I grew up in a house without any acknowledgement of religion. I didn’t even see the inside of a church until age ten when I went to the wedding of a girl who used to babysit my brother and me. The wedding took place in the First Methodist Church in downtown Bloomington, Indiana. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the stained glass windows looked with the light coming from outside. My father studied and taught the Old Testament, but he sure didn’t believe in it. My mother started going to church after my parents divorced, but she didn’t ever mention religion when they were married.
Although nobody ever told me that God watched and judged my actions, I still always felt that someone or something was watching. My parents framed the gatefold from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the one with the four mustached men standing shoulder to shoulder in their satin uniforms – which hung it at the foot of my crib beginning months after my birth. I grew up with that picture staring down at me, and it took me until age seven or so before I had any clue as to their identy. I felt that they were there to watch me; and judging from the looks on their faces, they remained passively amused by my every move. Their eyes seemed to follow me around the room.
In addition to the Beatles, I felt very strongly from a very young age that I had an audience somewhere, somehow. It wasn’t a sense of God per se – it felt more like a live television audience. I saw my life was an endless, mostly mind-numbingly boring sort of cinéma vérité. I often imagined a narrator’s voice inside my head describing the action. “Now the hero will commence to spoon sugar onto his Wheaties…not too much, but just enough to sweeten the milk…he is incredibly skilled at spooning sugar; observe that he rarely spills a single granule.” Everything I did inspired reverence and awe from the off-camera announcer.
My brother had a best friend in the neighborhood, a kid named Pete. He lived around the corner, but our backyards faced one another. Pete had an older brother named Tony, a serious kid with glasses. Pete’s parents enjoyed conventional things such as golf, recreational boating, and home decorating. My mother admired Pete’s parents, though I suspect my father considered them dull and conventional. Once they built a weird, sprawling concrete and glass addition onto their ranch house that consumed most of the back yard. For months during the construction they had this giant dirt pile that became our favorite place to play. I found several real Indian arrowheads that had been buried deep beneath the yard.
One time during the early fall when I was about seven, we went over to Pete’s parents’ house for dinner. Before dinner, the adults chatted over drinks in the living room as my brother and Pete talked animatedly in the basement about the Chicago Cubs. I wandered alone through the house, exploring. I wandered through various rooms, picking things up and putting them back to appear undisturbed. In Tony’s room, on his desk, I saw a neat stack of one dollar bills. Without thinking about it, I picked up the stack of bills and stuffed them in my pocket.
I nervously felt the bills in my pocket as I sat and ate dinner, wondering what I would buy. I thought I might buy a new G.I. Joe, or perhaps a real army helmet from the army surplus store. I felt slightly nervous, but I didn’t feel the least bit guilty.
Then on the way home it occurred to me that I would have to explain to my parents how I suddenly had all this money – six dollars as it turned out. I had an idea that I’d pretend to have somehow found the money in our basement. As soon as we arrived at the house, I went straight to a large walk-in closet in the basement that connected to the large bedroom that my brother and I shared. I waited a few seconds and then shouted, “Hey, mom, come look what I found.”
My mother, brother and father all came down the stairs and directly into the closet as I held up the stack of ones. “I was looking for something on the shelves over here, and I found this money. Can I keep it?” With hardly a second’s delay, my brother chimed in. “Hey, that’s my hiding place for money, and I hid that money there.” Of course I knew he was lying, both because I’d stolen the money, and because my brother would never have misplaced money. Back then he was the biggest tightwad in the world. I knew exactly where he his his money, and I knew he kept count down to the penny.
Our father looked us over with a furrowed brow, thinking it over. After a moment, he spoke. “Well, it seems there’s only one solution,” he said. “Since Jacob hid the money and John found it, they should each take three dollars.” My brother quickly agreed, and there wasn’t much I could do about it. I revised my thinking, calculating what I could buy at Air Way with only three dollars. Not much.
Then, almost immediately, the phone rang. My parents disappeared upstairs for several minutes and then returned with grave looks on their faces. “That was Tony’s parents,” my mother said. “It seems Tony’s lunch money for the week has gone missing, six dollars to be exact.” My stomach dropped. “John, do you have something to tell us?”
For my fittingly brutal punishment I had to walk back to Tony’s house by myself, knock on the door, and return the six dollars to Tony. When I rang the bell, crying buckets, all four members of the family came to the door. Tony’s father stepped solemnly out of the screen door and looked at me straight in the face, his bushy eyebrows raised expectantly. I handed him the money and stammered a few words of apology. I scanned their faces, and they all held the same solemn look. For weeks afterward I remembered the way they’d looked as I imagined what they must have been thinking. “Well,” they must have thought, “there’s a kid who’s already started going wrong…prison can’t be but a few rough years away.”
I didn’t do much stealing after that, save for a can of Binaca breath spray I shoplifted from the Osco Drug in fifth grade. I’d seen the ads and it just looked really awesome, and I couldn’t afford the five bucks. I ended up spraying it in my mouth once or twice. Other than that isolated incident, however, I didn’t ever want to experience the humiliation that I felt over having to return that money.
Clearly the episode tought me an important lesson, which I thankfully took to heart. It’s a little troubling to me, however, that I didn’t feel bad about stealing the money at the time. Sure, I was very young; but I don’t remember a lot of wrestling with the moral issue when deciding whether or not to steal the money and deciding how to conceal the crime.
So what if I’d gotten away with stealing Tony’s six bucks? Would I now be a hardened criminal? Would the guilt eventually have eaten away at me to the point where I’d have ratted myself out? Would I have gotten the G.I. Joe and carried on with my life just the same? I have no idea. What I do know is that somewhere along the line I developed a sense of morality on my own, and I suspect that stuff like my failed foray into petty theft helped in a way religion might have helped someone else arrive at the same place. With or without God as my co-pilot, I’ve picked up a thing or two here and there to the point where I feel okay about taking a crack at trying to instill a sense of right and wrong in my own kids. I don’t want to give my parents credit to the extent that I would suggest they actually knew what they were doing back then, but perhaps they did a thing or two right after all. I don’t remember much from my early childhood, but my memory of that walk and the images of the faces at the door as I returned the money stand in stark relief. I still shudder a little.