“When building a house of cards it is important not to let your own fart-storm topple it.”
Livingston Ashcroft “Flip” Bellingus (1893 – )
When I was a boy of about 10 I did something that was not very cool. I did it with malice of forethought and with the intention to deceive, although I believed that a legal technicality would protect me from any consequences.
I’ve always been of the entrepreneurial spirit. And as a lad I was a reader. I liked mystery books and DC comics. Superman was my favorite. One day I noticed an ad in the back of a comic book offering any enterprising individual the opportunity to earn money selling greeting cards. The deal was simple. Send them $2 and they’d send you two boxes of all-occasion greeting cards retailing for $2 a box – a nice little 100% profit for the retail seller. I asked my dad if I could do it and he said no. I don’t remember the reason now but I’m sure it had something to do with a previous display of a “lack of personal responsibility” on my part.
Not easily discouraged, I visited my grandpa and pitched him on the idea telling him that my father, his son, wouldn’t allow it. He reluctantly agreed to let me have the cards mailed to his address, only a couple of blocks from my own. The cards came in a few weeks and I sold them pretty easily. With the cards came an offer that was too good to pass up. Because I was now an established customer they were willing to send me a case of 48 boxes of cards – on credit. I would gross $96 dollars and send them $48. Such a deal.
Greeting Card Entrepreneur
This time I didn’t ask for permission, I simply filled out the handy dandy form and sent it along. And a few weeks later the cards arrived. Flip, my grandpa was curious. I told him what I was doing and he offered some cautious encouragement with words about responsibility and not giving my father any reason to get upset. My original intention was to sell the cards and send a money order to the company for their share. But I’d recently learned a little something that helped to change my mind about that.
Six months prior to the greeting card deal I’d sent away for a stamp collector’s offer from a match book cover. It offered a wide selection of international stamps for free with only a small fee for postage. The only hitch was that the buyer had to purchase some stamps from the company every month for a year. I didn’t quite understand that part but I sent in the offer anyway and got some colorful stamps from Italy, Brazil, Turkey, Hungary and other far away places.
Everything was cool until the following month when I got the stamps that I was supposed to pay for. I tucked them away thinking they’d stop coming. Well, they didn’t. After two or three months I went to Flip and explained the situation, knowing my dad would not be nearly as understanding.
Flip and I had the obligatory discussion about responsibility and one on “fine print” as well. He then penned a letter to the company stating that I was a minor and not responsible for my actions and he’d appreciate it if they would let me out of the deal. We gathered all the stamps together, including the “free” ones and sent them back to the company. Flip saw the relief in me and asked if I’d learned anything. I said that I had. And that was the end of that.
Six months later I’m in the greeting card business with 48 boxes of cards in Flip’s garage, humming right along making sales to the parents of friends, going door to door, kicking butt, raking in the bucks. The cards were actually pretty nice so it wasn’t hard moving them. I don’t remember when it occurred to me that I wasn’t going to send the company their money, but it did at some point. It wasn’t long after getting them before I’d sold almost all of the greeting cards without my parents even knowing.
10-Year Old Hotshot
This was all happening in the middle of the summer while the recreation department of the city was sponsoring the annual fun-filled day trip to Canobie Lake Amusement Park in Salem, New Hampshire. Kids, with or without their parents, could take the trip starting in the early morning and be home at around 6 in the evening. The outing included a bus ride and a day filled with amusements, a roller coaster, swimming, hot dogs, candy, soft drinks – the works. I even got to see my first rock band play live, The Beau Brummels. Me, my mom and sisters were signed up to go. And what a time it was – especially for a 10 year old kid in 1965 with $85 in his pocket.
I treated my family and friends to just about everything the park had to offer. We rode all the rides a dozen times and ate enough junk food to puke – in fact, my youngest sister did puke, twice! My mother was a little suspicious asking a couple of times where the money came from but I told her I’d been saving it for months. She never actually saw me with more than a few bucks at one time so I guess she just decided to go with the flow. She was pretty good at that. After the outing I enjoyed hero status in the Bellingus family for several weeks.
By September I’d received my first letter from the card company asking for their money. And I distinctly remember not being afraid in the least. I waited until they sent a second, more aggressive letter mentioning possible legal action before responding. I don’t recall the exact wording but my response was designed to be a “pity-us” letter along with the mention of the “dealing with a minor” technicality I’d been depending on.
Lies, Loopholes & Forgery
I’d pretty much mastered my mother’s handwriting by this time and wrote it from her perspective telling the company stuff about scolding her son for ordering the cards without permission and how the cards got damaged by rain because I’d left them in the garage and it had a leaky roof.
I closed by saying we didn’t have the money to pay for them because she was a single mom trying to raise five kids (not true) and that there should be something in the order form for a parent’s approval and that they perhaps shouldn’t send orders to ten year-old kids. (I actually feel a twinge of shame as I write this even today) I never heard from them again. The perfect crime.
After I was certain there were to be no bad consequences I showed Flip a carbon copy of my letter to the company thinking he’d be proud that I’d managed to exploit a technicality in ripping off the card company. He appeared to already know what I’d done. He seemed disappointed but not angry. He did tell me that I’d stolen the money. I argued that the company should be more careful dealing with kids. We debated the technicalities of the situation and I stood firm that what I’d done was okay – especially since I’d gotten away with it. I remember him laughing at that and saying, “We’ll see.”
What Goes Around…
A while later I had occasion to visit with Flip for a few hours. He asked me how things had been. I told him things were awful and explained that my rat fink uncle, Alabaster Bellingus, his other son, had promised to enroll me in a karate class and after saving up and spending my own money on the white uniform that was required for the class, was informed by dirty, rotten uncle Al that he couldn’t afford the class and he’d send me maybe the following year.
Then, after years of bugging my own dad for a dog, he finally relented but changed his mind at the last minute. This was a problem because I actually had taken a beautiful black Lab puppy home only to be told by my father that I’d have to find another family to take him. If that wasn’t enough, I explained to my grandfather, I also had failed math a couple of times coming into the spring quarter after the teacher told me I’d be okay for the year – when I actually wasn’t okay. This resulted in my having to make up most of the year’s lessons in summer school. I told Flip that lately things had sucked.
Of course, he gently used my problems for the obvious teaching opportunity. He pointed out that each of my “problems” revolved around people not keeping their word. I emphatically agreed saying something like, “yeah, what’s wrong with some people?” He asked if I had any of the greeting card money left. I rolled my eyes not wanting to go there and I said I didn’t.
Then he started to explain cause and effect relationships in the physical and non-physical world, a bit about the workings of Karma, though he never used the word. He reminded me how puffed up I’d acted thinking I’d gotten away with something when I failed to send the card company their dough. He also said that I may have technically been okay in keeping the money, but that some things are wrong and are always wrong, even if sanctioned by the law.
What’s That Funny Odor?
He again pointed out that each of my problems related to people not keeping promises – the same kind of thing I’d done with the greeting card company. I tried to again justify my actions by saying I’d spent most of the money treating my mom and sisters to a good time with it. Then he said it, “When building a house of cards it is important not to let your own fart-storm topple it.”
I laughed a weak laugh. He asked if I knew what the quote meant. I said I wasn’t sure. Then he asked if I would have been so generous had I actually sent the company their money and was using my own earnings for the outing. I though about it and admitted that I probably wouldn’t have. He said it was often easy to be a big shot with stolen money.
He reminded me of how cocky I’d been at the time and that trying to explain certain things to me then would have been futile. He told me that I’d been full of myself and gloating about it and that was the fart-storm – acting like a big shot full of phony pride and vanity. The house of cards was thinking that I was actually entitled to keep money that wasn’t mine. He also said that no one ever gets away with anything, ever. There are always consequences – good consequences for good deeds and not so good consequences for not so good deeds. He asked if I understood. By now I was crying but I nodded that I did. I sure do love the man.
Truly A Wise Man
Throughout much of his life Flip was known as an ungrounded airhead but I disagree. Look at how he treated this situation. Rather than deliver an authoritative, finger-pointing lecture at the scene of the crime he let the natural laws of cause and effect take over, knowing that what goes around comes back full circle.
Only then, with the sting of the apparent consequences of my actions fresh in my memory did he address the issue with me, explaining how things work. And it made a much greater impression than a chewing out ever could have. To this day when I’m tempted to take a “gray-area” shortcut I sometimes think of the greeting card caper along with Flip’s wisdom and back away – that sure is a lesson that has stood the test of time.
Flip is one of the wisest men living in this world and I’m glad he’s had an influence in my life. I sure wish everyone could spend some time with him.