Chain of Reasoning

Why do we take things that don’t belong to us?

Mike Paulus, design by Taylor McCumber

Back in third or maybe fourth grade, I had a chain. It was about 30 feet long. Small links, maybe one inch each. I went outside and played with it when I got bored.

I had stolen it. From my grade school.

With an earnest determination only children and the truly passionate among us seem to possess, I tried to develop a new style of fighting. Like karate or kung-fu or ninjutsu. But with a 30-foot chain that didn’t belong to me.

I got pretty good with that Indiana Jones trick where you whip a branch or a Nazi and the whip ties itself up around the thing getting whipped. That stupid tree never got away. Not one time.

All the army heroes in the cartoons I watched knew karate. It was easily the coolest way to fight. And pretending to be a karate expert was a favorite past time for me and my friends. And most American boys.

So with no formal training in the martial arts, I forged ahead half-believing I might actually be successful. Perhaps one day I’d have an amazing career in training the disciples of my style. The feasibility of the fantasy never even crossed my mind.

It was just me and the chain.

We had a tree next to our garage. A sturdy tree. Not huge, not climbable. But it had a nice solid trunk. It was my enemy.

I spent a lot of time figuring out how to swing one end of the chain around in circles without whapping myself in the face or gashing my ear off. I’d spin the chain, then throw it at the tree. I got pretty good with that Indiana Jones trick where you whip a branch or a Nazi and the whip ties itself up around the thing getting whipped.

That stupid tree never got away. Not one time.

I had found the chain just lying in a pile, all by itself in the grassy field next to my grade school. I had to walk across that field to get home, and one day I had to leave school late so the field was empty.

And there it was. Begging me to take it. So I got down on my knees and I slipped it into my backpack. It was heavy. I could feel it pulling down on the backpack straps. It seemed like such a useful thing.

By the time I got home it dawned on me that maybe the chain belonged to the school. And my mental image of the field snapped into wider focus. I could see how I hadn’t found the chain “all by itself.” It had been next to a metal pole. And that metal pole was about 30 feet from another metal pole.

The chain was my school’s lame excuse for a volleyball “net.” The gym teacher must have forgotten to bring it in after class. My grade hadn’t yet played volleyball, otherwise the chain’s true purpose may have stuck out to me. 

So there I was, standing in my garage, wearing my empty backpack and holding this totally fantastic stolen chain. I could have just turned around and brought the chain right back. But I didn’t. Because I wanted it.

I didn’t feel entitled to it. I knew it was wrong to take it. But I took it anyway, no matter how many volleyball units it might ruin for my schoolmates. I hide it in the garage and only took it out to practice my totally cool DIY martial arts.

It’s not like I was taking anything truly valuable, right?

It was one of those things you do when you’re feeling lonely. When you’re on your own and young and you’re not yet sure how the world works. What will happen if you take that thing? Or say that thing? Or do that thing? What will happen?

Will life ever get any more interesting? In the face of these questions, kids come up with all kinds of little tests, both helpful and harmful. People say “the Devil made me do it” when they’re not sure why they do small, bad things. But even then, stealing from a (Catholic) school playground, I knew there wasn’t any devil to blame. I just wanted to keep it, right or wrong. And that was enough.

Until a couple years later when my parents told me we’d be moving to a new town, and I decided I couldn’t take the chain with me. It just felt like the chain needed to go back home. So one afternoon, I grabbed it out of the garage, slipped it into my backpack, and brought it back to the field. I left it in a pile, right where I’d found it.

I assume whoever found it never knew where it had come from. No teacher found it and thought, “Hey – the chain’s back. Weird.”

But walking home, my empty backpack felt weightless. Like a blank sheet of paper. And the ground beneath my feet felt a little more solid.

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