`I didn't know we had a coat of arms'

A friend who is a lawyer because, as he says, he flunked out of divinity school came by the other day to borrow my sneakers, and I asked him if an aggrieved citizen has any recourse when he gets caught up in a computer and can't get out. He gave me the following advice: ``Ha, ha, ha!'' Then he told me that he had recently suffered severe anguish and continued emotional stress when, by computer error, he got 23 consecutive monthly bills from the gas company for $00.00. After the first three, he began to get nasty letters impugning his reliability, and they became successively more abusive until he was at last brought into small claims court. There, he said, he had only to prove that he was not the true debtor, and that the bills should have gone to quite another person who happens to have the same name but lives in Yonkers, N.Y., where there is a gas company. He said that in a flippant moment he asked for punitive damages and costs, and the judge awarded him $00.00. But he added, ``I had to take it in food stamps.''

I mention this because our family coat of arms has been in a computer since quite some time before Christmas, and I have been getting nasty letters that, I can see, could lead to small claims. It began innocently enough when my spouse was looking at the junk mail one evening and said, ``I didn't know we had a coat of arms.''

``Oh, yes,'' I said. ``It comes down on one side from Attila the Hun, and on the other side it says `Made in Taiwan.' ''

``It says here,'' she says, ``We have a coat of arms and I can get it on a crystal goblet. Doesn't say where it's made.''

``Very interesting,'' I said.

``Wonder what our coat of arms looks like?''

``Why don't you buy a crystal goblet and find out?''

``I don't want a crystal goblet.''

After a conversational tilt like that I usually find it difficult to get back to some such book as the contemplation of theocracy in the reforms of Alcibiades, so I stared at the wall a few moments and wondered what our family coat of arms might look like and why anybody would put it on a crystal goblet. I was truly relieved when she said, ``I think I'll send and get one.''

Life has not been the same since.

The goblet arrived and it is beautiful. Somebody with talent and imagination has cooked up a coat of arms for our family, and we are as well fixed as the Plantagenets. Since our family came out of midland England in company of coopers, thatchers, poachers, shingle shavers, and assorted low-life (if respectable) tax evaders who were asked to leave by the authorities, the presumption of heraldic escutcheons is whimsical. If we should have a coat of arms, it would probably show two pitchforks crossed against a field of winter rye, gules and fess, with the motto ``Peace, Poverty, Penurity, and Paucity.'' If such prevailed, I can hear my grandfather, now, explaining that Peace is a mistake for pease, as in pease porridge hot. But thanks to a glass blower with a merchandising specialist, I now have a valid armorial bearing which I can attach to a bed sheet and sally forth with all the dignity of Sir Galahad.

So, having seen what our coat of arms looks like, my curious wife terminated the mail order research by sending a check and closing the matter out. Accordingly, every month we get a package containing two more crystal goblets with our family coat of arms, and it's like the salt machine in the nursery tale that keeps on grinding salt deep in the unfathomable ocean. And, I get these nasty letters. Every time we return a package, we get two more. There is nobody to talk to. The goblets come from Georgia, the bills come from Montana, and the nasty letters come from New Jersey. I finally got to a man who promised surcease, but he added, ``You may get two or three more packages before I can reprogram.''

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