The campfire smoke wafted lazily between tall pines while my sons--Roger, Rodney and Randy--and I stretched our tired legs toward the glowing logs. We'd had many heart-to-heart talks in this setting, but this night I decided to tell them a story they'd never heard.

About 1865, a husky young man working in a stone quarry was wrestling an enormous boulder when it suddenly skidded toward him and pinned his foot. "God, help me," he gasped, as he fought to set himself free. Finally, with a desperate heave, he escaped.

He took a step--but his foot exploded with pain from its crushed bones. He barely managed to muffle the cry threatening to burst from his lips, because then he might be sent home. Ragged poor, he had children in diapers and another one on the way. He had to work. There was no other choice.

A few days later, on payday, he limped to the general store for some groceries, then hobbled home carrying what he had purchased. He collapsed on his bed, his swollen foot throbbing, and counted his change. There was too much. Oh no, he thought. Not today of all days. What should I do? The clerk might be fired if the day ends with money missing from the cash box.

Despite the searing pain he would experience with each step, the man limped back to the store.

I searched my sons' faces in the flickering firelight. "What do you think, guys? Did he do the right thing? Was that trip necessary?"

The boys replied. "Why not phone the store? Or drop off the change the next day? How about mailing it?"

"But back then," I reminded them, "there weren't any phones, radios, autos, trucks, buses...and for this man, not even a horse."

After a few moments, Roger, our oldest, said, "He did the right thing, Dad. With all that pain, I'm proud of him."

Next thing I knew, the boys were arguing about who was going to sleep where, as I stared into the campfire thinking about how important honesty was for them--and for me.

I'd launched into medicine with the ideals of Mother Teresa. But then came the realities of practice: insurance companies and government hacking at my fees while overhead and everything else spiraled upward. Sometimes it was tempting to charge the faceless insurance giants stiff fees I would never personally hand to a patient, with the rationalization that, after all, I did a lot of free work for the poor.

I knew patients worried as much about the cost of becoming ill as the illness itself. I'd hear them talking about it when I went to the barbershop. But was I concerned enough with their financial fears? I could afford a cabin at the lake, but was that because my fees were so high that some people who needed my services couldn't afford them?

My boys were still as absorbed in their dispute as I was in my thoughts. Honesty with money seems easy compared to other matters of integrity. Am I careful with money but careless about robbing colleagues of something more valuable--their reputation? Have I subtly suggested they are less competent than I know them to be so my own patient base might grow?

Do I talk to patients with God-like authority while I'm filled with questions and doubts? Am I absolutely candid with them when my mistakes or oversights have led to an extra test or procedure....or worse?

In dictating physical exams, do I always actually examine everything, such as neurological reflexes, or do I tend to follow my routine boilerplate physical?

Have I been spreading doom and gloom about medicine "not being fun anymore" although I still enjoy the thrill of seeing a patient restored to health?

Most of all, how can I communicate my values to these boys sitting here in front of me?

"Hey guys," I asked. "Can you imagine what our world would be like if everyone was totally honest like that quarry worker we were talking about?" He never had much, but he lived a long, happy and honorable life. And before he died, he passed on his commitment to his children and grandchildren. Even his great grandchildren have heard about his integrity.

Roger asked, "Where did you hear about that stone man anyway, Dad?"

"When I was about your age I heard that story from a kind old man in a rocking chair, holding a cane between his knees. He sat there slowly spinning that cane as he told me--about himself, my grandfather, your great grandfather! And you're absolutely right, Roger. You can be very proud of him."

When Rog, Rod and Randy were tucked in for the night, I lay awake wondering how well I had communicated to them the importance of honesty. Had I said it clearly enough? Did I use words they understood?

I looked at them, curled up in their well-worn sleeping blankets, and thanked God that my grandfather had been such a fine example for his own son, my father, who had passed the same thing along to me.

Then it hit me. My words might never teach my sons to be honest. Only my life could do that.