My Brief Life of Crime

“The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay,” intoned a solemn voice at the end of every weekly program “Your FBI in Peace and War” on our Philco table top radio. I should have listened

“You are tvelve,” the menacing interrogator barked at me in a guttural heavy accent. The light over my head burned into my brain. Sweat ran in rivulets down my neck into my shoes. My eleven years of life flashed before my mental eyes. I protested, “I’m only eleven.”

“You have relatives in de old country, and ve know vere dey are.” He snarled. “It vould be unfortunate if something should happen to them.

“You wouldn’t,”

“Ve vill get the truth out of you one way or another.” He snapped his baton into his palm a half inch from my face.

“Take him away. Ve vill resume the interrogation later.”

I staggered out of the blinding light, into the darkness knowing that I would soon be going through the same thing or worse next time.

That’s how I remember my weekly shake down.

Such experiences can turn a child to crime. That’s the only excuse I can offer for my shameful behavior on that day of reckoning. Even my brother Gordon who always stood up for me forsook me. “If you do that again, I’m going to tell Dad,” he threatened.

Justice was laid to the line in my youth. Today I might possibly beat the rap by pleading extenuating economic pressures. Jean Valjean in Les Miserables has become a literary and musical stage hero for stealing bread for his starving family.

When one of your birthday presents is that the price of a ticket to the Saturday matinee skyrockets more than 300 percent, it can make you do desperate crazy things like slouch and lie.

Growing up I took satisfaction from my aunts and uncles remarking on how tall I was getting. “Growing like a weed” may not be the ultimate compliment, but in our agrarian society it was universally understood..

Then I learned from Swede that growing is a two edged sword. Swede was the granite faced ticket taker at the Star movie theater in our town. His rumbling pipes could make a young boy confess to crimes he hadn’t even thought of. Being a smart child as alecks go, I deduced from his name that Swede was from Sweden. I deduced other things as well; that he had smuggled himself into America through an underground espionage network; that he took this ticket taker job as a cover until his papers could be processed to become a German Stalag Kommendant or commissar of a Soviet gulag.

Swede’s only qualification for the job, I figured was his ability to measure at a glance how much more sock was showing under your pant leg this Saturday than last. He would then instantly calculate the day, and probably the hour of your twelfth birthday. Then he would pounce like a saber tooth tiger on a door mouse.

But a growth spurt in the early part of my second decade of life had thrown off Swede’s calculations. He began grilling me about two years before my time. Every week, “You are too big for a child’s ticket.”

“I’m only ten.” Then next year, “I’m only Eleven.”

Did the captains of the movie industry ever stop to think how much more whining and wheedling it took to get a 40 cent advance on your allowance than to get 13 cents? As the prophet Isaiah spoke when he was turned away in the movie line after his 12th birthday, “Ye grind the faces of the poor.” (Isaiah 3:15)

I’m picturing twelve year old Scarface Al Capone blocked by the ticket taker and heading home planning his life as a syndicate crime boss.

The difference between Scarface and me was he apparently had talent in his profession. I didn’t.

“The moving finger writes and having writ moves on,” wrote Omar Khayyám as he returned to his tent short of movie money after his twelfth birthday. And thus it was for me. The 12th birthday came. The following Saturday I was about fifty cents short of having a quarter. Actually, I had thirteen cents and a plan. Nervous, sweaty palms clutched the coins in my jeans pocket. I rehearsed my speech over and over. I had it word perfect. “I am only eleven.” I tried it in several different deliveries, finally settling on a childlike upper register teetering on a tantrum.

But it is hard to overcome habits drilled into you by parents. The moment came. “How old are you? Swede growled.”

“Twelve… I mean eleven,” I squeaked.

Every man has his price they say. Mine at that age was twenty seven cents. I had sold my integrity and besmirched my family name for a cheap ticket to see a Hopalong Cassidy cowboy movie, and that week’s installment of the movie serial “Captain Midnight. American Crime Fighter.” I suspected Captain Midnight might be following me home after the movie. Indeed as the FBI in Peace and War reminded me every week, “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.”

I did get into the movie for thirteen cents for the last time. And I got an incredible door prize, almost worth the loss of my youthful integrity. For the first, last, and only time. I saw Swede smile.