On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Adventures In Banking
Among the many small decisions one makes when mapping out their life, some of them are truly inconsequential but others develop into long-lasting, practical choices. A person may wish to drive a Mercedes, a Lamborghini, or a Rolls Royce, but settle for a Ford or a Chevy because of personal finances. In truth, many or even most of us have owned one or more cars manufactured by the relative giants of the auto industry, whether or not the car models are American, Japanese, British, German, Italian, French, or Korean. Availability, price, and access to maintenance services are all important considerations. Such factors tend to weaken one’s preference toward a Lamborghini.
Price is not an issue when choosing a bank, but access to services and maintenance of the account are legitimate considerations. That is why the Footloose Forester deliberately chose to open up and maintain a Bank of America account in California in the early 1960s. He was a freshly minted forester who decided to build his career in the West and knew that travel was very much in his plans; indeed frequent travel was part of his duties within a firm of consulting foresters. Some jobs were hundreds of miles apart and he found himself… On the road….again!!! dozens of times throughout the year. Bank of America had over 500 branches in California during those early years, and they regularly boasted their network-building goals to include an international banking division. That was the kind of convenience of access and maintenance that he was looking for. You might think that his experiences were bound to become a chronicle entitled Adventures in Banking.
There are those times when we run short of cash and feel pressed to visit our local bank to regain our solvency. When he was growing up in tiny Netcong, New Jersey he had his own bank account, in accordance with the prudence suggested of the adults around him. But he soured on the intransigence of the Citizens National Bank of Netcong to cash a check for a mere $15 because it was drawn on another bank only 45 miles away; and the fact that he had recently closed his account in Netcong when he went off to college. Small town bank with small-town attitudes. Sorry, they said, we know who you are and where your family lives, but bank policy does not allow us to cash your check unless you have an account here. No wonder that thinking on a grander scale is imperative when making certain career plans. We are not talking about investment banking here, we are talking about cashing a small check in a small town with one bank.
Fast forward to California and to another small town, Auburn, California. The difference was that Auburn, California had a Bank of America branch office. Over the years, the choice of a major player in the banking world made a lot of difference in remaining solvent in times of meeting an immediate need for cash, but also when planning and executing major purchases. A few of those stories are so bizarre that the Footloose Forester really did think of them as Adventures in Banking.
Before the days of credit cards for the average citizen, cash in hand was the principal option when traveling. Of course, travelers’ checks were around but only a few companies issued them. On the one hand, some merchants in some countries did accept travelers’ checks, but not from all issuers. Some accepted American Express checks, but not others. Others accepted Bank of America Travelers Cheques and American Express, but refused the rest. In most places and at most times, it was cash only. Yes, in the good old days travel planning was more problematical than we might otherwise remember.
Getting down to cases….the Bank of America account of the Footloose Forester allowed him to write and cash checks in any of the more than 1,000 branches in California, to quickly access ATM machines in major airports around the world, to obtain local currency at midnight at an ATM in Malta, and other places he does not remember.
With his California account number, the Footloose Forester got cash over the counter at branch offices in Saigon; Hanau, Germany; Singapore, Jakarta, Dakar, Senegal, and Hong Kong. The latter episode was especially memorable because although he was expecting a modern bank setting, when he approached the teller in the Hong Kong branch and asked to withdraw $800, the man took his withdrawal slip, turned around, and went up a flight of stairs to check on the account number. When he returned, and with few words, he opened a wooden box behind the counter and came out with eight $100 dollar bills. A small stack of loose bills from a wooden box! A far cry from trying to cash a check for $15 in Netcong, New Jersey.
On another occasion, a Philippine colleague in Viet Nam asked the Footloose Forester to buy him an expensive pair of shoes in Hong Kong and offered a signed check from his own Bank of America account in Manila. The Hong Kong branch acknowledged the legitimacy of the account and cashed the check. Colleague Balbino Roca got his pair of expensive Florsheim shoes, by way of Hong Kong.
Not all stories about banks and bank employees are upbeat. The German woman who made an entry in his Bank of America savings book in Hanau credited him with $100 dollars more than he actually held in the account. When Footloose Forester asked her to double-check the balance, she quite arrogantly stated that bank employees don’t make mistakes. You just can’t make up some things, one reason why that episode in 1963 stuck in his head. Nevertheless, she did take the deposit booklet into the back room and soon came back with the corrected total. Did she acknowledge her mistake? Of course not.
The biggest screw-up turned out to be a howler. The Footloose Forester bounced a check for $5,000 at a car dealership in Gainesville, Florida. Before he departed the University of Florida with his Masters Degree in Forestry, he planned to hit the road with a new car. The Chevy dealership in Gainesville accepted his personal check on a local bank as a partial down payment, with the intention of using his Bank of America check as final payment upon delivery of the car. They held the BofA check, awaiting the delivery of the Chevy Vega from a regional distributor. Oh, the dealer’s representative was proud to hand over the keys after checking it out himself prior to handing the keys over. We left Gainesville for good the following day, as part of the plan to get… On the road…again!!! Maybe we should have delayed a bit. The Chevy Vega was out of alignment and should never have passed their dealer's inspection. It cost plenty to do an alignment, and although the Chevy dealer in New Jersey fixed it, they flat out refused to accept the work under the terms of the warranty. A bitter lesson learned. But we had one good, last laugh. The BofA check for $5,000 bounced.
Bank of America, in its San Francisco office, did not transfer the sum of $5,000 from his Auburn, California checking account into his Gainesville, Florida checking account, as requested some 2-3 months prior. Instead, they mailed him a check for $5,000 to his erstwhile mailing address in Viet Nam (with an APO San Francisco address). It took a couple of months to even find out what happened when he opened his forwarded mail to find a check made out to him, and not transferred between banks. Yes, the car dealer eventually got his money. And he had a story for the ages. Some stories you just can’t make up and this was one of them.