By Suzanne Lintz Ives
As a child, I’d definitely have been on Santa’s “naughty” list. I stole candy when I was little, and then went on to a larger crime that haunted me for 50 years.
If your moral compass is spinning, I ask: Did you ever commit a minor childhood infraction, maybe telling a little fib or swiping a cookie? Crime is crime!
It began in Deer Lodge, Montana. We were scared at first.
Three of us bored seven year olds would innocently enter the store. Two of us would distract the clerk by dropping cans on the floor — and one of us would pocket bubble gum, penny suckers, and jawbreakers.
In three tries, we weren’t caught.
Believing we had refined our craft, we were ready for Main Street and Ben Franklin. We even named our gang, “The Egdol Reeds” (Deer Lodge spelled backward).
Throughout that summer of our sweet content, we blew and sucked and jawed through all the flavors—even recruited one more criminal into the gang as a lookout.
When I was ten, I wanted to be a teacher, so I’d force my brother Bill and his six-year-old friends to play school. I’d hand out the papers, draw on my little chalkboard, then collect the papers from my three students.
I needed a stapler. It was that simple.
We were poor. No way was I going to get a stapler in the middle of the summer, after my birthday and before Christmas. I knew not to even ask. There was only one way: I had to steal it.
The next day, I walked into Bud Grover’s drugstore at the corner of Main and Milwaukee and looked casually around. Where’s the stapler counter? Oh yeah, school supplies. Oh no, they’ll think I’m stealing. But why? Why would they think I’m stealing? Everybody knows me. They know I wouldn’t steal.
My body shook like a paint-can agitator.
The loot hung heavy in my pocket. But now I was the carrier (albeit not owner) of a brand-new, red, two-inch “Swingline Tot” stapler with four tracks of refills. At last, I could staple Bill’s and Teddy’s and Clarence’s math papers together to prove that I was a real teacher.
My brother used to go through my stuff all the time. (Later, in my high school years, he stole and sold my diary to my at-the-moment boyfriend for 50 cents for an overnight snoop.)
I knew I had to hide the Swingline — not just from Billy, but from my omniscience, omnipotent, and omnipresent mother. I put it between the mattress and the bed frame. But I couldn’t let Mother see the stapled papers, so I had to destroy them right after I’d stapled them.
Good thing Montana State Prison is in my hometown of Deer Lodge. I might get visitors.
When I packed for the university, I smuggled the Swingline along. My college papers were neatly stapled, but my guilt was all-consuming. I stared death in the stapled face.
Eventually, I confessed to my roommates. They forgave me. (They stole stuff, too. One had even stolen a red Jantzen sweater!)
During college I went home and slunk into Bud’s. I placed the “Tot” stapler on the counter and said, “Mr. Grover, about ten years ago, I stole this stapler from you. I’m here to return it, to pay for it with interest, and to ask you to forgive me.”
He moved the stapler back across the counter and said, “I don’t forgive you.”
At home, I confessed to Mom. “He should have let you pay him,” she said. I really needed a hug. “But I don’t think he should forgive you either. Did you learn your lesson?”
Got no hug.
Dale Staphenson was at Dad’s memorial service about 50 years later. He was a neat guy and had bought Bud’s Drug Store and its liabilities a couple of years before. To him, I confessed my childhood life of crime.
Maybe he just felt sorry for me because my dad was dead. But he forgave me, took my five-dollar bill (99 cents for the stapler and $4.01 for the interest), and gave me a hug.
Ah, confession … so good for the soul. Forgiveness, even better.
(Sue Lintz Ives, a University of Montana journalism graduate, owned a public relations firm and authored the book, “Bob, the Tree Who Became a Star.” She grew up in Deer Lodge, Montana.)