Dad walked up cautiously, having to park the car at the base of the driveway, since the production line blocked the carport. As he and his friend got closer, they saw a steel pot sitting on top of the coals, with the toothpaste tubes being melted down. In those days, toothpaste did not come in plastic tubes. The tubes were made of lead. So once the paint was burned off, the tubes were dropped in the small steel pot, melted until they became liquid, and with my mom's pot holders we were pouring the lead through a small hole in the top of the milk cartons.
The milk cartons were filled with plaster-of-Paris. The white powder everywhere was the plaster before we mixed it with water. In my haste, I had knocked the bag over, and the entire area look like it had been hit by a snowstorm. The milk cartons were the outer containers for plaster-of-Paris molds.
My dad and his friend watched as we carefully poured the molten lead through a small hole in the top of the plaster-of-Paris cube.
"Careful," my dad said.
I nodded without looking up.
Finally, once the pouring was through, I put the steel pot down and smiled at my dad.
"What are you boys doing?" he asked with a cautious smile.
"We're doing what you told me to do. We're going to be rich," I said.
"Yup," said Mike, grinning and nodding his head. "We're partners."
"And what is in those plaster molds?" dad asked.
"Watch," I said. "This should be a good batch."
With a small hammer, I tapped at the seal that divided the cube in
half. Cautiously, I pulled up the top half of the plaster mold and a lead nickel fell out."
"Oh, my God!" my dad said. "You're casting nickels out of lead."
"That's right," Mike said. "We doing as you told us to do. We're making money."
My dad's friend turned and burst into laughter. My dad smiled and shook his head. Along with a fire and a box of spent toothpaste tubes, in front of him were two little boys covered with white dust and smiling from ear to ear.
He asked us to put everything down and sit with him on the front step of our house. With a smile, he gently explained what the word "counterfeiting" meant.
Our dreams were dashed. "You mean this is illegal?" asked Mike in a
"Let them go," my dad's friend said. "They might be developing a natural talent."
My dad glared at him.
"Yes, it is illegal," my dad said gently. "But you boys have shown great creativity and original thought. Keep going. I'm really proud of you!"
Disappointed, Mike and I sat in silence for about twenty minutes before we began cleaning up our mess. The business was over on opening day. Sweeping the powder up, I looked at Mike and said, "I guess Jimmy and his friends are right. We are poor."
My father was just leaving as I said that. "Boys," he said. "You're only poor if you give up. The most important thing is that you did something. Most people only talk and dream of getting rich. You've done something. I'm very proud of the two of you. I will say it again.
Keep going. Don't quit."
Mike and I stood there in silence. They were nice words, but we still did not know what to do.
"So how come you're not rich, dad?" I asked.
"Because I chose to be a schoolteacher. Schoolteachers really don't think about being rich. We just like to teach. I wish I could help you, but I really don't know how to make money."
Mike and I turned and continued our clean up.
"I know," said my dad. "If you boys want to learn how to be rich, don't ask me. Talk to your dad, Mike."
"My dad?" asked Mike with a scrunched up face.
"Yeah, your dad," repeated my dad with a smile. "Your dad and I have the same banker, and he raves about your father. He's told me several times that your father is brilliant when it comes to making money."
"My dad?" Mike asked again in disbelief. "Then how come we don't have a nice car and a nice house like the rich kids at school?"
"A nice car and a nice house does not necessarily mean you're rich or you know how to make money," my dad replied. "Jimmy's dad works for the sugar plantation. He's not much different from me. He works for a company, and I work for the government. The company buys the car for him. The sugar company is in financial trouble, and Jimmy's dad may soon have nothing. Your dad is different Mike. He seems to be building an empire, and I suspect in a few years he will be a very rich man."
With that, Mike and I got excited again. With new vigor, we began cleaning up the mess caused by our now defunct first business. As we were cleaning, we made plans on how and when to talk to Mike's dad. The problem was that Mike's dad worked long hours and often did not come home until late. His father owned warehouses, a construction company, a chain of stores, and three restaurants. It was the restaurants that kept him out late.
Mike caught the bus home after we had finished cleaning up. He was going to talk to his dad when he got home that night and ask him if he would teach us how to become rich. Mike promised to call as soon as he had talked to his dad, even if it was late.
The phone rang at 8:30 p.m.
"OK," I said. "Next Saturday." And put the phone down. Mike's dad had agreed to meet with Mike and me.
At 7:30 Saturday morning, I caught the bus to the poor side of town.
The Lessons Begin:
"I'll pay you 10 cents an hour. "
Even by 1956 pay standards, 10 cents an hour was low.
Michael and I met with his dad that morning at 8 o'clock. He was already busy and had been at work for more than an hour. His construction supervisor was just leaving in his pickup truck as I walked up to his simple, small and tidy home. Mike met me at the door.
"Dad's on the phone, and he said to wait on the back porch," Mike said as he opened the door.
The old wooden floor creaked as I steppedacross the threshold of this aging house. There was a cheap mat just inside the door. The mat was there to hide the years of wear from countless footsteps that the floor had supported. Although clean, it needed to be replaced.
I felt claustrophobic as I entered the narrow living room, which was filled with old musty overstuffed furniture that today would be collector's items. Sitting on the couch were two women, a little older than my mom. Across from the women sat a man in workman's clothes. He wore khaki slacks and a khaki shirt, neatly pressed but without starch, and polished work books. He was about 10 years older than my dad; I'd say about 45 years old. They smiled as Mike and I walked past them, heading for the kitchen, which lead to the porch that overlooked the back yard. I smiled back shyly.
"Who are those people?" I asked.
"Oh, they work for my dad. The older man runs his warehouses, and the women are the managers of the restaurants. And you saw the construction supervisor, who is working on a road project about 50 miles from here. His other supervisor, who is building a track of houses, had already left before you got here."
"Does this go on all the time?" I asked.
"Not always, but quite often," said Mike, smiling as he pulled up a chair to sit down next to me.
"I asked him if he would teach us to make money," Mike said.
"Oh, and what did he say to that?" I asked with cautious curiosity.
"Well, he had a funny look on his face at first, and then he said he would make us an offer."
"Oh," I said, rocking my chair back against the wall; I sat there
perched on two rear legs of the chair.
Mike did the same thing.
"Do you know what the offer is?" I asked.