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The Knife

By Tom Watson

I was 8 years old in 1942. My mother, widowed for less than a year, had gotten a job teaching in the Cove section of Panama City, Florida. We had moved to a little house at 121 Linda Avenue about a block from the Cove School. Mom would teach fourth grade, and I would attend my third through eighth grades at Cove.

It was early in World War II. Things were going badly for the United States and our allies in the Pacific, and not much better in Europe. German submarines were sinking tankers and freighters off the coasts of North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Bad times sometimes unite people, and that was particularly true of Americans in that time. Young men flocked to the recruiting offices of all services to volunteer. Later young women would become WAAC’s (Army), WAVE’s (Navy), SPAR’s (Coast Guard), and Women Marines. On the home front we accepted meat and gasoline rationing and various shortages with good grace. We planted Victory Gardens, and raised chickens. People volunteered to be Aircraft Spotters, and Air Raid Wardens. As a kid, I could be an Aircraft Spotter, but not an Air Raid Warden. In those dark early days of the war our country needed heroes badly. General Douglas MacArthur was the hero of the moment, on the home front at least.

When we shopped Mom and I walked to the grocery pulling a basket on wheels much like the suitcases we pull through airports today. The baskets were open at the top, and to save paper bags, the check-out people put our purchases directly into the cart. Mom planned carefully to get the heaviest things first, so that vegetables and eggs would be on top. Also she would start the shopping at the most distant store, so that the cart was heaviest for the shortest part of the two mile walk home.

On this day we had shopped at the A&P store for our groceries and had stopped at Walgreen’s Drugstore on the way home. Mom went to look for soap and toothpaste and I started to look around the store. There was a bin filled with small pearl handled pocket knives marked with General MacArthur’s picture and the caption, “I shall return!” The knives cost a quarter (quite a bit in 1942).

I picked up one of the knives and ran to Mom. “May I have this?” I asked. “It’s only a quarter.” Mom turned me down, saying that we didn’t have the money. I returned the knife to its bin.

Mom took a while to finish her business, and the temptation grew too great for me. I went back to the bin, picked up a knife, and put it in my pocket. As we walked home I perfected my plan for telling Mom how I got the knife.

Linda Avenue was not paved. The unpaved streets of North Florida in that day always had deep sand beds and I planned to toss the knife into one of the beds and retrieve it. It would of course be sandy inside, and would obviously have been lost by some unidentifiable previous owner. Mom would surely let me keep it.

As soon as we got home and unloaded the grocery cart I went out to play. I ran straight to the road in front of our house and found a deep sand bed. I was afraid I might lose the knife, but I also wanted to be “truthful” when I told Mom that I had found it. I found a couple of rocks and threw them into the sand for practice. The rocks sank a little into the sand and left a small indent like a doodlebug hole. I was ready now to throw the knife. I threw it about ten feet and followed it immediately. The knife had completely buried, but made the telltale doodlebug hole. I found it easily.

I picked up the knife, made sure that it was properly filled with sand, and ran to show Mom. “Mom” I called, “Look what I found!”

She was not fooled. She went to the telephone and called the Walgreen’s store asking for the manager. She asked him to stay at the store until we could get there. Then she called a taxi to take us there.

When the cab arrived downtown, we went into Walgreen’s and Mom asked for the manager. He, it turned out, was a Mr. Wallace who went to the Presbyterian Church and we knew him. Mom said “Tommy, tell Mr. Wallace what you have done.”

I told Mr. Wallace that I had taken his knife, and that I was sorry. He took the knife, and said a few kind words to me. Mom and I left the store and caught a taxi home. My 25 cent knife had cost us a dollar in taxi rides, and I didn’t even have the knife. It was a lesson well learned!

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