The Wallet

By Ken Dooley

When I met John Dinneen in 1944, I was 13, and he was 12. A year difference in those days usually puts the older boy in the driver’s seat. It did not work with John, who lived next door to me. He had the most extraordinary persuasive powers I have ever encountered in another human being. If I suggested an activity, John would never come out with a flat refusal. But he would patiently describe the pros and cons of each possibility, and, almost always, we would follow his plan. One activity didn’t appeal to either of us—scouting.

Neither of us cared for camping out or doing all those little things to earn merit badges. John’s father, Ed Dinneen, was the head of the Boy Scouts in Edgewood, complicating the situation. When parental pressure got too great, John and I joined the Boy Scouts.

We were only members for a few weeks when the telephone company transferred the scoutmaster of our troop. I don’t remember much about him besides his name, Mr. Lodge. We raised $16 for a going away gift, a wallet. As the oldest member of the troop, I was given the money and assigned to pick up the wallet from the Rhode Island Luggage Company. A few days later, John came up with an impossible idea. “Why don’t we take the train to Boston and go to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game?”

“And where are we going to get the money?” I asked.

“You know my birthday is next Tuesday,” John said. “My grandmother always gives me $20 for my birthday. So, we’ll use the wallet money and replace it after my birthday. The going-away party isn’t until Saturday. We’ll have plenty of time to get the wallet.”

I resisted for two days. However, when John sets a goal, he usually achieves it. After telling our families we were leaving early to play baseball and then take a movie at the Palace Theater, we took the train for Boston. I had an uneasy feeling as I exchanged the wallet money for two round-trip tickets to Boston. My mood brightened as we sat in the bleachers at Fenway Park. There was no problem, according to John. He would get the $20 from his grandmother, and no one would ever know about our temporary embezzlement.

It was my second trip to Fenway Park. 1939, I went to my first game with my brothers, Jack, Bill, and Bob. Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio were all playing. Except for Doerr, those Red Sox greats were all in the service in 1944, as were my brothers, Jack and Bill. The only other players I remember from that day were Joe Cronin, Jim Tabor, and Tex Hughson, the starting pitcher.

Neither the Red Sox or the Yankees were particularly good that year, with the Yankees finishing third and the Red Sox fourth. About halfway through the game, I became nervous again as four hot dogs and two drinks cut further into our vanishing bankroll. John sensed my mood and immediately went into the story about how his grandmother had never failed to give him a $20 bill on his birthday for as long as he could remember. And John had a long memory. Why would she fail him now? Feeling positive again, we celebrated with peanuts and ice cream.

We were late returning from the ‘movie,’ but John had devised a cover story that worked. A few days later, an incident occurred that gave me the same feeling a crooked bank clerk would experience at the arrival of a bank examiner. My mother told me that Mrs. so and so (I don’t remember her name) had called and asked why I hadn’t picked up the wallet. I made a quick trip to John’s house and left with a fantastic alibi. We worked together on a merit badge and planned to pick up the wallet on Wednesday, the day after John’s birthday. The party was on Saturday. The message was relayed, and all inquiries stopped. Why was I worried? John was in control.

Tuesday night, the telephone rang, and a trembling voice said, “She gave me a sweater.” It was John. His grandmother had visited Ireland the previous month and returned with an Irish sweater. “That was it,” I said. “We’d better confess and throw ourselves at the mercy of the court.” With thoughts of his father passing judgment, John devised another plan. “This hand-made sweater is worth a lot more than $20,” he said. “We’ll go to the Outlet Company (a Providence Department store, return it, and split the profits.” The next day, we went to the customer service department at the Outlet. A clerk looked at the sweater and said her store didn’t carry that brand. “No department store in Rhode Island carries sweaters like that. So, you’ll have to go to Ireland to exchange it,” she laughed.

 “That’s it,” I said. “No more stories. The party is Saturday, and we’ve got nothing.” “Let’s calm down,” John said. “I was in Liggett’s (a drug store chain) and saw wallets for 99 cents. I’ve got a nice box left over from Christmas. We’ll put the wallet in it, and no one will know the difference.” John’s confidence was so reassuring that I had a bounce in my step when we walked into Liggett’s. It disappeared when I saw about ten plastic wallets on a card. The lights filtered right through the one we picked.

“It will look a lot different when we put it in the box,” John said. He was so reassuring that we spent our last 50 cents on two coffee milkshakes.

We put the wallet in John’s box and tied it with a bright red ribbon. “We don’t want anyone else opening the box before Mr. Lodge,” John explained.

We had a nice lunch, complete with a cake, that Saturday. The hostess signaled me to give the wallet to the guest of honor. He smiled, opened the box, and took out the plastic wallet. As he said, “Nice wallet,” the hostess summoned me to the kitchen. “That wallet didn’t come from the Rhode Island Luggage Company,” she said.

I told her what I had done with the money but didn’t mention John’s role. It was then that I learned another of John’s qualities—loyalty. I stood speechless as John took a position beside me. He took full responsibility for creating the plan for the Boston trip. Yet somehow, he was able to shift the blame for the failure of his plan to his grandmother. If she had come through with her normal present, Mr. Lodge would have his wallet. As a final plea, John offered to give his new sweater to Mr. Lodge.

Phone calls were made, and our families came up with the funds to get the original wallet. A few days later, Mr. Dinneen sent for me to announce our punishment. John and I were both kicked out of the Boy Scouts. Since neither one of us ever completed the work for one merit badge, our exit rank was “Tenderfoot.” Mr. Dinneen knew how crushed we would be at the verdict. He did his best, but our crime was too heinous to justify any other verdict. John and I stood solemnly as our judgment was pronounced. Then, when we were alone, the reality of the judgment set in. No more scout meetings. No more discussions about merit badges or excursions into the woods, which we both hated. “Crime can pay under the right circumstances,” John said. He never lost his persuasive qualities. We stayed in touch while I was serving in the U.S.A.F. John was a Brown University student. He later attended Georgetown Law School and graduated second in his class. I was a student at Providence College when John got married in 1959. I didn’t know it then, but it was one of the last times I would ever see John. He was practicing law in Barnstable on Cape Cod, and I lived and worked in Connecticut.

In 1963, the whole Dinneen family was invited to my wedding. I was hurt and shocked when none of them showed up. A few weeks later, I stopped in Edgewood to see my mother. She asked me if I was going to say hello to the Dinneens. “No,” I replied. “They had all accepted wedding invitations and never showed up. I was finished with the whole family.”

At this point, my mother began to cry. “John is dying of leukemia, she said, “He didn’t want you to know before the wedding.”

I was out the door and made record time getting to Barnstable. His wife, Ann, greeted me at the door. His brothers, David and Donald, were also there. I walked into the bedroom and saw John, a giant of a man at 6’3″ tall, lying in a hospital bed. He smiled and said something that I had to lean over to understand.

“Tell Ann the sweater story,” he said. He smiled as I recounted that wonderful day at Fenway Park.

John died the next day at age 28.

I used to feel a sense of sadness when I thought of John Dinneen and how his potential was never realized because of cancer. Then I remember. Over the years, I have met many strong people. None was more persuasive than my childhood friend, whose memories will be with me forever.

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