Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chewing Gum: A Family Story

This story is one we've told over and over, the kind of family story that becomes legend, at least within the family ranks.

The photo above is Jon's first grade picture, but the story below actually happened when he was almost five years old and we lived in Ravenswood. I can't find any of my pictures from the time we lived in Ravenswood; we probably took very few. We lived in a townhouse apartment while we were building our house, and I have no photos of the house-building either. Back then, photography was fairly expensive and few people took a lot of photos. I wish I had them now, of course. Still, the photo of Jon tells you much about his adventurous, happy nature, and his daredevil ways. He was that way from the time he was born and I don't think he changed much during his life. To Jon, there was nothing he could not do--instead of saying "I can't," Jon saw challenges as "How can I?"

From the time he was a baby Jon was one busy little person. He would go like a fast train until he was ready to sleep; then he would simply drop wherever he was and go to sleep. Jon never wanted to miss anything and sleep interfered. He played hard, ate fast, and slept hard.

He was a ringleader in the apartments where we lived from 1974 until 1976. My sons were not used to having other kids to play with or neighborhood rules in our old home outside Manassas (called oddly enough, Ravenswood, the same name as the little West Virginia town we moved to). The boys didn't realize, for example, that they could not just walk into any house. Our first week in the apartment complex was a busy one for me as I retrieved my two oldest sons from whatever place they had managed to get into. Fortunately, the two younger sons were still too young to toddle around the neighborhood.

The morning after we moved in a man knocked on our door.

"Ma'am, do you have two little boys?" I admitted that I actually had four little boys.

"Well," he said, "Two of your boys just ran in my front door, out the back, and climbed over my fence. I was so surprised I nearly dropped my coffee."

A conversation with the boys followed as soon as I could catch them, and I explained why we could not just take a shortcut through other houses. They didn't get it but promised not to go in any house but our own again. Part of the problem, I discovered, was that they weren't really sure which house was ours, since all the apartments looked alike. I put a plant on the porch so they would have a landmark.

As far as I know they didn't run through any more houses. Instead they found that it was a lot more fun to use the privacy fences as an obstacle course, climbing up and over, running to the next fence, and up-and-over again. That brought the complex manager to my door, and he wasn't happy. Another conversation with the boys. More puzzlement but agreeable consent was obtained to not climb the fences anymore.

The kids in our neighborhood really had free rein when it came to playing. There were many apartments off of several cul-de-sacs and little traffic. I would go out every few minutes to check on my sons, and other mothers did the same so there was usually an adult on the lookout and ready to alert the rest of us if there was a problem.

I think I might have mentioned in another post that Jon did everything early, from walking to climbing to running, even to riding bikes. At four he could ride my 26" woman's bike. He could not sit on the seat, of course--he simply took the bike to a porch, got his feet on the pedals and off he went, straddling the middle of the bike. I remember once when the kids came running to get me because Jon had got the bike going fast enough that he could hold the handlebars and put his feet up on the seat. It was enough to make a lesser woman call for smelling salts. He had no fear. He got off by simply jumping off the bike, leaving it to crash and burn wherever it landed. It was not good for my bike.

About three blocks up the street behind our apartment there was a grocery store called Cope's Market. I sometimes walked there with the boys, pulling them in the wagon or pushing the little ones in the stroller. I didn't drive back then, but it was an easy, level walk to the store.

One day I went out to check on my two oldest sons and found Jon surrounded by a laughing, excited group of children. This wasn't unusual; he was usually in the center of any activity. I went back to my housework. A little later I looked out again and the kids were gone, but when I went out to look for them I found the same happy group were congregated again in a different place.

The third time I saw the group I noticed there were some older boys mixed in with the little ones. I had learned enough in our time at the apartments to know this wasn't good so I strolled over to see what was going on.

No wonder Jon was so popular! He had gum! Lots of it! I was dumbfounded.

"Jon!" I called. The kids looked around and dispersed like flies from a jar of jam. Jon stood still, his hands full of gum, orange juice trickling from the corners of his full mouth.

"Where did you get the gum?" I asked. Jon said nothing. He couldn't--his mouth was stuffed with Sour Orange Striped gum. I looked around and saw one of the older boys hanging around, watching me. "Where did he get the gum?" I repeated. The boy looked at Jon, and then blurted, "HE stole it!"

"Stole it? What do you mean?"

"He went to the store and he stole it! I saw him! He put it in his socks and in his pockets!" The boy ran off as he shouted these words over his shoulder.

"Jon? Is that true?"

"He told me to!" Jon shouted, spewing gum and juice in all directions. Then be burst out crying.

The story finally came out in bits and pieces as I rounded up kids and questioned them like a police sergeant. Apparently Jon rode my big bike to the store with some older boys. They told him he could have all the gum he wanted, all he had to do was take it, and then give some to them. Jon, being country-raised and with not much knowledge of how stores worked, thought it was a wonderful idea.

He proved to be an accomplished thief. No one in the store noticed the little guy in his Hee-Haw overalls running in and stuffing his pockets with gum and then running out. Apparently the boys made three trips and each time Jon came out loaded with gum. Not being the selfish type, he shared his booty with all the kids in the neighborhood. Everyone was chomping on the gum of their choice that afternoon.

When I finally stopped the fun, Jon still had about fifteen packs of gum in his pockets. There was only one thing I could do.

"We have to take this gum back, and we have to pay for what you took," I told Jon.

"N-o-o-o-o-o!" he wailed. "It's mine! The store people gave it to me!"

How do you explain to a four-year-old that taking gum from a store rack, where it is simply sitting there waiting for you to help yourself, is wrong? Jon could not believe his ears.

I waited until his Dad came home and then we drove to the store. His father took Jon inside to return the gum and pay for as much as we could figure he'd taken. The people at Cope's Market were surprisingly nice about it. I was mortified. Jon was too--he'd lost all his gum and his popularity in one short moment.

That afternoon I learned that it is possible to ride a bike three blocks and steal a prodigious amount of gum in less that ten minutes. Jon learned that sometimes big kids don't tell the truth. And that popularity can last less time than the flavor in a five-stick pack of gum.


Deer Camp Diva said...

What great stories and memories.

Anonymous said...

We had a similar incident with Tanya when she was in the first grade. Too many pencils coming home that she "found" on the desks. Batsy

Country Whispers said...

That's was a great story.
I'd say it was a lesson that I'm sure was mighty embarrassing at the time but one that will never be forgotten.

Mary said...

Age-appropriate larceny, and a lesson in the unhappy side of listening to older kids . . . so glad he had wise and loving parents to teach the lesson. Thanks for sharing the story!

Granny Sue said...

Age appropriate larceny! I love it, Mary! So perfectly true. In my young days I had a similar incident with a package of Rollos. I almost got caught and the experience was so mortifying I never repeated. The Rollos didn't taste so good, either.

This has become one of those funny stories that families tell--you know, the ones that begin, "remember when..." It was funny after the fact because he was so happy about having all that gum! And so deflated when he had to take it back.

Anonymous said...

Not sure how, but I have no recollection of even mention of this inciident. Although it does explain the cut and dried rules that we grew up with. James is growing up with them as well!


Granny Sue said...

Aaron, you were less than two years old when this happened, so you would probably not remember. I'd be surprised, really, if you remember anything at all about our time in Ravenswood. George remembers though--ask him :-) He was chomping gum with the rest of the kids!

Twisted Fencepost said...

Poor guy. Shame on those big boys. They knew better. Why do the big kids always lead the little one's into temptation?

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