Example: [Collected via e-mail, 1998]
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!"
- 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).
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:
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."
The same message is also imparted in a slightly different form of the story:
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
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).