The Bottle Caps Man


Snark MeterMID.002

A parable of sorts

Growing up there was an old man who used to ask us kids the same question every day. We had no idea what he was talking about. More than four decades have passed, but when the crowd from the old neighborhood gets together someone will always ask, How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?”

Central Phoenix was a very different place in the early 1970’s. The “busy streets” were still lined with trees that shaded the open irrigation canals. The ranch style neighborhoods built in the 50’s and 60’s were here, of course, but they were interspersed between what was left of family farms – old homesteads surrounded by the remnants of citrus orchards and horse, cotton, and dairy operations. An enormous farmhouse stood where the school bus turned off of 7th Avenue into our neighborhood. It had nine chimneys. We counted them when the bus went past.

The most coveted thing in our kid world was Bottle Caps – the brand new candy that looked like the metal top on a bottle of pop and tasted like the soda inside. Back then Bottle Caps came in flat foil pouches. They were larger, harder, and with nifty ridges that allowed them to hang on the end of your tongue when you stuck it at the other kids on the bus.

Bottle Caps were an early lesson in the economics of supply and demand – the only place you could get them was from the ice cream truck, a large white panel van with giant decals of frozen product on the sides. The truck would drive through the streets playing music over a loudspeaker mounted to the roof, a Pavlovian cue for kids to grab their nickels and dimes to buy Popsicles and ice cream cones and most everything else moms claimed would “spoil supper.”

The first time I heard the notes of the ice cream truck’s carnival music in the distance I didn’t know what it was. I was playing Kick the Can with the big kids when suddenly the shrubbery began to rustle. All over the street kids emerged from hiding shouting, “Run! We have to get there first!” I ran as hard as I could to keep up with the bigger kids.

We weren’t first though. An old man was already in line. Kids were positively downcast as they watched the man buy every single pack of Bottle Caps in the ice cream truck and stuff them into his bulging pockets. Kids began to shout, “No fair!” “You can’t buy them all!”

And I wonder, How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

He wore an old cardigan sweater and corduroy pants and had the most piercing blue eyes. He turned those piercing eyes on us and in a faint Southern accent asked, “So you are upset that I have all the Bottle Caps?”

“Yeah!” Kids shouted in outrage.

“I suppose you want some of these?” He questioned, patting his bulging pockets.

“Yes!” I shouted, reaching over Mark Hickens in front of me.

He bent his head around Mark and looked down upon me. “You are very young. Do you even know what Bottle Caps are?”

“Not really.” I admitted.

He smiled and I couldn’t help but like the way his eyes lit up. “Bottle Caps,” He began, “are the tastiest candy ever invented. Eating them is like being able to chew on soda pop. Bottle Caps make you smile a smile that starts deep inside your tummy and goes from the inside out. How would you like to eat a candy like that?”

My eyes became wide. “Would I? You bet I would!”

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The man pressed, “What would you say, young man, if I gave you a pack?”

Johnny Dodson said, “Aww, he doesn’t have any money. He’s too little.”  My head dropped in shame. The man lifted my chin and his piercing eyes held my mine. “I didn’t say anything about money. I said, ‘gave,’” he continued.

“FREE? Nobody gives away BOTTLE CAPS!” yelled Johnny’s indignant older brother.

“Well now, I didn’t say ‘free’ exactly either.” The old man moved his gaze to the group.

Now 10 kids were indignant, “What are you talking about Mister?”

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

“Suppose I gave you two packs of Bottle Caps,” the man said turning back to me. “Would you promise to only eat one and give the other away to someone else?”

I was very confused.

He repeated the offer, “If I give you two packs of Bottle Caps, will you promise me that you will eat one and share one with someone else?”

I nodded seriously, “Yes.”

The man held up two green envelopes full of Bottle Caps, one in each hand. I grabbed them and wheeled to leave before he could catch me. “Remember,” he yelled after me. “One for you. One for someone else.”

He then turned to the crowd of kids, reached into his pockets fat with Bottle Caps and said, “Who else will promise to share a pack for a pack of their own?”

I probably don’t have to tell you that every hand shot up. By the time we left, the man’s pockets were empty.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The very next day we heard music and jumped on our bikes. When we got to the truck, that old man was at the front of the line again stuffing his pockets with all of the Bottle Caps. He saw me and said, “Hello son. Tell me who did you give your other pack too?”

“My little brother,” I said. “He was really happy.”

“And how did that make you feel?” He asked.

“It was almost as fun as eating my own, Mr. Bottle Caps Man!” I replied, giving him a name that would stick.

He seemed amused by this new moniker and said, “That’s what I thought.” And then he looked around, “So, who can tell me about the person you gave your Bottle Caps to? If you tell me a story I will give you two more packs of this deelicious candy.” He said, his drawling reminding me just how like pop, which was just short of a forbidden substance in our house, they tasted. And again, the man went home without a single package of Bottle Caps for himself.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

Every morning that summer the same thing happened. When we heard the music in the distance we jumped on our bikes, and tore through the neighborhood to beat that Bottle Caps man to the ice cream truck. And every day the old man with the twinkling eyes would be standing at the front of the line stuffing his pockets with the truck’s entire stock of Bottle Caps. And each day, as we finished our melting popsicles, the Bottle Caps man would listen to our stories and place two packs of Bottle Caps in each of our hands to share with others. And most days the Bottle Caps man went home with empty pockets.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

Well, as all kids do, we grew up. And the Bottle Caps Man, he aged as well. He became a little slower. His shoulders stooped. He began to use a cane. But somehow he still beat the kids to the ice cream truck. One Saturday, though, after I was far too old for ice cream trucks, the kids arrived and the Bottle Caps Man wasn’t there. It was the ice cream truck driver who told the kids that the Bottle Caps Man had died. Needless to say, you’ve never seen quite so many young people at an octogenarian’s funeral.

At the funeral, much to our surprise, the ice cream truck driver stood up and gave the eulogy. That was how we discovered the secret to the Bottle Caps Man beating us to the ice cream truck all those years – the ice cream truck driver was the Bottle Caps Man’s son. The Bottle Caps Man had an inside line on the route!

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The son told us that in his early years, Bottle Caps sales kept his ice cream truck in business. When business picked up he told his dad that he didn’t need him to keep buying a case of Bottle Caps every day.  His father told him, “I don’t just do it for you. I do it for the kids.” The ice cream truck driver said, “My dad gave away a fortune in Bottle Caps, one pocket full at a time.” And as he said it, tears filled his eyes…and ours too.

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

The bottle Caps Man taught us that empty pockets can bring smiles. And he didn’t just teach the kids. Parents couldn’t help but smile too when they saw us sharing with each other…and, occasionally, with them.

And as I age, I wonder what kind of old man I will be. Will I be a man, like other old men, who sit in their house counting and recounting a carefully hoarded collection of my favorite “candy”…a collection that is neither useful for others nor joy producing for myself? Or will I live generously?

How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?

What we did not know was that the Bottle Caps man was teaching us about grace – that we drink from cisterns we did not dig (Deut 6:11), in a land given rather than toiled for (Joshua 24:13). We have been invited to drink from the spring of the water of life without cost (Rev. 21:6), receive an inheritance we did nothing to create (Heb 9:15), and enjoy a salvation purchased at another’s expense (1 Pet 3:18). We are, in every way possible, recipients of grace. Grace is an inexhaustible supply of the goodness of our God, a spigot that can only be turned off by refusing to let it run out on others.  It is a sweet gift that makes us smile a smile that starts from deep inside our tummies. There is abundance in the hands of the great Bottle Caps Man of our souls. Will you share it?

And, since they really are connected, I must ask you, one final time, How empty are your pockets and how full is your heart?


11 thoughts on “The Bottle Caps Man

  1. Thanks so much, Matt. This post really is a parable–and not just “of sorts,” as you say.

    God extends grace to me each day. Reading this brought me up short . . . how much do I extend grace (and love!) to others? I am ashamed to say, less than I think, less than I believe. AND much less than God wants me to.

    What a way of knocking one out of the park. Thanks again. @chaplaineliza

  2. Wow…just…wow. I have spent much time this spring thinking about my legacy. I am acting to ramp up my businesses to the legacy level…so my son will be proud to work for me…to inherit the business. I am working hard to ramp up my teaching to the legacy level and publish my New Testament Timeline. I am praying to be the grandpa God wants me to be.

    But this just put the whole thing in perspective.


    • Thank you, Darrell. Legacy is a very good thing. It sounds as if you are setting up things well for the next generation. For me, the Bottle Caps Man reminds me that my family is larger than just blood. 🙂 …and it sure sounds as if you son and grandkids have a lot to be proud of in you.

  3. There was a man, who used to attend our church…an old man who came every Sunday with his pockets fills of mints to give to the kids. He would sit there in the back and grin from ear to ear while he made them say “please” and “thankyou” and try to engage them in conversation.

    One day, “somebody” complained about the sugar and he was asked to stop.

    How very sad for him, and for the kids, that “somebody” was more worried about the sugar than the lesson…

    • That makes me deeply sad. Someone is actually helping kids engage in multi-generational friendships in the church and we set it aside over the sugar content of a single mint. It’s sad and a bit bizarre.

  4. Great post Matt. I regret that many times my pockets have been full. I can see how selfish I have been even after coming back to faith. Living a life “collected hoarded and packed away” is a fear response for me. Its an uphill battle but I am learning how to give.

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