Thursday, December 16, 2004

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (12/16/04)


Given the astronomical salaries paid to baseball superstars, shouldn't we get from them a measure of integrity to match their millions? It required an appearance before a grand jury to get the truth about his use of illegal drugs from Jason Giambi. And who believes Barry Bonds's ludicrous assertions that he used creams and liquids to enhance his performance--but wasn't aware of what was in them? In my lifetime I have met many honorable men. My first editing job was as associate editor of a posh, full-color, hardcover magazine covering every aspect of motor cars. It also put me in contact with the world of auto racing--particularly as practiced in Great Britain and Europe. These gallant racers, participants in bitterly contested events ranging from hill climbs to Grand Prix races, were superb athletes with an unwritten code of ethics akin to the rules that governed knights in the Middle Ages.

One competitor I was fortunate to meet was Stirling Moss, British racing champion. After competing brilliantly between 1948 and 1962, his career was terminated by a near-fatal accident on a wet road. Shaking hands with him was like putting your hand in a vise; his forearms were rock solid from making racing cars go where they did not want to go. Early in 1964, he was in America and would occasionally drop into our offices, usually with a fur-coated Park Avenue groupie on each arm--"a bit of crumpet," as he would put it.

The magazine had a rising young photographer who was becoming known for his classic car portraits, so the editor sent him to Europe to work his magic there and to capture racing cars at speed on European circuits. In Switzerland, he purchased an expensive Patek Philippe watch as a gift. Not wanting to carry it with him all over Europe, on learning that Stirling Moss was coming to New York, he asked him to bring the watch with him. Moss agreed. When I learned that Stirling Moss was to speak at a meeting of the Dutch Treat Club, an idea formed in my head. The club was--and is--an informal group of people active in writing, the arts and the theater. It meets for lunch every Tuesday, and everyone pays for his or her own meal.

I was already familiar with their luncheons, which then were held in the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue at 61st Street. On the day he was scheduled to speak, I called the hotel during the cocktail period and asked that Mr. Moss be paged. I had rehearsed in my mind what I would say: "Mr. Moss, this is Inspector Joseph Hawkins of the U.S. Customs Service. We know that when you arrived in the United Sates recently you were carrying an expensive Patek Philippe watch that was not declared on a customs form, nor did you pay duty on the item. Did you do that?" I wasn't even sure that such items were dutiable; nevertheless I decided to leave it in my spiel.

I went over in my mind what his response might be. After a long pause in which he considered the implications of his answer, an ordinary person might stammer, "Can't we talk this over in your office?" Some might even deny the charge. The expectation of my victim's discomfiture was almost too delicious to contemplate. I made my phone call and waited for the hotel staff to fetch him. In the background, I could hear the sounds of typical cocktail-hour conversation. Finally, I heard the telephone being picked up. A voice said, "Moss here." Clearing my throat, I ran through my prepared charges in what I hoped would sound like the prosecutorial voice of officialdom. "Did you do that?" I asked. Without a moment's hesitation, the voice at the other end said, "Yes, I did."

"Yes, I did." That forthright answer wasn't part of my script. Clearly, I had misjudged the intended target of my practical joke. Where was the embarrassment, indignity or discomfort I had hoped to cause? Where was the groveling victim I had expected to stall for time and look for a way out? Instead, I was met with unhesitating absolute honesty. Now I was the one faced with a dilemma. How was I going to get myself out of this? I finally found the words: "Well, that was a very naughty thing to do," I blurted and hung up the phone quickly, hoping that he had not recognized my voice.

My prank turned out to be a humiliating lesson that increased my respect for Stirling Moss--today Sir Stirling Moss (he was knighted in 2001). I had expected him to adhere to the loose standards so many of us follow in everyday life. But Stirling Moss's racing life was lived in an atmosphere of split-second decisions and total self-honesty. Would that today's professional athletes exhibited the same sense of personal honor and integrity.

Before Tom Ridge resigned as Director of Homeland Security, he told friends that with two college-age children he simply had to earn more money. His salary as a cabinet member was $175,000. Where does that leave the average U.S. household, which has an annual income of $43,318?

General Motors spends about $1,400 for workers' health care for each vehicle produced in the United States. Some economists see the reason Ontario has surpassed Michigan in automobile production--temporarily, one hopes--may be Canada's nationalized health care system.

The blessings of democracy? In a May 2001 report, the U.N. announced that Afghanistan had completely eradicated opium poppy cultivation. Of course, this was under the Taliban, which made farmers switch to growing wheat and severely punished drug trafficking. Farmers of wheat became unhappy; they were paid for their crop after it was harvested. Opium buyers pay up front. Now that we have ousted the Taliban, Afghanistan supplies 87 percent of the world's opium and heroin. Today's output of Afghanistan's poppy growing is valued at $2.8 billion, making up more than 60 percent of its gross domestic product. This year's crop would have been even larger except for insect pests and a poor growing season.

Although lots in the new community of Harmon were first sold to the public in 1907, it was not until 1923 that twenty residents organized the Harmon Fire Protection Company. William Quinn was its first president. Thanks to the formation of this volunteer fire company, whose successor is today's Harmon Engine Company, fire insurance rates in Harmon were reduced by 50 percent.
Despite years of study, medical science still does not know what causes SIDS--Sudden Infant Death Syndrome--that mysteriously steals the gift of life away from otherwise normal infants. The SIDS death rate has dropped since 1983, but there are still about 2,500 SIDS deaths annually in the United States. What is known: Babies with mothers who smoke are more likely to die of SIDS than those from non-smoking mothers. Infants born prematurely and babies whose siblings have died from SIDS are also at high risk. Dr. Bradley T. Thach, Professor of Pediatrics at Washington University in St. Louis, says SIDS may be related to sleeping position and the possibility of smothering. "The first few times babies who usually sleep on their backs or sides shift to the prone (i.e., face down) position, they have a 19-fold increased risk of sudden death," he points out. "Back sleeping should be strongly encouraged to protect against SIDS."


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