When I was a brand new trial attorney working for the Department of Justice, I had a really wonderful colleague and mentor named Barbara Johnson.
Technically we had the same job, but she’d been doing it a lot longer, and she was better at it. She’d also been promoted and transferred all over the United States. She saved me from some truly boneheaded ideas.
Barbara died a few years after I left the government — cancer, much too young — so you’ll forgive me for being a bit sentimental here. But you would have liked her.
Besides sharing some good “how-to-not-get-fired-or-disbarred” advice, we used to just sit and chat in her office, regaling each other with stories.
She’d had an interesting, nonlinear life, lots of ups and downs, lots of entertaining tales. Even back then, I could relate. Here’s a quick story she told me, about the boxes in her house.
You see, Barbara had moved so many times for Uncle Sam that she never really had the chance to unpack.
Finally, she dedicated a weekend to reorganizing, and she realized that among those dozens of cardboard boxes she’d been lugging, a bunch of them were filled with (a) old newspapers and magazines from the 1990s, (b) long-since-irrelevant receipts from dinners and doctor bills, and (c) even the contents of an old recycling bin.
I guess the first move had been on short notice, and the movers had just thrown everything together quickly. Then she’d carted them with her from DC to Hawaii, to California, back to DC, then California again, then Hawaii once more, and finally back to DC.
“Ha ha ha,” she said self-effacingly. I can still see her smiling as she told the story. “Such a packrat.”
I think Barbara would have liked the anecdote I’m going to share next, which I heard much later, and in which another government worker’s packrat tendencies paid off big time.
Gary George was this guy’s name, and he interned at NASA in the early 1970s.
Back then, he had a side hustle, buying and reselling things from government auctions. In 1973, he bought a truckload of used government video tapes, planning to sell them to local television stations that backed up their programs on recycled tape.
Mr. George spent $218 on 1,150 videotapes, and sold just eight of them for $400 total. Then, with no place to store the rest of the tapes, he donated most of the haul to a church for the tax write-off.
At the last minute, George’s dad noticed that three tape boxes were marked, “Apollo 11 EVA.”
“EVA” stood for "extra-vehicular activity,” his dad, a NASA fan, told George, adding: “I think I'd hang onto those. They might be valuable someday.'"
Hang on them, he did, carting them from apartment to apartment and house to house, for decades.
By 2008, George had long since left NASA, but he stayed in touch with some old colleagues. That year, he vacationed with one of them, and the old colleague shared two bits of news:
First, he explained, in 2006, NASA had admitted that it had lost all its copies of the moon landing.
And second, guess who was the NASA employee now in charge of trying to find them? (The buddy, in case that isn’t clear.)
“I was sitting at the table drinking a beer and I said, 'Well, damn, I have those,'" George told Reuters.
OK, the thing sounds a little bit neatly tied up with a bow, but everyone swears it’s just how it came up. As a result, George opened negotiations with NASA.
He’d never actually watched the videos, as he didn’t have the right kind of vintage equipment, but the agency flew George to a California studio to check them out.
Sure enough, he learned, he was the proud owner of the oldest and best-quality recordings of the Apollo 11 landing.
As of last year, the videos had been viewed only twice more: first when George had the contents copied and digitized, and again when officials at the Sotheby's auction house viewed them to verify the contents.
Oh that's right, Sotheby’s, which sold them last year on George’s behalf, in an auction that took place on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing: $1.82 million (plus commission).
It's not known who the winning bidder was. The winning intern, however, is pretty clear.
The moral of the story is…
Well, heck, I’m not sure what the moral is.
Hold onto everything? Have a side hustle? Always stay in touch with old colleagues?
Don’t bother saving for retirement because you probably own something worth millions anyway?
How about this, instead.
Remember your stories, improve them with each telling, and share them with friends.
I think Barbara would have liked that.
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