Letter from the Editor

Monday, October 9, 2006

Fickle finger of fate

The Iowa Lottery sends in a picture of a nice, regular looking couple from Fort Dodge, clutching at a check with an obscene number of zeroes on it, with that deer in the headlights look about them.

They won the Powerball jackpot, worth, if I recall correctly, $200 bajillion gazillion wadkillion dollars, give or take a trumpnillion or three.

They still seem pretty regular. He isn't wearing a full-length Dennis Rodman mink stoll without a shirt, yet, and she isn't... well, she's not married to Kevin Federline, yet.

He plans to keep his gig wiping down used cars as the local car lot, and she plans to keep on working the bad shift at Wal-Mart.

Personally, if I won 79 cents, I'd be out of here, but you have to be humble at those lottery press conferences. You have to play it by the book. I wonder if they have it on cue cards:

"This will not change us, or our lifestyle. We may have more money than several major European counties, but of course I will be right back at my job scrubbing out porta-poties on Monday morning. We will use the money to pay some bills."

Bills? If you have $200 million in bills, you've already been living the good life.

What would you buy? Some new shingles to replace the ones that blew away? A nice pickup? Popcorn at the theater instead of sneaking homemade in inside your jacket? A six-pack of socks with no holes in the toes? A six pack of, well, not socks?... So, let's see, that leaves you $199,972,326.99 still to deal with.

Thankfully, the government will be there to molest - er, assist - them. Most of that Fort Dodge prize is en route to Iraq as we speak.

Still, you can't just buy regular people stuff. You have to buy things like vintage Ferraris, islands, and families of indentured servants to make a dent.

I'm not opposed to filthy richness, but let's look at the tale of the tape here.

Since Jack Whittaker won $113 million in the lottery in 2002, he's gone to jail for assault and drunk driving. His marriage broke up and his teenage granddaughter was found dead after reports of drug use.

Michael Klingenbeil was sued by his own mother who tried to get a large part of his winnings, and succeeded.

Lewis Snipes won $31.5 million picking the winning numbers for his wife in 1988. After four years of court battling, they are divorced and the family is in ruins.

Paul McNabb won million, and endured repeated break-ins to his home and kidnap threats to his children, and wound up as a cab driver in Las Vegas.

Mack Metcalf and his second wife, Virginia Merida, shared a $34 million lottery jackpot in 2000. By 2003, they were broken up, he was dead. Complications from alcoholism at only 45. Her body was found decomposed in her bed. Possible drug overdose.

I don't see any word anywhere on Hugh Hawkins, the previous holder of the lottery record in Iowa. Has he disappeared?

I'm not sure how he's making out these days, but I do recall reading all kinds of dirty laundry after he won - about how he attended three different colleges without graduating from any, has passed through a string of jobs and professions with little achievement, his history of getting thousands behind in child support payments to a previous wife, running up tens of thousands of dollars in debts on multiple credit cards, and taking bankruptcy just months before winning the lottery to escape a mountain of debts when he was down to his last $250. Somehow he still had the itch to blow a few bucks of the family grocery money on Powerball tickets. "I spent the better part of the week scratching my head and giggling," he said at the time. I think I'd disappear too if I was him.

You can't really be jealous of the big winners. Especially the ones who still seem like regular people.

I wish the Fort Dodge couple well in staying that way.

And honestly, I don't know if I'd want to change places with them.

Handling those kinds of millions would be hard work, and if I wanted hard work, friends, I wouldn't be in this job.

A winner needs a team of attorneys, public relations spokespersons, accountants, investment advisors, foundation directors, and then another team of attorneys to fight all those people when they skim off your fortune.

You would probably have to flee your home, if not your country, to escape the thieves, conmen, long-lost friends, shirt-tail relations, golddiggers and trumped out charities that would haunt your every waking hour. You couldn't go out in public without people pointing, all waiting for the lottery curse to nail you.

Worse, there would be no reason to get out of bed and go do what you do anymore. What satisfaction do you get from owning things you know you haven't earned? No need to save for anything, and thus appreciate it.

The best thing would be to unload it on a good charity and hope to escape with your comfortable old life intact.

With that kind of dough, a guy could outfit Mr. Goodfellow's needy children in chinchilla, diamond ankle bracelettes and ostrich boots. Nope, that doesn't seem quite right, either.

Money doesn't buy happiness, but darn it, it sure can rent some, and I hope those nice people in Fort Dodge can hang onto it.

For the rest of us slobs, there is something noble in the act of making a budget stretch implausibly to cover the bills every month, having to wait to fulfill your wants, and yelling at your kids to turn the lights off if they aren't in their rooms and to save their birthday money for college.

There is something to be said for simply not buying what you can't pay for, for knowing that whatever you do have, you earned. For doing your level best to pay everyone you owe, and for scratching your head and giggling for a week only when someone has told a very, very funny joke about your dandruff.

I've played Powerball a few times - never matched one number, not one. I have better odds of being appointed Princess of Wales. I guess you and I are just not lucky folks.

But then again, as we consider the track record of past winners, maybe we've been the lucky ones all along.