I was taking a shortcut through the woods, one afternoon, in the winter, after school. Walking the long way would have taken me thirty minutes. Cutting through the woods, I could get home in half the time it usually took me.
I was climbing up the side of a shallow embankment when I saw a man wrapped in a large, brown, Camel's hair, overcoat. He was dead, I could tell that much just by seeing the way he was laying there, and all the dried blood on his coat, and along the side of his neck.
I moved cautiously toward the dead man, anxious to see his face, wondering if I might have known him or not. I didn't recognize the man, which was something of a relief. What I did notice was this large dark brown satchel, which was partially covered, by one of his legs, and part of his overcoat. Without thinking, my curiosity got the better of me, and I reached down to pull the handle, dragging the heavy bag free of his leg. I pulled up the leather clasp, freeing the metal pin from the steel grommet that held it fastened. As soon as I pulled on both handles, the bag opened, showing me more money than I'd ever seen. More than I'd even known existed.
It was 1953, and, with very few exceptions, every one I knew was poor. My father had just gotten released from the Army, having been recalled from the reserves after Korea had gotten started, back in 1951. We had barely been getting by on the money the Army sent home from his pay. Now that my father was back home, and looking for work, my mother was hoping that things would soon get better for all of us.
After two months of him out looking for work, my father was definitely becoming discouraged. A lot of his mustering out pay was spent already, and there didn't appear to be any jobs in the offing. The night before, I'd heard him telling my Uncle Gary that he wanted to get his hands on enough money to head out to California, because everyone knew they needed workers out there. I knew he was planning on going out to California, by himself, then sending for the rest of us after he'd found some work, and had saved enough to get us a new place to live. I knew my mother was dead set against him leaving her alone to take care of the four of us again.
I shut the valise back down again and took off my pea coat jacket to wrap it in. I was very cold, but I wanted to hide what I'd found from any curious eyes. I backed down that embankment again and followed it for another seventy yards before I found some rocks where I could climb out again, without leaving any tracks behind.
In the bedroom I shared with my two brothers, I counted all the money inside that valise. It came to a little more than thirty thousand dollars, all in used bills too. Most of it was in fives, tens, and twenties, but there were around fifteen fifties and more than that in hundreds. That was about what a man could expect to make in ten years of working. Two fifty a month was better than a living wage at this time.
I packed all the money up in old newspapers, tying it tightly with string I'd saved from back when I'd had a paper route the year before. It turned into a bundle about the size we used to save for school paper drives, a few years before. I took the bundle down to the cellar and pushed it way in the back, out of sight from where anyone was likely to look, way in the back, over where my parents had some of my late great grandmother's old furniture stored.
I wrapped that empty satchel in a small blanket and made my way back to where the dead body was, carefully placing it back under the leg where I'd first found it. Once again, I'd carefully retraced my steps, making sure that I'd left as little trace of my having been there as I could manage.
It took about another week before some other kids happened across that body in the woods. In the meantime, it had rained at least twice, and one of those times it had also snowed about three inches. I knew that the weather conditions had covered up any tracks I might have inadvertently left.
The local newspaper was claiming that the dead man was believed to be one of a group of men who'd been involved in a shoot out that had taken place three towns away, a couple of weeks before. His brother and one of his cousins had been shot and killed in this same shoot out, as well as three other men from a rival faction. The paper was hinting that all the men involved were hoodlums, that they were all somehow involved with organized crime.
I did nothing unusual, said nothing about the money to anyone, and just went about doing all the things I normally would.
My father had been continuing his quest for work, or for someone to lend him the money to go out to California. I knew money was starting to get very tight for our family. It finally got to the point where I felt I needed to step in and do something to help.
"Hey, Ma, remember that money you told me to save from my paper route? If you need to borrow it, I still have most of it left."
"What money, Jimmy? I'm pretty sure you and your cousins spent every cent you had on fire crackers and Roman candles last summer, for the 4th of July. If you have any money left, how come I'm just now hearing about it?"
"I know how much I spent, and how much I had saved up too. If you don't want my help, that's all right. I just thought I should offer."
"Okay, Mister Smarty Pants, I'll bite. How much money do you have that you can loan us?"
"I've got forty two dollars left, but I wanted to keep ten bucks of it to buy myself a good used bike, if I ever find the right one. You can borrow the rest if you want. Heck, you can just have it, if that will help you more."
"Go get this money, show it to me."
For some reason, my mother sounded angry with me. I'd been very careful not to claim more savings than I might have legitimately had. I'd earned about ten dollars a month on my paper route, including my tips, and I really had tried to save more than half of it each month. I'd let the money slip through my fingers though, spending it on things I didn't really need. The last of it had been spent on school supplies, right before school started, that past Fall. My mother hadn't kept too close a track of whatever money I might have, mostly being grateful whenever I used some of my money to take my younger brothers to the movies, or to buy them candy or popcorn when we went to the cartoon shows some Saturdays.
I went to my room and returned with the forty two dollars I'd told her I had. I had one ten, four fives, and the rest in one dollar bills and change. This is all I had left from the fifty I'd kept out for myself when I'd wrapped the rest of the money up and hidden it. My mother took the whole forty two dollars, telling me she knew we, meaning our family, needed that extra ten dollars more than I needed a bike. I had been aware that this might happen, her taking the entire forty two dollars instead of the thirty two I'd offered.
That evening, when my father got home, he and my mother had a quiet, private, huddle in the kitchen. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her waving the bills I'd given her at him. I saw him start to reach for the money, and my mother quickly pulling the bills back and shoving them down in her bra. My mother was a large lady, and given to putting things in her bra, in order to keep both hands free, for everything she needed to get done.
After supper my father told me to come with him, over to my Uncle Gary's house. This wasn't unusual, since I was the oldest boy in our family. My father tried to teach me things, fully expecting that I'd learn them and pass the information on to my two younger brothers. My mother was responsible for training and teaching my sister.
Because my father had been missing so much, because of World War II and Korea, he felt like I'd grown up without getting all the education a father normally gives a son. He might have been right, thinking that, but, I had to admit that I hadn't missed that particular aspect of his being around. Some of his lessons were about dishing out punishments, whenever I had been bad.
"Your mother told me about the money, Jimbo. Told me you were spinning out this big load of crap about having saved that much dough. I'm supposed to get the truth out of you, and that's exactly what I'm going to do. We gonna do this the easy way, or would you rather make it be the hard way, like usual?"
We were out in the open, walking to Uncle Gary's, but he lived only a block and a half down our street. My father had slowed way down while he'd told me this.
"I knew she was going to think I'd done something bad, that's why I didn't say anything to her before today. She was sitting in the kitchen, crying, so that's why I gave her all the rest of my money. I worked a year and a half saving up that money, but I couldn't just stand around and let her keep crying."
"Your mother says there isn't any way you had this money left over from any damn paper route. Who do you suppose I'm going to believe here?"
"Her I guess. Won't matter what you believe, that money is what I told her it was. You can take your belt to me if you take a mind to do it, but all that's going to do is give me a sore heinie, and make you feel bad when you've finally decided I wasn't lying about anything."
"I'm not going to feel one bit bad. Fifteen year old boys don't have that much money laying around, not without their parents knowing about it. Something isn't right here, and I'm damn sure going to get to the bottom of it."
We walked the rest of the way over to my uncle's house, with both of us keeping any further thoughts to ourselves. I was pretty certain that my father wouldn't whip me any worse than I could take. It might hurt for a few days, but that pain would eventually go away. There was just no way I could tell him, or anyone else, the real truth about the money I had. For that much money, I knew I could put up with a lot of whacks from his belt.
When we got over to my uncle's house, my father and my uncle talked about the money I'd suddenly come up with. Uncle Gary called in my two cousins, his sons, Donald and Patrick, and started asking them both if either of them had even the slightest idea that I ever had a bunch of money saved up.
I got lucky when Patrick told his father that he'd once seen inside the cigar box he thought I'd kept my savings in, and that he'd been surprised by how much I'd saved. In fact, that box had held all my route collection money for the paper route, and almost none of that money had been my personal money. I didn't try to correct him when he said this though. The little sneak shouldn't have taken that peek into my cigar box anyway.
"How much do you think he had saved up in that box, Pat?" My uncle looked at my cousins face, trying to see if he was in on doing something crooked with me, afraid Patrick might be lying to either help me, or because he was in on something shady with me.
"A lot, at least eighty to a hundred dollars. I saw at least two twenties, and a couple of other big bills too. Jim doesn't like to spend his money much, so it was easier for him to save than it was for us. He might spend a dollar at the movies for him, Kevin, and Willy, but that's about all he'd usually spend his money on."
"Do you think he might still have over forty dollars left from back when he had that paper route of his?" My father asked Patrick this question.
"I don't know. I guess he could have, but he never said about things like that. If it was either me or Don. we'd have spent it all, but maybe Jim might just hold on to it. He's like that about money. Mama says he's a natural born Jew."
I could see my aunt saying something like that. To her, all jews were smart, and notorious penny pincher's, all blacks were lazy, and anyone not born a Catholic was going to Hell, for certain. Sometimes, listening to her, you'd wonder who it was she did like?
After a few more minutes of the discussion not adding anything new to my father's investigation, we took our leave and started walking back home.
"If I were to let this go, Jimbo, pretend your mother was wrong, which I don't believe for a single minute, do you think you might be able to find another hundred and fifty dollars from these mysterious savings of yours?"
"I gave mom every cent I had left. She took it all, even the pennies. I don't have anything left."
"What you gave us helped, a lot, and I'm not going to lie to you, or try to tell you it didn't. The problem is, all it does is buy us a few more weeks before we're flat broke again. If I could get out to California, well, they're hiring out there, and I could maybe land myself a halfway decent paying job. I need to find some way to get on out there before all those jobs are gone, gone to someone smarter, someone who was willing to pick up and move out there quicker than I can."
"I wish I did, daddy, but that was all the money I had."
"Let's just say I believed you, which I can't honestly say I do. People sometimes get lucky, they find something valuable. If that was to happen with you, and it turned out to be enough for me to head out to California, then I'd be a blamed fool to look a lucky gift horse like that in the mouth, wouldn't I?"
I wasn't going to fall into the trap he was setting. If I told him I had more money, after all this, he wouldn't stop until I'd shown him the whole bundle. It wasn't just the money, I was more afraid of someone coming after me, someone who was missing their money, and wanted all of it back. People like that could go through a lot, hoping to get that much money back. It wasn't just me either, by taking that money, I'd exposed my whole family to possible danger.
"I don't have anything else I can give you. If I did, you'd already have it. I've heard you saying all that, about going to California to find work, and just needing some money to get you out there, enough to tide you over until you can get a paycheck. I know how bad it is here now too, and how much better it might be out there, with you having steady work. I just don't have any way left to help you, and that's the truth."
After we got back home, my father and mother had another long discussion. I knew my mother wasn't going to change her mind, but I hoped my father would change his. My parents were practical people, and forty two dollars was enough to get caught up on a few bills, and still leave enough to fill up the fridge and the cupboards with enough food to get us by for a few more weeks.
A few days after giving my mother that money, I had an idea that I thought might work. I had this one friend, Larry Church, who was from a fairly well off family. Larry and I had been friends for a long time, since at least the fourth grade. I'd helped him with keeping people from picking on him, and he'd helped me by helping me with studying some subjects that I'd been having problems with. Larry really did have quite a bit of money saved up. More importantly, both my parents knew this for a fact. Larry carried around his savings account passbook, and had shown it to both my parents, recently, right after his account balance had exceeded the one thousand dollar mark. Most of Larry's family gave him money for his birthday, his good report cards, and other things, like Easter presents and Christmas presents. I went over to his house, to try to sound him out about my idea.
"You expect me to go down to my bank with your father and withdraw two hundred dollars from my account and loan it to him? Why would I do something as crazy as that?"
"Because we're friends, and because I'm asking you to do me this favor. Besides, I'd give you the two hundred in cash before you ever went to the bank. You just can't deposit it until after my father goes to California. He'd know something funny was up, if you had a recent two hundred dollar deposit into your account."
"I still don't understand why you can't do this yourself, since you obviously have the money in the first place?"
"I told you how they already think I did something wrong by saving up my money, while they needed it so badly. If they had any idea I'd been holding out this last two hundred, I'd be in for a very hard time from both of them. I told them I was broke, and they'd be mad at me for lying to them."
"You father is going to move out to California, to try to find work?"
"Yes. He knows people out there, from the Army, and they all told him that the companies they work for are hiring like crazy. He needs to get out there before the new jobs go to other people. No one else we know has two hundred to loan him. We're his only hope, and I'm not even sure he'd let you loan him the money. If he doesn't, you can give me back the two hundred and I'll have to keep looking for another way. I wouldn't even ask you to do this, not if I knew of any other way to do what he needs."
It took me a lot of persuading, but I finally managed to convince Larry that this was too important to my whole family for him to not at least attempt to loan my father the money. Larry was a nice guy anyway, and might have come through for me, even without my having the two hundred to give him. He came from a nice family, and they all did more than their fair share to try to help people less fortunate than themselves.
Convincing Larry to make my father the offer turned out to be the easy part. My parents were both proud and stubborn, and the idea of borrowing that much money from a fifteen year old boy, even knowing he could afford to make such a loan, was more than they could easily accept. If my father hadn't been so worried about having the family split up, and all us kids being taken in by our other relatives, I'm certain he wouldn't have accepted Larry's loan offer. As it was, my mother never did agree to doing it. My father went to the bank with Larry and borrowed the money before she even knew he'd finally agreed. She only found out about it when my father handed her eighty dollars and told her he'd write her from California, just as soon as he'd found some work.
My mother blamed me, after my father had left, saying she'd never placed any faith in my father's crazy idea of moving all of us out to California. We had a lot of family nearby where we now lived, and, if we did end up all the way out in California, she didn't know what she'd do if she ran out of food and had no one to turn to for a small loan of some food to tide her over until her next money came in.
Two and a half weeks after my father left, my mother got a letter, telling her that he was working at a very decent job, at a big oil refinery in Los Angeles. He was making almost a hundred dollars a week, including overtime, and would soon have enough saved up to get us our own place out there. He also promised to come back soon, but only for long enough to get our stuff packed up for the move out West. In the letter he'd sent a money order for fifty dollars, telling my mother that he'd send more to her in two weeks time.
It ended up taking my father nine months to get everything done so we could move out to California. He had found us a three bedroom apartment in San Pedro, and we drove straight out to California in our borrowed moving van. My Uncle Gary drove out with us, driving the moving van that he'd be taking back to his friend who had loaned it to him. My father had driven back East in a '37 Ford sedan he was buying from an old Army buddy of his. The six of us rode in the Ford, while Uncle Gary drove the moving van.
I had managed to repack the bundle of money in a box I'd gotten from the grocery store. It was labeled "Jim's toys and books", and I'd convinced my father to let me keep it in the car with us, just in case I ever got bored and wanted to do some reading to my brothers, to keep them from getting too antsy during the long journey. Nancy, my sister, sat up front between my parents. I did have six books actually packed on top of the money box, and ended up reading out loud for all six of us to pass the time during some of the most boring parts of the trip out West.
When we settled into California, I started really believing that I had gotten away with taking that money. My father had been sending Larry forty dollars a month, to repay the money he'd borrowed. Larry would come over to the house, after cashing the money order, and would then hand the money back to me. Before we moved to California, for good, Larry had received all his loan money back from my father.
I was sixteen in September of '54, a junior in high school, with thirty thousand dollars burning a hole in my pocket. My parents were looking around for a house they could afford to buy. My father was getting all the overtime he could handle, and my parents were saving at least fifty dollars every two weeks. A nice tract house in our area was selling for between seven and ten thousand dollars. My parents were hoping to get a four bedroom house with at least two bathrooms. Even at ten thousand dollars, with his GI Bill, my father said he could easily afford the payments.