Friday, April 10, 2015

A Boy Named Sue

I was about 13 the first time I was sued.

Actually, sued is a strong word. More like threatened to be sued. But when you're not even in high school and words like attorney, legal action and collection agency are being thrown around, you tend to lose your grasp of the subtleties of the English language.

I liked making models as a kid. While my finished versions never really looked like the photos on the box, something about assembling and having a miniature tank or helicopter or whatever really appealed to me. And the end results weren't too important anyway, since I tended to blow them up with firecrackers or set them on fire, imagining the awful carnage I was inflicting on my 1/32 scale world.

Looking back, perhaps I needed some sort of therapy.

One day I saw an ad in a comic book for something called the Young Model Builder's Club. Sort of like the Columbia House Record Club, you'd pay a penny for your first model, then get a model each month that you'd either pay for or send back. I don't remember the price of the monthly models, I just remember the offer of a free model and sent in my penny.

I had previous experience with Columbia House, carefully picking out the 12 starter albums, then waiting forever until they arrived in the mail. I didn't even get to open the box when my parents intercepted and made me send it back, telling me what a scam the club was and lecturing me on fiscal responsibility. I was pissed, because I could see ZZ Top's "Eliminator" there on the top, just waiting to teach me about being a sharp dressed man.

Luckily, my parents weren't home when the model box showed up. I assembled an F-16, painted it, and then probably blew it up.

Couple weeks later, I got a car. Car models were just OK, because I could actually see those in real life and they didn't have guns or bombs on them. But it was something to assemble, and maybe it would help me learn about engines and stuff when I got older. Oh, there was also a bill enclosed. I think it was for like 8 bucks. I was going to pay, but things got away from me and I forgot all about it.

Weeks later, I got another plane, along with a letter explaining that the Young Model Builders Club really wanted their money. Problem was, I was a little short at the time, and since nobody was really looking to hire 13 year olds, I was going to have to let them slide for a while.

This went on for a while. The letters were piling up, and I'd get scared, but I'd also get another model, so I'd tear the invoices up into little tiny pieces and hide the pieces in a coffee can I stored in the back of my closet. I don't know why I had a coffee can in my closet, but it came in handy in those days before shredders.

For the most part I could put my growing bill out of my mind, but every once in a while I would get a wave of fear washing over me, especially after the more sternly worded letters arrived, but I'd focus on something else, and my fear would shrink away.

Then I got a letter from an attorney, written on actual letterhead and everything. This attorney said that if I didn't send the money immediately, there would be severe legal repercussions. I don't remember how much I owed at that point, I just remembered there was no way I could get it. And I couldn't tell my parents, especially since they had told me before that these clubs were a scam.

I remembered a little figurine in my Uncle Norwood's study: a little man with a huge nose looking disdainfully back at you with the caption "Sue the Bastards" underneath. Now I was the bastard getting sued.
This guy haunted my nightmares.
I had saved a little money by this time, and I thought that if I mailed what that, maybe they'd go easy on me. The problem was, I wasn't sure how to send it. My parents told me never to mail cash, and I didn't really want to ask them to write me a check.

So I waited.

A lot of kids were frightened of nuclear war in the '80s. This is why we grew up to become slackers and grunge musicians. I was probably the only kid in the '80s worried about getting sued before the Russians pushed the button. I would be eating dinner or watching TV and feel the waves of heat cascading through my body while my stomach tightened and gurgled. I was going to jail, or debtor's prison or the stocks, or whatever images I could conjure up from TV or half-remembered history classes.

This seemed to go on for months. Eventually I was able to put the bill out of my mind for the most part. Finally I noticed that I hadn't gotten any letters for a while. In fact, the last one was from the attorney's office and that was a long time ago. I didn't want to jinx anything, but I was pretty sure I was in the clear.

After a few months had passed with no more legal threats, I realized I had learned two important lessons. One, never start a business where your profits are dependent upon middle schoolers mailing payment.  And more importantly, if something is bothering you, the best thing to do is ignore it and hope it goes away. This lesson has come in handy many times since.

 Oh yeah - the other time I got sued. I was in a car accident in Atlanta and I got served papers at 6 AM months later. Once they found out that I was making approximately nothing, that case went out the window also, somehow reinforcing my lesson.

1 comment:

Philip Peterson said...

My friend got a similar letter from the actual record club. I think the "lawyer" was named Lawrence C. Bobbett...