It’s not (just) about the Gold
Since the beginning of recorded history, the lure of gold has drawn men and women to it like a moth to flame. A Greek traitor told the Persian King Xerxes about a secret goat trail that would enable his personal bodyguard, The Ten Thousand Immortals, to outflank and defeat King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans in the mountain pass at Thermopylae. The asking price was his weight in gold, which the Persians granted to him and then buried him with it.
Legend speaks of Midas, whose fascination with gold was so intense that he wished for – and received – the ability to turn everything he touched into this shiny metal. Seeing his own daughter turn into a gold statue did not faze him. He was only brought to his senses, when the very food he tried to eat choked him as it too became gold.
During WW II in 1943, a Japanese I-Boat, known as Japan’s “Golden Submarine” was sunk by the Allies as it headed for Nazi-occupied territory to exchange its load of bullion for uranium oxide, in an attempt to make a “dirty” bomb.
During that same war, Allied airmen were given in their survival kit, in addition to fire starting and signaling supplies – for barter, gold rings, gold French Francs and British Sovereigns.
After the Nazis came to power in Germany and began persecution of the Jews which would eventually lead to the Holocaust, a Jewish family escaped to America by taking their store of gold, hammering it into the shape of wooden chest hinges, and painting those hinges black to disguise its valuable status when they booked passage out of the country.
In early 1980, as the last gold bull market was topping, a college in a small West Coast community was looking at being forced to close because of a lack of funding – which neither state nor local sources had been able to provide. At the last minute, a member of the community showed up to a Board meeting and donated a wooden box full of gold coins. The people tasked with “monetizing” the golden windfall were unsure about whether or not they should wait for higher prices before selling, but chose to act soon thereafter, selling at around $800/ounce – very near the top in terms of price and time – a level that would not again be reached for another 27 years.
A writer known to most investors in the resource sector community, while in Central America some years ago had his wallet stolen, just before he was to return to the U.S. Standing on a table at the airport, he waved a gold chain he was carrying, seeking exchange (which he got) for an airline ticket back to the States.
So there are still a lot of reasons for owning gold, but as with the pursuit of anything else, it’s helpful, over the course of one’s life, to keep things in perspective.
Off to the Klondike!
The Klondike Gold Rush got underway in 1897, when ships docking in Seattle and San Francisco off loaded miners returning from the Yukon carrying bags of gold. This event morphed into one of the great gold rushes of all time. Perhaps the most vivid and enduring description ever written of it was Pierre Berton’s Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896 – 99. As other historians have noted, many who braved the hardships of getting into the North Country to search for gold, didn’t even try to find it when they got there. Apparently just the act of making the trip was a “golden experience” in and of itself.
About this historical period, Poet and Writer Robert Service – known as “the Bard of the Yukon” wrote the following poem, entitled “The Spell of the Yukon”
I wanted the gold and I sought it; / I scrabbled and mucked like a slave. / Was it Famine or Scurvy – I fought it; / I hurled my youth into a grave. / I wanted the gold and I got it – / Came out with a fortune last fall.- / Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it. / And somehow the gold isn’t all.
A few days before the end of December, 2013, a wealthy New Yorker worth an estimated $800 million, after having given away his fortune to a variety of charities, committed suicide. The UK Independent reported it this way:
“Hedge fund multi-millionaire Robert W. Wilson, 87, leapt from the 16th floor of his luxury San Remo apartment building, a prestigious address in New York’s Upper East Side which has been the residence of Steven Spielberg, Demi Moore, Glenn Close, Dustin Hoffman, Bono, Steve Martin, Bruce Willis and Steve Jobs in the past.”
By just about any monetary measure, Mr. Wilson had achieved great success in his life. The donation of his fortune to charities is to be commended. By such a yardstick, his material success exceeded what most people could dream about attaining. We don’t know about the other elements of his life and how they all came together for this final act. And it certainly is not our place to second-guess his behavior. But it does seem to say something about the path that all mortals must walk, the importance of thinking carefully about what we truly value, how we want to travel on this plane, and what kind of legacy we hope to leave behind. I would suggest, in the greater scheme of things, that the message Robert Service wrote about in his description of the Klondike Gold Rush well over a century ago, is just as true today – and will remain so a century from now – as it was then.
A life well lived, is much more than “Just about the gold”.
Transcribed on a building wall in Dawson City, Yukon
The “balanced” life seems to be about a number of things – nurturing strong relationships, giving as well as receiving, expressing gratitude, being resilient, holding a belief in something larger than oneself, having a bit of luck from time to time, and yes making some money too. But given that we are imperfect beings – often tossed to and fro by the events of the day, it definitely helps to “stay in touch” with our core values, and realign ourselves to them from time to time. Going on autopilot for many years and assuming the details will take care of themselves, is not always the best course of action.
In recognition of the effort that all of us must make, which I believe calls for a certain amount of regular introspection, I close each issue of The Morgan Report with the following – a message I sincerely extend to each and every one reading these words:
Until next month, wishing you health above wealth, and wisdom beyond knowledge,