The Cast: Erich (Mr. Stickyfingers), Myself (the one with the tools and a five-finger discount).
I don’t know if it’s just me or if across the board kids—mostly boys, probably—want to have a road sign so badly that they will steal one. Or maybe they just want to steal one just to steal one so they can say, “Look what I got!” to their friends. Like a right-of-passage sort of thing. Either way, there was one sign that Erich and I would walk by on a regular basis that would pique our thievery curiosity. An old railroad sign that sat at the base of a large tree in someone’s front yard.
As Erich and I would walk past it we would marvel that the sign never moved. Wind, weather, possible other would-be ne’er-do-wells, it never moved. It was only just placed there. No bolts, no nails, no wires, nothing. It just sat there, almost testing to see if anyone would steal it. We even postulated that it was booby-trapped somehow, in case someone made an attempt to steal it. After several years an opportunity finally presented itself with enough reward potential to test our theories.
Most of the stop signs in town only lined the streets that bled into Main Street. There were a few around the elementary school (obviously) and two in front of my grandmother’s house. That was all of them. Stealing a trophy stop sign would be more socially dangerous and irresponsible. However, one Tuesday I was walking past my grandmother’s home and noticed that one pole had been broken and was laying down. This stop sign was accessible! And since the pole had to be replaced, adding a new sign wouldn’t change repairs much. This was the opportunity. But it was not the time.
Erich and I would have to wait until Friday (not a school night) so we could stay up late and nab us a real stop sign, and maybe that old railroad sign. In for a penny, in for a pound (or so the saying goes). Each day, multiple times a day, we would walk past—oh so casually like—to figure out what was needed to get that sign off the broken, wooden pole. Also, we needed to see if repairs had been made or if anyone else had beaten us to it. After what felt like weeks later Friday finally arrived and we spent time after school gathering our tools and gear needed for this mission. We collected everything in our Turtle Tower (how the tower got it’s name is a whole nother story) and waited till dark.
The plan was simple. We would take our time, collect one sign at a time and return it to the Tower, then go back out and collect another. In this way, if there was a problem we could drop our loot and get away—a cut and run backup plan. Our booty would be twice what we had initially planned, there was a loose street sign—just hanging there, about to fall off—that sat under a street light that had stopped working on Thursday. Also while mapping our routes during the week we noticed someone had collected a speed limit sign and had it sitting in their backyard leaning against their fence. Just a reach-over-and-grab-it situation. Four trips and they would all be ours and we had all night to get it done.
Erich and I sat in the Turtle Tower watching a movie while reviewing our plans and preparing to head out. Finally, around midnight we set out, it was dark enough and most bodies would be sleeping. We crept through the darkness and our neighbors’ yards to reach our first target, the stop sign. Erich pulled the sign and post out from under the streetlight and into the tall grasses while I prepared the tools. The sign came off without a hitch and so did heist #1. We moved it to its new home and moved on to target #2, the street sign. We brought the tools, just in case, and when we reached the target Erich began to climb the pole to get a better look at what we would need to remove the sign from its housing. By the time I had assembled the gear we thought we would need so I could hand them over to Erich, he was already standing next to me with sign in hand. Heist #2: Accomplished.
The last two targets could have been collected at the same time—they were on the same block—but we didn’t want to risk anything, it was all going so well. Target #3 was a simple grab and run style mission, and since we had left the tools behind this one went fast. Now for the pièce de résistance, the coveted railroad sign. Oh, we had waited years for this opportunity and now it was finally here! As we approached the home we used the narrow alley that separated the home with the sign and the local telephone company. Then just like in the movies, the perfect heist suddenly hit a snag.
The lot the house sat upon was very small, as was the house. It was an old pioneer home with big windows and two of them—both in the same room—faced the alley and the front yard. Our only avenues of approach because the tree with the sign was just five feet away from those windows, and a light in that room was on. Someone was awake and watching television at 3:00 in the morning!?! Who would be up at 3:00 in the morning?!? It was all going so perfectly and now if we made a move for target #4 whoever was in that room would see us take the sign and be outside in moments. There was a TV that sat in the corner of the room between the two windows—think small, older, tube style televisions for you readers 20 years and under—so the watcher of said TV could look out both windows. We would wait for as long as it would take. It took two minutes.
Erich was tired and fed up. He crawled along on his belly, under the window, then carefully tipped the sign over, onto his back like a turtle. He crawled back and we were out of there. Mission accomplished! Once back at the Tower we stood over our ill-gotten goods and basked in our gluttonous, self-congratulatory glory. Then it hit me. We stole! We had stolen public property! This was not alright. I looked up at Erich and said, “I can’t do it. Sorry. We need to put these back.”
At first, Erich was not happy about it, and I can’t say I blame him. After some discussion, we made a new plan to return them all, at once. One trip, one loop, drop and go, drop and go, then return to the Tower. It was still dark, but the sun would be rising soon. We would have to move quickly. We executed our new plan and returned, very tired and feeling a little despondent, but proud that we maintained our moral integrity. That Saturday we walked past the house with the railroad sign and found it wired to the tree it had been leaning against. In the hour the sign had been stolen, its absence was noticed by its owner.
Years later, Erich and I were driving along a remote dirt road, passing a local cemetery, when we saw a speed limit sign laying off to the side of the road. We stopped, got out and loaded it into the car. We were going to make up for our earlier “failure” with this sign. We had driven only about 100 feet when Erich stopped the car, looked at me and said, “I can’t do it. Sorry. We need to put it back.” And so we did.