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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories–Worms!

The Worm King of Cleveland Street

This is a long story. Shepherd gives an idea about learning to be an entrepreneur; how a business gets started; how one becomes emotionally attached to one’s endeavour; how one even becomes attached to one’s employees (in this instance, worms). And, by the end, how a business can go bust!

There was one time that I was known as “The Worm King of Cleveland Street.”  I probably know as much about the lowly earthworm as any man that you will ever encounter in your life.  I’m not talking about scientific knowledge.  You’ll have to go to a scientific worm man for that.  But for pure, pragmatic worm operation, the knowledge of the worm’s subtle needs and desires, I am a man who has thought a great deal about the lowly worm.

I’m just going to give a word of advice to any of you kids—if you want to get into the big dough, you’re tired of scratching around, clinging to your old man’s knee trying to gauge him for another forty dollars, and you’d like to go into a great, very satisfying business, I couldn’t too highly recommend the worm business.

It’s highly competitive.  And furthermore, it has its elements of speculation.  Because you can be wiped out in twelve minutes and all your worm stock is gone and there you are, standin’ around shifting from foot to foot with customers banging on the door and you got no worms!

How I got started in the worm business—I’m gonna give you that, because most of the great tycoons, really great men, all can tell you almost to the day when they began to be involved in the empire that they later built.  And there was a time that I actually had an empire.  Even now, when I’m visiting somebody and I’m walking down some suburban street after a rain and I see an earthworm crawling across the sidewalk, it’s an exciting sight for me.  When I see a big, beautiful, healthy earthworm crossing from one side of the sidewalk to the other, I can hardly restrain myself from picking him up and bringing him home and adding him to my stock.  It’s exciting!  To most people, a worm is just a worm.  I imagine they don’t think of worms, but I often think of worms because they provided one of the cornerstones of my life.

How it happened.  My old man, in the springtime, like a lot of office workers, was a once-in-a-while-rarely-weekend fisherman type.  There wasn’t much fishing around there.  There were a couple of lakes in our area.  Cedar Lake, Wolf Lake.  Once in a while the old man, on a Sunday, would announce that the next weekend he’s gonna go fishing.

I kind of festered as a kid in this place out in Indiana, and worms are not plentiful out there.  Well, all of you had little jobs when you were a kid that you had to do at home.  The old man says, “Now look, I want you to clean out the garage this week,” or, “Don’t give me any argument, I want this basement cleaned this week.”  This is the kind of thing that kids are used to.  One of the ones that would always bug me is the old man would say, “I’m going to go fishing next Saturday with Zudak and Gertz and the gang.  I want you to go out and dig up some worms.”

So I would go out with a shovel into a vacant lot and start digging around for worms.  If you’ve never dug for worms you’d think this is a fairly dull job.  It is not.  It contains all the excitement of hunting.  Furthermore, it contains the excitement of suddenly finding yourself back in your basic element, that feeling that man has sprung from earth like toadstools and mushrooms.  The deeper you dig into the earth, the more you’re driven to dig deeper.  I can’t explain this.  It is a fact.  That if you start digging a hole, you want to dig it deeper!

This can be carried to ridiculous lengths.  In fact, I understand that out on the West Coast someplace there’s a company that’s dug a hole that’s twelve miles deep.  They haven’t found anything yet.  They’re still digging.

I’ve often wondered—if you dig deeper and deeper, what is in the middle of the Earth?  There’s a lot of conjecture, but nobody really knows.  There’s the golf ball theory.  That the earth is like a big golf ball and if you were to slice it right down the middle at the Equator or from Pole to Pole, in the middle is this great big center of tightly wound rubber.

It’s just a theory.  Don’t yell at me.  I don’t invent these theories.

Much more “Worms” to come!

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