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Wheel of Fortune

Claim:   Clever thief finds an inventive way to steal right under a guard's nose

LEGEND

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, 1998]

There was a man who had worked at a factory for twenty years. Every night when he left the plant, he would push a wheelbarrow full of straw to the guard at the gate.

The guard would look through the straw, and find nothing and pass the man through.

On the day of his retirement the man came to the guard as usual but without the wheelbarrow.

Having become friends over the years, the guard asked him, "Charlie, I've seen you walk out of here every night for twenty years. I know you've been stealing something. Now that you're retired, tell me what it is. It's driving me crazy."

Charlie simply smiled and replied, "Okay, wheelbarrows!"
 

Variations:
  • The wheelbarrow legend has been set in a number of different countries, including Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and the Soviet Union.
  • In a different form of this legend, a child wheels a bicycle bearing a sack of sand past Mexican or German border guards every day. The guards concentrate their energies on the sack of sand, completely failing to recognize the boy is smuggling bicycles.
  • Another version of the "border guards" variant deals with a man who daily crosses a frontier leading a donkey bearing a sack of rice. The guards diligently search the bags of rice each day but find nothing. Of course, what's really being smuggled is rice (or, in some tellings, donkeys).
Origins:   The concept of "hiding in plain sight" can often be an effective form of camouflage: sometimes the best form of concealment is not to try to hide something at all, but rather to make it such a familiar part of its surroundings that no one pays it any mind. That principle is at work in this tale of a clever thief who manages to steal from his employer for years while remaining completely undetected the whole time, because the manner and object of his pilfering are such thoroughly ordinary parts of his everyday environment.

This legend is actually an ancient story from Turkey (or Persia) about the famous trickster Nasradin (or the Hodja). The oldest print version of its modern form we've found so far comes from a 1952 joke book:
When Juan and Evita Peron were building a luxurious retreat for themselves some miles outside of Buenos Aires they established a rigid guard around the project
to prevent the stealth of valuable materials. Every day at noon, the story goes, the same workman began to appear at the exit gate with a wheelbarrow loaded with straw. The guard, convinced that there was dirty work afoot, searched the straw more carefully daily — even had it analyzed to see if it possessed special chemical values — but could find nothing to substantiate his suspicion, and had to let the workman pass.

A year later, the guard met the workman, evidently enjoying great prosperity. "Now that all is said and done," pleaded the guard, "just what were you stealing every day on that Peron project?" The workman whispered, "Wheelbarrows."
A version involving stolen trucks turned up in Reader's Digest in 1971:
A few years ago, the Army post where I was learning the ropes to be an M.P. was experiencing a rash of thefts. So when a 2 1/2-ton truck came to the gate with a very nervous-looking civilian behind the wheel, my corporal decided to give me a lesson in how to search a departing vehicle. Springing into action, he looked in the back of the truck, under the canopy, in the tire well, under the hood, under the seat. Satisfied that the truck was "clean," the corporal waved the through, obviously proud of the lesson he had just given me. Later, we found out why the driver looked so nervous — he was stealing the truck.
No matter what form it takes — wheelbarrows, bicycles, trucks, or donkeys — the moral of the legend remains the same: Beware of red herrings; don't overlook the obvious.

The same message is also imparted in a slightly different form of the story:
Two guys purchase a park bench and are sure to get a receipt for it. They then carry the bench around Central Park, and are quickly stopped by the police. They show the cops the receipt and are allowed to go on their merry way. They do this for several weeks, until all the cops realize that the two running around the park with the bench actually OWN the bench. The guys then proceed to steal several dozen park benches right under the nose of the city's police.
Barbara "bench warranted" Mikkelson

Sightings:   This legend turns up in the 2001 film Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles and the 1962 Benjamin Elkin book Gillespie and the Guards.

Last updated:   25 May 2011

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Sources:

    Cerf, Bennett.   Good for a Laugh.
    New York: Hanover House, 1952   (p. 64).

    Hall, Jeffrey.   "Humor in Uniform."
    Reader's Digest.   August 1971   (p. 98).

    Hershfield, Harry.   Laugh Louder Live Longer.
    New York: Gramercy Publishing Company, 1959.   (p. 166).

Also told in:

    Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill.   Now! That's What I Call Urban Myths.
    London: Virgin Books, 1996.   ISBN 0-86369-969-3   (pp. 34-35).

    Spalding, Henry.   Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor.
    New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1969   (pp. 69-70).