integrity of Lori’s story (how she went “through the blades of the tractor” and how the farmer didn't realize he was running over a live person), I do remember that Lori was out of school for at least a month or two. When I did see her again, I am ashamed to say that I was frightened off by her scarred face. Soon thereafter I went to a private school in Eifel, and we fell out of contact.

In first grade I made visits to a man at our school who had an office at the end of the first and second grade wing (Years later, I understood him to have been the school counselor). I was occasionally sent to him whenever Mrs. Carr or Mrs. Dunn were tired of me, Mrs. Carr taking extreme measures like putting a refrigerator box over me and my entire desk with only the light from the opening at the top coming through. Whenever I visited the counselor, he was bombastic, affirming, and, most importantly, he always followed our talk by giving me a jawbreaker from a tall, glass jar that sat on the left side of his desk (if you were facing him). Lori informed me that she was receiving jawbreakers, too, so we schemed how we might get a bunch of jawbreakers from his office. Before walking to the local day care center after school, Lori and I paid the counselor a visit. He seemed elated to see us. She distracted him by sitting on his lap and hugging him while I pocketed a handful of jawbreakers from the jar. We abruptly left and split our share, though I am certain I kept one or two extra for myself.

But that is how I stole: a little bit here and a little bit there. Once at the military commissary, I found a bag of peppermints burst open on the floor. I took one. While I knew the bag was priced, I did not think they priced the individual peppermints. Once at a Turkish Bazaar, my brother found a wad of money on the ground. My mother made him turn it in. Another time my mother got heated with me over my stealing a nickel or a dime from her purse. My father used to drill me for having military pens in my possession. He would show me the label on the black pens: “U.S. Government.” He would ask me if I was in the military. I would say “no.” He would ask me if I worked for the United States Government. I would respond “no.” Then why did I have a military pen in my possession? Because I needed a pen to do my schoolwork. Well, I was stealing from the military government, and I could get jail time. Needless to say, my parents instilled in my a high regard for personal property. Nonetheless, I stole this way up until age fourteen.

I had a chain-smoking boss for whom I worked at eighteen. He had smokers lung, a death rattle, and it smelled like Marlboro phlegm when he coughed. He was in charge of the paper recycling program on our military base where I and my Greek, pot-smoking fellow-worker did our rounds at Sembach, Kaiserslautern, and parts of Vogelweh. They eventually jettisoned the paper recycling program as it did not bring in enough money to justify the gas and time we spent. There was many a day when Sam and I bought steaks from the local store, hid out at the military dump, and grilled while talking about philosophy. 

My boss got in trouble, however, for, get this, the theft of a chair. That had been sitting in some air-plane-bunker-turned-warehouse. The U.S. Air Force had a strict Fraud, Waste & Abuse policy, but I watched as he and the airman in charge negotiated on a few items I thought were for our department. I learned this when he came to my house after work one day in my little village of Mehlingen to make sure no one had spoken with me about any missing items and to “convince” me that I knew nothing about the chair. Or the couch. Or the computers. It didn’t much matter because the he lost his job anyway, and I left for college right before the Gulf War started in January 1991.

I suppose little injustices stack up. Somewhere along the way. It costs someone something. Somewhere along the way. The pennies add up to nickels which add up to dimes which add up to quarters which add up to dollars which add up to fivers and twenties and Benjamins. I was pricked in my conscience yesterday while doing some early, spring cleaning. I had Sufjan Stephen's Illinois. A copy of it. I have cherished that album, that pirated copy, for several years and for which Sufjan never got paid. What bothered me more was that I felt this acute, unsettling sense that this is not the only area in which I have infringed upon someone else's property. Certainly what we do to others we do to ourselves. In this economy, perhaps, our struggle around money is due to zillions of little injustices like these. A French philosopher once said of his philosophy that his band of "sticks" was not unique. The only "unique" thing about it was the string with which they were tied together. While I don’t see how inferior Xerox copies or pirated movies or copied CD’s or illegally copied computer software have directly contributed to the recession, I would bet my bottom dollar that such practices are duplicated in every area of life and that the lifestyle of living off facsimiles is certainly a major factor in our personal and national plights.

Today, my son wanted to trade out his tadpole's pond water for tap water. I told him the tap water would kill it. He didn't understand. To him it was water, just cleaner. I tried to explain how the water had fluoride in it. He didn't understand that. I then told him (for the sake of illustration) that the water had bleach in it. Then he was confused as to why I would let him and us drink water with bleach or anything poisonous in it. It was no use to explain that the doses were not lethal and that they were actually quite "helpful." That is how complicated the infringement (aka, injustice) issue goes: it is pervasive and cultural. I have no doubt that the person who can identify the minutest of injustices in his personal life to avoid them is potentially the richest or the freest person I will ever know.


  1. How the HECK do any of us survive childhood? Great storytelling, Robbie!

  2. Heather, I have no idea. As a child, I used to eat Bayer aspirin for snack and I used to stick my finger in the electric outlet for a fun 110 voltage buzz.


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