It was 1955 when I moved to the working class community of Lakewood, Calif. This was quite a cultural change for me, as I had been previously living in an upscale suburb of Washington, D.C.
In my new setting, I was the only one in my fifth-grade class whose folks had college degrees. Values were somewhat different in this blue collar town.
My friend, Terry, who lived down the street, was a perfect example of social practices in this Long Beach community. He didn’t spend much time looking at textbooks or planning for a college education. Instead, he spent a lot of hours finding various forms of hands-on activities to occupy himself.
Terry wasn’t a “bad” kid. He was just impulsive, which included minor examples of neighborhood vandalism. Later in life, he followed his community standards by becoming a successful union rep for a California manufacturing firm.
One day in 1956, I came around the corner and found my friend crouched in front of our open garage. We didn’t worry much about theft back then, as most moms stayed home to raise the kids. They were also guardians of their domains.
I heard a pinging sound in the garage and noticed Terry had something in his hand. It was a new Wham-O slingshot, manufactured in nearby Pasadena. The noise I heard was a BB ricocheting around our car and other items in the building.
“This is really cool,” he said. My friend was not trying to hurt anything. He simply was thrilled by the noise and the multiple number of rebounds.
“I’m out of BBs,” he announced. “Let’s go in the garage and see if we can find some.”
I passed our late-model Dodge, and noticed something peculiar. On the left rear fender, the yellow paint was damaged with little black dots — maybe twenty of them. I then put two and two together.
Our flashy Dodge wasn’t just any neighborhood car, but you could say it was the envy of the those in the “hood” who owned mildly customized ‘51 Fords or repainted ‘52 Chevys.
Its D-500 ornamental flags, located just above the nameplate, told everybody it was the factory “hot” one. Three-tone paint, dual rear antennas and rumbling dual exhausts expressed a real “don’t mess with me” attitude.
I loved that car, and so did my dad. But now, it had been mildly damaged by one of my best friends.
I pointed out the problem to Terry and could tell by his look that he was just as surprised. Shocked, he said nothing, put his weapon away and headed for home.
Two days later, Dad noticed the damage.
“What’s this?” he barked, while giving me a suspicious look.
Now I had a moral dilemma. My personal values regarding the situation had become conflicted. I needed to sort them out instantly, while my impatient father waited for an answer.
Do I confess and rat out my best friend? Do I tell the truth and remain loyal to my father - despite negative consequences for Terry? Or, do I “take a shot” by distorting the facts, protecting my friend and hoping the situation goes away — while at the same time, assume Terry has learned a lesson from his careless experience?
Right or wrong, I chose the latter. I put on my best acting face, looked at the car (as if for the first time) and said, “Wow! How did that happen?”
Dad bought it, and the crisis was over. I had made my ethical choice. Loyalty to a friend had taken priority over honesty to a parent. It just seemed like the best choice at the time.
The primary point for me was Terry’s actions were stupid, but unintentional. He deserved protection from my dad, who probably didn’t care about the “mens rea,” or intent behind the crime. My friend’s father would have been contacted, and punishment certainly would have followed. No doubt my bond with Terry became stronger for protecting him from this unpleasant fate.
Based on backgrounds and experiences, most of us arrange our value priorities differently depending on the situation. We are often unconsciously aware of this ranking process.
Nevertheless, we do this to make sense out of a complicated world — one where the punishment does not always fit the crime, nor do concrete rules of ethics always fit every circumstance in life.
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.