Once upon a time, I was a teenager in high school. Among other things I did, and it's funny to think how many there were and how we jammed so much into our lives, I liked to play the card game called bridge.
I was able to find a half-dozen or so other kids in school who played, and every once in a while we could get exactly four to sit down long enough to play the game for real. As I think of it, that was not particularly often, given that getting four teenagers to commit to be at one place at one time for any period of time is pretty much like putting toothpaste back in a tube. Or herding cats.
Anyway, I didn't actually play the game very often, but I did read the bridge column in the daily paper religiously. I would cover the defensive hands with two fingers and try to figure out how to play that particular hand, then read the column to see how the expert had done it, or how the columnist criticized the expert for doing it poorly.
If you don't actually play the game and read bridge columns, it doesn't matter; this is really not about bridge; just know that it is a card game, that what passes for newspapers now (and certainly back then) when there were papers, well, they all ran a column helping you learn how to play.
So this one day, some time in the mid or late 1960s, there was a column titled "A Great Big Book About the Game" in the day's paper, by the British-born Freddie Sheinwold, a famous player and syndicated bridge writer. It's 50 years and I still remember the column's title. There was a hand to play, but for the most part it was praising a new book called the "Encyclopedia of Bridge", something like that, which had been recently published.
I was enraptured. I had to have the book. I figured it was the real "how-to" book I needed to make my game a lot better, and asked my folks for it. Now, Dad and Mom were both employed, but we didn't have loose money around, and the book cost $10.00. Back in the 1960s, that was a lot of money for a non-essential, at least in our home.
I did, however, have a birthday or Christmas or something -- it's been a long time but I think there was an occasion involved -- and Mom did order the book for me. I was really grateful, and was looking forward to reading it inside and out, and learning a lot more about getting better, given the scant opportunities actually to play the game.
Of course, when the book arrived, it was everything that Sheinwold said it was. The problem was that I hadn't really read the column itself well, otherwise I would have realized that the book actually was an encyclopedia and not a textbook. It was a huge book, but it was an alphabetically-listed encyclopedia (I tried for a synonym, but that's really the best word) of everything to do with the game of bridge, its history, its stars over the years, all that.
For that, it was great. For me, not so much. It was not what I expected, and my immediate reaction was panic, in that my parents had spent $10.00 (this was around 1967, remember) for something that was not what I wanted. I begged my mother to try to return it and get a refund, and was fortunately able to explain (I think) why it was not what I thought it was.
She was indeed able to return the book fairly easily and got a refund, and all was well. And although she lived another 40 years, I have a feeling that for the last 39-and-a-half years of her life, she completely forgot that the return had ever happened, and the incident ultimately was trivial to her.
But it was so not trivial to me, in that over 50 years since, I'm writing this. Why? Because it is, above almost everything else in my life relating to finances and thrift, the one incident I think of the most. Even now, when I hear "ten dollars", it often strikes a bell with me and I consider what I'm buying. Of course, I go ahead and buy it anyway, given what ten dollars gets you any more, but I think of it. I remember the panic.
Most importantly, I think, that lesson stays with me because it wasn't my ten dollars. Someone else, for whom ten dollars was a lot of money, was willing to spend it for me, and I was, by God, going to make sure that it was for something I valued. I was not going to keep it, if it was not valued, and if I could possibly make sure it could be returned.
If you are reading this far, I hope you realize that this story is true, but it is a moral-carrying tale as well. I would like to imbue every single congressman, every senator and every state and local legislator with the notion that spending other people's money, money that they have had to work for, is the ultimate in stewardship. Every single penny of that money needs to be spent wisely, and solely for the purpose for which the governing Constitution allows. Otherwise, they should panic.
I have played three hands of bridge, maybe, in forty years. In my life, I'm sure I have read ten bridge columns in the paper for every hand I actually played.
But one of my great life lessons came from one of those columns.
Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
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