Where else but rural America would you find a wagon loaded with garden produce, parked alongside a roadway with no one around, a hand-painted sign saying “Sweet Corn $3.50 per dozen” and a small can nailed to the frame with the words “honor box” stenciled on it?
It’s a unique part of our heritage and a quiet statement of our culture and values. Learned men have said, “Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching.” What could show more integrity than paying for something that could just as easily be taken for free? You could even take money out of the box and also take the corn, if you wished. But, we don’t.
We honor the tradition, and each other, in a way that contradicts the trend in our society toward exploiting every opportunity for individual gain. There are more and more “self service” conveniences, but they don’t rely on honesty. We have gas pumps and ATM machines that are not attended, but they are sophisticated fortresses with video cameras monitoring them. We have an increasing number of stores with “self checkout”, but the scanners and supervisors make it hard for us to feel that there is any honor involved in doing their job and paying to do so.
Rural America has many financial transactions that are built on trust and underpinned with personal honesty. Livestock and grain are sold through auctions and elevators, with the buyers having opportunities to lighten the load or short the count. But the bond is strong, and both parties do what’s right for the other. Many deals are made with a handshake and closed with integrity. A “hot check” is a tough thing to live down.
I spoke in the small town of Loyal, Okla., many years ago, and found that the local café was opened by the farmers as early as they chose to get there. “They make coffee and just leave their money,” said the owner, who arrived at 7 a.m. and began cooking breakfast. Up the street, they showed me that they had a big freezer full of ice and an honor box attached.
Discussing this process with rural people who frequent the unmanned produce stands, I asked if they always paid. One man said, “No, I sometimes don’t have any money with me. So I put in double the next time by.”
Does a culture have to be stable and self-contained to be this honest? I’m afraid it does. It requires the small-town mentality that you are never anonymous. Roger Welch, Nebraska philosopher, once told a story about going to the lumber yard in Dannebrog and finding that all the workers were at the café drinking coffee. He boasted, "I could have loaded the truck and driven out without anyone knowing!”
"Yea, but by the time you’d cleared the city limits, we’d know how many board feet you’d hauled off,” said the smiling manager, sipping his coffee.
I look at those corn wagons in the summer and pumpkin wagons in the fall and think of the small children who work with their parents to pick and display the produce. Then I think of them running over to the wagon to see how much money was there, and the disappointment they’d have if the wagon was empty—and so was the honor box.
Some farmers loan out their equipment without even knowing it. “I have a neighbor who borrows and then brings it back in better shape than when it went out,” said one. “I sometimes find a vehicle full of gas, when I know it was nearly empty when I got out of it.”
In my years in Washington, D.C., I became a part of their hustling society and their version of the “honor box” at a parking lot near my office downtown. When I went in to work, on a rainy Sunday night, the garages were all closed and street parking was unavailable. I pulled into the lot and walked straight to my office, rather than going to the unattended gatehouse and depositing my parking fee in the slot for my space. When I returned two hours later, the back windshield of my car was broken and laying in pieces in the seat. There were no other marks of vandalism—just a reminder that I broke their rule and they responded with vigilante justice.
I suppose half of being honorable is the awareness that we may be observed being dishonorable. The other half is feeling good about being a good person. I hope that, for myself, I move more toward the latter.
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