A Penny for Your Thoughts

Summer has arrived, 1935, and it is hot.  Nothing is stirring.  The birds, the crickets and even the mosquitoes are waiting for the sun to set, but Doris and I are not so smart!  Daddy told us there were too many gophers near the house.  They are raiding our garden, and for animals and people their holes are a hazard.  So here we are, Doris and I, 14 and 13 respectively, and hot and bored.

“We have to snare the gophers,” said Doris.

“Why not drown them out as we did in that other bad spot?” I asked.

“You know, Marjie – our water supply is low.  At least we will each get our penny a tail from Daddy, and that does buy a lot of penny candy.”

Snaring is slow work, especially when gophers are running around squeaking alarms.  However we both set up at a hole, and wait and wish for shade.   

“Look at them, Doris – I think those gophers are laughing at us.  At least after we kill them and pull off their tails we will have more penny candy.”

“Yes, and it is so easy to pull off the tail – no effort at all.”

By late morning we are pleased with our work.  The pile of gopher tails is good, and the bodies are in a neat pile.  We trudge back to the farmyard and give Mommy the tails.  She has the job of getting these penny-candy tails to Daddy.  Doris and I take two apples and a small pail of cold water and head for the shade of the barn.  We sit in the shade and cool off.  Lassie, our dog, begs for some of our apple but a treat like this we do not give to our dog.

We start talking about the morning and I say, “Doris, do you think we could get the tails off without killing the gophers?”

“What a funny thing to say.  Why do that?”

”I have an idea, but first, do you think the gopher would grow another tail?”

“Don’t know, but probably.”

“If they can, we could get at least two tails from every gopher.”

Doris looks at me and we lower our voices and look around.  She says, “If we do that our candy money will build up quickly, but isn’t it cheating?”

“Yes, Doris, it is – but I don’t think it is really very bad, and who will know?”

We talk for a long time, making plans.  How one of us could hold the gopher while the other one pulled off the tail.  We struggle with our feeling of greed and sense of wrongdoing.  Eventually and guiltily, we decide to try it.

The first gopher we try our method on gives us trouble.  Doris holds him, I pull, he squeaks and runs off.   With that experience we work better the next time, and he runs away tailless.  We are both excited.  In quick succession we catch and de-tail four more, and then decide that is enough.  As it turns out, that is more than enough.  It is our downfall.

Before long we realize that it is very easy to spot those tailless gophers running around.  To our amazement, none of them are growing new tails.  We are worried but cannot think of anything to do that will help.  Will Daddy see them or not?  Then the axe falls.  Daddy calls us in and asks, “Have you girls noticed that we have a lot of tailless gophers running around?”

“Yes, Daddy,” we answer in chorus.

“Did you wonder about this?”

“No, Daddy,” we answer honestly.

“No more games, girls.  Did you two do this?” 

Our heads fall.  Our tears trickle down our faces.  Sobs are starting – and then the story is told.  Then the final blow is delivered.

“Did you know this was wrong?”

We can barely talk but finally answer, “Yes”.

Daddy sits and looks at us.  Finally he speaks.  “For the first time I am disappointed in my daughters, and ashamed of their wrongdoing.  There will be consequences, but I need time to think about this.  Go to bed, and we will talk later.”

His decision, when it comes, is that the money for tails will continue, but we have to include it in our Sunday School donations.  Mommy and Daddy talk seriously about the gravity of our deceit, and the effect on the whole family.  But coming to our shared bedroom, they also gather two little sinners into their arms and assure us of the family’s ability to work things out.

Seventy-seven years later, I can still feel my shame, and their love.


Filed under Prairie Childhood

6 Responses to A Penny for Your Thoughts

  1. Dave

    Capitalism and its weaknesses occur naturally. Thus the need for regulation from a higher authority. The recent crash of 2008 saw bankers and Wall Street demonstrate the same weakness. For example mortgages were detached from the homeowner and the property and sold as bundles. Proper value could no longer be attached to the bundles of paper created. In fact the values were artificially inflated because experts could no longer determine true value. Similarly the value of each gopher tail was derived from the value attached to a dead gopher. Once the tails were detached from a living gopher the tail no longer had any true value. Just think if your caper had continued for some time the market (your DAD) would realize that the production of gopher tails did not seem to reduce the gopher population (only the tails) and the value of gopher tails would eventually come crashing down. In this case the regulator discovered the scam early and a market crash was avoided. What would the residual value of a gopher tail be? Could you use it for cat food?

    • Marjorie

      Dave – Thanks for connecting this small private wrongdoing to the larger picture. Perhaps greed is a basic element in most shady deals, large or small. The incident certainly made an impression on two kids old enough to know full well that they were cheating.

  2. We are lucky to have parents who deliver these hard lessons when we are young enough to really absorb them into our conscience. Funny, serious story well told. Thanks.

    • Marjorie

      I fully agree, Judith. The sooner, the better. When it is the parents we love and respect who lower the boom, the effect cannot be ignored. Your parents and mine were parents who cared, loved, and took their parenting seriously. How lucky we are.

  3. Eveline

    Oh Marjorie Imagine you pulling tails off gophers– live ones at that. You truly are a child of the Prairies.
    Letter in the mail.

    • Marjorie

      Eveline – And fully old enough to know better. That is what bothered me then, and what I see in many places and circumstances in our society today – we all can be seduced to partake in many a wrong-doing for very paltry reasons. I am happy to agree that I am a child of the prairies – loved them then, and still do.