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THE UNSPENT DOLLAR

Another dusted off essay that relates to the notion that money does a person no good unless you spend it.  I note for the benefit of those who would politicize my effort, that my reference is to a person and money he (0r she) has in hand, not to governments and borrowed money.

It was the summer of 1956 when he first acquired me. A dollar was a lot of money in those days, especially for a twelve year old boy — but he had worked very hard, in the heat and humidity, cleaning out old Mrs. Grayson’s garage, and she paid me to him with a sense of gratitude, because the work he did to earn me was worth many times what she paid him to do it. But he was pleased as punch to have me, and he came real close to spending me the same day, on a well deserved binge of malteds and fancy candy, at Hinsch’s Ice Cream Parlour — only, as he eyed the goodies awaiting him through the front window of the fountain, his hand tightened around me, and he decided to save me for something better that might come along.

That was forty years ago, and I was still waiting for him to find something worth spending me on.

I could have caused that malted to slake that young man’s thirst that summer’s afternoon so long ago, and maybe he’d have forgotten how good it had tasted by now, but at least he’d have had that moment’s enjoyment that comes from spending a buck on something a little out of the ordinary, because the toil that it took to earn the buck likewise earned the bearer the right to spend it. But that’s not how it went.

Thrift was a notion that didn’t have to be taught to him — it sort of occurred naturally to him, the way that eating or drinking or hitting a baseball occurred naturally to others. Consequently, I was deposited into his piggy bank, and resided there the rest of the summer, mixed in with the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that slowly grew each week. In the fall, when school started, I, along with four dollars and sixty-four cents in coin, was dispatched to his student savings account, to join twenty two other hard earned dollars saved from his paper route and weekend labors in the garages and basements of the neighborhood.

The oldest resident in that account was a dime that got deposited to open it, six years prior. Never once was so much as a cent withdrawn. There would be periodic additions for interest and further savings, and we all got along pretty well, though we’d as soon have enjoyed being withdrawn and spent on something that would spice up his life for a while — but that never happened.
At the end of his eighth year in grammar school, we, now having grown to one hundred two dollars and thirty-six cents, were transferred to the neighborhood bank, as the initial deposit in a regular savings account.

Twice, during his four year hitch in high school, some of us came close to being spent. In his sophomore year, two of his friends got new bikes for their birthdays, and he was dropping hints to anyone at home who would listen, that he’d mightily enjoy joining the new bike club. But the apple falls not far from the tree — and his old man was not about to be parted from thirty of his hard earned dollars for such an extravagance, even though it was fairly acknowledged by all that if ever there was a kid that had earned an extravagance of the sort, this was the kid.

When his birthday passed without a new bike appearing in the hall, he was sorely tempted to invade his savings account and indulge himself with a new bike as his birthday present to himself, but then he thought a little more and decided that maybe he’d better hold on to us a little longer, because something better to spend us on might come along. But nothing did — until his senior year, when it was time for the prom. His hard work and regular deposits of the fruits of his labor had multiplied us to where we now amounted to five hundred sixty-three dollars and ninety-one cents! A handsome sum for a seventeen year old to be possessed of in 1961. It could buy a lot of things, including the used car that he desperately wanted to own, to take his sweetheart, Mary Alice Williams, to the prom with. Of course he’d tried to get the old man to indulge his fantasy — with the same degree of success he had two years earlier when he was only bargaining for a bike, which is to say, “None!” He had even made up his mind to do it, withdraw the three hundred fifty dollars he needed to drive home that ‘48 Chevy with the wide whitewalls and hood ornament — but when he got to the block where the bank was, that little voice in his head started whispering that maybe he should wait, because something better to spend his hard earned money on would come along, and he wouldn’t be able to afford it.

So, he didn’t buy the car, and he doubled up with his best friend, Luke Jennings, who just bought himself a used Studebaker — and who also caught Mary Alice’s attention during the prom. They were wed the following year while he was laboring in the State University to understand the intricacies of calculus and physics.

The college years were hard, he not being a natural intellect, nor from a family that could afford to send him to college and pay his room and board, so he worked two jobs on campus, to earn his keep, as well as exercised his gray matter for all it was worth, to learn to be an engineer. The deposits to the savings account were mostly interest additions in those years, as there was scarcely any money left over from his labors that didn’t get used up paying room, board, tuition, books or some other necessary expense. Once, in his junior year, he came close to making a withdrawal, so that he could join his fraternity brothers on a ski trip to Vermont — but as the day to make the payment came, he just couldn’t bring himself to squander a hundred dollars on an endeavor that would be over in three days, so he stayed behind and started reading the engineering texts that he’d have to master in the spring semester, to give himself a bit of breathing room. As luck would have it, Professor O’Lansky jumped ship to take an opening at Princeton that year, and his replacement, Professor McMurty decided he didn’t like the standard text that had been used in the course for the last ten years, and switched to a newer one — thereby rendering all of the winter break reading a mere rhetorical exercise.

When he graduated in 1965, we had grown to the tidy sum of seven hundred eighty-eight dollars and forty-four cents. Several of his college buddies were going to take a trip to Florida to celebrate, before starting their new jobs — but not him, because he would have to invade his savings account to do so, and he kept thinking some better opportunity to spend his money would come along, and it did, in the person of Lana Lancaster, a simmering blond bombshell, four years older, and a lifetime wiser than he, who liked good times, fast cars and expensive tokens of a gentleman’s esteem, in exchange for her extraordinary favors. She was the precise anti-matter to the likes of him — their pairing being the kind of collision of sub-atomic particles that yields a burst of energy, and leaves no matter in its wake.

They met at a frat party, she the date of the chapter’s president, Larry Wilcox, who drove a red ‘64 ‘Vette, and had the good fortune to be the only son of a well to do doctor, though apparently unendowed with his father’s intellect. Larry was showing off his leggy play-mate to his fraternity brothers, at their last beer bash, when fate put her on the couch next to our frugal friend. His pulse quickened and his body temperature rose as he noticed himself inhaling her and becoming intoxicated with the deliciousness that was her aroma. She was chatting idly with several of the frat house regulars, and laughing in naughty sounding spurts at their desperate overtures for her attention. Since his was the only attention she did not overtly have, she gave him hers. “And what do you want to be when you grow up?”, she inquired of him, with an impish wink. “Exceedingly wealthy,” was his instantaneous and highly effective reply — as he now had Lana’s undivided attention. Something in his manner and tone suggested that this was not a mere assertion of hope by a college “boy”; but, rather, a fact waiting to happen. “And how will you become so?”, she asked. “By building a better mousetrap,” came his retort. “You know, I bet you will,” she replied, before turning her attention back to her date, who was beginning to look like he wanted to be somewhere else with her.

Two weeks later, fate intervened again. He had been out shopping for suits to wear to his new job as an electrical engineer with a large defense contractor, and had three new ones slung over his shoulder, as he rounded the corner, and spotted her, looking somewhat frantic, seated in the driver’s seat of a small, sporty convertible, while steam billowed and hissed from under the hood. “Don’t worry Lana, you probably just overheated,” he said as he walked up to her and placed his suits in the rumble seat. Then he reached in alongside her left thigh, and unhitched the hood. When the smoke cleared after raising the hood, he peered in and confirmed his original diagnosis, adding that the cause was a ruptured heater hose, which could be replaced with a minimum of effort. Within an hour they were tooling along the parkway, headed for a beach-side café and a round of strawberry daiquiris, that grew to several rounds and ended in a somewhat wobbly ride to her apartment, where she endowed him with the best “thank you” he’d ever gotten in his life.

He was smitten. Over the next several weeks, he spent countless hours talking to Lana — in person, on the phone, in letters — telling her all about how he had grown up, and where he was headed. So frank and forthright was his dialogue, that for the first time in a long time, Lana was more interested in the person, than the setting, foregoing, for the moment, the ritual of expensive dinners and late night visits to the clubs and after hours places that were de rigueur on all her other dates. More than a few times, she actually cooked dinner for them. And then it happened.

His employer required all entry level engineers to spend four weeks at the corporate headquarters in New York, for indoctrination and evaluation for ultimate placement in one of the multitudinous projects that were part of the engineering division. When he told Lana of this, she glowed with excitement at the prospect of going to the liveliest city on the face of the earth. He looked puzzled, and expressed confusion as to how it could be afforded, to take her with him on his $200.00 a week salary. But Lana had naturally assumed that an opportunity such as this, was the occasion he had waited all his laborious life for, as the perfect opportunity to invade the now, eight hundred dollar plus bank account — a perfectly natural yet totally erroneous assumption. He would not think of it — nor would Lana think of him, after she sent him on his way.
To be an engineer in the defense industry in the mid-sixties meant two things, a permanent draft deferment; and, upward earnings mobility. Our boy was no slacker. By the end of the decade, he was earning over $30,000.00 a year. The bank account was over $10,000.00, thanks to overtime, his never having taken a vacation, bought a new car or gone for more than dinner and a movie ticket on any date he managed for himself during those five years.

In 1971 he was made a project manager. In 1974 he became an assistant vice president and in 1978 a vice president, at an annual salary of $75,000.00. No need to splurge on a new car, the company provided him with a leased one — nothing spiffy, but it got the job done. The bank account was now secondary to the investment account, which held stocks, bonds and CD’s — and he had an accumulated net worth of just over $100,000.00. Fate reared its ugly head again in 1979.

Ron Erhardt and Mario Marsala had joined the company the same year he had, and their career paths not only intersected many times over those 14 years, but did so in a way they became both professional colleagues and friends. Ron was a marketing maven, Mario a nuts and bolts guy, who could build anything. It occurred to them several times over the past several years that their expertise, coupled with our boy’s design capabilities, had all the makings of a start-up company, of the silicon valley type. What had started as idle cocktail party chit-chat several years ago, had blossomed into a well written and documented proposal to start up a venture in the summer of 1979. All that was needed to put the three into business was a combined investment of $300,000.00 and their credit worthiness for an additional $700,000.00 that would be advanced by a bank Ron had pitched in California. They would be entrepreneurs, and have a shot at becoming seriously wealthy, if their company took off. Ron and Mario were gung-ho on the idea — but our boy was having his doubts. The defense industry was headed for leaner times, and the computer revolution that Ron and Mario were banking on happening, was a dream, not a reality, like the cash and securities that made up his investment portfolio. In the end, he passed, being replaced by Ted Prendergast. In 1988, the three venturers sold out to a cash rich software manufacturer for $120 million; whereas our boy’s portfolio was now worth a whopping $626,538.32, exclusive of his vested pension and employer provided life insurance.

He made senior vice president in 1990, at the age of 46. He was worth slightly in excess of $750,000.00, dead, but had no one to leave it to — except his sister, who was married to a drunken construction worker, and her two kids, who managed a thirty second “hello uncle” phone call, one week to the day before Christmas, each year, just in time to allow a promptly dispatched check to arrive by Christmas day. His responsibilities took him to New York City four or five times a year, and he never made a trip without thinking of Lana.
In 1992, he attended a convention in Seattle, and met Martha Winslow, a thirty-eight year old widow, who had a four year old daughter, Amanda. Martha was a talented design engineer, based in Chicago. In a moment of exuberance over having met someone who understood the industry, and shared his perspective of its problems and future prospects, he actually made plans to visit with Martha on his vacation.

There was nothing to not like about either Martha or Amanda. Both were charming, in their own way, the older being literate, articulate and a good cook, the younger being possessed of a winning smile, a warm heart and an enthusiastic disposition. The week went so well, he broke with tradition, and phoned in his decision to actually take two weeks off back-to-back, something he’d never done in his twenty-seven years with the company. Week two passed as pleasantly and as quickly as did week one — and he found himself back in his office, reliving many of the moments of his visit, before he was finished wanting to create even more of those moments.

Over the next six months, he pursued Amanda and Martha with phone calls, letters and surprise visits to Chicago. He felt as welcomed there as he had ever been anywhere, and truly began to love them, as they did him. It became clear to him that the next step was marriage. When he proposed it, it was immediately accepted — the practicalities and logistics of it to be worked out on another day. When that day came, he was a millionaire in his own right, one dollar of that million being me, originally acquired in 1956, and as yet unspent.
He was only forty-eight, and could rightfully, if he so wished, work for another fourteen or seventeen years, yet he was wealthy enough from having saved all his life, that he needn’t work, if he chose to. Martha had no savings of consequence, they having been depleted in the medical bills that accompanied her late husband’s fatal illness, but she had a good job and excellent career potential, if she wished to remain in that mode. But Martha sensed the opportunity to break away from the corporate lifestyle and share a life with her husband-to-be in a manner that his accumulated wealth made possible — to acquire a homestead and a business they could both run, in a part of the country that would enable Amanda to grow up free of the dinge and violence that was endemic to big city life — and she told him of her dream. It was only a dream, a notion, a suggestion of what was possible, but in the mind of the listener, it took on an insidious, unnatural aspect; born out of the years of self deprivation, and grew into an ugly perception that she was making plans for his wealth, which was her true interest, not him. Nothing could have been further from the truth — but perception is the master over fact in all of us, he being no exception, and he became thus consumed with the fear and doubt that deprives those who have wealth from enjoying it. The romance was ended.

In 1994, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, he calculated his total wealth to be $1,492,885.97. Three weeks later he was dead. He never smoked, or drank other than on social occasions. His bachelor lifestyle, however, led him to many solitary dinners and lunches at restaurants, where the fare was high in fat, cholesterol and other stuff, which, over time, can block a lonely man’s arteries as well as those of a far happier person — and it caught him when he wasn’t expecting it to. He left no will, and was survived by his sister as his sole heir.
After the government got its due in estate taxes, and the lawyer and administrator took their fees, the million plus had been whittled down to $656,026.25, when it was paid over to sis.

Her drunkard husband lost no time in realizing that the first thing they needed to do was to take an extended vacation, in the islands, to become re-acquainted with each other, and learn to love each other again, now that they were rich. Sudden wealth doesn’t come close to purging a person of a lifetime of bad habits — it only enables that person to indulge their vices in a more expensive manner. In far less time than it took to accumulate it, without a single second spent on the notion of what it took to build it, or an ounce of appreciation for the hard work and deprivation that made it what it was, the money was squandered, on booze, on bets only the house could profit from, on fancy cars, over-priced clothes and jewelry, hookers and cocaine. And then it was gone. The only people who derived any pleasure from it, fleeting though it be, were the ones who spent it — not the one who made it. Curious, no?

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