There Are No Free Teddy Bears

Be someone who doesn't let that happen

by Scott Morris

Howard and Margaret Montgomery were parents of a classmate when I studied at Yale Divinity School. I needed a place to live during medical school in Atlanta, and he hooked me up with them. It was supposed to be for a couple of weeks, but it was such a comfortable match that I stayed until I graduated.

On one occasion, I was driving back to Atlanta from a trip to North Carolina. I noticed a traveling carnival was setting up in a small Georgia town and pulled over. They had not actually opened yet, but I was called over by a barker who was running a game that required knocking down ten pins.

He said to me, “Hey, buddy, if you’ll carry around this big stuffed animal and tell people where you got it, I’ll let you have one.”

I assumed it was a trick, so I shook my head.

“Really, no strings attached,” he said. “I need people to come over here and play.”

My defenses came down and I thought, What’s the harm? I chose the stuffed animal I wanted. I thought Margaret might like it.

As I reached for it, he stopped me. “Just so it looks right, you still need to knock down ten pins.”

It wasn’t that hard. After all, I’d been a good baseball pitcher not that long ago.

On my first attempt, I knocked down eight of the ten pins. I still had two more goes. The second completely missed. So did the third.

“No problem,” the barker said. “Just try again.”

I did. With the same result. I tried again. And again. Over and over, I had the same results.

I finally said, “I don’t seem to be able to do it. But I’ll make sure everyone knows where I got the stuffed animal.” I reached for the bear.

His attitude shifted. “Hey man, you owe me $248.”

I looked in his eyes, stunned. How could I be so stupid? I felt three inches high.

“But I don’t have that much money,” I said.

“Wait here.” He was angry.

I was sweating bullets, but I waited.

A very large man appeared. “Step around here.”

I walked behind the curtain.

“You owe us money.”

I told my version of the story.

“Do you really think we would just give you a bear? How stupid do you think we are?”

Not as stupid as someone with a college degree from the University of Virginia, a master’s from Yale, and working on an MD from Emory.

“But I don’t have the money.”

“Show me your wallet.”

I opened it, and he took every penny I had. I tucked my tail between my legs and left.

Things happen that you cannot take back. You can’t let those things define you.

When I got home, it was after eleven. I tried to be quiet, but when I walked past the living room, Howard called out a greeting. I laid out the whole miserable experience. He didn’t condemn or criticize. He listened. When I finished, I felt better.

After a bit of silence, Howard said, “Things happen that you cannot take back. You can’t let those things define you. You are more than what happened today. People are taken advantage of every day. You need to be someone who doesn’t let that happen.”

“Yes, sir.” I stood and climbed the stairs to bed. Thirty-five years later, I’ve never forgotten what Howard said. I see him sitting there waiting for me, and I hope and pray I can be there for someone as foolish as I was so as not to let one moment be defining.

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