“I remember, I remember it so well. I remember it as if it were yesterday, the first time I ever stole a watermelon. Yes, the first time. At least I think it was the first time, or along about there. It was, it must have been, about 1848, when I was 13 or 14 years old. I remember that watermelon well. I can almost taste it now.
“Yes, I stole it. Yet why use so harsh a word? It was the biggest of the load on a farmer’s wagon standing in the gutter in the old town of Hannibal, Missouri. While the farmer was busy with another – another – customer, I withdrew this melon. Yes, ‘I stole’ is too strong. I extracted it. I retired it from circulation. And I myself retired with it.
“The place to which the watermelon and I retired was a lumber yard. I knew a nice, quiet alley between the sweet-smelling planks and to that sequestered spot I carried the melon. Indulging a few moments’ contemplation of its freckled rind, I broke it open with a stone, a rock, a dornick, in boy’s language.
“It was green – impossibly, hopelessly green. I do not know why this circumstance should have affected me, but it did. It affected me deeply. It altered for me the moral values of the universe. It wrought in me a moral revolution. I began to reflect. Now, reflection is the beginning of reform. There can be no reform without reflection –
“I asked myself what course of conduct I should pursue. What would conscience dictate? What should a high-minded young man do after retiring a green watermelon? What would George Washington do? Now was the time for all the lessons inculcated at Sunday school to act.
“And they did act. The word that came to me was ‘restitution.’ Obviously, there lay the path of duty. I reasoned with myself. I labored. At last I was fully resolved. ‘I’ll do it,’ – said I. ‘I’ll take him back his old melon.’ Not many boys would have been heroic, would so clearly have seen the right and so sternly have resolved to do it. The moment I reached that resolution I felt a strange uplift. One always feels an uplift when he turns from wrong to righteousness. I arose, spiritually strengthened, renewed and refreshed, and in the strength of that refreshment carried back the watermelon – that is, I carried back what was left of it – and made him give me a ripe one.
“But I had a duty toward that farmer, as well as to myself. I was as severe on him as the circumstances deserved. I did not spare him. I told him he ought to be ashamed of himself giving his – his customers green melons. And he was ashamed. He said he was. He said he felt as badly about it as I did. In this he was mistaken. He hadn’t eaten any of the melon. I told him that the one instance was bad enough, but asked him to consider what would become of him if this should become a habit with him. I pictured his future. And I saved him. He thanked me and promised to do better.