My First Burglary

By John Troesser

The Year: 1955
The Place: Biscayne Gardens, Florida

A house in our neighborhood had been recently vacated. In Miami, streets are numbered, not named. It’s always a shock for Miamians to leave home and discover that most cities have named streets – names that have to be remembered. Because of this, Miamians hardly ever move.

No one seemed to remember the family that had moved. The couple who had lived there had no kids, so we didn’t really pay that much attention to them. All that was known of them was that they were “old” and they were from “the North.” In 1955 that applied to 95% of the population of South Florida.

We walked around the house and peered inside the “basement” windows – the only ones we could see through. I was eight – a little young to burgle, but I was egged on by my co-burglars-to-be. Through the window we could see a lone box that appeared to have something in it. It said: “Steal me!”

Basements are rare in Florida and they certainly aren’t true basements in the Midwest or Northern sense. If they do exist, they’re just four-foot deep with a concrete floor leading to the water heater, requiring the home owner to duck-walk to reach it.

In some parts of Miami a child could be digging in a sandbox and hit salt water. It’s a real concern.

The box we spied was cardboard. It wasn’t this modern cheap cardboard that’s recycled in China, but that tough old-school made-in-the-USA cardboard that would dull a knife blade or deflect a bullet.

The box was from Food Fair, a local no-frills grocery that sold staple groceries and not much more. (I think they actually slaughtered livestock in the parking lot.)

The box had originally contained peas. Not these modern pull ring cans but cans with seams welded with honest-to-goodness lead. Or so it seems to me now. Can openers? Pish! We used a cold chisel. And these weren’t foreign peas, either. No sissy Le Sueur petit pois or Del Monte (which also sounded vaguely foreign), but big American peas – two to a can.

It was a brazen daylight caper, cleverly scheduled between the last bell of school and dinner. The only three hours we had. My coconspirators had decided that due to my size, I was to be the “inside man.” They were better suited to serve as lookouts / distractions and I believed them. The plan was this: they would open the window outward and I would go in, slither across the sandy crawl space, grab the box and slide it to the window.

Older and wiser now, we should’ve known that nothing attracts the attention of adults faster than two eight-year olds sitting on either side of a window whistling and looking nonchalant. We were eight years old and couldn’t help but look tres chalant. But Dame Fortune smiled on us that day and no one from the world of adults saw us.

The treasure inside the box consisted of two stacks of Reader’s Digests. I was nearly breathless with fear that the door would burst open and Jack Webb or J. Edgar Hoover (or both) would tell me to “hold it right there!” Somehow I managed enough breath to whisper to my partners that the box contained Reader’s Digests.

We knew these were valuable for we had all seen adults pore over them for hours on end. They were even in doctor’s offices – they had to be valuable. Years later when I got to experience the joys of moving, I now recognize that box as the one that wouldn’t fit, the one that wasn’t needed, or the one that wasn’t worth bending over one more time for.

I glanced at the two magazines on the top of the stacks. My eyes adjusted to the low light and I finally saw the figures 1-9-3-9. Nineteen Thirty-Nine! It was now 1955 – and the new pennies had just come out. (That was a big deal for kids in 1955.)

It took some fast figuring in the sand to calculate that these things were sixteen years old! Twice as long as I had been on earth! This may have been my first thoughts of time. My head reeled at the thought that what I now had in front of me was tangible proof that the past existed.

The magazines didn’t look like the Reader's Digests I knew. Maybe they were counterfeit! The spines were stapled - not glued- and the edges of the cover were rounded, not square. The covers were flat primary colors and the Pegasus trademark was a filigreed drawing.

I thought of Herbert Philbrick from the television show I Led Three Lives. Was I, at eight, already leading a double life. By stealing these magazines was I becoming a communist? I started feeling queasy.

But I wasn’t acting alone and my pals were urging me to “come on.” I slid the box across to the window where Gary and Tom pulled it out. All of us were wearing the mandatory horizontal striped T shirts of the day. We slid the box to our “wheelman” Edgar, who had his wagon idling on the sidewalk in front of the house. Edgar wasn’t really part of our “crew” and we only used him for big jobs. Since this was our first job – it qualified as big. Edgar’s wagon never left the sidewalk since he was worried it might get scratched or the tires might get grass stains. It had been a Christmas present.

So there we were with twenty four artifacts from before the war. In 1955 there was only “The War.” What were they worth? We didn’t know what pawn shops were – and Ebay was still fifty years in the future. So without a “fence” we were left on our own to convert them into cash, comic books or candy bars.

For a moment we thought of keeping a few, but they had lots of big words and not a single picture. It was quickly decided that we’d sell them door-to-door. We had figured that .05 each was reasonable – or we could part with the whole bunch for fifty cents. (Did I mention we were in third grade?) Soon we’d be diving into candy bars like Scrooge McDuck dove into his money bin.

The axles of the wagon were sagging under the weight of our swag. We cleverly skipped the house next door to the scene of the crime. We went to the next house and sent Edgar to the door.

Even as kids, we somehow knew that Edgar's sad-eyed resemblance to a cocker spaniel was a valuable asset. The lady of the house was Mrs. Andrews who smiled and asked what we were selling. How did she know it wasn’t a social visit? Edgar, who had a slight lisp, told Mrs. Andrews we were offering “weely old Weeder’s Digest.”

She asked where we got them and we gave the universal #1 boy’s answer to explain any new object that appeared, be it a puppy or a Fabergé egg. “We found them.”

She took a look in the wagon and said “My word, those look like the ones the Sizemores left in their basement. My husband was supposed to go pick those up.


We didn’t have time to come up with an explanation, so we did the next best thing and ran, sorry that we hadn’t thought to cover our faces. Edgar, tied to the situation by his wagon, was left on Mrs. Andrews porch crying.

Later at school, Edgar told us that Mrs. Andrews had dried his eyes and, while suppressing a laugh (Edgar had a great vocabulary for a third-grader) had given him a fifty-cent piece.

The rest of the crew went straight after that (as far as I know). I know I did. Years later I heard Edgar had been drafted into the infantry and was killed in Vietnam. I sincerely hoped he hadn’t been abandoned by his squad. Once in a lifetime is enough.

I recently visited the old neighborhood. My old house is now owned by a Haitian man who has planted a huge variety of exotic tropicals that would make a commercial nursery envious. I also drove by the site of my first crime and saw children playing in the yard – blissfully unaware of what had transpired in their crawl space more than half-a-century ago.

July 20, 2014 Column
© John Troesser
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