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Sixty-Something: The Stupid Mistakes

T.J. Clemente

Michael Milken,Courtney Ross and David Koch. (Photo: T.J. Clemente)

I am always fascinated when I hear sixty-something folks talking about their lives saying that if they were to do it all over again, they wouldn't change anything. I can equivalently say I would change almost everything. I don't just mean things like where I went to college, which house I bought, cars purchased, and where I went on vacations, I mean almost everything. In fact there are only a few things I did right. However there were mistakes, errors in judgment, etc. and there were the really stupid mistakes.

What defines a stupid mistake is the pure stupidity of the action. Case in point: Back in my twenties, I was driving from Pelham, New York to Killington, Vermont. On a Friday night, I had worked all day in my dad's rag factory and had to stay late, past 9 p.m., for a late truck from out of state to be unloaded. After driving home and showering and washing up I loaded up my yellow VW bug (actually my brother Elia's that he loaned to me) and headed out on the 5-6-hour trip to Vermont. However somewhere around Albany it began to snow. Traffic was moving at half speed due to the snow. Eventually I was finally on Route 4E just perhaps 20 miles away when I stopped for gas. It must have been 3-4 in the morning, and I had to pump the gas and pay at the attendant who stood next to me while I pumped the gas at the self-service lane. Full service was closed. It was cold, snowy, and I was tired. Back then a full tank for the Bug was only $12-$15. I jumped back into the car, with only a marginal heater in those days and a defroster that left the windshield visible through a defrosted size of a pineapple clear spot on the driver's side. Boom I was on the road thinking soon I would be in a bed at the family condo at Whiffletree near the ski lifts. It was snowing hard and I was very tired and going very slow in the heavy snow. It was only an hour or so later when I saw I sign that I could read saying Glens Falls, N.Y. that I saw the Route 4W sign and realized after the gas fill-up, I went in the wrong direction on Route 4 and had to turn around to go back in the right direction. Passing that gas station an hour later in early morning daylight and seeing the attendant looking at my me from the pumps made me feel as stupid as stupid gets. That's a stupid mistake.

Equaling as stupid was the mistake I made one of the times I rented an apartment in Chamonix, France, long before emails and the internet. Payments were "mailed" in envelops with checks and a letter explaining what the check was for. Arrangements had to be negotiated over long distant phone calls, many times with weird sounds and echoes in the background. When I finally arrived at "Agency One" in Chamonix at 8 a.m. after an all-night flight to Genera from JKF, followed by a short drive to France I had to wait for the place to open. The family was asleep in the rented car filled with suitcases and skis. You can only imagine the look on my face when the girl at the agency found someone who spoke English only to explain to me my reservation was for next month. That was a stupid mistake.

However they were relatively private stupid mistakes. My last example was very public and happened when I was reporting on a Michael Milken Tennis Benefit at the Ross School (2009) in East Hampton that raised $1M for Prostate Cancer research. I emailed in the story with some photos. Afterward an intern from the paper's office called to ask who was in the pictures. I said the names over the phone. You can only imagine how wonderful I felt when 70,000 copies of the magazine where distributed throughout the Hamptons with my article but with the photo that had the name of David Koch, with his name spelled as David Coke. Yes, I was called by a very high powered publicist calling me "stupid." Luckily, it was corrected on the website version of the article, but not on the page of all 70,000 of those printed magazines.

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