COLUMN: The gas can story

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By Ken Begley

It’s amazing where the paranoid mind can take you.
— Bill Ayers

My early education came mostly from the Sisters of St. Catharine. That was several decades ago, but a lot of the things they said or taught  me still stick in my mind.

Back then everyone had a big family. It was rare for a home to have fewer than five kids, and many had many more. The result was that most kids shared bedrooms with their siblings.

One day our teacher told the class it was really a blessing for a family to live in a crowded house where you never got to spend too much time by yourself. Now that really got my attention because I lived in just such a house with my parents and eight other brothers and sisters.

Here was her reasoning.

She said that if you spent too much time alone, you really get some “crazy” ideas. She felt it was better to have family around you so they could “knock those crazy ideas out of your head” before something bad happened. So, having family constantly around you left you with little time alone, and that was really a very good thing.
My third-grade mind could not wrap itself around that concept at the time. As I got older, I began to see the wisdom of those thoughts.
It seems to me that too little time in the company of other people sometimes breeds paranoia.

What I mean is that your mind starts cranking up imagined wrongs and anger about other people. In fact you might even start putting words into those folks mouths as they aren’t there to talk to you directly. The result is sometimes very small things, or nothing at all, can become this great anger directed to another person who isn’t even aware of it.  Sometimes if you let your paranoia get away from you it will make you look ridiculous.

Here’s a story that my Uncle Carl Begley told once many, many years ago to illustrate the point.

A man was driving down a lonely country road in his car enjoying the day. All of a sudden, the vehicle started sputtering and came to a stop. He quickly looked down at his dash board and saw that he had run out of gas.

He was not too concerned, because he remembered passing up a small gas station about two miles back. He figured he’ll just walk back to the station and get some gas for his car.

As he walked back, he began to think to himself.

“Hey, wait a minute. I don’t have a gas can to put the gas into when I get to the station.   What am I going to do?”

“I know what I’ll do. I’ll just ask the owners of the station if I can borrow a gas can.  They probably have a few of those. Then I’ll take the gas back, put it in the tank, then drive back to the station to fill up. I’ll just give him the can back when I get there.  That should work.”

But the more he thought, the more he began to worry.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been to that station before. Those folks don’t even know me. You know they might not want to loan me the gas can because they don’t know me. They might think I’ll steal it.”

“You know, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Oh that’s ridiculous. It’s probably just some rusty old can. It isn’t worth anything.  Surely they wouldn’t be so mean as to not loan me the can. I’m not even asking for a ride.  I just want to borrow some rusty old gas can so I can fill up my tank. I’ll be back to fill up my tank as soon as I get my car going.”

The guy kept on walking and thinking “What if they won’t loan me the can?”

“I’ll be danged.What a bunch of mean blankety blanks. I mean here I am walking this hot road, and all I want to do is borrow one dang gas can, and they are so stingy, worried that I won’t bring back that stupid can that they won’t loan it to me. I don’t know how they even stay in business if they’re so dang untrusting of everyone.

Well, the guy kept getting madder by the minute.

“You know what I’ll do. I’ll just tell them off the moment they refuse to help me. I’ll never do business with them again, and I’ll tell everyone I know to stay away from that gas station.”

The guy’s rage continued to build as he approached the gas station. He saw it in the distance and ran up to the door. He flung it open, almost taking the door off the hinges.  

The owner is startled to see this guy as the door banged against the wall.

The driver looked at the station owner with crazed eyes and bellowed out at the top of  his lungs, “Keep your old gas can!” Then he turned, slammed the door shut behind him and kept walking down the highway.

I like that story because it makes me laugh every time I think about it.

Yet sometimes, when I see senseless killings or violence by normally sane people who suddenly blow up, it makes me wonder if our country isn’t raising a large number of angry, lonely folks who are separated from their families and our society.

We have every modern communication device that is imaginable. We have everything from cell phones and e-mail to Facebook and Twitter, and we can reach around the world with all of them. But we still don’t know how to talk with each other.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. But I have a feeling things aren’t made better by all these electronics.

They seem to be made worse.