At the Grave of the Old Bald Eagle
The family gathered around Grandpa’s grave, a vast multitude. A few faces were sorry, many were bitter, and a few, the wisest ones, laughed and joked and went away rejoicing that the old, bald eagle was dead.
Grandpa used to be rich. Very rich. The very richest. He had lavish houses, boats, lands, servants, and parks that went on for miles. He had beaches and far more roads named after him than Martin Luther King!
When he was young, he’d measured his money and watched the dollars come in and go out like wise steward do. I’m told, though it was before my time, that he budgeted, balanced and paid up front, a-cash-on-the-barrel-head guy. But his richness offended his friends. His empire, it seemed to them, was more than his share. And though it was honestly earned, it just didn’t seem right that one family should own it.
“I have a large family to feed!” he defended himself. And while that was true, it was true of the neighbors, too.
Grandfather’s children grew up and some went to work themselves. And at first, he was pleased. They sent him large gifts every year and he felt that they measured the success of manhood in yards and then miles!
But the old man began to obsess in his power and prowess. He tried to dictate to his progeny how they would work, and live and eat and breathe. His head began to inflate and he said to his children and by then, grandchildren, that he had plenty of wealth for everyone. He told them that they need not work at all, but could live off of his largess, as long as they were obedient to his vision. He would stand for no challenge to his authority.
And some went their own way despite him and others, they listened and cheerfully relinquished their freedom to the demanding old man. And nobody worried at first, with all the vastness of his wealth, that Grandpa started buying on credit. It was just one little plastic card to replace a perimeter wall to his estate and then to buy more watch dogs. But back then, Grandpa’s wealth was so vast that nobody thought anything of it. He could pay it back with the snap of his clever fingers.
Grandpa pacified the neighbors too, by throwing vast feasts and inviting them to gather at his table. And as often happens in such cases, squatters moved in around the edges of his estates and though some of his offspring were discomfited, he urged them to let the squatters stay. They were good for his image as a large and generous fellow. And they were more to do his bidding. He gathered the aunts and uncles and cousins and because he was rich they obeyed him.
But the one plastic card became two. Two became four. Four became eight. Eight was sixteen. The credit cards multiplied like E Coli in a petri dish. Grandpa still golfed and jetted from city to city and continued to promise the silver spoon in every mouth and a chicken in every pot. Instead of trimming his boats and planes and servants to pay for the parties and palaces, he bought more and more and more of them.
When the grownups mourned his expenditures, he assured them that he was rich. He said he was very rich. He said he was the richest of the rich. A few of his progeny began to collect the bills Grandpa scattered around the house willy nilly. They took their T-I 83 calculators and tried to figure out where Grandpa’s money was. How rich was the old bald eagle. But nobody could tell exactly. And nobody knew all the places he hid his credit card bills.
But Grandpa was slap happy senile by then. He had hundreds of maxed out credit lines and mortgages with more zeros than a five-year-old can count. “What’s a zero?” he chortled. “It’s nothin’!” So he’d add and add and add those zeros.
And some of his kids went along. They didn’t care that their silver spoons were bought with plastic, so long as they came. What did it matter who paid their teachers at Grandpa’s private schools, so long as they were paid? “He’s rich!” they cried. “He’s so rich that he can never run out of money!” We have estates and boats and jets and parks and beaches!”
That was mostly the young folks. They were the ones too young to count the zeros or even count the number of the plastic cards. Oh they loved their grandpa. He fed them their favorite delicacies at his banquets and he clothed them in purple robes and he polished the silver spoon in their mouths. He gave them his credit cards to buy themselves college degrees and honors and he told them that zeros were nothing. They believed it because they wanted to believe and disbelieving would cut their pumping umbilical cords.
I know you’re wondering why nobody stopped him. I wonder that too, sometimes. Some did try to remind him of the budgets and planning and watchful care that brought him his wealth. Some tried to cut up his credit cards, too. But the youngsters screamed that they liked them and Grandpa was rich and he was so rich that he never could run out of money. They gnashed their teeth and called their elders hateful and mean. And they truly believed that zeros were nothing!
But then one day, Grandpa drove his big black armor plated SUV up the Fun Chu’s Chinese restaurant. He wanted some of Chu’s Lo Mein in the worst way. Chu’s cute little granddaughter, Li, came to the table and took his order, but instead of bringing him a plate of hot Lo Mein, she brought him Chu himself.
“Yo show me yo money!” Chu said. Grandpa had no money, money. He had only plastic money. Chu said that real money wasn’t made of plastic and he wouldn’t take it. “Yo come back see me when yo have good money!”
Grandpa growled and commanded and tried to negotiate, but he already owed Chu for very many plates of Lo Mein and Chu was having none of it. Chu didn’t believe that Grandpa was rich. He didn’t believe that zeros were nothing. Chu lifted his old straw broom from the dusty corner and jabbed at Grandpa. He called him a ‘hobo’ and he swept him out of his shop.
Sadly for the proud old man, there were other shops on the street that saw the straw broom. The Garcias wouldn’t let him order tacos in their Cantina. The Vechelli’s wouldn’t let him order lasagna. They said he could eat when he could show them real money and not his fake plastic.
All of a sudden, nobody would feed Grandpa. He starved to death!
And so his family gathered around his grave. Some were sad. They remembered when he had been brave and wise and a good steward. They remembered when he was a cash-on-the-barrel-head man. They mourned for the man he might have been.
His plastic-loving youngsters were the bitter ones. They grew thin and their silver spoons tarnished and their schools shut down when the teachers couldn’t cash their plastic paychecks. When Grandpa’s last will and testament had been read earlier that day, there were more zeros on Grandpa’s debt than there were on his assets and the cruel, hateful elders seemed to think that zeros were something. Instead of estates and boats and parks and beaches, his legacy was a string of zeroes in debt, long enough to wrap around your neck like pearls. And the plastic, silver-spoon kids had to pay it all back.
Of course, the Garcias and Vechellis and the Funs smiled and some of the neighbors that hadn’t lent Grandpa enough to be ruined also smiled at the silly old man. They mumbled to each other that he got what he deserved.
The only ones laughing were the older kids who hadn’t taken the fake plastic cards. But it wasn’t laughter of pleasure, but sardonic chuckles of rueful regret. They were the ones who carved wooden spoons for themselves and never believed that zeros were nothing. They knew the grim truth; the debts would have to be paid. But they would be dead long before the first zero fell off. And the spoiled, plastic passel of youngsters must bend their backs like never before and get started if they were to find a handful of corn.
They left that black and tragic grave and went back to work at their cash-on-the-barrel-head jobs with a soft mournful laugh. At least they had muscles and mindset to work at their cash-on-the-barrel-head jobs.