The thief

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From my upcoming memoir now titled 99% True.

I couldn’t have been more than ten years old and I was making a habit of collecting a few quarters, dimes, and nickels from Dad’s dresser—money I’d spend stuffing my face full of gum and candy. This criminal behavior went on for months until my father decided he wanted to build a lie detector kit.

In those days, Heathkit and Eico were the two big kit manufacturers and customers could choose projects to build from thick catalogs of cool equipment. The parts for the lie detector came and I watched as my Dad assembled the box and soldered the parts onto the perforated circuit board. He explained to me how it worked: conductivity, which was measured by a meter on the front panel. The accused would grasp two metal bars, each attached to a wire that plugged into the front of the detector just below the meter. When a person lies their heart rate increases and they sweat. The small voltage present on the metal bars grows stronger with the increased moisture, moving the meter’s needle from the green “truth” into the red “lie” zone. Dad had patiently explained all this to me as he was building it and I absorbed the technical information like a sponge. Once completed, he needed to find someone guilty of a crime. He knew the most likely person in the McGowan household was me, and so he waited.

One Saturday afternoon dad called me, and my two younger sisters, Sharane and Bobbi, together. He had long suspected there was a thief in the house and over the last few days he had laid a trap by counting his change. He looked straight at me. All three McGowan kids practiced the art of lying to our parents. And, why wouldn’t we? If one of us committed a crime even the truth wouldn’t get us out of being punished. The parents would commend us for our brave truth just before hauling us upstairs for a beating: the belt for me, a hairbrush for my sisters.

Dad grilled all three about the missing change from his dresser and when no one fessed up, he headed to the basement to set up the lie detector. Meanwhile, I went in the opposite direction, heading to the paint shed outside the garage. Knowing how it worked, I quickly varnished my hands and blew as hard as I could to dry them before he set up the lie detector.

Dad started with me fully expecting the needle to peg into the red. Instead, it sat limply in the green “truth” area. He was dumfounded, certain I was the culprit. Next, he tried it on my middle sister, Sharane, who moved it towards the red but still stayed in the green. My innocent little sister, Bobbi, was so scared she was sobbing, her hands wet with tears. You can imagine how hard the needle pegged into the red. Poor kid. My instinct was to own up to the whole thing so she wouldn’t swing for my crime, but at that moment I knew my father would have beat me twice as hard: once for the theft, twice again for the deception. It was too much and I was too afraid of him. I reasoned he’d go easy on her, which he did, though in hindsight the guilt I still carry for my cowardice wasn’t worth it. To this day I don’t think she’s fully forgiven me, and I don’t blame her.

Getting closer to publishing this work. Stay tuned.