Friday, October 10, 2008

The All-American Audacity of Hope Bailout

The All-American Audacity of Hope Bailout

Facing West

For those of you that know me, this will be a shock! I was speechless for about 3 full minutes. I think I might’ve drooled. I had been sitting in my parents’ living room on Sunday after church. I try not to talk about politics when my mother is in the room. Her favorite pastime used to be arguing politics with my grandfather. Since his death, I usually took his place in those debates. I just didn’t feel like pulling punches today so I had decided not to bring up anything that might be considered political. My Dad didn’t play along.
“Looks like we’re heading into a depression.” That’s when I lost my voice. Daddy never used the word “depression”. He didn’t believe in using words for dramatic effect (that was Mother’s way of communicating) and he taught us to be succinct. I expected him to use words like “recession” or “downturn”, not the Big D. Now, my mouth was open wide enough to catch flies. My mother finally noticed.
“Yes.” She said. Nothing more; no sarcasm, no contradiction, just “yes”. She finally changed the subject. “You’re never going to believe who I saw at the Beauty Shop on Thursday!” Just that quickly, we changed the subject.
An hour later, as I was heading out of town, I stopped on Main Street and got out for a short walk. It seemed that every news story I watch these days talks about the effect of this economy on Main Street. So, here I was.

I had known for months that this was coming. I wasn’t sure how it would shake out but I knew. Employer lay-offs and Plant closures had dramatically increased the number of individual lay-offs in our county. We have long lines at places like the Food Pantry and the state’s welfare offices. I remembered the mess in 1976 and again in the mid-1980’s so it didn’t take rocket science for those of us in the business to know bad things were coming. I shouldn’t have been this rattled.
I stopped short when I looked in the window of the old building in front of me. Main Street was a historical landmark; many of the stores were the original buildings that had lined Main Street for decades. This building had held my paternal grandfather’s general store during the early years of the depression. It housed a thrift store now.
If I squinted my eyes real tight, I could imagine Pa at the back of the store. He would be doing his books at the desk back there, working after church. My Dad told me stories about how his family handled those scary times. Pa was also the principal of the high school and he had earnings from a farm west of town. He had the money so he carried a good numbers of his customers on credit. Credit. He died with all that credit still on the books.

No bail out was necessary.

The All American Audacity of Hope Bailout

Looking East

I sat on our living room floor with 15 of my “closest” friends, surrounded by banner paper, poster boards, and colored markers. Looking around at the mess, I wondered for the umpteenth time how I’d been talked into running for Treasurer of the Student Body.

Of course, in my heart I knew why. It hadn’t been about service (I wish I had been that humble), it had started the day my mother chocked on her iced tea. We were sitting down to dinner during the spring of my junior year in high school.

“Some of the guys in school are saying I should run for Treasurer of the student body, you know, like Student Council.”

My dad stumbled on the way to the table and my mother choked on her iced tea.

“We don’t have that kind of money!” That came from Daddy. He sure could hold a grudge. I had been elected the treasurer of our local chapter of Junior Achievement earlier that fall. We made these funky roadside 1st aid kits with the goal of making a big profit. That was the season I learned what embezzlement meant.

Each team turned their sales money into me weekly and I was supposed to deposit it in the bank. The first month went well. Mother helped me count the money, tallying the numbers in the books our advisors had developed. I added the sales totals, subtracted our expenses and, at the end, filled out the deposit slip. On the last day of the month, I drove to the bank and went up to the commercial window and made the full deposit. Complete success!

The second month was a little more difficult. I kept the money in the trunk of my 1953 Chevy. It might as well have been in the vault of the bank. Unfortunately, I had the key. I forgot my lunch money a couple of times and rather than go home and retrieve it, I borrowed money from the bank in my trunk. I always put the money back by the end of the day. At the end of the month, I went through the same process and balanced the books for the second time.

My downfall was Santa Claus. Every year Santa Claus gave me a good deal of cash. It came in handy for the after Christmas sales at J. C. Pennies. This year, though, I was feeling very grown up and decided I would actually buy some Christmas gifts for other people. More specifically, the four guys I was dating at the time. I tried saving but wasn’t very skilled in that activity. Work sounded even more unattractive. Thoughts of Santa Claus and his cash gift kept popping into my mind. I bet you know what happened next.

I knew banks gave loans. My bank was in the trunk of my car and I had the key, kind of like the teller at the commercial window. I quickly decided on a loan repayment plan that would be paid off by 12-31. This would provide nice gifts for four very handsome boys and provide me with a no interest loan.

The best laid plans. I forgot about Christmas break. The gifts were wrapped and under the Christmas tree and I was feeling pretty darn smug. I usually got about $100 and I had only spent $75. I’d still have a little money left over for myself. I can still remember exactly what happened next. It was the Monday before the break and Civics class had just ended. Our Civics teacher was our Junior Achievement sponsor.

“Miss Walker, I need you to make your deposit by the end of the week and post our end of the year profits.”

Fortunately, I was a pretty good actress and managed to stop the waterworks until I got to my car. Over the next couple of days I counted and recounted that money. At night I got down on my knees to pray and cried myself to sleep. But each morning, I was still $75 short. Thursday rolled around and I was without a miracle. After school I decided to visit Santa’s workshop – Daddy’s office downtown.

I sat in the chair under our family portrait, hoping it would remind him of better times. It didn’t work.

“You stole $75?”

“I borrowed it, it was a loan!”

“Who was your loan officer, who approved this shady deal?”

I had no quick answer to that question. He didn’t let me off the hook. We just sat there looking at each other. This was one reason he was the boss. He could hold a stare and out wait my mother’s silent treatments. “If I could get my Santa Claus money early…”

“I’m not Santa Claus.” He didn’t even smile when he said it. “Your grandmother is Santa.”

I felt a wave of nausea swim over me. “Please don’t make me tell, Grandmother.” My lips were trembling and tears burned my eyes. I didn’t want Grandmother to know what I had done.

“Santa isn’t giving you money this Christmas. Santa is giving you a new TV for your room.”

“A TV?” For just a minute I forgot my crime. “Can she take it back?”

Daddy got up and walked over to the door. He looked down at me with a certain sadness in his eyes. I never knew my heart could hurt so much. “You’ll have your money by Friday and no, we’re not telling your Grandmother. I won’t ruin her Christmas.”

For the next three months, I balanced that account to the penny. I was terrible at math so it took me hours to do every month. You would have thought I’d learned my lesson. But that night at the dinner table, I realized I wanted to run for office. I couldn’t exactly explain why.

My parents’ reaction to my announcement about running was an even bigger surprise. Daddy caught his balance and Mother cleared her throat. “What do you really think?” she asked him.

“I think it’s a damn good idea.” He smiled down at me. “It’s like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. You usually only make that mistake once.”

It was, indeed, an All-American Audacity of Hope Bailout.

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