The Night We Won The Buick
Author : John Griggs
It was just before the Second World War.We were the only family in our New York town that didn’t own a car.Our daily shopping trips were made in a disreputable, two-wheeled basket cart, drawn by an ancient Shetland pony that my mother had named Barkis after the character in David Copperfield. Bony Barkis was an eyesore. Every clop of his splayed hoofs sounded our poverty.
For poor we were. My father’s salary as clerk would’ve maintained us in modest plenty had not half of it gone for the support and medical saying. “If you have character, you have the better part of wealth. Living on little develops inner resources and builds a spiritual bank account.”
My bitter retort was, “You can’t buy a car with it.” Yet she succeeded in making austerity bearable in all other respects. Our home had charm. Mother knew the secret of using a few metres of bright chintz and a little paint in the right places. But the garage still stables Barkis. Suddenly, there arrived a soul-igniting moment which was to consume my shame in a blaze of glory.
For weeks. A new Buick Roadmaster had stood in the window of the biggest store on Main Street. Now, on the final gala night of the country fair, it was to be raffled off. After watching the fireworks, I stayed in the shadows at the edge of the throng for the climax: the drawing of the winning number. Draped in bunting on a special platform, the Buick glittered under a dozen spotlight. The crowd held its breath as the mayor reached into the glass bowl for the lucky ticket.
Never in my most extravagant yearnings had it occurred to me that Lady Luck would smile upon the only family in the town without a car. But the loudspeaker boomed my father’s name! By the time I had worked my way up to the platform, the mayor had presented my father with the keys, and he had driven off amidst cheers.
I made it home in record time. The house was dark, save for the lights in the living room. The Buick stood in the driveway, glistening in the glow from the front windows. From the garage I hered a snuffle from Barkis. Painting from my run, I touched the car’s smooth surface,opened the door and got inside. The luxurious interior had that wonderful new-car smell. I studied the gleaming dashboard. Turning my head to revel in the cushioned vista of the back seat, I saw my father’s sturdy figure throuh the rear window. He was pacing along the pavement. I slammed the door and rushed over to him. “Leave me alone!” he snarled.
If he had clubbed me over the head, I could not have been more hurt. Shocked, I went into the house. Mother met me in the living room. “Don’t be upset,” she said. “Your father is struggling with an ethical problem. We’ll have to wait until he finds the right answer. “
“What’s ethical about winning a Buick?”
“The car may not be ours, after all. There’s a question.”
I shouted hysterically, “How can there be a question? It was announced over the loudspeaker !”
“Come here, son.”
On the table under the lamp were two raffle stubs, numbers 348 and 349.The winning number was 348.”Do you see the difference between the two?”
I looked carefully. “The only difference I can see is that 348 won.”
“Hold 348 to the light and look hard.”
It required a lot of looking to see the faint letter K dimly marked in pencil on the corner.
“Do you see the K?”
“Just barely. “
“It stands for Kendrick. “
“Jim Kendrick? Dad’s boss?”
She complained. My father had asked Jim if he wanted to buy a ticket. Jim had mumbled, “why not?” and turned back to what he was doing. It may never had crossed his mind again. Dad then bought two tickets in his own name with his own money, marking 348 for Kendrick, a scarcely discernible thin mark on one stub that could be obliterated by the slightest rub of a thumb.
To me, it was an open-and-shut case. Jim Kendrick was a multimillionaire. He owned a dozen cars. He lived on an estate with a staff of servants, including two chauffeurs. Another car meant less to him than a snaffle on Barkis’s harness meant to us. I argued, “Dad’s got to keep it¡”
“I know he’ll do what’s right,” Mother said calmly.
At last we heard Dad’s step on the front porch. I held my breath. He went straight to the phone in the dining room and dialled. Kendrick’s phone rang for a long time. A servant finally answered. From what Dad said at our end, I could tell that Kendrick had to be awakened.
He was annoyed at being roused from sleep,and was far from pleasant. My father had to explain the whole thing from the beginning. The next afternoon Kendrick’s two chauffeurs arrived in a station-wagon. Before driving the Buick away, they presented Dad with a box of cigars.
We didn’t get a car until after I was a grownup. But, as time went on, my mother’s aphorism,”If you have character, you have the better part of wealth,”took on a new meaning. Looking back over the years, I know now we were never richer than we were at the moment when Dad made that telephone call.