I can't speak for anyone else, but were someone to ask for the secret to my success (I might be old and broke, but at least I lived long enough to be old), I would have to tell them that growing up poor was key. It's not necessarily that I was driven to succeed as a result; rather, it's that it infected me with a profound, deeply rooted greed. I grew the love the sound of jingle in my pocket, and if I wanted to continue enjoying that musical noise, I'd have to find a way to make some money.
So, as a young boy, I set out to secure my fortune. I started by considering the relative merits of a career as an outlaw. Eying the trains that came through the center of Lewistown, I tried to picture myself wearing a bandanna, chasing down the locomotive on my coal-black horse, blasting sheriffs and deputies with my six-guns, and demanding that whoever survived my onslaught should open up the safe and put their valuables in my bag. The idea was not without a certain amount of appeal, but I reflected that, given what I'd heard in Sunday School, I'd probably go to Hell if I took that course of action, and what's the point of being rich if you're in Hell?
So I settled on a job as a paperboy instead.
Eventually, my route was the biggest in town because of a simple gambit of my own invention. I would give away five papers a day - that is, select a comfortably well-off looking house that didn't already get the paper, and then deliver them a copy of the Great Falls Tribune every day for a month or so. Then, once the trap had been set, I'd knock on the door, introduce myself as the paper boy and ask if they had noticed the papers.
They had. Then I did more or less the opposite of my earlier plan to become an outlaw, fixing an angelic smile on my face (I was a lot cuter then) and telling them that they could keep getting it delivered before their morning coffee for a paltry sum. In most cases, they said yes. Thus over a couple years or so I increased the size of my route considerably, delivering to every house on both sides of the street for several blocks.Usually I delivered the papers from the back of my trusty Schwinn which, though not coal-black, was still a trusty enough steed. Sometimes, when the weather was inclement, I'd take Dad's Buick, which I drove myself. I have to admit that if I were driving into town now and saw a 10 or 11-year-old behind the wheel of a car, I'd have to pull over and take one of my heart pills. But back then, it seemed like a reasonable solution to the problem of the bitter cold.
At any rate, my little newspaper empire began to make me a little money, until I had collected the unthinkable sum of $78 by 1962, and I began to think of ways that a burgeoning young businessman could invest a little of his dough. What would deliver the best return on investment, I wondered: jewels of Araby, crude oil, baseball cards?
In those days there was an auction in Lewistown every week, held on Wednesday evening at about 7 PM. All of the ranch families and half of the townies would file in and sit in the wooden folding chairs, and wave their cowboy hats to bid on whatever they'd like to buy, usually a gently-used farm implement, or a pig, or a wood stove. Dad liked to go, although he rarely, if ever, bid on anything. I think he just liked to see what people were selling.
One evening I was sitting next to him when the next lot caught my greedy, beady little eyes: a 1959 Silver Hawk Studebaker. It had fins like a shark, and the sodium lights in the auction house glinted off its edges. The only way it could have looked any better would have been if Ursula Andress and Jayne Mansfield had been draped across the hood. Someone came up and started the car, and to my ears, it "purred like a kitten."
The price seems to have stalled out at $50. I looked around, incredulous that these rubes were going to let this beautiful machine pass them by at such a low price. I took the baseball cap off my head and waved it in the air.
The auctioneer was about to gavel the sale at that price when he noticed my hand in the air.
"Is that little feller in the third row bidding?"
My dad looked around, amused until he realized that the little feller bidding was me. Looking down at me with a slight frown, he thought a moment. Then he shrugged and said, "Yep, seems like he's not just waving hello, so I guess he must be bidding."
"Sold," the auctioneer yelled. So that's how I found myself the proud owner of '59 Studebaker with low miles.
That was my first car. Being well short of driver's license age, I only drove it around the block once or twice, but I did so with a palpable sense of pride. I owned it about a month, maybe two, when my cousins from Jordan came to visit.
My oldest cousin was about to go off to college and his trip to Lewistown was at least partially so that he could look for a car to take with him. But they couldn't find anything at the dealerships and they were going to have to make another trip to Billings and try again the next week.
We were at the dinner table, so I swallowed by bite of pork chop, cleared my throat, and said, "you best take a take a look at mine then."
They all looked at me as if aware for the first time that I was there.
I spoke again, more confident this time, though my voice cracked a little: "You should check mine out. My car, I mean."
horse-trading, we went out to the street to check out the old Studebaker.
My cousin took it in, inspecting it as if were a piece of horseflesh. He ran a finger along the fins, opened the door and sat in it, even reclined the seat. When he finally spoke, I was thrilled to find that he was addressing me and not Dad, who was standing on the porch watching.
"What do you have to have for it?"
I scrunched up my nose as if performing some large calculations in my head. Finally, I settled on $275.
"I'm not paying no damn 11 year old $275," he said.
"Well, you ain't got no car then," I said in my best devil may care voice.
"But I could probably see my way to $250," he said after a moment. I beamed, and always derived a great deal of pleasure "horse-trading" thereafter.
My cousin drove the old Studebaker all through college, medical school, and his residency. He put near 150 thousand miles on a car that cost him only 250 bucks. For my part, I was sad to see her go, but then, I hardly knew her. I had, incidentally, named her Annie after Annie Oakley - I don't know if my cousin honored that arrangement or not.
I have bought and sold all sorts of junk ever since, and most of the time I don't make as high a profit as I did that day. My wife has given up on trying to make sense of some of the stuff I've purchased over the years; to her credit, she's never surprised when I get it sold, though often she will still argue with my memory of what I paid for it.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.