There is no statistical proof, but I would hazard a guess that, in most people’s lives, the pleasant surprises are outnumbered by the disappointments. My own life is a case in point. The big happy surprises can be counted on one hand. The disappointments would require all the fingers, and perhaps most of the toes.
But if you think in terms of learning experiences, some of the disappointments might turn out to be the more valuable.
When I was a child of 10, living in Washington, D.C., comic books, of which I had a large collection, were among the most important things in my life. There was something magic about them, not just the characters and stories – whether the Walt Disney “cartoon” type, or the Captain Marvel “adventure” type – but even the advertisements, which often began with alluring words such as “Hey, Kids!”
One such commercial message occupied the entire back page of many of those publications at that time. At the top was a large picture showing a boy looking excitedly through a large telescope, surrounded by a panorama of all the stars and planets and other objects he could supposedly see. The biggest words in the whole advertisement were FREE and TELESCOPE. There was plenty more, all in much smaller print.
Actually, this ad was not selling telescopes at all. It was selling a book. But if you ordered the book, you would get the telescope with it – and the telescope was free.
I had no great interest in the book. (You could get plenty of books in the library.) But I lusted madly for that free telescope. And finally, I filled in the coupon and sent it away, together with my $2.
How eagerly I watched for that package! At last something came – but it didn’t look like a telescope. It looked like a book. It was a book. Where was the telescope? Frantically searching the wrapping, I found a tiny cardboard box. Inside it were two small pieces of glass, and a paper with some instructions on how to build your own telescope.
Of course, I took a closer look at that tantalizing advertisement. Reading it more carefully, I saw, for the first time, that – in the small print – it did not actually say you would get a telescope. What it said was that you would get a “lens kit,” with “all the optical parts” for a telescope.
Two pieces of glass! – despite all that astronomical hoopla! I knew I would never do anything with them. It was one of the great disappointments of my life. As I wrote much later in one of my Pot-Shots epigrams: “We can all learn from our failures: what I’ve learned is how much it hurts to fail.”
But I need hardly tell you that the real lesson, which I took well to heart, was always to be skeptical of advertising and read the fine print. Sometimes even that won’t help, however, if the advertisers are clever enough. There was a mail-order ad that I believe prospered for years, offering an “engraved portrait of George Washington” for some tempting sum. Those who fell for it were rewarded by receiving back in the mail a two-cent stamp – which, of course, had George Washington’s head engraved on it.
And there were other schemes, such as phony raffles, in which nothing ever got raffled. If anyone complained (and few people ever did), that person could simply be given back the price of his or her ticket.
Nowadays, we have all kinds of “consumer protection” laws and agencies. But the fact that we still need them (actually now more than ever) only highlights some of the more regrettably unchanging aspects of human nature – particularly the tendency to prey upon the weak and vulnerable.
In the movie Paper Moon, we see how Bible salesmen preyed on women whom (by studying the obituary columns) they knew to be recent widows. The grieving woman’s emotions could easily be exploited, by telling her that her late husband had ordered the Bible as a surprise for her, before he passed away. (Of course, he hadn’t yet paid for it.)
But, despite my own sense of being cheated, I should tell you, in the interests of full disclosure, that the book I had ordered to get the “free telescope” turned out to be a surprisingly good one. It was called Wonders of Science Simplified, and it is still among my most treasured possessions.