*I owe a man in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, 60 cents for six Payday candy bars I stole from him when I was ten.
They were cheaper then, ten cents each. But I stole them and I never repaid him.
Our family vacation every year was a trip to Minnesota to stay at a lake cabin. My father would spend his days fishing and my mother rolled the cleaned fish in cornmeal and fried them in the big black cast iron skillets she brought along for that purpose. One summer, when I was ten, we went to a resort that had a little grocery store next to the line of cabins. It sold bait, milk, beer and had a large display of candy by the register. Mr. Erickson owned the resort and he stood behind the counter. He wore overalls, smoked a pipe, had fluffy white hair and a kindly countenance.
The store operated on an honor system.
If Mr. Erickson was out, you were supposed to put what you owed in a cigar box by the register. It was an “honor system.” The first time I took a Payday without putting in a dime, it seemed so easy. No one was around. Nothing happened. The second, third and fourth, on consecutive days, the silence in the store was resounding. By the time the fifth day rolled around, the Paydays didn’t taste so good. On the sixth day, when we left in the early evening to drive back home, and Mr. Erickson patted my head, bending down and saying, “Hope you can come back next year, sweetie,” I felt so awful I nearly cried.
I stared out at the cornfields and cows as we drove south from Minnesota, wishing I could blend in with their peaceful, placid existences and not the shame and dishonor of being a thief.
A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do.
That is the honor code at West Point. My elder son Jack graduated from West Point in 2013 and, like thousands of other men and women in the long grey line, went through the grueling, challenging years of study and summers spent in training to graduate as someone prepared to be an officer.
One of the most harrowing and unique challenges was during his senior year, when he was asked to be on a student panel for a cadet who was accused of cheating. A guilty verdict would mean expulsion for that cadet. A guilty verdict would also mean having to serve two years in the Army as an enlisted soldier before having the option to return to West Point. For five endless days, the panel, made up entirely of fellow cadets, sifted through evidence. My son felt the heavy weight of having the honor and future of another person on his conscience. In the end, Jack felt there was not enough evidence to vote for a guilty verdict. But the weight of the experience remained with him.
Our sense of honor defines our lives in small ways and large.
They can be as small as a dime or as huge as expulsion from college. Our collective sense of honor is tested now nearly every moment;
Are we endangering others by our behavior, are we living up to what will help our community and our world heal?
Are we stealing Paydays or do we know that we hold the future of others in our hands?
Kate Fuglei is an actress and singer who divides her time between Studio City and Brooklyn. She has appeared in over forty episodes of television, including most recently in one of the first episodes of STAR TREK/PICARD. She is a published author with two novels based on the lives of the physicist Enrico Fermi and the educator Maria Montessori. The greatest blessing in her life is her marriage to writer Ken LaZebnik and her two sons, Jack LaZebnik and Ben LaZebnik. They inspire her every single day.
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