“At home we were pretty much allowed to go any direction we wanted to go, unless we were headed the wrong way.” – Alice Finch Lee, sister of Nelle Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the way I was raised.

I was taught that stealing was worse than taking something that doesn’t belong to you. Dishonesty was worse than not telling the truth. They, I was taught, make you less of the person you could or should be. Stealing doesn’t add to your wealth, it subtracts from your self-worth. Lies reflect a lesser character. Once dignity is lost, it’s hard to get back. That’s what I was taught.

Remember, these are also the same people who let me play with dead rats. I literally had a display of self-cleaned rat skeletons in my room. But it was a hobby that kept me off the streets.

Recently, I had a physical reaction upon hearing the word, “Sundries,” a word I had not heard in years. I became instantly anxious, and only now have I figured out why. When I was about 10 years old, I stole for the first and only time in my life. I took something from a neighborhood drug store. Over the entrance was a large neon sign that read, “Drug & Sundries”.

Wiki defines “Sundries” as Miscellaneous small items, usually of no large value and too numerous to mention separately… The item was a clear plastic bag of plastic army men. It was of no large value, but it was not mine to take.

I remember lifting the toy from the metal hook of a revolving display rack. I fingered through the figures behind the plastic to see their varied poses. Almost all the figures were standing or kneeling. The one I wanted – the one soldier I considered stealing to get – was the dead one. He was on his back, with his helmet partially off his head, his arms and legs extended in a lifeless pose.

He was intended to be a battlefield prop, but I had the tools to make him into an undead fighter: knives, razors and access to a lighter. He needed a large hole in his chest or maybe a severed head melted to his outstretched hand. With some creative carving, he would strike horror in my giant evil enemy rat skeletons. The other plastic soldiers could be set on fire or destroyed (and often were), but they were designed to be alive. It wasn’t the same. This one was created dead and I needed him.

I didn’t have money with me. It was too risky to remove the figure from the bag in the store. Asking the owner to hold the bag until I returned was out of the question. That would mean conversing with another human being. Girls and kids with siblings did that. I certainly couldn’t risk leaving it on the rack until I returned with money. What if another kid just like me saw the same dead figure? My assumption was that every boy was obsessively creating an apocalyptic war with the undead in his bedroom using sharp objects, lighters and dead animal bones.

I did a quick scan of the store. An old woman fumbled for change in her oversized purse to pay the owner/pharmacist for her prescriptions. That would take a while. The only other salesperson, a girl behind the counter, was busy mixing a milkshake for a cozy couple at the counter. No doubt they would ask for two straws. Nasty.

Luckily for me the rack was near the door, so I simply took my prize and walked out. I tried to look casual in spite of the deafening ringing as the opening door jingled the bell hanging overhead. The intent was to alert workers when customers entered and exited. It might as well have yelled out, “the thief is now leaving!”

I made the agonizing walk past the wide glass window, but not so fast as to draw attention. I glanced back. Nothing. No, “Hey kid! Come back here!” Or infinitely worse, “Todd, I’m telling your parents and grandparents!” I began to rationalize. Is it really that wrong if I take out the one dead soldier and give the live ones to charity? Is it really stealing if I come back with money? That’s called pre-purchasing!

I planned to return with money from Mom, but I needed to hide the package before I asked for money to cover up the theft. If I wanted to make this look good, I could give the owner the money, and lie and say I found it on the floor. That way I was not only paying him for my purchase, but I’d be seen as doing a good deed! Note: Doing the right thing to cover up for doing the wrong thing is often harder than doing either the wrong or right thing from the start.

I walked to the department store and watched Mom from the sidewalk. It was that kind of town then – a mom could let her only boy walk the streets without fear, as long as he promised to look both ways. If he didn’t, it was his fault because he knew better.

If I’d gotten hit by a car, I would have been grounded when I got out of intensive care (Go straight to your room and change those bandages and don’t get blood on the new towels. And how many times do I have to tell you to pick up your internal organs! They are scattered all over the house!). I think that’s called love.

I watched through the glass storefront as Mom tried on shoes. Mom was born with one small foot, so when she found shoes she liked, she had to buy two pair of the exact style in different sizes to make one complete pair, one smaller and one larger. It always bothered Mom that not only did she spend twice the money for each pair of shoes she owned, but for every pair she wore, she also had a useless mismatched pair she couldn’t use. She hated seeing anything go to waste.

I stood there holding stolen merchandise behind my back, with plans to get money from my own Mom to cover it up. Somewhere back in my room, I could almost hear my collection of evil rat skeletons say, “and you call us evil!” I ran back to the Drug & Sundries store as fast as I could, and returned the unopened toy. Even if nobody else noticed, I did. When I left, the ringing bell over my head didn’t seem so condemning.

On the drive home, Mom said she had met an older woman with the opposite sized feet. Mom had finally found someone who could wear her oppositely mismatched pairs of shoes. She said that if the woman didn’t like her style or couldn’t afford to pay, she’d give them to her anyway. At least they wouldn’t go to waste.

Mom asked me if I found anything I wanted.

Nothing I didn’t already have.