Not long ago, we received a phone call from our Southern Indiana neighbor telling us our farmhouse had been vandalized and robbed. Thieves had broken into the house and made off with several items, the most expensive being an air compressor that I hope breaks soon. They stole, among other things: three flashlights, binoculars, various hand tools, and an oil lantern we keep handy for power failures. They also filched two radios, one of them a gift from my mother. Actually, it was my gift to her, but when I noticed she wasn’t using it, I whined until she gave it back.
I once read an article about English starlings and their habit of stealing the nests of other birds. Though I’ve never personally known an English starling, I immediately disliked them for their thieving ways, as I loathe all creatures who take what doesn’t belong to them. When I told a friend our farmhouse had been robbed, he said if it were up to him, robbers would be executed. In some Islamic countries, convicted thieves have a hand lopped off. Death and dismemberment are a bit over the top. I’d be satisfied with a Three Stooges eye poke.
The friend asked me what I would have done if I had caught the thief. Being male, I have a high opinion of my fighting ability, a much higher opinion than is warranted, so I probably would have challenged him and gotten the snot beaten out of me. That’s why the best time to discover you’ve been robbed is after the robber has left. Then you can strut around saying, “Boy, it’s a lucky thing for him I didn’t catch him.”
The detective who came to the house said the robber was probably a kid looking for something he could sell for drug money. I’m not sure it’s fair to assume the robber was a young, male addict, but the detective has more experience than I in these matters, so he’s probably right. I hope if I ever catch a robber, it turns out to be an old, female addict. I’m not much of a fighter, but I could probably hold my own against an elderly woman strung out on drugs.
I remember the first thief I ever met. I was in fourth grade and went to the Rexall drugstore with a boy named Ricky, who slipped a Three Musketeers into his pocket when the pharmacist wasn’t watching. (Personally, I would have stolen a Payday, but that’s neither here nor there.) I was certain Ricky would be caught and jailed, but he got away scot-free. The owner of the drugstore was a family friend, and I thought of turning Ricky in but decided against it for fear Ricky would have me killed for being a stool pigeon.
When I was 5 years old, I stole a Matchbox car from Roger Salsman, our neighbor. We were playing in his sandbox, and when Roger wasn’t looking, I covered his car with sand, and then retrieved it later. My mother found out, so I had to give it back to Roger and tell him I was sorry. I also had to go to bed without any supper, but we were having stuffed green peppers that night, which goes to show that some crime does pay.
There are aboriginal cultures in which theft never happens because all property
is held in common. Over time, most cultures moved away from communal property and embraced the idea of individual ownership, though we mimic communal property in some regards. My neighbor Brian borrows my pneumatic wrench without asking.
What bothers me most about the robbery at my house is not knowing the thief’s identity. It has caused me to suspect anyone might be the culprit, and I’m looking askance at people I would ordinarily greet with a smile. I hope the sheriff finds out who did it so I can go back to being my normal, trusting self. I don’t like thinking the worst about people. My wife, for instance, has been suspiciously vague about her whereabouts on the day of the theft. She says she was at the elementary school working in the library, but isn’t that the first thing a real robber would say? The principal verified her alibi, which probably means they’re in cahoots.
This isn’t the first time we have been robbed. When we lived in Indianapolis, a thief kicked in our front door and stole several items, including my high-school class ring, which had my name engraved on the inside. I keep hoping whoever has it will see my name, and my ring and I will be reunited. I’ve read newspaper stories about rings being returned to their rightful owners and long-lost siblings being reunited, usually on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Unless my parents sowed some wild oats, I know where all my siblings are, but if Oprah could get busy finding my class ring, that would be nice.
In both robberies, the police dusted for fingerprints, probably to make me feel something was being done. On television, once they find a fingerprint, the criminal is as good as caught, but it doesn’t work that way in real life, since most people haven’t been fingerprinted. So you can imagine my surprise when the sheriff phoned to tell me they had discovered my wife’s fingerprints all over the house. Apparently, when she started working at the elementary school, they took her fingerprints and kept them on file. You can see why I’m a little suspicious. She, of course, insists on her innocence, but then again, doesn’t every criminal?
We spend billions of dollars each year trying to keep people from stealing our property, and then billions more catching and punishing them when they do. Unless the thieves are white and rich; then a psychiatrist says they were under a lot of stress, and we put them in a hospital where they learn to steal from the pros—the healthcare companies. If the thief is poor, we put him in jail. The detective told me that burglary rates rise when unemployment increases, so some theft is driven by economic need that could be better solved with job training instead of jail. But that will never happen.
As near as I can figure, the thief nabbed about $2,500 worth of stuff, which is how much I earn each month as a Quaker pastor. Don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me that the thief made in one hour what it takes me four weeks to earn. If the taxpayers don’t spring for new job training, I might have to take up another line of work, if you know what I mean. And I know the first house I would rob—Roger Salsman’s. There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t think about that Matchbox car. It’s probably still in his sandbox, just waiting for someone like me to come along and take it.
Illustration by Ryan Snook
This column appeared in the May 2013 issue.