For this story to be relevant, you have to know I grew up on military bases because my father was in the military for many, many years. This means that I know first hand what it’s like to have a military ID card, to be required to go Veteran’s Day celebrations, and to rush into your house because you fear being caught out and about during Taps.
Another thing you need to know for this story to be relevant is that I have always loved to read. I’ve been reading to myself since I was three years old and never looked back. This is awesome if you want to be a nerd and spend all your money on books and know lots of big words. This is terrible if you read above your age level and find yourself learning lots of words through context instead of through use of them. For example, for many, many years I thought the word “anxious” was pronounced “an-zious.” I knew what it meant and how to spell it. I would just say it wrong and nobody would correct me. There’s nothing that can make you more an-zious than finding out you’re saying “anxious” wrong when you’re fourteen years old.
One more thing you need to know to make this story relevant—I’m starting to think this story isn’t actually relevant, guys. But I’ve already started so let’s just ride this one out—is that a Navy installment’s department store is called The Navy Exchange, or rather just the Exchange. You shop there because it’s convenient and there is no sales tax.
Ok so on to the story. . .
When I was about five years old, my mother would often take me and my brothers to the Exchange to pick up stuff. This being the 80s, it was ok to leave your kids in the car while you shopped. But it was also Mississippi and it was quite possible we could die in the car of asphyxiation and my mother couldn’t be inconvenienced by going to jail so she often took us in anyway. Also, we were bad ass kids. You might come back to your car gone because we sold it to some local drug dealers for candy.
So I usually got to go inside on trips to the Exchange. The only thing was that I didn’t understand how the Exchange worked. I knew it was a store but I had recently found out that “to exchange” meant to take one thing and put another in its spot. I was very proud of myself for finding this out. I was also eager to be independent and not ask too many questions.
So after some thought, I came up with a theory. I decided that the way the Exchange worked was that you could bring in stuff you didn’t like, put them on the shelf, and take home stuff you did like. Now there were some people, like my mother exchange money for the things they wanted. But that was for rich people. (Rich, to my five year old self, was anyone who had more than ten dollars. For many, many years I thought my grandfather was the richest man in the world because he sometimes had hundred dollar bills.) Unlike my rich mother, I had no money and therefore my only option was to trade.
So for one summer, every time my mother would say to put on our shoes so we could go somewhere, I would ask if we were going to the Exchange. I needed to know because I needed to pick out what I was going to exchange in the store. If my mother ever wondered why I was always taking old toys and clothing to the store with us, she never asked. (I don’t know if this was because my mother was young, had too many kids, or is just too tall to concern her with what’s going on down near the ground. Maybe combination of all three?) Once we would get inside, I would scope out what I wanted to exchange. Remember this was before department store had those anti-theft tags on everything. It was mostly the store staff to catch us exchangers in action.
And then my dad took my whole game to another level when I asked him why all stores aren’t like the Exchange. He promptly told me that the Exchange was just like any other store except it didn’t charge tax and you needed to be with someone with a military ID to go. Other than that, there was no difference between the Exchange and say, the Piggly Wiggly.
He may have said more but I was distracted by the neon sign in my mind flashing the words YOU CAN EXCHANGE ANYWHERE MOTHERFUCKER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
From that point on, I was an exchanging fool. From the gas station to the dollar store, I was leaving with something. It’s not easy for me to admit that during this time I got sloppy. I was doing some pretty questionable exchanges. I can’t remember all the details but I think I exchanged some penny candy for a few stones I found in the store parking lot. I wasn’t proud of it then and I’m not proud of it now.
My exchanging experiment ending that summer when I was caught. Not by my mother but by her cousin Kay. I exchanged some stuff while on a shopping expedition with her and she noticed immediately that I didn’t walk in with that plastic purse I was now swinging on my hip as we walked back to the car. I was forced to explain what exchanging is and how I was a pro.
To her credit, Kay did everything she could not to laugh. She didn’t make it, though. And when she was done laughing so hard she had to turn off the car, she looked over and said “That’s called stealing. If you do not pay money for something at the register, you are stealing. And if you do it again, the police will take you the jail. And I’ll let them because that’s where thieves go.” Then she started the car and drove us home, chuckling all the way.
But she didn’t make take back the purse and she didn’t tell my mother, either.