Two things bring this story to mind. One was the less that sunny reaction to my post concerning the late nineteenth century Polish rabbis who visited the area that would someday be Israel and reported back, “The bride is beautiful, but she’s married to another man.” The other was my recent visit to Toronto, where I saw my Mom, who now, due to advanced dementia, is only someone you can sit with and sing to. The connection brought back memories of happier times.
My mother once worked at the Toronto branch of the Israel Bonds office, arranging fundraisers and typing up a storm. It was the perfect job for her. Unlike myself, my mother was extremely social. And whatever job she had, it always involved typing. The woman used all the fingers. She was really good.
One year, after my college term had ended but camp had yet to begin, my mother got me a job helping out in her office. I can’t recall the entire range of my responsibilities.
But I vividly remember this.
On the day in question, I was in charge of a major mailing. I was handed a number of boxes filled with (in total) five hundred sealed envelopes, envelopes containing letters of solicitation saying something like, “Buy Israel Bonds”, or “Come to a party and buy Israel Bonds”, “Stay home and buy Israel Bonds” or “If you’re too cheap to buy Israel Bonds, plant a tree.” I don’t actually know what the letter said. I didn’t read it. My job was to get the envelopes stamped and out to the donors.
The office included a heavy standing-on-the-floor electric stamping machine. The way it worked was, you stacked up a pile of envelopes at one end of the machine, you pressed a button, the envelopes, one at a time, would go away somewhere, and when they reappeared at the other end of the machine, there was a metered stamp on each of them. Not that complicated.
There were things you needed to watch for. You had to make sure the envelopes didn’t go into the machine backwards; otherwise, the stamp would be printed on the back of the envelope instead of the front. The envelope also had to go in right-side up, so the stamp would appear at the top-right of the envelope and not at on the bottom-left. My job was to insure that those things didn’t happen.
Five hundred envelopes. The procedure would take time, because you could only stack maybe ten envelopes at a time on the “Insertion Tray.” (That may not be the technical name for it. I may be making that up.)
I begin the process, stacking my first pile of letters on the “Insertion Tray.” I press the “Start” button. One by one, the envelopes are sucked in and slip through the machine. I stand there watching. There is nothing else to do.
Except for this.
As the stamped envelopes start accumulating on the “Catch Tray”, it is also my job to occasionally remove some of them, so the stack of letters won’t pile up too high and start falling on the floor. So you see it was a two-part job. Maybe even a two-person job, though I was handling it alone. I had to prepare letters going in, and skim off the accumulating pile at the other end. An easy job? Maybe. But it was no piece of cake.
I make my first visit to the tail end of the machine. I scoop up the stamped envelopes, and begin arranging them in the box I had brought them in. That’s when I noticed the problem.
And it was big.
(The next part happened faster than I’m writing it. Read fast to simulate the rhythm, and imagine an exciting movie score in the background.)
I’m remembering nine cents as the price for mailing each of these letters. It may have been less. Charity mailings have special low rates. Let’s say it was nine cents. As I stack the already metered letters in the box, I notice the price of the stamp the machine had metered onto the envelopes. It was not nine cents.
It was two hundred and sixty-two dollars and eighty-five cents.
As I look on in horror, two more letters have passed through the machine, metered with stamps which were considerably higher than nine cents. I’m in absolute shock. I had obviously squandered an enormous amount of money. But also, I mean, how would you feel donating to a charity where the letter you receive asking for money has a two hundred and sixty-two dollar and eighty-five cent stamp on it?
“I was going to send fifty dollars. That’s not even a fifth of the stamp.”
Thinking quickly, though I’m not certain I had the right to use that phrase, I switched off the stamping machine, halting the continuous flow of letters. By then, twelve envelopes had gone through, all stamped at two hundred and sixty-two dollars and eighty-five cents. An alert employee might have checked to see what price the stamp meter was currently set at before beginning the stamping process. I didn’t do that. I assumed it was set at nine cents. It wasn’t.
Somebody before me had obviously mailed out a really big parcel. You could do that with that machine. That was the other way it worked. Besides sending envelopes through automatically, you could print up a gummed label at whatever price you wanted, and stick it onto the parcel. That’s apparently what the mailer before me had done. I suppose they could have switched the stamp setting back to nine cents after they finished. But they didn’t.
And the next guy didn’t check.
And so, twelve letters later, letters that should have cost…twelve times nine, which is…nine two’s are eighteen, carry the one, nine one’s are nine, plus one is ten…a dollar eight, instead cost, twelve times one twenty-six eighty-five, which is…I gotta get a calculator, I’ll be back….
Three thousand one hundred and fifty-four dollars and twenty cents.
As Jon Lovitz exclaimed in A League Of Their Own: “That would be more, wouldn’t it?”
It could have been worse. If I’d let all five hundred of envelopes go through without noticing, I could have blown…
One hundred and thirty-one thousand four hundred and twenty-five dollars.
That's a considerable bite out of the Israeli defense budget.
I didn’t do that. My alertness had saved the Jewish Homeland one hundred and twenty-eight thousand two hundred and seventy dollars and eighty cents. Not bad. But, somehow, I still felt really stupid.
The question now was, “What should I do?” Should I fess up and take my medicine? Or should I find some way of covering it up. Knowing what I’m made of, only one decision was possible.
I covered it up.
I went back to the machine and set the stamp meter for nine cents. I then printed up twelve nine-cent gummed labels, which I plastered on top of the transgressing two hundred and sixty-two eighty-five stamps, thus, literally, covering up my mistake. I put the other four hundred and eighty-eight letters through at nine cents.
And that was that.
For years, I have kept this story to myself. I suppose, visiting my mother, I could finally have confessed. But there’s this miraculous possibility she’ll start speaking again, and I couldn’t take the chance. I think she’d be really mad.
My visit seems to have compelled me to come clean. Now the secret’s between me and you.
I’m counting on your discretion.
It was a wonderful trip. Relatives and friends were welcoming and warm. Thanks for having us, you guys.
Till we meet again.