He had a faded blue chicken scratch tattoo on his arm that appeared to be a hastily scrawled anchor and the letters "USN" underneath it.
I'd watched the television shows about World War II, all the planes, dogfights, and Black Sheep Squadron.
Bill Peil was a different animal. He was at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when the infamous Japanese attack occurred. William J. Peil served on the USS Arizona on that fateful day. Bill could tell you all about it in mesmerizing detail, which was almost enough for a small kid's brain to stop them from calculating all the storyland details of why he didn't happen to look like Superman.
And he didn't. He was short and wiry with equally wiry glasses, a combination of Ned Flanders and Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon. He was kind and polite, with an incredible amount of mechanical knowledge at his mental disposal. Bill also had a demeanor of discipline and attention to detail. A convenient thing since he was the owner and operator of the local Ace Hardware.
Somewhere in there, I made the magical decision to steal from him.
It was an organic prompting, really. I was a seven-year-old with ADHD and lust for shiny things, and he had an entire store full of bright, shiny objects that called softly out to me to be fondled and absconded with, holding the temptations of a European red-light district.
I knew I'd never get out the door with the gas-powered go-kart, but a pair of bolts with those cool fly nuts? Write them off your inventory, jack, because they are history.
The attraction to those nuts at that young of an age was the same as I would feel in two more years during the Battle of the Poster. You may be familiar with the iconic Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster. Yes, I know she had a lot of swimsuit pictures, but if you are a humanoid that maintained a pulse during the 70s, you know this one.
I earned it the hard way by collecting cereal tops for a breakfast I didn't like and had difficulty convincing myself to enjoy. But I wanted that damned poster. That would show the kid across the street. After a period that felt like an eternity but was likely "six to eight weeks for shipping," she arrived in a Caterpillar yellow cardboard tube.
As I pilfered the clear tape and hung my precious bounty on the wall over my bed, my mother called out to my father, "Are you gonna let him put this girl over his bed?"
"I guess so," he answered, clearly uninterested, "She's on TV."
"So is that Wonder Woman you like to watch so much. We know how much you like watching her."
"She's Wonder Woman. She's the title character. It's no different than you watching the Six Million Dollar Man."
"You like watching Lindsay Wagner, too." She huffed as if she had made a checkmate of some sort.
"I also like watching Wolfman [Jack]. I went and bought a table from him because I liked him so much. I didn't hear you complaining then. What's your point? The poster's fine. Leave the boy alone."
She also liked to interrogate him about Raquel Welch and Sofia Loren. These days Wonder Woman doesn't look like she's aged a bit. Lynda Carter is still the superhero I remember, and my dad is doing gardening like a shade tree mechanic.
From underneath the roots. For almost a decade now.
But he was very much above ground when he caught me fawning over my pocketed merchandise. It was accurate that I had taken less than a dollar of goods, but that was irrelevant to my father.
"Did those come from Bill Peil?"
"Did he give them to you? Remember, I was there."
"So you stole them. That makes you a thief. How do you feel about that? You can't undo it."
I knew I was in trouble. I knew my ass was about to hurt, and I was waiting for it.
"Are you gonna spank me?"
"Why? Not my stuff. You took from Bill. So you're gonna get in the car, we're gonna go see him, and whatever he thinks is a good punishment is the punishment. He's a veteran. You stole from a man that put his life on the line and suffered so you could live free."
It was not a fun conversation. Bill was stern and disappointed but gentle. My punishment was first to return the items and then sweep the store floors for an hour each day for a week. He never told anyone else what I had done. To every other soul, I was a volunteer.
"You should always allow someone the dignity to repair their mistakes," he said. I hear him saying it as I write this.
Bill offered the bolts as payment for my work. I refused. The shininess had worn away against the shame of what I had done to get there in the first place.
I tried finding his obituary recently because I always associate Bill with Pearl Harbor Day. That's today, in case you weren't aware. We tend to forget and diminish some lessons that we need to retain.
For me, the lesson stuck. It was my only shoplifting experience in 52 years.