March 19, 1993
NEW ORLEANS – In the spring of 1961, a Topekan named Daryl Schoonover drove his family to Washington, DC for a sightseeing vacation, and invited me to dinner one night. I was there working in President Kennedy’s physical fitness and sports program, and my family had not yet joined me.
Schoonover charged the meal to an American Express card. I had heard of the card, but this was the first time I had seen one in operation. I asked him about it, because the idea of putting off paying for anything always has appealed to me.
He said all I had to do was apply and prove to American Express I was a person of at least modest means. The next day I found a number to call and told a few lies.
I said I was a member of the White House staff, and left the impression the nature of my work was rather confidential. I padded my salary by about 30 percent. I gave my address as the Executive Office Building, next to the White House, where we had had a temporary office before moving to a relatively dingy government building.
It worked. In no time at all I had a card, and I carried one for the next 32 years. I bring this up because this trip to New Orleans, the Crescent city on the mighty Mississippi, is my first one without the card. This year it finally dawned on me the annual fees for cards for me and my wife no longer made any sense.
Now, here I am, and I feel a little less sure of myself. I am really not certain I will make it home. I feel a little like a second-class traveler, wondering if I will be welcome at the finer places, if I should by chance stray into one. We’ll see.
My experience with the American Express card was a rewarding one for both sides. I charged just about everything imaginable to it, and never had a hassle of any kind with the company. I was staggered by some of the bills, but that’s a normal penalty of charge accounts.
The original credit cards weren’t as dangerous to your financial health as the bank cards of today, because there was no minimum payment. When you got a bill from American Express, or from Diners Club or Carte Blanche, it was due in full.
Life’s most embarrassing moment for cardholders who abused the privilege of having them would come when some alert cashier not only would refuse to accept a card for payment, but also would confiscate it and cut it up, right in front of your very eyes.
Now, credit card debt is a way of life , and the proliferation of bank cards, many with no annual fee, has made the going extremely tough for the companies that started it all.
Another card that used to boost the ego and make traveling easier was membership in airline VIP clubs, such as TWA’s Ambassadors Club and American’s Admirals Club. The cards were given to frequent flyers and admitted you to plush lounges in major airports. They featured free phones and work areas, small conference rooms and reasonable drinks.
Today they’re commercial. The airlines charge $150 per year for membership, and in Philadelphia during the recent storm one member had to threaten “an act of civil disobedience” before the US Air Club would let 200 members sleep in the lounge rather than in the hall outside.
I mentioned the VIP cards were given to frequent flyers comma and they were, but not always. Topeka’s travel agency baron, the late Tom King, got me a TWA card in 1960, almost before I knew how to get to the airport. However, the best VIP club I belonged to was Continental’s, where the drinks were free and, in most airports, you mixed them yourself.
The financial woes of airlines are well known, and recently I thought of airlines I once flew that have disappeared. Off the top of my head I named Northeast, Capital, National, Allegheny, Piedmont, Braniff, Central, Frontier and Trans-Texas, not to mention Trans-Kansas.
I started this column by mentioning Daryl Schoonover, and I will close it with him. He was well known for many reasons, including being one of the best golfers in the state, being Topeka’s Lincoln-Mercury dealer and later, the Volkswagen dealer, and for being one of the great practical jokers of all time.
You’ve heard this before, but I’ll repeat it . He sold me a Volkswagen and in those days, they had no gasoline gauge. When you ran out of gas you turned a lever under the dash and you had about three more gallons.
Schoonover secretly added gas to my car at night, and I kept telling him what amazing mileage I was getting. Then he started secretly draining gas from it. And I couldn’t get around the block without running out.
It was when I raised hell about the car leaking gas that he broke down. Or rather, broke up.