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View from the Back Row: Lottery fever

I’ve been thinking about the $2.04 billion dollar lottery purse that someone finally won in Altadena, California, last week. I would bet a quarter that many of you, like me, have entertained fantasies about what you would do with all that money. The odds of winning were roughly one in 292.2 million. To put that in perspective, the National Weather Service says that a person has a 1-in-15,300 chance of getting struck by lightning in their lifetime, defined as an 80-year lifespan. That makes your odds of getting struck by lightning nearly 20,000 times higher than hitting the lucky numbers for last week’s jackpot.

According to data from the University of Florida, people also have a one in 4.3 million chance of being killed by a shark, and fireworks accidents have a one in 340,733 chance of taking your life. Your chance of getting attacked by an alligator is also more than winning the lottery: one in 3.1 million. We all do, however, have a good chance (roughly one in 243) of getting audited by the Internal Revenue Service, and this is before the thousands of new IRS agents that the Biden Administration is supposedly hiring come to work.

Someone has won a staggering amount of money, the largest in Powerball history, and they must identify themselves because California is one of the Powerball states where winners cannot remain anonymous. If the winner takes a single payoff, the pretax lump sum would be $997.6 million dollars. Financial planners, however, say that the smart thing to do would be to avoid the initial tax bill of $369.1 million and draw the money out as an annuity over 30 years. Less than 20% of winners chose this option, preferring to immediately receive the money. Although most of them believe that they would be the exception, these newfound lottery riches often bring bad luck, sadness, and heartache.

It’s known as the “lottery curse:” winning the lottery and then having their “lucky” win turn sour, leading to divorce, bankruptcy, and even death. Here’s just one true story about William Post III, who won $16 million dollars in the Pennsylvania Lottery on a $20 bet. “Everybody dreams of winning money, but nobody realizes the nightmares that come out of the woodwork or the problems,” he said. How could that happen? Unfortunately, Post spent his money wildly. He was smart enough to take a yearly annuity, but he spent his entire first installment, $400,000, in just two weeks. After a year, he was half a million dollars in debt. His girlfriend then sued him, claiming they had agreed to share the money if he won. When she won her court claim, he couldn’t pay, so his lottery payouts were frozen. Next, he had to declare bankruptcy, and he only managed to hold on to about $2.6 million of his winnings, which he immediately spent. He was arrested for assault after firing a shotgun at a man who was pestering him for money. Worst of all, his brother hired a hitman to kill him and his wife, so he’d inherit the money. Post was on wife number six at that point. Thirteen years later, he died alone and penniless. He’d been living off welfare payments. 

The reality is that gambling is a loser’s game. The odds are always stacked in favor of the house. I figured this out for myself the hard way. About 1960, I was on a destroyer escort out of Boston, doing Cold War patrols off Nova Scotia.  A friend of mine liked to play the horses, and one weekend in port he invited me to accompany him to the thoroughbred track at Suffolk Downs in East Boston. I lost every race that I bet on, but I didn’t lose much because they were only $2 bets. To be honest, I picked horses based on their names in the racing form (names like “Bold Commander,” “Fighting Bob,” etc.), but I decided that day that I had other uses for my limited funds than to just throw them away. You might be thinking, “Well, I never gamble;” but that’s not exactly true. Every time you leave home, you are taking a chance that you won’t make it back: car wrecks, slip and falls, drive by shootings, tornados, etc. Even when you get married, you are taking a chance. Almost 50% of all marriages fail. Those are bad odds, but still better than betting against the house at your local casino.

Gambling has been around since the beginning of recorded history. A pair of dice were found in an Egyptian tomb dating from 3,000 BC. Gambling for money was forbidden in ancient Rome, so the Romans invented the first gambling “chips” so they could claim they were not playing for real money if nabbed by the authorities. In the 17th century, the famous Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes, author of “Don Quixote” (1605), wrote about the game of “ventiuna” (21) which we know as “Blackjack.” Also in the early 17th century, the first casino was established in Venice. My first casino experience was at Monte Carlo in Monaco about 1962, although I was smart enough to go bowling for the first time in the basement instead of gambling upstairs.

While the Bible never explicitly outlaws gambling, betting, or playing the lottery, it does warn us to avoid the love of money. For example: “Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it” (Proverbs 13:11, KJV), and “A man with an evil eye hastens after riches and does not consider that poverty shall come upon him” (Proverbs 28:22, KJV).

Some may be surprised to learn that while the Mississippi lottery didn’t come online until 2018, there was a state lottery in Mississippi as early as July 1803. The proceeds were to benefit the recently established Jefferson College in Natchez; however, the idea never caught on and tickets sold were refunded in 1805. Another state lottery attempt was made in February 1867, during Reconstruction, to fund the Mississippi Agricultural and Manufacturing Aid Society. Again, the attempt was unsuccessful and repealed in 1869. The Mississippi Constitution of 1890, infamous for many reasons, and the one still in effect, banned lotteries, and this ban remained in effect until legislation finally passed establishing the current lottery. Ironically, the lottery was sold to the public as “the proceeds would go to education.” In my opinion, the jury is still out on that promise.

What would I do with the money? Simply put, I would like to heal the sick, feed the hungry, mend the broken hearts, house the homeless, clothe the naked, educate the youth, and advocate for world peace as long as the money lasted.  Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can truly say that I’m one of those lucky people who doesn’t need anything. I have no use for a mega yacht, a gold bathtub, or a pet leopard. I loved my Navy and teaching careers, so I’ve never worked a day in my life.

I was raised poor on a dirt scrabble farm, so I never expected much. I didn’t even know I was poor until I went to school and my first-grade classmates made fun of me because I wore the same clothes to school every day. I never had any money until I joined the Navy, and that $90 per month, three hots and a cot looked like high living to me. I sent most of my pay home to my mama for years, and I can remember coming home on leave from Vietnam, when she died, seeing the ground through holes in the floor of the house trailer where she lived. I do, however, have a few simple fantasies that I’d like to pursue. You can tell a lot about people by what they do with their money. It’s a character test, and I would try to pass.

First, I’d like to check into one of those fat farms out in the New Mexico desert for a few weeks. I went to school at New Mexico State, and I saw a couple of them around Las Cruces that seemed to have excellent programs. A few weeks of enough sleep, eating right, and proper exercise would put some more fuel in my tank. I would also like one with a psychological component so that I could work on getting my attitude straight.

Next, I’d like to have daily access to a professional French teacher, preferably a native of Paris, so that I wouldn’t have to depend on “Babel” to keep my French up to date. Like most languages, French is “use it or lose it,” and books and the internet have their limits. I would prefer someone from Paris because I have found them to be “all business, no nonsense” people like natives of New York City.

I guess my one purely materialistic purchase would be a 58-year-old antique automobile. My first ship, the cruiser, USS Springfield (CLG-7), had been overseas for three years, and we came back to Brooklyn, New York, for a long overhaul. First, however, we had to stop at Naval Weapons Station, Yorktown, Virginia, to offload missiles and ammunition. I was on watch topside on the bridge when we pulled alongside and, looking down, I saw the most beautiful car I’d ever seen on the pier – a brand new 1964 Ford Falcon Sprint convertible. It was black, with a red interior, a V-8 engine, and four on the floor. Maybe it was because it was the first new American car I’d seen in three years, but it has stuck in my mind and been my dream car ever since. If you know of one, running or not, give me a call.

While I can think of a couple other things, like renting an old sailboat in Bay St. Louis harbor to live on if I came out of retirement and taught sailing and English at St. Stanislaus College (High School), or leasing  my own space under the canopy in New Orleans’ French Market to sell used books (“The Book Lover:” I have the application form), my final lottery “splurge” might seem a little quixotic: I would spend what was necessary to restart the William Carey University football team.

It makes perfect sense: a university with a medical school, a pharmacy school, a physical therapy school, a nursing school, and the highest-ranking school of education in Mississippi is a school that any football team could be proud of. There is certainly a precedent – Carey fielded a winning team in 1954 and 1955. It was loaded with Korean War veterans and junior college graduates. In fact, the head coach, Les De Vall, came down from Hinds Junior College in Raymond and brought several of his players with him. His assistant coach was Glenn Daughtrey who had been head football coach at Soso High School. When the players were being recruited in early 1954, shortly before the school’s name was changed to William Carey College, it was known as Mississippi Women’s College, and male players for both the baseball and football teams were sometimes derisively referred to by their opponents as the “Skirts.” I even have a coach in mind. I would recommend offering the job to the great but unappreciated coach who made USM a giant killer despite having the lowest athletic budget in Division One football.

This is not meant to be a cautionary tale – winning the lottery or any gambling jackpot, for that matter, has the potential to change lives. You must be in it to win it. But it must be pointed out that, for every winner, there are literally millions, or in this case, billions, of losers.  On one of my around the world cruises, I read the complete works of Charles Dickens. His opening lines to “The Tale of Two Cities” (1859), sum up for me both the positive and the negative aspects of seeing lucky numbers tumble out of the power ball hopper:

It was the best of times,

it was the worst of times,

it was the age of wisdom,

it was the age of foolishness,

it was the epoch of belief,

it was the season of light, 

it was the season of darkness,

it was the spring of hope,

it was the winter of despair.

 

Light a candle for me.

 

Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: villefranche60@yahoo.com.




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