The virtues of silence

Sometimes, what you don't say is more valuable than what you want tosay

I've always been a member in good standing of the "get it off your chest" school of thought. How dare they behave that way toward me? Boy, I'm going to tell them a thing or two, the first chance I get!

Well, yes, but more often the answer should be no. Everyone has regretted not waiting a while before venting their emotions. The lessons taught at such moments are often nailed to a boomerang, designed to return near the thrower.

I can easily recall two such incidents. One happened after I was drafted into the United States Army. I was sent to a special school in Indiana after basic training, to learn secretarial skills. We anointed ones were to be generals' secretaries. No washing pots and pans? No digging fox holes? That's for me.

There was a guy in my class - I think his name was Gordon - who seemed very decent, and we became quick friends. But one day I saw him opening and reading a letter that was addressed to me. It was from an English friend, Tony, who was titled. His coat of arms on the letter's envelope had caught my friend's eye in the barracks mail call.

Gordon didn't see me watching him. At that moment, our sergeant called me away to a duty assignment. All during my work, I thought of what I was going to tell Gordon. I rehearsed it. I stewed over it. I wallowed in how I'd let him have it, but good.

The first time I saw Gordon again, however, was late that evening. He came rushing in and ran up to me. I said in a tone of cold fury that I wanted to talk with him. Fortunately, before I could open my mouth, Gordon told me he'd buddied-up to the assignments sergeant that night and was able to get him to assign our platoon based on Gordon's suggestions.

There were about 30 of us in the platoon. Gordon sent everyone he didn't like to Korea, which was experiencing unusually inclement weather that winter, and for the seven open slots for Germany he had picked his friends. Gordon told me I was one of the seven. "Isn't that great?" he said. He hoped I was pleased, he added, because I had been such a good friend to him. Then came: "Oh, by the way, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?"

"Who, me? Oh, nothing, actually."

I had nearly two unforgettably happy years in Germany. Thanks, Gordon. That's all I really wanted to say to you. I can only add that Gordon kept for himself the choice assignment: one slot in Puerto Rico. It turned out to be a jungle-based malaria testing station. He had seen himself dancing the carioca with island lovelies, but I don't think that occurred. The base was far away from any town, I was told.

THEN there's the story about my friend from London, Tony, the one whose letter Gordon had opened. Tony had grown up in California, where I'd met him, and he frequently returned there. He would always call me up. We always had at least one meal together, and he never paid the bill. I did, and I wasn't rich at all. I couldn't afford it. When I told my dad I was going to England after graduation from college, he asked if I'd see Tony.

"Not a chance," I said. "That cheapskate always makes me pay for all the meals. I just can't afford it. I'm going to avoid him if it's the last thing I do."

How Tony found out I was arriving on the Mauritania (a Cunard passenger liner in the days when the sea was still the best way to go to Europe), I'll never know. But there he was, waiting for me on the dock at Southampton. I pretended I was pleased. He escorted me to the boat train to London. We sat in this gorgeous railway car, all decorated and plush, but we were the only ones in it. I kept thinking the poor train company was about to go broke, until Tony mentioned it was his private car.

Surely, he was joking?

We got to Waterloo Station late that night, and I was so excited I didn't particularly notice a uniformed man collecting my luggage and carrying it off somewhere at Tony's instruction. The "somewhere" turned out to be Tony's Rolls-Royce. He proudly mentioned that usually this slice of curbing was reserved for the queen. What's going on here? There was a flag with Tony's cipher flying from the hood of his Rolls. I became more and more uncomfortable. I had no training for all of this. Moreover, how could a poverty-stricken cheapskate afford this?

We arrived at a residence about the size of the Los Angeles Hilton, if you thought of it standing on its end. People in livery were waiting for us. I was shown my bedroom on the fourth floor. A very nice butler asked if I wanted him to draw my bath. I had no idea what he was talking about. "Oh, no," I replied. "I can turn it on myself," or something like that.

The next morning, I was awakened by a valet and told that breakfast was ready. I washed, dressed, and raced downstairs in a gilded elevator. I was going to have it out with Tony. I mean, enough is enough for these people who put on such airs when they're broke. This place is not for me. I'm going to tell him that, and check into a bed-and-breakfast I'd heard about.

We sat down for breakfast. A collection of covered silver chafing dishes were carried to my seat. OK, that's it. "Tony...?" I began.

He was throwing down his bacon and eggs, but suddenly said, "We're going to show you Paris and Geneva, too...." Scooping up some more eggs, he said through a full mouth (I was already well aware that Tony loved to eat), "You know, I'll never be grateful enough to you for your kind generosity when I was in California.

"In those days, of course - you probably already know this - we were restricted to taking out of England only about 25 sterling in cash on each trip. Those were tough times, financially, for England, and the Treasury was really strict about that rule. You were so kind to understand and treat me to all those meals. Now it's my turn." He smiled broadly.

"How do I tell Tony that it's OK, now, to stop spending on me this way?" I whispered to his lawyer one night at a dinner party for 12 at a swank restaurant. The kindly solicitor whispered back: "I wouldn't bother. Not only does he control the sixth-largest private fortune in England, but you might offend him. He's so happy to do all this for you, thinking he's paying you back this way." I found myself thinking: Look, who said anything about a bed-and-breakfast?

In fact, I had two desserts that night. I didn't care who noticed. I was celebrating the virtues of silence.

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