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Rich Man

2006-07-29 14:31

  Grandfather was a philosopher, and like a lot of philosophers, I guess, he was a mild-mannered man who was always ready to admit that there are two sides to every question. So when people got to arguing with him, or around him, about things that they got heated up and illogical about, like politics and religion,1 he would tell this story that Doc Eaton told him one day up on the Hill.

  It happened a long time ago, when the town wasn't all steel and concrete and automobiles; when you could still hear the whir of a lawn mower without taking a streetcar out to the suburbs, and still see a horse lazily switching at the flies on his flanks under almost any sycamore tree.2 The Forest City had a lot of trees in those days.

  And it had a lot of people that didn't always see eye to eye,3 like a lot of other cities. And it had a rich man, like almost every other town. And this rich man was a pillar in the Baptist Church;4 and people didn't see eye to eye about him, either.

  There were those Grandfather's eyes twinkled when he said it hat claimed the rich man was an old hypocrite5, that he was ruthless in his business dealings, that he was so tightfisted he wouldn't spend a nickel to see an earthquake,6 that when he went to church on Sunday morning he was almost as important as God to a lot of people.

  Then there was the other school of thought7. It asserted that just because a man had made money under conditions as they existed was no reason to call him a lot of hard names.8 In fact, they asserted stoutly, the people that called him names were merely envious of his success9. They maintained he went to church not because he was a sanctimonious old fraud10 but because he was at heart, and for all his money, a simple, deeply religious man.

  It was while these two groups were hot at it that the rich man gave a party. Well, it wasn't exactly a party, Grandfather would explain. It was more like a shower for the pastor of the church.11 One group of parishioners saw in their invitation nothing but a kindly, neighborly gesture. The other just said it showed how miserly the old buzzard was12 etting other people to do what he could have done a thousand times over without feeling it a mite.13

  Grandfather said even then he had the sneaking feeling that the rich man wasn't so insulated and isolated by his money14 that he didn't know what people were saying about him, and that was the real reason he gave the party.

  But both sides of the question went to the party. A lot of them were pretty curious about the inside of a rich man's home.

  They brought offerings for the pastor, as they were requested. Some people brought apples, and others brought sides of bacon and onions and other homey old-fashioned things like that15. But nobody was really much interested in what the other guests brought. They were all waiting for one thing. What would the rich man bring out? Even Doc Eaton, the preacher, according to Grandfather, couldn't help wondering about what was coming. You could feel the undercurrent of suspense.

  And then the rich man16 brought out his offering.

  It was a bushel of potatoes.17 They were nice potatoes, extra large and scrubbed white and clean. But still and all, they were only a bushel of potatoes that anybody could buy in the Old Market for a lot less than a dollar.

  Well, sir, Grandfather chuckled, you could practically see what people were thinking. They were the people who were saying to themselves and to everybody else, "Well, what did I tell you??And then there were those who made it perfectly plain that they thought it was mighty tactful of their host not to make an ostentatious parade of his money18 before a lot of neighbors and friends.

  But the host went around as if he didn't notice anything, though Grandfather always insisted that he detected a little twinkle in the rich man's eyes as he shook hands with all his fellow parishioners and wished them good night.

  The preacher toted19 his gifts into his house, and just because they had been the center of interest, so to speak, he picked one of the big white potatoes out of the basket. Then he noticed that one end of the potato had been opened. He investigated, and discovered that a silver dollar had been neatly inserted through the opening. He examined every potato in that bushel basket, and there was a silver dollar in every single one of them.

  At this point Grandfather usually sat back and plucked benignly at his white beard20 and smiled. Then he'd turn philosopher and say:

  "It takes an almighty pile of gall21 for a man to sit up and say what is going on in another man's mind, don't22 it? I mean one way or another. When Doc Eaton told me that story he didn't bother to point out any moral. By the way, he don't do any preaching any more. He's been a congressman from New Jersey for years and years. But I guess the story has a moral, all right. Always sort of tickled23 me, like it must have tickled Doc's rich parishioner. "

  "The New Testament says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.24 Well, I ain't saying it isn't true. But I am saying this: It took John D. Rockefeller to put a silver dollar through the eye of a potato in order that a lot of people could have some food for thought."25

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