From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

The Great Candy Bar Debate

All sects are different because they come from men; morality is everywhere the same, because it comes from God.


Evening meals were sacrosanct at our little house in Burbank, California. Only genuine illness or events of compelling academic or spiritual importance excused us. Mother provided the food, Dad the entertainment. I was almost of age before I realized that not everyone’s evening meal involved vigorous, fun, intellectual debate.

At Friday dinners, Dad took a little tablet out of his left breast pocket. Every time he encountered a word he did not know, he wrote it down there. By Friday, he’d looked it up and the games began.

“What is a fillip?” he asked.

When neither my brother nor sister knew, I was relieved. As the youngest child, if I occasionally knew an answer, I felt really smart. That evening we all fell short, not knowing that a fillip was the quick, striking motion made by flipping a long finger away from the thumb. In our vernacular, it was a “thump on the head,” Mother’s discipline technique of last resort.

When spelling, vocabulary and current events played themselves out, Dad delighted in moving us on to his next favorite arena: ethics.

“What would you do if you were walking into a store and noticed that someone had left his car lights on?”

Of course we asked some clarifying questions like, “Was the car locked?” “Was it a nice car?” and so on.

My brother Jim came up with a plausible answer. “If the car’s unlocked, you reach in and turn the lights off.”

This response pleased Dad. “Yes. Would you tell anyone about it?”


“Right again. Just do the good deed and let it go at that.”

The morals of these ethics discussions were consistent: do well, don’t brag, be honest and throw yourself across the tracks to stop an oncoming injustice. We usually aced Dad’s ethics quizzes.

The mock situation that stopped us in our tracks came to be known as the Great Candy Bar Debate. Dad brought it up periodically, and it became a chronic family controversy.

Here’s the situation: You approach a candy machine, coins in hand. You can’t wait for that Snickers bar to drop into the tray. But before your coin drops, you notice that there’s already a candy bar in the tray. What do you do?

The only clarifying question three kids needed was, “What kind of candy bar?” Unless it was something vile like marshmallow, that candy bar was history.

“I’d take that candy bar and put my money back in my pocket,” Jim said. Surely he knew this was not the right answer, although it made such sense.

“That’s tempting, but that candy bar does not belong to you. You haven’t paid for it,” Dad instructed.

“I’d still take it,” said my sister, Andrea. “The candy bar company knows they’ll lose a few that way.”

“That’s a rationalization. Their business is not your concern. You shouldn’t take something you haven’t paid for.”

“Well if I don’t take it, the next person will,” Jim said.

“Another rationalization. That next person will have to answer for stealing that candy bar on Judgment Day. You’ll have done right, leaving the candy bar in the tray.”

About now, Mother tried to arbitrate, asking Dad if the question about candy wasn’t too tempting for three kids.

Dad became spirited. “I cannot imagine a justification for taking a candy bar you hadn’t paid for! How would you explain that to God?”

I could see Dad’s point, but I wondered if I couldn’t find justification somewhere. I knew that in the real world, every one of us except Dad would take that candy bar and eat it.

Dad’s honesty plagued him to the end of his life. As a retiree, he and Mother occasionally worked as movie extras in Hollywood. The pay was minimal, twenty bucks apiece. Sometimes it was given in cash, “under the table.” Most of the folks probably had a quiet dinner out on the earnings. Dad kept books, noted every dime of income, claimed it on his IRS Form 1040, and paid the tax he owed.

When Dad’s memory began to fail, things got complicated. Mother took him to the attorney to see how to get him the medical care he needed without bankrupting the family. Dad didn’t comprehend much, but he wanted no legal shenanigans that might ensure his medical care but jeopardize his soul.

Fortunately, as a combat veteran of WorldWar II, he was eligible for treatment through the VA. To qualify for the Dementia Program, Dad took a battery of memory tests, which included vocabulary.

The psychiatrist told Mother, “I can’t find a word he doesn’t know. When we got to ‘frangible,’ he gave me synonyms and antonyms.”

Dad was their favorite patient after that, a kind of “dementia savant.” He told the best stories and remained his charming self. He just didn’t know what day it was.

The time came when the doctors could do no more. They called Mother one morning. Dad was fading fast.

By the time we got there, Dad lay still and gray against the white sheets, his pulse faint. We wept. Then we dried our tears and started telling him stories. With the family reunited there, things felt strangely festive. When we started to get hungry, I went downstairs for snacks.

The lounge was filled with patient-veterans in various states of illness and decrepitude. I bought sodas from the machine, and then decided to get a Snickers bar. Approaching the candy machine, quarters in hand, I noticed a Three Musketeers lying in the tray. I looked up toward Dad’s room, toward heaven. Was this a test? Was this a joke?

Across the room, a Vietnam-aged veteran, an amputee on crutches, said, “Aw, geez! I forgot my money, and I’m starving! Can I borrow change from somebody?”

“How about a Three Musketeers instead?” I asked.

“That’d be great.”

I handed him the misbegotten bar.

With drinks and candy I’d paid for, and the solution to the Great Candy Bar Debate, I returned to Dad’s room. Everyone agreed that giving it to a hungry veteran was the brilliant justification that had eluded us all those years.

Later that evening Dad slipped away. I know he heard everything we said. I’m pretty sure I can explain every nuance of the Great Candy Bar Debate to the Almighty when the time comes. I just hope my explanation will satisfy Dad.

Naida Grunden

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