I lived in a rural area of Locust Valley, Long Island, and Eddie lived in a post-WWII housing development called Woods Lane. We’d struck up a friendship due to proximity more than anything else. I recall hanging out with Eddie’s Leave It To Beaver-like family in their brand new split-level home. When the parents weren’t around, we’d sneak peeks at his dad’s Playboy magazines. Ultimately, Eddie was more like Eddie Haskell than Beaver Cleaver.
Occasionally we’d ride our bikes down to the village and explore the local Woolworth’s Five and Dime. In the 1950s five and dime stores were as ubiquitous as chrome on cars. Frank Winfield Woolworth, the father of five and dime stores, developed the idea in Watertown, New York in the late 1800s. By the turn of the century, he owned fifty-four stores. He kept prices low by eliminating the middleman and by 1911, the F. W. Woolworth Company became the dominant variety store chain in the United States. The stores sold toys, notions, candy, toiletries and just about everything you could think of. They frequently featured lunch counters. Think of miniature versions of today’s big-box stores, but instead of stuff stacked to the ceiling you had aisles of display counters.
Saranac Lake had two five and dime stores. Woolworth’s and J. J. Newberrys were side by side for thirty-five years until Newberrys bought out Woolworths in 1959. Good old capitalistic competition for lower prices, combined with cultural changes, doomed five and dime stores and by the mid-1970s most were gone, although Saranac Lake’s J. J. Newberry's Department Store stuck it out until 1997.
One day Eddie and I bicycled into town, and at his suggestion, we went into the five and dime to case the joint for a future heist. When Eddie picked up a squirt gun from the table he said, in a stage whisper, “I don’t think we’ll buy these fine squirt guns today.”
If you think of sidekicks, I was more like Abbot’s Costello than Holmes’ Dr. Watson, because I responded in an even louder voice, “I thought we were going to steal them.” Fortunately, no one heard us and we left without incident.
A week later we returned to cop our heat. We wandered up and down the aisles inspecting various items as casually as possible. In other words, not casually at all. When we came to the squirt guns, we surreptitiously put them in our pockets and went merrily on our way.
Well, merrily for a day anyway.
It turned out Eddie couldn’t keep his mouth shut, so told his sister, who then told my sister. The next day as my sister and I were walking from the school bus up our driveway we got into a tiff and she yelled, “I’m gonna tell mom you stole a squirt gun!”
I became petrified. She repeated the threat. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. The solution finally dawned on me, and I broke out into a sprint that would have made Jesse Owens proud and ran into the house. I flew up the stairs and burst into my mother’s bedroom, where she always took an afternoon break with a cigarette, a peppermint Lifesaver, and her Time magazine.
Sobbing I blurted, “Eddie Berkins and I stole squirt guns from the five and dime store.”
With a surprised look she said, “Tell me what happened.”
I told her the whole story. Being the smart mother she was, she decided to confirm the story by calling Eddie’s mother.
The conversation with Eddie’s mother, as relayed to me by my mother, went something like this, “Jackie tells me that he and Eddie each stole a squirt gun from the five and dime. What do you think we should do?”
There was a long pause and then his mother said, “Let me talk to Eddie.”
After a bit she came back on the phone and said, “Eddie says he never stole a squirt gun, and I know Eddie would never lie to me.”
My mother hung up, turned to me and said, “Well, Eddie’s mother doesn’t want to do anything about it, but you and I will,”
The next day she gave me thirty-five cents, marched me down to the store and told me to go in and pay for my squirt gun.
I walked in, walked up to the counter to a cashier who looked like Nurse Ratched’s sister. Trying my best to avoid eye contact I put down my three dimes and a nickel.
“This is for the squirt gun that I stole,” I said in a barely audible voice, “My mother said I have to pay for it.”
With a stern look the cashier said, “Well, I hope you learned your lesson.”
And I sure did. Actually, I learned TWO lessons.
The first was, I never again stole another thing.
And the second was, I never again shared another secret with my sister.