When I was about 9 or 10 years old, my family joined together with a few of my parents’ siblings and their families, and with cars full of cousins, aunts and uncles drove off for a family fishing and camping vacation. As we crossed from Utah into Wyoming, the caravan stopped at a sporting goods store that sold fishing equipment, bait, and all the things needed for a fun time in the great outdoors.
The store also sported a slot machine, such gambling being allowed there at the time. My first slot machine and I figured it out immediately.
“Dad, dad, look, look,” as I pointed to all the nickels that the machine displayed behind the glass front. “All we have to do is put in a nickel and we’ll make lots of money.”
“Yeah, right,” my dad said and went back to looking at fishing flies through the glass counter top and discussing the best ones with the proprietor.
Undeterred, I continued, “Dad, just give me a nickel. One little nickel. Please, please.”
“No son, those machines just take your money. You can’t win.” And went back to discussing the finer nuances of fishing and where the best fishing holes would be when we arrived at our campsite.
“Dad, dad, let me have one nickel.” And on and on and on.
Finally, out of exasperation, Dad called for everyone’s attention. He slowly pulled a nickel out of his pocket and pointed to a rack of candy bars, each of which at the time sold for only five cents – Baby Ruth, Big Hunk, Butterfinger and many others youngsters craved. “Gary, here is a nickel. You can buy a candy bar for your very own and you do not have to share it with your sisters, or … you can put it into that stupid contraption and see how fast it will be gone.” With that he very dramatically turned the nickel over to me. (I think you know where this is going.)
Quick as a flash, I put the coin into that one-armed bandit (which was probably illegal in itself) and … triumphantly … pulled … the handle.
Later that day, aunts, uncles, cousins and especially my sisters were still describing how nickels cascaded out, filled the receptacle cup and began rolling all over the wooden floor. I remember running around filling my pockets with so many nickels I thought my pants would fall down and looking up to see my Dad with a crooked Charlie-Brown smile on his face trying to make the best of a lousy turnabout of probabilities. I also remember my uncles leaning on the fishing-tackle counter laughing so hard they were wheezing in silence, and barely able to stand.
And I bought more candy bars than I had ever had in my whole life.
For years my uncles could hardly wait for the next family reunion when they could ask my Dad, “Hey, Jimmy, taught any successful object lessons lately?”
But did he fail?
As I grew into my teen years, I knew my Dad loved me and I began to realize what he had tried to teach me. And his hope that I would not fall for the enticements of designing men began to take hold.
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Gary Lawrence is a public opinion pollster and author in Orange County, California. His newest book “The Magnificent Gift of Agency; To Act and Not Be Acted Upon” will be published in April.