The Art of Flim Flam

“They stole a quarter of a million dollars from the kids!”  The television camera was focused on an angry father, standing in the midst of a mob of other parents, all of them just as angry as he.  The reporter illuminated.  “It appears that the travel agent who was entrusted with the job of arranging the Hawaii trip for these local band kids has disappeared with all the money.”  As the story unfolded, we learned that it was likely that the man had invested the money unwisely and was unable to produce either the cash or the tickets and lodging for the scheduled trip.  Three hundred children, disappointed and disillusioned, will not make the anticipated journey to the island paradise because of one man’s greed.

I’m angry, along with the parents.  But, as I listened to the newscaster, I was reminded that it happens all the time.  In the mid nineteen-nineties, the local Christian university was swindled out of two million dollars by a “philanthropic” firm who had claimed that the school’s investments of cash would result in significant increases due to donations from charitable organizations.  It turned out to be a “ponzi” scheme, netting the swindler huge sums of cash and leaving the university and many other organizations in serious financial straits.

As I continued to consider the situation, I realized that my frustration with scams goes back a lot further than even that relatively recent event.  I remember a day in the early nineteen-sixties.  The phone in the living room rang, to be answered by my oldest brother.  The voice on the other end of the line informed him that the call was from a local radio station and that our household had been selected as winners of the first prize in their current giveaway.  The prize?  A brand new color television!  Delivery details would be attended to by a popular appliance store immediately.  “Enjoy your new television!”  The caller hung up.  When my brother replaced the receiver, he turned to us in shock and repeated the conversation.  We were ecstatic!  A color TV?  We didn’t even have a black and white set!  A color TV!

Our elation lasted for days.  The next day, by chance, a station wagon, with the logo of a local appliance store plastered on the door, turned into the next door neighbor’s circle drive.  We were at the car in a flash.  “You want the house over there!  We’re getting the free television!”  The confused driver looked down at his paperwork and then back up at us, saying with a smile on his face,  “No, this is where I’m supposed to be.  I think someone is pulling your leg.”  We went home disappointed, but not discouraged.  For the next few days, we expectantly kept an eye on the road in front of the house, but the possibility that the man’s words might be true started to take root in our minds. Finally, after a week had elapsed, the skepticism was full grown and we admitted that we had been tricked.  Some teenager was just having fun at our expense.  It was nothing more than a prank call.  I think I was scarred for life.

Prank calls are supposed to be short and amusing.  “Is your refrigerator running?  Then, you better go catch it!”  “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?  You really should let him out!”  That’s the way prank calls are intended to work.  Ask the leading question and then spring the trap.  The victim is annoyed and the payoff is immediate.  There is no long term damage, no waiting for the conclusion.  This…this was diabolical!  The prankster could only have imagined that there was any mental anguish, could only hope that his words had the desired effect.  This one succeeded beyond his wildest dreams with the gullible children at my address, but he would never know it.  It has to be the cruelest of all phone pranks, with no payoff at all for the culprit, just a desire to cause emotional trauma and the imagination that it would succeed.

I exaggerate the mental anguish, but I still remember the feeling like it was yesterday.  I could not believe that there were such cruel people in the world.  Up to that point, the meanest humans I knew were my older brothers – and I didn’t want to know anyone meaner.  This though…this took cruelty to a new level.  I didn’t like the feelings of wealth, the joy of ownership, followed so quickly and conclusively by the assurance of abject loss and humiliation.

Although the reality is considerably different, I imagine that the feelings are the same for the kids in the band.  They were promised a trip to a tropical paradise and reveled in the plans they were making, the excitement of anticipation.  Today, they are derailed and inconsolable.  The conviction of good things to come has been replaced with certainty of disaster.  Not only money was stolen from them; their hopes have been pilfered from under their noses.  It is possible that some will be scarred for life.

The reality is that life is replete with con artists.  The truth is that we will all be scarred by these individuals.  Can I go one step further and tell you that you probably look at one of them every morning?  No, not the person you wake up next to, although they may be one also.  I’m referring to the person at whom you gaze in the mirror.  We all “play the angles”, making promises that we cannot (or don’t intend to) keep in order to gain something.  I’m reminded that I presented my best side to win the Lovely Lady’s heart prior to our marriage, but the dissimulation was dropped upon achieving the goal, as is often the case.  My guess is that there were a few moments (or possibly hours) of lost hope on her part, the knowledge of the entire flawed package bringing recognition of the flim-flam game which had been played on her.  To her credit, she has had the patience to work through those first disappointments and I’ve grown a bit more mature in making improvements on the original product.  There are still moments, though…

We could go into the causes and cures for the scams that continue throughout our lives, but volume upon volume has been written to explain both.  For those held in the snare and tight grip of hopelessness and despair, there are counselors who are much better prepared to help than I.  I will say this, though.  Sometimes, we need look no further than the con-man (or woman) in the mirror to determine much of the problem.  Unreasonable expectations are placed on many relationships by both parties, with greed entering the picture from both angles.  When I was a child, my greed for a prize of epic proportions outweighed my suspicions that I had been tricked.  Most scams cannot operate without the victims’ greed being a large part of the equation.  It has become anathema in recent years to “blame the victim”, but I can’t help but remember my Mama’s wisdom, when I would run to her for sympathy after being jostled or hit by a sibling.  She would say unsympathetically, “If you hadn’t been standing where you shouldn’t have been, you couldn’t have been hurt.”  While it is not always true (the band kids stand out as a prime example), most scams immediately fall on their faces without willing and greedy victims.

Check your heart.  Are you in this venture for yourself?  Are you in it to benefit others?  There is no guarantee of success either way, but if the latter is true, the damage to yourself will be minimized.  If I expect no personal gain, the failure of the venture simply encourages me to be more disciplined in the next attempt.  The crooks and liars can’t hurt you if you have nothing in the game to lose.  The best example of this I can point to?  None better than the Savior.  The wicked men who sat in judgment of Him didn’t kill Him.  He freely gave what they thought they were taking.  Long before that, without taking thought to His personal rights, He laid down  his position in Heaven to become like us and walk this soil as we do. 

Too simplistic?  It’s all I’ve got.  I’m convinced that it’s all there is.  When we give up our demands of what we desire, we give.  Period.  No more scarring.  No more disillusionment.   No more lost color televisions!

 I’m not there yet.  There’s still a good bit of that road in front of me.  But, the feet are moving.  I’m still alive, and there’s still hope. 

“Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.”
(Matthew 6:21 NLT)

“If you’re not greedy, you will go far, you will live in happiness too, 
Like the oompa – loompa – doompity do.”
(from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl~British children’s author~1916-1990)

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