In early 1987, about the time Ellen and I had married–both of us for the second time–Daddy had been talking about how he was going to get rich in a sweepstakes he had been entering– or sending money to–in Canada. It was just a matter of time and he wanted me to get in on it. In one of our phone conversations he said,
“Son, I’ve never been able to help you out like I wanted to. This will help you out.”
I said as gently as I could,
“Daddy, I don’t need any help. We’re doing fine. We have everything we need.”
But Daddy was insistent. Then he revealed that he had a letter from the sweepstakes—with his name on it—that said by sending them a check for only $399.00 he was sure to win a sweepstakes worth $75 million dollars. He was so excited that he could hardly contain himself. He was going to get a new tractor and pickup truck. He would be on easy street, and he wanted me to be on easy street, too.
I said, again as calmly as I could but a bit more annoyed,
“Daddy, this sounds really odd coming from you. You and Mother taught Nolen Robert and me all our lives that gambling was wrong, but now that’s exactly what you’re doing!”
Daddy said plaintively, but even a bit more annoyed with me,
“E. B., this isn’t gambling! It’s a sure thing. I’ve got the letter right here. I’m going to win seventy-five million dollars!”
Over the next few weeks Daddy mentioned in both phone calls and letters to us that he had sent “a few” checks to the sweepstakes in Canada and that he was starting to win. He had gotten a few checks from them already—although he wouldn’t say for how much— and he was on the verge of winning the whole shebang.
In various ways I had tried to explain that the sweepstakes people were sending the same letter to hoards of people and that they were just fleecing people like him. But Daddy would have none of it. He was sure he was right and that he just wasn’t explaining it to me clearly enough.
Some weeks later, one of our talks with my children Joy and Bob around our kitchen table involved a letter Daddy had sent me. He had included a check made out to me from his bank account for exactly $399.00 with a letter containing these instructions:
“This is a gift. Please take it and deposit it in your bank. Then send your own check for $399 to the sweepstakes in your name.
Please do this. This is a gift. This will help you and Ellen and the kids. “
He had enclosed a set of the official entry forms from the sweepstakes. All I had to do to win $75 million was to do as Daddy said.
This put me in a quandary. I had shown the letter to Ellen and asked what she would do if she were me. She said to think about it before deciding, which made sense. After dinner that night I told Joy and Bob that I had received something from their grandfather that I wanted to show them and get their opinion about. We cleared the kitchen table and the four of us went into conference mode.
Joy and Bob read the letter, looked at the check, and examined the materials from the sweepstakes organization that Daddy had sent. They were in disbelief that their grandfather was doing this. It wasn’t like him at all.
We discussed several alternatives at length, some of the main elements of which were these:
- I could simply return the check to Daddy explaining that in good conscience I could not throw his money away like this.
- I could deposit his check in our bank account and use it later when he had a real need for it. He had broken his hip several months earlier, was trying to recover with the aid of a walker he would scoot along, and his farming days were over. His physical and financial futures were in a steady state of decline. So this alternative made a lot of sense, except that it would defy his expressed wishes.
- I could tell him that I sent the money to the sweepstakes, but not do it and just hold it for him later. But that would be a lie.
- I could, against my own judgment, do as he asked. By complying with his wishes, that would make him happy even if I didn’t win anything.
After turning these alternatives over several times on the table, the way we might have done with a new collection of seashells, all of us agreed that I should do as he asked. It was a dumb thing to do, but I would do it for Daddy’s sake.
Amazingly or not, weeks later I heard from the sweepstakes that I had won! They sent me a congratulatory letter with a check for $18.36! This didn’t seem like much of a return on a $399 investment. The letter encouraged me to send another $399 and win the whole $75 million, of course.
When I broke the news to Daddy, his spirits were not dimmed. He was certain he and I both were going to win $75 million by sending the sweepstakes people another $399. He conceded that he had done this “a few” times and that it was just a matter of time.
About this time Daddy began to sell off 20-25 acre parcels of his nearly 300 acres of farmland. Being unable to farm, and with my brother Nolen Robert gone, he needed the money to get along. This clearly meant money for sending to sweepstakes to strike it rich. He said,
“I’ve got to make a living somehow, Son, and this is how I’m going to do it.”
Once again, on another trip from the Midwest to Tennessee, I tried to explain to Daddy how unlikely it was that he would win anything of significance. I said to him,
“Imagine that big field behind your house having a bumper crop of corn about ready to pick. Then imagine that one grain of corn out of the many thousands of ears has turned out to be bright blue instead of bright yellow. Now what are your odds of going out into that field and finding that one grain of bright blue corn?
He got my inference and his voice was agitated as he shot back,
“Son, you’re wrong! I have this letter right here that says I’m going to win $75 million! Why are you fighting me on this? I’ve got to make a living and I want to help you out.”
Neither I nor my step-mom nor anyone else could reason with him on this point. Eventually I gave up and concluded that if he were to sell off his whole farm while trying to win the big sweepstakes bucks that he would be happy taking his chances. All my life he had been an eternal optimist.
About the time of Nolen Robert’s death farmland prices were at an all-time high. Daddy’s farm was conservatively estimated to be worth about a half million dollars. While not a lot of monetary value by modern-day standards, it represented a quantum leap from the status of my family’s holdings when I was a little boy. Still, owning valuable farmland is not the same thing as having cash in the bank, and cash was almost always in short supply with Daddy.
By the time he began to sell off parcels of land a few years later—after he had broken his hip and spent time going over letters from various sweepstakes in Australia, Canada, Germany, and other places—land values had declined considerably. By the early 1990s Daddy had sold off his farmland in small chunks so that he was down to his last fifteen acres, the area around where his house stood. My niece, Ruth Russell Nunn, who lived near Daddy, said,
“I know that there was a lot going on with Granddaddy that was related to his medical issues. To add insult to injury he was taking numerous drugs from different doctors. Who knows what effect those had on him?”
One night Daddy called me and said he needed to borrow $2,000 dollars from me to cover some expenses, including some new medicines. He had never asked to borrow money from me before, and I suspected I knew the root of his request. I said,
“Daddy, I’ll send you the $2,000 dollars if you promise me you won’t send one red cent of it to any sweepstakes. Will you make me that promise?”
“I promise. And I’ll pay you back soon. Things are just a little tight now.”
He never paid me back, and he never asked for another loan.
On a gray November day Ruth called with alarm in her voice. She had tried to call Daddy and got no answer. This was odd because he was basically bedridden at this point. She drove down to his house, in view from her front door across the highway and creek, and found him and my step-mom Hazel gone. Their things were gone. She asked if I knew what was going on, but I had no clue.
After what seemed like a long wait, but maybe only a couple of hours later, Ruth called back to say a neighbor had told her that Daddy and Hazel had moved to Kentucky to be near Hazel’s family. We were greatly relieved and deeply puzzled by this move. Daddy had never hinted that they were planning a move, and I had spoken to him just days before they left.
Daddy had moved away from the place of his birth, from almost the very spot where his parents’ house had stood for most of the 20th century, and left Montgomery County and his home state for good. This seemed totally out of character for him, just as his entry into gambling with sweepstakes-by-mail had been out of character.
As soon as they got phone service in Kentucky, Daddy called me to explain. A man had previously bought the part of his land that included the spring that supplied the water to his house. That man had threatened to cut off Daddy and Hazel’s water supply if he would not sell his last fifteen acres and the house. So Daddy, with the fight drained out of him on that rented hospital bed, sold out and moved to Kentucky.
There was a rarely heard sadness in Daddy’s voice as he described what had happened. Perhaps it was the feeling of giving up, of leaving the beloved place of his birth, of probably knowing he would never see it again.
With gratitude to Ruth Russell Nunn for reviewing and offering insightful comments on this story. She bore the brunt of this tumultuous period in Daddy’s life because she was acting on behalf of her deceased father, my brother Nolen Robert. Ruth is Special Education Dept. Co-Chair, work-based learning coordinator, yearbook adviser, and junior class/prom adviser at Montgomery Central High School, Cunningham, Tennessee, as well as a self-employed caterer/wedding planner. But she says she’s best at being a wife, mother of two, and grandmother of three, without yet hitting the mid-century mark.