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Growing Up (Part V)

Adam M. Grossman  |  September 14, 2017

ONE OF MY favorite activities as a child was to play with a tomahawk at my grandparents’ house. Yes, that was in the days before the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But in this case, it wouldn’t have made a difference: This particular tomahawk was no toy, but rather the real thing. It belonged to my grandfather. His name was Walking Buffalo, and he was a member of the Assiniboine, a Native American tribe who live on the Plains of Montana.

To be sure, my grandfather wasn’t born Walking Buffalo. To his friends and neighbors, his name was Sidney, and he looked like any other retiree on the quiet suburban street where he lived.

So how did Sidney become Walking Buffalo? In the years following World War II, the government dismantled the network of submarine nets that had been in place to protect our harbors. If you’re not familiar with them, submarine nets were constructed from a set of interlocking metal loops, each of which stretches several feet across.

That’s when my grandfather entered the picture, purchasing thousands of these surplus metal loops from the government. The details here are particularly hazy, but somehow, in the 1960s, my grandfather learned that some Native American tribes were struggling to contain their cattle. And somehow, he also learned that the loops from these deconstructed nets would be the perfect solution to this problem. How this all happened, no one knows. In any case, after he learned about the tribe’s needs, he donated all the loops that he had. They worked as expected, and the cattle problem was solved. In gratitude, the Assiniboine inducted my grandfather into their tribe as a blood brother.

As a child, the tomahawk, along with his headdress, were great fun to play with. As I grew older, though, I came to appreciate some larger lessons from the story of Walking Buffalo.

Primary among them: If one is in a position to do a kindness for someone, or some group, one should do it without any expectation of being repaid. Sure, we all need to put food on the table. But it’s also important to avoid feeling that we need to extract every nickel from every person we encounter. It is not inconsistent both to run a business and to help others along the way.

Another lesson: Truly outstanding investment opportunities usually lie somewhere off the beaten path, but only if you know what you’re looking for. In the case of the submarine nets, this was not a random purchase. My grandfather had prior experience with surplus materials. In fact, I recall once tagging along with him to an auction preview. Among the items on display were a decommissioned rollercoaster, in pieces, as well as one of President Kennedy’s rocking chairs. (As far as I know, my grandfather bought neither.) For most investors, I advocate simplicity. But it is also true that, if you understand what you are looking at and know how to assess value, there can be terrific opportunities among more obscure investments.

A final lesson: Our ability to succeed is driven largely by the coach or naysayer in our own heads. In his later years, my grandfather’s movement was more limited, but he never let it slow him down. In fact, even in his 80s, he was busy working to put together an unusual real estate project—one, alas, that never came to fruition. The idea was to buy an old, abandoned shipyard and turn it into a mixed-use development. And how was this to be financed? Somehow, from his home, with just a telephone and a spiral notebook, my grandfather had lined up the Bank of Tokyo. This was during the heady, late 1980s peak of Japan’s global financial ambitions, and the bank was set to foot the entire nine-figure bill. It was a reminder, if ever there was one, that many limitations exist solely in our own minds.

This is the fifth blog in a series. Click here to read the four earlier parts, as well as other articles on kids and money.

Adam M. Grossman’s previous blogs include By the Book, Go Fish and Site Seeing (Part III). Adam is the founder of Mayport Wealth Management, a fixed-fee financial planning firm in Boston. He’s an advocate of evidence-based investing and is on a mission to lower the cost of investment advice for consumers. Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamMGrossman.

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