Lesson in Honesty
Fred B. McKinley
Immediately before the beginning of my second-grade school year during 1950, Dad announced that we were going to San Augustine [Texas] to purchase some clothes and other supplies. Most children of that era and background did not receive new school apparel other than at the start of a school year. Those garments were expected to last for a full nine months, so when we came home from school, we took off our school duds and replaced them with play attire, usually the tattered ones that remained from previous terms.
My clothes usually came in the form of underwear, socks, shoes and three pairs of striped overalls. Mother still supplied the inventory of homemade shirts, but what really excited me this year was that I was going to get cowboy boots and my first real pair of blue jeans. Those striped overalls were finally being retired.
We didn’t own a car, and since San Augustine was over eight miles away from our home in Chinquapin, Dad and I hitched a ride into town with a distant relative and neighbor, Clyde Lewis. At the time, Clyde owned a beat-up Chrysler with a distinctive appearance, and there wasn’t another like it in the county, as far as we knew.
I remember that particular Saturday morning well. I climbed into the back with my clean, crisp overalls and freshly ironed shirt, fighting to beat the grime off the seat in order to find a place to hunker down without getting too filthy. It was hot, and the windows were rolled down. Dust from the red-dirt road, parched by the summer sun, filled the interior, making it extremely difficult for me to catch a breath of fresh air.
When we arrived in town, Clyde drove around for a spell. He couldn’t find the parking place that he wanted, so he dropped Dad and me in front of the dry-goods store. He informed us that when we were through with our business affairs, we could place our goods in his car, which would be parked somewhere near the courthouse square. The fact that we had no key caused no special difficulty, because auto security was unimportant in those days. Besides, the trunk lock on Clyde’s car hadn’t worked in ages.
At that time, I considered that the three most important things in life—with the exception of my parents and grandparents—were my dog and cat and the thrill of buying those new blue jeans and cowboy boots. My present footwear, literally worn to a frazzle, had been scuffed by a great deal of kneeling, sliding and playing marbles on the schoolyard, so it was time for a replacement.
After what seemed like hours of searching, Dad and I found the perfect pair of boots. These beauties, which were a red, almost crimson, color with black tops, were the most impressive things that I’d ever seen. My heart raced with anticipation at the thought of wearing them to school for the first time. Surely I would be the envy of every boy on campus, especially when they saw me with those new blue jeans.
That day I got four pairs of Wranglers and that excited me even more. The clerk at Clark and Downs Dry Goods wrapped the purchases and tied a string around everything to make handling the bulky packages much easier.
Dad and I walked to the vicinity of the courthouse square and searched for Clyde’s car. It made no sense to lug our bundles around all day, so we decided to do as our good neighbor suggested and store them in the trunk. Clyde had found a parking spot just where he’d indicated.
After opening the trunk, Dad moved a bunch of junk around—Clyde wasn’t very tidy—and placed the parcels inside. We left then to visit my Uncle Paul Wright, who owned a grocery store just across the street. Earlier, Clyde said that he would look us up when he got ready to head for home.
Uncle Paul had left the premises to run an errand, so we walked around town for a couple of hours. Dad said that we didn’t have time to go to the show—the term used to describe the Augus Theater—that day, so he took me to Stripling’s Drug Store, where I enjoyed a huge bowl of vanilla ice cream, my favorite. After that, I admired the new toys at the Western Auto and the Five and Dime.
Clyde finally met us on the street and asked if we were ready to go. With our business concluded, we decided to strike out for Chinquapin. By the time we reached the car, he had moved it from the original location, but no matter, we got in and left.
When we pulled in at home, Dad and I got out. Clyde remained in the car and left the motor running. We opened the trunk to retrieve the packages, but to our amazement and complete shock, they weren’t there. Someone had stolen my new clothes—and my heavens, the boots were gone as well! Clyde expressed a certain measure of sympathy about the incident and then sped away in a cloud of dust, leaving Dad and me to wonder about the identity of the rotten, no-good, sorry, low-down culprit who had stooped so low to effect the most hideous crime known to humanity.
Dad assured me, however, that we would return to San Augustine the very next Saturday and replace all the stolen goods. That didn’t help much at the time, because I just knew that I would never find another pair of boots that I liked. But things turned around, Dad kept his word, and on the following Saturday, everything, including identical boots, was replaced. We chalked up the whole thing to experience and promptly forgot about it.
About two months later, Dad, Mom and I were seated on the front porch one late afternoon when we saw Clyde’s car coming down the road from the direction of San Augustine. That was unusual, because we hadn’t seen him pass earlier, and besides, he usually asked if we wanted to go into town or whether we needed anything. We did notice, however, that as the car came nearer, an old man sat behind the wheel. Maybe Clyde had sold his car...but we hadn’t heard anything about that either. Something strange was going on.
The old man stopped in front of the house, killed the motor, got out slowly, walked through the gate and up to where we sat. He inquired of my dad, “Are you Mista Fred?”
Dad answered in the affirmative and asked how he could help.
“Well, suh,” the old man continued, “I jus’ might have somethin’ that belongs to you and yo boy. I found it a while back while I was lookin’ in my turtle hull for a jack.” For those of you who may not know, “turtle hull” is the country vernacular for an auto trunk.
The family was puzzled by the old man’s statement, but the answer soon revealed itself as he walked to his car, opened the trunk and removed the “lost” packages that contained my school clothes and red cowboy boots. The conversation soon turned to the similarity of the old man’s car with Clyde’s, including the fact that both trunk locks were defective. Mother fixed him a cup of coffee, and we all sat around discussing this out-of-the-ordinary situation. Dad thanked him for his trouble, especially for returning the misplaced items to the rightful owners.
When the old gentleman left, my parents used the episode to demonstrate the fact that honesty pays. But for me, the most valuable lesson I learned is neither to form conclusions too hastily, nor to judge a book—or a car for that matter—by its cover.