So Schwartz and Flick and Bruner and Shepherd and Emdee, and a few other guys and stragglers from the neighborhood, one hot summer afternoon, set out down towards the end of the street. There was a big vacant lot down there. Great, big, fantastic lot that was covered with weeds. The big weeds. Weeds just grew waist high, neck high. Stickers, thorns, thistles, swamp, snakes, bugs, frogs, grasshoppers, groats, crummies—the whole business. It was all growing out there.
So one day we decided we were going to build a ball diamond. I have a sense of involvement when I hear stories of guys building pyramids because—I don’t know whether you ever tried to build a ball diamond in a giant jungle when you were a kid. But me and Schwartz and Flick and Bruner and Emdee, for what must have been three weeks, every day from morning to night—we slaved with little hand sickles, cutting away weeds. I had a blister starting six inches out from my hand that went all the way down to the soles of my feet and about six inches into the ground. Shepherd’s one big blister. I was one big walking blob of water. If you’d have stuck me—Aaaaaagh!
You don’t stop. The blisters break, you keep going, chopping away. So we were chopping away, chopping away for two or three weeks. You could see the ground! For the first time in this area. We found all kinds of stuff. Junk that had been there for years, old Indian-head pennies, we found stuff from the seventeenth-century. The ground had never been cleared. It was a great sense of real accomplishment.
We had gotten ourselves some chicken wire, which we’d stolen somewhere. We made a backstop out of it with big sticks holding it up. We made baselines, we put sand around the home plate area. And there it was—it was a baseball diamond. And we started to play on our own baseball diamond—Schwartz and Flick and Bruner and Emdee and me and all the guys. What a great time! What a fantastic moment of success!
We would choose up every morning. And kids play ball—I mean really dedicated ball players—they start at the absolute crack of dawn. Instantly after breakfast you started playing ball and you did not stop playing ball until around eleven-thirty at night. You know, when it says that Mickey Mantle at bat went two for four, on a good day at bat I would go something like seventy-three for a hundred and twenty-eight. We would not keep score of runs. It was all done on a time/unit basis, so we would play on and on, over and over, with all kinds of complex rules. If you caught a ball on the second bounce it was an out, if you bounced one off the fire hydrant it was a double, but bounce it off the left side of the hydrant it was foul, all kinds of things.
More baseball to come.
PART 8. CURIOUS HAPPENSTANCES
A couple of morality tales here deal with crashing picnics and medicine-cabinet invasion: is a picnic always just a picnic? Is the medicine cabinet try-out actually a morality tale? How is thinking to do a good turn for the old man a prelude to disaster? And why is speaking in public an early problem for this eventual genius of broadcast radio? In a story about kids’ baseball, Shepherd suggests that organization is not always a good thing.
I will never forget the day that we organized the Cleveland Street Irregulars ball team. One of the worst things that I ever had happen to me as a kid, happened as a result of baseball. This is a story about the first creeping encroachment of “little league-ism” beginning to sneak into the world.
This is not a story about baseball—I do not come from a tennis background, I do not come from a polo background, I come from a slugging background. Where a man is measured in how he fields a bad hop. You notice the wide spacing between my two front teeth, and you notice how they overlap? Well, three straight ground balls on a hot afternoon one day produced this interesting denture problem I’ve got here.
I’ll never forget—one of those terrible moments we all live in our world, most peoples’ world, really—a world of frustration, sad defeats, little, tiny, momentary victories. One summer, we were just about at the freshman-in-high-school-period. We’ve got enough pizzazz to understand just a little of this world around us, but not enough pizzazz to understand that there’s a world around us. That touch-and-go moment.
I didn’t know much about Northwest Coast art other than liking raven rattles. But, in 1988, I was assigned to produce “Chiefly Feasts,” a large traveling exhibit that would begin in our museum and go to several other venues. The Kwakiutl is one of the tribes located from upper Washington State and north on the west coast of Canada—Native Americans commonly known for their totem poles. The potlatch is a competitive ceremony in which powerful leaders enhance their prestige by giving (and, at least in past times, sometimes destroying) objects of value. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict described it thusly in her Patterns of Culture.
As always, working with a curator who was an expert in the exhibit’s subject matter, I began my design. Our museum arranged for me to travel to several Northwest Coast exhibits to get a sense of the material and how it’s previously been presented—museums in Chicago, Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver, and Alert Bay–a small native-American town in northern Vancouver Island. The museum paid travel, food, and accommodations for me, and our family paid for my wife and son.
Allison and Evan,
Orca Inn, Alert Bay.
Although most exhibits consist of cases containing artifacts, I wanted to give a sense of environment and materials, and, reportedly, the Kwakiutl preferred something less confining than many cases—I designed a series of wide, low, open, cedar-plank platforms and cedar-paneled walls. Cedar is a common Northwest Coast construction material, especially for ceremonial buildings. All protected by a low rail that also supported some of the exhibit text, and with a security system that would sound if anyone entered the platform area. This open approach, and the overall sense of an appropriate setting, was rare and more complex to produce than the usual exhibit. Of course, the platforms needed to be disassembled for shipment and re-installation in the other museums’ exhibit spaces.
With the exhibit installed, I visited our Museum shop and bought a Northwest Coast artifact, though I believe it was created, not for indigenous use, but for non-native collectors. Despite that, I find it intriguing and elegant. It’s a combination of: what appears to be a stretched animal-skin drumhead; rattle (with pebbles or other small objects inside); and whistle (blown from the end of the bone handle). I believe the black hair is from a horse, but I have no idea about the animal skin and white feathers. From our museum’s carpenter shop I scavenged left-over short lengths of cedar to form the backing for the piece in our home. The image is of a raven holding the sun in its beak, just having opened the box in which the sun was held.
“Most important of all creatures to the coast Indian peoples was Raven. It was Raven—the Transformer, the culture hero, the trickster, the Big Man (he took many forms to many peoples)—who created the world. He put the sun, moon, stars into the sky, fish into the sea, salmon into the rivers, and food onto the land; he maneuvered the tides to assure daily access to beach resources. Raven gave the people fire and water, placed the rivers, lakes and cedar trees over the land, and peopled the earth.” –Hilary Stewart, in her 1979 book Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast.
Raven is thus similar to the Greek mythological figure, Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods (especially from our Renaissance onward, a symbol of human mentality/creativity, etc.).
My replica of a raven rattle,
as is typical in these carvings,
has a small box/sun in its beak.
Some of the great traumatic experiences of my kid life were with my father’s failures, often with fireworks. Fireworks are sneaky. You know, they have Roman candles that come in various sizes. Some of them have four or five shots, some of them will have ten, some of them will have fifteen and then you get the big bazooka-style Roman candle. These are the big ones. They use them for cannonading the next mountain.
We usually had about fifteen of these in stock, and by about midnight of the Fourth of July we would have sold maybe ten and we’d be left with five of these fantastic, five-dollar Roman candles. They were about five feet tall, about three inches around. They have straps and you hold this son of a gun behind you, and there’s a technique in shooting Roman candles.
My old man was a pure showoff. The kind of guy who was noted at the party for a thing he called “the snake dance.” Just a wiggle. He wore a lampshade. He was one of that kind. So, everything he did, he always said, “there’s a style to it.” He would play pool and do the shots behind his back. “Watch this!” He was a real pool shark. He would hold a bowling ball in one hand, turn around and throw it behind him—boom—right in the pocket. He was always tossing baseballs over his shoulder and catching them behind his back.
When he had Roman candles, this is the way he would do it. He’d light it, he would hold it down low, he would count to himself, and as soon as the fuse was about gone, he would start moving it around in a circle, he would feel that ball coming up, he would sort of move forward, bump his fanny to the left and down again like he was helping them, putting body English on them as they went up! He was pitching with the Roman candles.
Well, the whole neighborhood would gather around to watch him shoot his fireworks, because nobody had anything like the amount of money’s worth of fireworks he had. He had, in retail, maybe two or three-hundred dollars worth of fireworks left. A gigantic box. About midnight he’d start firing out in the alley back of our house. Nobody ever thought of even going into a field to do this kind of thing in those days. There were houses around and the windows, the people, the wash hanging out, and he’s shooting off this heavy artillery.
So he is standing out back there this night. One of the great, absolutely unparalleled moments of my life. And also, one of those things you feel so terrible about because your old man has really flubbed. Really done an awful thing.
Everything has been going fine. Big pinwheels he’s got. He’s got great American flags that fly up in the air and come down on parachutes. Everything’s going. Finally he takes out the Roman candle, which he always loved more than any other kind. He lights it. Everybody’s waiting. Choooo! Off goes the first one, a big green ball goes up and everybody goes “Oooooooooooh!” At the third ball, just as my old man is winding up, that Roman candle shoots backward—right out the back end of this thing comes a ball—Woooooops! like that, right up his sleeve and right out the back of his shirt! He spins around, another ball goes out the front and then quickly two of them come out the back! He is going on like he is insane. He throws the damn thing, it flies up and goes into Flick’s backyard, right in the middle of the geraniums. Boom! Boom! Out both ends. He turns around and he screams bloody murder— his pongee shirt is on fire. “My shirt! Oh no, my shirt!”
He runs up the alley and we can see him trailing smoke and flames. He runs down in our basement and turns on the hose. People are pouring water on him and then rubbing goose grease on him. What has to be pointed out is that nobody worries, it’s just natural in the fireworks world. That attitude toward infernal destruction.
Five minutes later he’s out in the backyard shooting off rockets, shirt hanging out, shirttail tattered, one sleeve missing. That is a picture of an American celebrating something—but who knows what?
[End of Part 7]
People kill animals on the endangered species list and sell parts of the cadavers to people who don’t care if the animals go extinct, as long as they have some piece of them that gives an illusion of their own importance. The federal government, when it finds such stuff, confiscates it at the port of entry, stores it securely, and eventually destroys it.
In 1982, I was assigned the design job of putting some of this confiscated material on display. The parameters were: no available exhibit spaces to put the temporary exhibit, so it would need to be installed (inappropriately and awkwardly) in the bare center of one of the Museum’s permanent halls–Oceanic Birds; and the material on display would have to be absolutely secure from theft.
The norm would have been many exhibit cases with plexiglas bonnets built to house the artifacts, creating a crowded grouping of boxes with no effect except a jumble with inadequate space for the public to move around (with a potential for pilfering). Always looking to incorporate an appropriate sense of environmental ambience in my temporary exhibits, I chose to create one massive enclosure exemplifying the security area one might find at a port of entry’s stash of confiscated materials–chain-link fencing, including a chain-link top.
Entranceway to Exhibit– Teaser
For access during installation, a sliding chain-link entrance door, with the largest padlock I could find for it at a local hardware store, also suggested high-security. (Nothing was stolen.) As pedestals for artifacts, I used the large wooden shipping containers in which the materials had arrived at the museum. Big black and white photos of endangered animals provided some backdrops. The chain link and shipping crates provided a stark/ironic contrast to some of the items such as the fur coats.
Our museum director (who was frequently generous with his praise for my designs), at first apparently taken aback by my unusual approach, wrote:
Congratulations on the “Confiscated” installation. It worked out very well, and produces a substantially more interesting and striking show than the one I saw in Cleveland….
The concept you chose as the basis for the design, while simple, was also elegant.
While readying my “Confiscated!” essay, I noted that the Tuesday, 7/11/2017 New York Times Science Times presented three full pages of color images of animal remains confiscated by the U. S. government in its unceasing effort to stop illegal trafficking:
Fireworks and Unguentine
Fireworks were an integral part of my life as a kid. There were three things my old man was hung up on. There was the White Sox, used cars, and fireworks. He was an absolute nut on fireworks. He had gone into the business and he was selling them.
There was a law saying you could not sell fireworks inside the city limits, so outside of town, half the cops were selling them. For miles around you would see these little wooden stands that had been selling tomatoes and pumpkins and stuff suddenly have red, white, and blue bunting and a great big sign that would say EXCELSIOR FIREWORKS. Excelsior was one of the big names.
Every year we would set up our business and we would have five-inchers, three-inchers, two-inchers, we would have cherry bombs, we’d have pinwheels, all set up on the tables in back of us. As a kid, despite being a fireworks nut, I hated working in the fireworks stand. I really hated it. It was hot, all the other kids were shooting off fireworks, and I was standing in there making change.
I can remember that a lot of guys impressed their chicks by buying fireworks. About every five minutes a Hupmobile would drive up with a blonde in the passenger seat. They’d get out, and he was playing the “big man.” He’d say, “Alright, baby, what do you want?” And he’d point out all the big artillery. “Gimme that big one, that great big one. How much is that?”
“Dollar and a half.”
“Gimme two of them. I want two of those big fireworks, gimme rockets over there. You got any Roman candles? Gimme a bag of Roman candles, kid. No sparklers, I want the big stuff.” He’d buy twenty dollar’s worth of the big stuff.
They went driving off and in about thirty seconds, he was just about out of sight when you heard KABOOOOM, KABOOOOM! His car was on fire. He had tried to light a cherry bomb with his cigar—and he had not made it.
There would be a guy walking out of our fireworks stand and get about five feet away. Some big, fat, cigar-smoking butter-and-egg man would have a handful of torpedoes: “Hey, watch this, baby.” WHIZZZ—BOOM! POW! The next thing you know he had four pounds of pebbles in his foot. He’d come limping over, “What kind of stuff you sellin?”
Then I would get out the Unguentine. In our stand we kept eighteen pounds of Unguentine. We had rolls of gauze and tannic acid, because our product was always working prematurely.
Then there used to be the inevitable. A big car would drive up with real rich city people in it. This little skinny kid would get out of the back, and then his father, all dressed up. There’s a certain look that important rich people have when they are in the country or on a picnic. They look vaguely uncomfortable all the time. They’d come over and the father would say, “Timothy, you just choose anything you want. I want you to be happy today.” Little Timothy stands there looking at all the fireworks. You can see he has no more desire to have fireworks than he wants a wart on top of his head. The old man says, “Come on, Timothy. We haven’t got all day, you know. Mother’s waiting in the car. We want to get home and have our celebration.”
Little Timothy says, “Do you have any sparklers?” You go back and get him some sparklers and the old man, of course, is taking over, and he says, “Well, Timothy, wouldn’t you like to have one of those?” Poor kid didn’t know what it was. Big thing with handles on it and it comes with forty-millimeter sights and has a big stock mounting and it’s for blowing up towns. “Wouldn’t you like one of those, Timothy? Wrap one of those up.” Kids pick the little things, like the one with the handle, you squeeze it with your thumb, and the wheel goes around.
The old man doesn’t buy that kind of stuff, he wants big things. Pretty soon they’ve got a load of about fifty dollars worth of stuff and they put it in the back of that great big Cadillac and the kid sits in the back by the bag and they drive off. You can see the kid’s little head in the back and they’re off to celebrate being an American.
More fireworks to come.
“So send your name and address to “Worm, W-U-R-M, Worm.'”
So, the business is booming, guys are calling up, and one day, I come home from someplace and my mother says, “There was a man here to see you.”
I say, “Man? Come on, it’s supper time. I can’t mess around now.”
She says, “No, he wasn’t looking for worms. I don’t know what he wanted.”
“Man? What? He didn’t want worms?”
“No, he just wanted to talk to you.”
I didn’t think anything of it. I figured it was some guy who was embarrassed talking about worms to my mother. Some guys are very sensitive about buying worms. They don’t come right out and say, “I buy worms.” It’s a kind of a sensitive issue.
I came home that night, suppertime. I’m sitting there and little did I realize—the doorbell rang—it was the beginning of the end of my business. Every time I think of it, it just bugs me. I’m making dough hand over fist. And I’ve got money sticking out of my shoes. I’m even doing stuff like buying two fielder’s mitts at a time. Well, the doorbell rings, my old man gets up and goes to the front door. I hear him say, “Wait a minute, I’ll get him.”
I walk out to the front room and he says, “There’s a guy here to see you.” It was just a man to see me, to see the kid that’s growin’ the worms!
The guy says, are you Jean Shepherd? Is this your worm business here?”
I say, “Yes.”
He says, “I’m here from the tax department and I’d like to talk to you about taxes. I want to know whether or not you…”
I say, “What?! What? Taxes?”
He says, “Yes, I want to leave these forms with you. Have you filed employee taxes and all that sort of thing?”
My old man is hiding in the kitchen. If there’s anything that scared my old man out of his mind it was just the mention of the word “taxes.” He always was afraid that one day they were going to “foreclose.” I don’t know what it was they were going to foreclose, but boy, the word “taxes.”
The man says, “I’m going to leave these forms with you. And, by the way, I’d like to have some estimates as to what you’re going to clear this year and do you have all the receipts and expenses and so on?”
I say, “Yes.”
He says, “I’ll be calling next week.” And he leaves the house.
I go back to the kitchen and the old man is sitting there at the table and his face is white. He says, “I knew something was gonna happen. You’re just gonna have to go out of business. Can’t mess around with it anymore. I’m not going to get involved with the tax people. And I’m not goiong to have people coming around here and investigating the taxes and all that stuff. You’re just going to have to go out of business. Forget it.”
My mother is crying. My kid brother’s hiding under the daybed. He senses there’s trouble.
I say, “Gee, dad….”
“No, I’m sorry. The next thing you’re going to have lawyers and you’re going to have employees striking, they’re going to be burning down the house, there’s going to be pickets. I don’t want any of that stuff. Now cut it out. That’s absolutely. If you want to go into the worm business when you get older, when you grow up, that’s up to you. But you’re a kid. I’m not going to have any problems.”
I can see he is secretly glad to see it’s going down the drain. Because it is getting to the point I am thinking of giving my old man an allowance. Have him work around my work business once in a while, on the weekends. I can see he’s glad it’s all over.
So, the next week when the man comes, my mother says, “He’s not doing it anymore.”
The guy says, “He’ll have to pay taxes on what he did.”
She says, “Alright, but he’s not going to do it anymore. You see, he’s taken the sign down.”
I remember taking that sign down. What a trauma that was. I don’t know whether many of you guys have ever actually gone out of business. You know how terrible when you see it happening right in front of your eyes. I took the sign down.
You know what I had to pay in taxes? To this day it’s a legend in our family. After all the dust had settled, and all the writing and all the forms had been filled out. I had my money in the bank and I was saving money to go to college and all that stuff. I had to pay three-hundred and eighty-six dollars. Three-hundred and eighty-six dollars! My worm business had made roughly five-hundred bucks. That’s how much money I had in the bank. I’ll never forget how great that was—that five-hundred and fifty dollars. And I paid off the three-hundred and eighty-six bucks. I was left, after two years of running around and hollering, with about one-hundred and fifty bucks profit.
I never went back into the worm business. I retired at the top of the heap. That’s right, I’m the guy who scaled the heights. There was no bigger worm man in all of Lake County. People were coming from as far away as Chicago and Milwaukee to buy my works. The legend of my worms themselves—the quality—was so high, that guys were coming all the way up from Tippecanoe and Clinton Counties to buy those fantastic worms. And now that I look back on it, I was one of the great men of his day.
These days I give advice to young worm men who are coming up. And for those of you who would like to go into the worm business, I’ve turned out a little pamphlet entitled, “The Worm and You—There is Big Money in the Ground.” For those of you who would like to know how to raise worms, and would like to entertain yourself by feeding your worms on a quiet night. By the way, they make wonderful pets. A worm never bites. Never bites and you do not have to get ‘em licensed. Furthermore, they’re very loyal. So send your name and address to “Worm, W-U-R-M, Worm,” care of this publishing house. But no phonies or pretenders–you’ve got to be serious!
(So much for worms!)
Another Shep kid story comin’ up next time.
TURNER & WYETH
(another artsy idea)
Mid 19th Century
Do older artists start to go blind and is that why they begin to produce works that are rougher/sketchier–or are they just getting tired of “realistic” responses to their environment and want to be more expressive of their feelings? I think it’s usually the latter. Maybe I feel this because I, with my more “modernistic” schooling and exposure to recent art, appreciate more expressionistic work. After all, art schools yearly churn out thousands of graduates who can approximate photographs on their sketchpads and canvasses.
Two artists whose more expressionist work I’ve come to recognize and appreciate more in recent decades are J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) and Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009). The exhibits responsible are the Museum of Modern Art’s “Turner: Imagination and Reality” of 1966 and the Whitney Museum’s “Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth” of 1998.
Turner, being an early 19th century artist, was amazingly abstract in many of his paintings—those that I especially like. For me, the emotion and turmoil he created are overwhelming! In ”Turner: Imagination and Reality,” Lawrence Gowing writes:
Turner’s work is never without a figurative reference….It offers, perhaps, pictures of everything rather than of nothing. But eventually no single touch of paint corresponded to any specific object….seems to us like the return to a primal flux which denies the separate identity of things.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
Mid-Late 20th Century
As for Wyeth, in my early adult years, I summarily dismissed his work as “realism.” Until I saw the major exhibit of his original work in 1998 at New York’s Whitney Museum. I realized that, formerly seeing reproductions of his work, as had been almost the only way I’d been familiar with it, I hadn’t realized that much of his abstract approach to large areas of his pictures had been obscured by the reproduction process—or my lack of closer study. Or the infrequency of reproductions of his more modernist pieces. In addition, seeing a large group of his works together, I realized the strong, quirky, strange, forceful and modern sensibility of many of his compositions. A good source of reproductions giving a clue to his “abstraction” and odd compositions is the catalog to the Whitney exhibit, titled “Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth.”
Some idea of this modernist aspect in Wyeth is revealed in that catalog’s chapter, “Terra Incognita” by Adam D. Weinberg, where I quote parts of two paragraphs:
Wyeth’s expressionist realism is the least acknowledged and exhibited aspect of his work, perhaps because its seemingly crude and often defiant lack of refinement is not what his audience wants or expects. Perhaps too, critics can more easily pigeonhole and demonize Wyeth by ignoring the existence of such expressionistic works….
It is not implausible to associate some of Wyeth’s expressionist watercolors to the specific, even if their specificity is emotional rather than scenic….
The compositions and the large areas that, by themselves seem to be non-representational smudges, add up to a persistent proclivity to display an expressionist approach.
Frequently, Wyeth’s compositions seem strangely quirky and askew—yet for me they’re startling and satisfying. So many of Wyeth’s paintings have large swaths in them that seem to realistically represent areas, but, on close study, can be appreciated as major, abstract smudges—that might conservatively and inappropriately be thought of as being described by a 19th century cartoon of Turner at work:
This is not some occasional effect in Wyeth’s work. My impression is that it represents scores of his infrequently seen oils and hundreds of his infrequently seen water colors. The guy’s a modernist in disguise.
“I laid in a stock of helgramites.”
I said, okay, I’ll find out how ya grow worms. And I did. It ain’t easy. Do you think you just put a bunch of worms in a can and they start growing? No sir! Growing worms is another kettle of fish. Another can of worms. So I began to grow worms and my business went to hell. Oh yes. When you make vast technological changes you must accept the fact that you are investing in the future. You are not investing in the now. Oh no! Because obviously, if I was growing worms I couldn’t be selling ‘em. So I had to plow my profits back into the worm-growing mechanism—which I began to set up.
All though that August I studied—I went to libraries, everyplace I could lay my hands on material RE: worms. All through that winter I was downstairs growing worms while other kids were out running around, standing in line to give their wishes to Santa Claus while Shepherd was downstairs making sure there’s gonna be a Santa Claus! In fact, if there’s gonna be any Santa Claus in this neighborhood it’s gonna be Shepherd. So all winter I was growing worms. It was not easy because first of all, my mother was pretty bugged about this whole thing. And my father said it was sick. My kid brother laughs. And I had the whole basement all that winter filled with cases that I had built out of orange crates. They are excellent worm boxes. These big divided orange crates, the big, deep ones. What do you line it with? Get a fine mesh screen. It doesn’t let the earth out when you put the earth in there. The medium—we technical people refer to it as “the medium”—it will not go through this screen. A few little grains will drop out but what it does, you see, it allows the medium to breathe! You don’t just put dirt in there. You lay the medium in there in layers. You have layers of various types of material that you put in this thing until finally you get this beautiful, beautiful medium! Sometimes I get so excited when I think of worms I just don’t know what to do!
By the following year Shepherd was ready to turn it on to the market. And I began to move. I want to tell you, I had the most beautiful—in fact, I had prize-winning night crawlers. I had the type that, had I decided to go into open competition, it could very well have been top brood stock.
I had night crawlers—the kind of night crawlers you could actually fall in love with them. Beautiful. Oh yes. I had maybe two or three prime night crawlers. I had magnificent earthworms. And what was even more interesting, I was one of the few guys who managed to grow grubs. Which is a difficult thing to grow. So I grew grubs, and I laid in a stock of helgranites. You know what is it a helgramite? Well, I suggest you look that up. H-e-l-g-r-a-m-i-t-e. You look it up in your dictionary. Helgramite. I laid in a stock of helgramites.
By the middle of July of the second year I was knocking down so much money that the old man was getting mad. Have you ever seen your old man get mad? He brings home his paycheck and you’re downstairs in the basement and you’ve got ten dollar bills piled up.
I had a business going that got to the point that my mother said, “Listen, you’re going to have to put on that sign of yours out there that nobody can come after eight o’clock.” Because guys would show up at two in the morning—all of a sudden they got the urge to go fishing. The phone rings. Guys would be pounding on the door. “Hey, we need some worms!”
By mid-July, Shepherd’s making dough—hand over fist. And the neighborhood kids are all bugged because, among other things, I went out and bought myself a brand new Elgin bicycle. I’m sitting in the basement smokin’ big fat chocolate stogies.
And I begin to have labor troubles. My kid brother, for example, helped me and I gave him two dollars a week and his job was to go down and feed the worms. And if you would bring me a coffee can full of the feed that I used, I paid fifteen cents a can and the stuff was coming in from all different directions. Guess what I used. It was the first time anybody had found any actual use for this stuff. And the worms loved it. And it was my kid brother’s job to feed them. But one day I came down there and the medium was all dry on top, and I holler, “Hey, Randy, what the heck are you doin’ with the worms? Come on, for cryin’ out loud!”
He was very reluctant. He said, “Aaaah.” I was having labor troubles. The two bucks a week he was getting he didn’t think was enough. After a lot of arguing and yelling, I raised his pay to three-fifty a week, which really made me mad and I began to get very intolerant. The minute your workers start coming around kvetching, you know, you start getting mad.
“I’m pulling in the dough!”
Then I have another idea. I’m desperate, I’m digging all Saturday and I must have gotten only about twenty worms. I’m digging out there and Schwrtz is walking along and he sees me and he says, “What are you doin?”
“I’m digging worms! What does it look like? Don’t bother me, I’m in a hurry.“
“Digging worms? Ya goin’ fishin?”
“No. I’m not going fishin’. What do you think that sign is out there for? I’m selling worms.”
“Oh yeah, yeah. Gee, come on, we’re all going to play ball.”
“I can’t play ball, forget it. I’m digging worms.” And it hit me. “Hey, Schwartz, I’ll give you ten cents for every dozen worms you can dig.”
Schwartz rushes home, gets a shovel, and now he’s out back of his house digging worms. About an hour later Schwartz comes back with a couple of dozen worms, which I pay him for. The word gets out among the kids and within three days, I have about twenty kids working steadily digging worms. Bringing the worms home and selling them to me.
I’ve given up digging. Now I’m just a buyer, which puts me in a totally different category. So I’m sitting at a card table in the basement, and as each kid would show up I’d count his worms. I’d say, “Oh man, forget this one. Look at this—it’s a dead one. What’re you tryin’ to pull on me here, Schwartz?”
He says, “Well, it wasn’t dead when I dug him up, for cryin’ out loud.”
“I’m sorry, we can’t take no dead worms. And look at that one! Little skinny one. I don’t want no baby worms. I’ll only give you half price for the baby ones.”
So Schwartz is getting his money. I had Roper, Jack Morton—I had all the kids. They’re hitting the jackpot and I’m pulling in the dough! I’m putting the worms away in the boxes every night. Well, it is now getting to be August and the kids are becoming very scarce because the kids are running into the same problem I’m running into. That problem is this. As the summer grows longer and hotter, worms get scarce. And even a kid who’s getting ten cents a dozen worms has got enough brains to realize that after you’ve dug for two days and you get three worms, this ain’t a paying proposition.
And then I have my fourth and most cosmic idea. I’m sitting down in the basement. I’m desperate. The worms are getting low. You know how much money I’m making at this point? I’m knocking down about twenty-five to forty dollars a week. And if you don’t think that’s a lot of money for a kid who is about fourteen or fifteen, then you don’t remember what it’s like being a kid. I’m making this dough and I want to keep it coming in and the business is growing, because out there, guys tend to take their vacations in August. So I’m getting fantastic orders. Guys are come up and buying for fifteen or twenty friends. Can you imagine a guy walking in and he says, “Gimme thirty dozen worms.” And you ain’t got ‘em. And I have my fourth and most colossal idea.
I realized there was a fatal flaw in my business. Do you see what it is? My fatal flaw is that I am depending on nature. And little did I realize that at that moment I am going through the same evolution that ancient man went through. You know one of the big differences between the truly savage tribes and the tribes that are beginning to be civilized? A savage tribe’s nomadic. They rely totally on what they can find. And so they will kill all the animals in some place and eat ‘em and eat all the plants that are growing and then they move on to the next place.
What’s the difference between that and the civilized tribe? The civilized tribe grows the animals, so instead of relying on going out and shooting rabbits they say, “Why is it we don’t grow some rabbits? Why don’t we grow some of those gourds we’ve been looking for? Why don’t we get some seeds and grow some?” That’s the beginning of what we call the agrarian culture. Nobody’s giving me any advice, see. I have to go through the whole evolution myself. So, suddenly it hit me—why not grow worms? Ah huh! Grow them instead of gather them. And it was at that moment that I changed from just a kid who sold worms, to The Worm King of Cleveland Street.
“I gotta dig three hours to get five worms!”
I would like to give you some tips on keeping worms. Some of the more obvious, of course, I don’t even have to tell you! One: Keep worms in a cool place. Don’t even try to raise worms in your apartment—it will not work. Two: A question—how many of you know what a worm eats? An obvious thing is, a worm eats earth. Yes, he does. However, in captivity, a worm demands more than that. It may surprise you. Primarily because he doesn’t have the area. In the soil, a working worm covers a tremendous area where he’s eating. So obviously, if you’re keeping him in this box with hundreds of them all together, there just isn’t enough room for them to cover.
So what do you feed a worm? What does a worm like? What does he grow fat and healthy on? Well, you’re talking to one of the very few guys who knows what worms love. And man, they go ape! And get beautiful! You start giving them this stuff and within two weeks, you’ve got yourself a three or four-pound worm on your hands. And he’s got a smile on his face. You’ve got a happy worm. Sometimes at night you can hear him down there singing and playing and dancing—because you’re giving him the right stuff.
Well, there was another development which began to cause problems. For one thing, it was causing a lot of trouble because the whole basement was filled with boxes now. It was dark down in the basement and once in a while the old man would go down the basement to look for a screwdriver and he’s falling over the worm boxes and yelling and hollering. “Will you get these worms out of here for crying out loud!” So I built a rack along the side of the wall. Just a plain, simple, two-by-four rack with all my boxes up on it.
And every night I’d water them and talk to them and mess around with them. And I’d bring down the new ones that I’d dug up, see. You have to introduce them to the old gang gently. You don’t just throw the new worms in there and say, “Here, sink or swim.”
And then, as the crowd began to grow and as I began to have more people coming in there, a new idea hit me. Any of you businessmen who’ve gone through this know what this routine does to your business. Up to this point customers had been just coming to me. Guys were recommending other guys.
I’m walking home from the store when it hit me. You see, I was getting greedy, voracious. A man is never satisfied for what he can get. He’s got to have more. That’s why we’re going to the moon. We’re not satisfied with having one earth. Pretty soon we’re going to own the solar system. We just gotta do it.
And I think—why of course—it’s so obvious! Why didn’t I think of this before! I rush like mad. I put the bag of groceries in the kitchen, I run down to the basement and I’m, working away there, making a sign. I saw a couple of big planks and hammer them together. I make a big sign, painted white, and with red paint I put WORMS, and underneath, NIGHT CRAWLERS, GRUBS. I take it out and my mother flips: “You’re not going to put that sign out in the front yard!” So I figure the best place to put it is on the edge of the garage, which you can see from the street as you’re driving past the house. I put the big sign there: WORMS, NIGHT CRAWLERS, GRUBS.
I want to tell you, it was right. All I gotta say is, any you guys who have ever been doubting the value of advertising, don’t. If my experience is any criteria, it was unbelievable. Within five minutes after I put the sign up, guys were knocking on the door. Little fat guys, tall skinny guys, knocking. “This where you sell the worms?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be right with you, hold your water, will ya. I got three other guys ahead a ya, for cryin’ out loud. Wait out on the porch.” Guys are waiting in line.
Then I ran into a disaster. The bigger your business gets, the more problems you begin to run into. I put my sign up and within two days—no worms! The worms were gone and I was out there digging like hell. And the worst part of it is that it was getting later in the season and worms were getting rarer! In the early days of summertime, in the spring, I would dig for an hour and I’d have myself a couple of hundred worms. Now, here it was July and I gotta dig three hours to get five worms! And I was desperate ‘cause now I’ve had business—guys knocking on the door.
“Well, I’m selling them for a quarter a dozen now.”
He says, “Very good worms. How much is that?”
“Oh, that’s a quarter.”
“Oh yes, of course.” He gives me a quarter. He looks a little startled.
A bell goes off in my head. He goes down the steps with my can of worms and I turn back and walk through the living room and I say, “A quarter. A quarter. Ah-hah. I’ll be darned!”
So that night I find out that worms are not sold by the can, they’re sold by the dozen. And, as a matter of fact, worms go for anywhere from a quarter to a half-dollar a dozen. I’ve been selling worms for two-bits for a whole can. A large bunch of worms—I just put worms in there and cover them up and the guy gives me a quarter. Well, then the cold light of monetary calculation begins to settle in my head. I become unbelievably financial. You know how so many kids get hung up on counting their pennies—“Heh, heh, heh!”—cackling? Worms sell for about two-bits a dozen and night crawlers went for anywhere from thirty-five to fifty cents a dozen. Now a night crawler is a different breed of worm, you know. He looks like a regular earthworm but he’s about one-and-a-half times as big. This is a big worm.
So I’m out there digging up the night crawlers, digging up the worms, and the business is beginning to pick up. Sherbie is going fishing a lot more. And I remember the day I raised the prices. The old man comes down in the basement. He says, “Gertz wants a can of worms.”
I say, “How many does he want?”
“You know, a can of worms.”
“Does he want one dozen, two dozen, three dozen worms?”
“What do you mean, ‘dozen’?”
“Well, I’m selling them for a quarter a dozen now.”
He says, “Twenty-five cents a dozen? That’s twelve worms. That’s better than two cents a worm!”
I say, “Yep.”
“I guess I’ll have to find out how many he wants.”
He goes upstairs and calls up Gertz and he comes down and says, “He wants three dozen.”
I say, “What does he want? Does he want night crawlers or does he want regular worms?”
“You mean you’re charging extra for night crawlers?!”
I say, “You bet. For every fifty little ones, you only dig up one night crawler.”
“Oh, well, I’ll have to call him.” So he goes back upstairs and calls Gertz. He comes downstairs and he says, “He wants three dozen night crawlers.”
“Let’s see, that’s thirty-five cents a dozen, that’ll be about a dollar-ten, give or take a couple of nickels.”
“That’s what he wants.”
I fill the can with three dozen night crawlers, and I realize well over a dollar for my work.
Now this began to be something. By the end of that month there were two or three dozen people showing up a week. Total strangers looking for worms. Apparently there weren’t many people selling worms in the area. Word was getting around. When fishermen find out the word gets out. Just a fantastic business. At that point I must have had ten or fifteen boxes, all spread out in a row next to the wall in the basement. I’d given up baseball and everything else. Because when you start digging worms and raising worms, believe me, it becomes a full-time business. A worm doesn’t just lay there. A worm demands constant care.
He also demands constant solace. They’re very nervous. If you leave the worms down there without anybody messing around with them, they’ll form a whole ball about the size of a tennis ball. That’s the beginning of the end of the worms. So you have to keep going down there and telling them it’s going to be alright. That they’re going to like going fishing, tell them how exciting it is to belong to Mr. Gertz and all that stuff.
“I’m ready for the influx of this business.”
That was a new idea! Up to this point I’d been digging worms every time there was a demand—I’d run out and dig worms. Now, to keep worms—to lay in a stock!
I say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea!” So I went out and really worked all day digging up worms. I must have dug up three or four hundred worms. I’ve got a big wooden box down in the basement now. I put dirt in there and put in the worms. I’m ready for the influx of this business. Sure enough, it comes. Monday morning the old man says, “Listen, Zudak wants some worms, he’s going on vacation. I rush down to the basement—they’re all dead!
Aha! Through adversity, one learns one’s business. You do not think that the first Ford that Henry Ford made turned into the Mustang, do you? Not at all. I run out and I dig up more worms, and it was that week that I began my research into worms. I consulted with other eminent worm men, I went to the library and found out all I could about worms. Some kids have got that kind of mind and I became really hung up. By the end of the week I knew more about worms—theoretically, see—than almost anybody ever knows in a whole lifetime. I just discovered what you have to do to keep worms going.
And I will never forget the heady thing that happened. It must have been about the first week of July. Up to this point, remember, I am dealing only with Zudak, with Gertz, and I now have a new customer from my old man’s office, a guy named Sherbie. Once in a while I would provide worms for Flick’s old man. Schwartz’s old man particularly liked grubs and I would provide him with grubs. But these are all people.
Then one afternoon I come home from playing second base and my mother says, “There’s a man looking for you.”
I say, “Who? What?” Immediately a little fear in the gut. No telling what man.
“Some guy came around here looking for worms.”
“Who was it? Mr. Sherbie? Was it Zudak?”
She says, “No, I never saw him before.”
“Just a man came here?”
“Yup, just knocked on the door and asked if you were here. I said ‘No, what do you want?’ He said he wanted worms.”
“A man just came up here and wanted worms?”
“Yes. He said he’d come back.”
I’m all excited, walking around. It’s about eight o’clock and sure enough the bell rings. My old man says, “Yes, who’s there?”
“This is Mr. Gumpocks. Is this where they sell the worms?”
The old man calls out, “Hey, Jean. Your customer’s here.”
I come running up from the basement. I’m all excited. There’s a guy, just a guy I never saw before.
He says, “Do you sell worms?”
I say, “Yes sir, of course. Yes. What sort of worms do you want?”
“You know, worms. I’m going fishing and I heard that you sell worms here and I’m looking for some worms. I want a couple of dozen earthworms. Throw in about a dozen night crawlers.”
“Yes sir, yes sir.” So I run down to the basement. I now have a box of worms. I fill a can full of worms and I put in a dozen night crawlers and I come back upstairs.
He says, “Yes, they look very good.” He shakes the can and looks in.
It’s kind of nice to know that guys are approving of your merchandise.