DY: In Just a Few Words (#55)
In that moment, I realized I was neither old money nor new money.
Some years back, we made several trips to Charlottesville in southern Virginia to join with college friends attending horse steeplechases. If you’ve never been to a steeplechase, the well-trained horses and their riders put on a good show as they come by multiple times on a long, set course. A good steeplechase draws thousands of people wandering around on beautiful property feeling good about themselves and, in the back of their minds, asking how such an important happening would include someone like me?
A steeplechase is a social event every bit as much as - and perhaps even more than - an athletic contest. If you’re at a steeplechase and you pay attention, my experience is that you will see three distinct types of people.
Group one are self-important, but low profile attendees. You don’t know them. They aren’t self-promoters hoping some media person will ask if it’s alright to take their picture. Old money likes a low profile. But you know they’re important because they are attending the same event you are. Many steeplechase spectators carry themselves as models of understated success.
That said, there are others who clamor for attention. They are clearly new money and want to be noticed. They’re easy to spot because they dress to the nines - men in blazers and neckties and women with hats that rival anything you might see at the Kentucky Derby. Unlike old money, new money wants you to take their picture.
The third group includes the heavy drinkers. Steeplechases are all-day events and cocktail hour starts very early. Heaven forbid that anyone would ever be thirsty at a steeplechase. It must be five o’clock somewhere is an expression you might well hear as early as 10 a.m. as the Bloody Marys and Mimosas are served as an integral part of steeplechase tail-gating.
All this is a mere prelude to a weekend up in the horse country of northern Virginia. We were invited to a major steeplechase near the home of a college friend. Also attending would be my college roommate and another college friend.
On the day we were to start a six hour car trip to our host’s home, it occurred to me that I should bring a gift. I had not seen this person for many years and had no knowledge of what he might like. So, I took a shot in the dark, ventured out to our neighborhood liquor store and purchased four bottles of very fine White Zinfandel. I knew it was premium wine because each bottle cost $6.00. My total tab for four was $24.00. I carefully gift-wrapped my treasured cargo in a brown paper bag with some of that morning’s Cleveland Plain Dealer wedged between the bottles to keep them from clanking and - worse yet - breaking.
As we turned into our host’s driveway, I knew immediately I was in trouble. That driveway was at least a quarter-mile long and on both sides were herds of prize cattle. Off in the distance I could see his home - large with enormous white pillars. Just beyond the house were vintage cars - at least three or four. What was I to do? It was too late to turn around and buy better wine. I just had to suck it up and commit to living with everlasting embarrassment.
The host and my college roommate were outside awaiting our arrival. I pulled up and retrieved the paper bag with four $6.00 bottles of wine and said, I hope you’ll enjoy this small gift of appreciation. Our host responded, This is absolutely wonderful. I’ll chill these down right away and we’ll have them for dinner tonight. And, much to my chagrin, we did have that terrible, cheap wine that very night.
What happened next is a memory I cannot shake. My college roommate - who preceded my wife as my roommate - said, Davis, would you like to see Bob’s wine cellar? Mortified, but ever the good guest, I gulped and responded, Of course. Off we went to a temperature-controlled wine cellar with 1,100 bottles of imported French wine in wooden crates. I have had many instances of abject humility in my life, but that was by far my largest experience of feeling small.
But, I couldn’t let total humility stop me. Up and at ‘em the next morning, and we were off to the last steeplechase I ever attended. I am not old money and I definitely kept my head down that day, but several attendees did come up to me and ask, Didn’t you used to be somebody?
Four bottles of crummy $6.00 wine. What kind of person would be so classless as to give that as a gift? The guilt and shame I carry from having done that will last a lifetime. I’ve been in counseling for 30 years trying to come to grips with what I did. I still can’t shake it.
DY: In Just a Few Words is a blog that comes out when something needs to be said or every Tuesday - whichever comes first. Davis Young is a communications professional who adds 50+ years of experience and perspective to issues of the day. His emphasis in DY: In Just a Few Words will be humor (a touch of sarcasm here, a pinch of facetiousness there...). Once in a while, he will touch on something a bit more serious - but hopefully not too deep or depressing.
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