My father was Chicago raised and my mother was the proverbial ‘Missouri mule.’ He was a WWII vet who was schooled through war and his employ at the CB&Q Railroad Yard. She received her education at nursing college, but could still harken back to the common sense wisdom her immigrant parents had instilled in her.
I remember when, as a small boy, I was taken by my parents to a public auction in southern Missouri. The gathering was like nothing I had ever seen before. The wooden platform was decked out like a mini-stage with an American flag draped on one side and the Confederate battle flag on the other. Behind a makeshift podium there were cardboard boxes stacked on tables made from planks and sawhorses and used furniture overflowed on to the grass.
When the auctioneer stepped up to the podium, he just stood there for a moment with a toothy smile upon his face … a smile that conveyed both good will and honesty. He welcomed the crowd, joked about how pretty the girls were, and kidded the men about how fortunate they were. Everyone had a good laugh.
He told his audience what was going to happen … how it would be up to them, the crowd, to assign the value of items through their bids. And once a price was determined by a final bid, anyone could purchase a similar item for that amount until they ran out. He said that he had a lot of good deals … and hinted that perhaps many were too good. A team of assistants stood ready to hand out the purchased merchandise and take in the money.
The auctioneer started slow and held up the first of many items. It was a fountain pen. He described it and yelled, “What do you want to pay?” Someone shouted out 25 cents … someone else 50 cents, and he shouted back, “Sold.” Ten more went at that price. He held up an electric toaster and it was bided to a dollar. Once he accepted a bid as final, he praised the purchaser and then quickly moved on … and on. And as the tempo accelerated, the crowd was swept up. The prices set seemed to be a fraction of what an item was worth. But what they failed to realize was, the prices were going up while the value of the items sold was going down.
He chided the men, “OK fellas, now don’t forget your little ladies.” He held up scarfs, jewelry, watches … In the end, people would bid on just about anything. My father was caught up and purchased a watch for my mother. When it was handed to her; she looked at it, smiled, and politely thanked him. But I think she knew that my father was taken in and paid too much.
Later that night, I told my mother how surprised I was by how excited everyone seemed to get. She explained to me that was exactly what the auctioneer intended. He wanted to stir up the crowd into a state of frenzy so that eventually anything showed to them would appear to be of value. In truth, the crowd had lost sight of the real value of things, and this lady from the “show me” state had it pegged just right.
A few weeks later, my mother’s watch stopped working, and the local jeweler told my father that it wasn’t worth repairing. I still remember the look on my father’s face … it was anger. But his anger was not directed at those who had tricked him. Instead, he chastised my mother for not being more careful with what she was given. And, as was a woman’s plight in the mid-1950s, my mother was submissive. Time passed, and all was forgotten. It was not, however, forgotten by me.
I learned two lessons. The first was to beware the con man, and the second was to beware the wrath of those who had been played. In the first instance, the smiling con man worked the crowd, took their cash, and was gone by morning. In the second, it would take time for people’s smiles to return and wounds to heal. My father’s pride would never allow him to admit what was right before his eyes; that he had been beaten by a huckster.
Many times we do not want to be confronted by the truth; especially not when we are made to appear foolish. We deceive ourselves, distort the facts, and look for scapegoats. In the end, we subordinate our values to our hubris. For it takes a rare person indeed to admit when they were misled … and even a rarer person to grow from the experience. I wish my father had been such a man.