BOSTON — While camping in the Sierra Nevada, in California, I came upon a young man standing alone amid the sage. Twentysomething, he looked a few years younger than I, and was of medium height with blond hair and a hint of beard. He seemed like a decent person, but nervous and out of place. When I asked what he was doing, he gestured to the mountains behind him saying, "I'm going up there to live off the land."
I offered that in my experience hot water was a necessity as well as a luxury and one should have a reliable fire starter and pans, if not a solar shower.
He said, "I have a rifle for deer and other game and I can take care of myself." Finding him unreceptive to anything but his survivalist intentions, I wished him well and left.
Upon returning to my campsite several hours later, I discovered my backpack, sleeping bag, and other essentials were missing. Although by nature nonviolent, I lay awake that night - cold and furious - imagining what I'd do to the thief if I found him. But there was little hope of that. He'd indicated the wilderness as his destination, but I suspected he'd quickly got away on a nearby highway. Nevertheless, at dawn I started toward the mountains. Incredibly, I discovered a fresh track, followed it up to a flat, cautiously crept forward, and peered over the edge. There he lay in my sleeping bag, head resting on my pillow.
Never seriously expecting to find him, I wasn't sure what to do. Did he really have a gun?
Perhaps outrage overcame caution, but I decided the advantage was mine and I rushed him. Catching his wrists I stood over him, yelling. Confined inside my bag, he was helpless. As I looked into his frightened eyes, my rage evaporated. I began to question him. He had no gun. His other replies gave me the picture not of an incorrigible, but of someone needing guidance.
Not fully trusting him, I made him carry everything as we descended, leaving myself unburdened should he try anything. I realized his future was in my hands. If I turned him in he would probably go to jail. I lectured him on the downside of being an outlaw, the nightmare of prison, and that once labeled a criminal, how very hard it is to rise above it. He had no skills or education. No home, no money. Whatever family he had was evidently of little help. He needed direction. I wanted to help him, but I also felt a responsibility to protect the rest of society from the possibility of future crime. What if I let him off and he continued his destructive pattern?
I struggled with the only alternative I was able to imagine. With some misgiving, I suggested he join the military. I gave him a couple of dollars for food and took him to the highway.
Later the sheriff informed me the young man had brought in other stolen items, expressed his desire to turn his life around, and, asking that he be allowed to enlist, was delivered to a recruitment center.
I don't know what became of the man. And though friends have expressed surprise I didn't turn a thief in, I've concluded my decision gave the young man an opportunity to choose a better life and that was in the best interest of society.
*Stan Butler sells hardware in Olympia, Wash.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society