by Terry Hargrove
I took my family to the aquarium in Mystic last week, because it was Presidents’ Day. I’m lying. I took them because I like the aquarium. True, the price of admission is steep, the fish all look small and terrified, and the over-priced food isn’t very good, but we enjoy the beluga whales, and I can‘t look at penguins without cracking up. A penguin is Nature’s stand-up comic. But at the end of the day, I had to balance the joy of penguins by facing the horror of the gift shop.
“Dad? Can I have this stuffed shark?” Joey asked.
“No,” I said. “How much does it cost?”
“Only $44.95,” he said.
“Oh. Then I’ll change my answer. From no to Hell No.”
“Watch your language,” snapped Nancy. “People will think we’re Red Sox fans. Oh, look at this glass jellyfish. This is just precious. I want this, and it‘s on sale for only $69.95. Here, buy me this. Put it with in the basket with Joey’s stuffed shark. Look! Look! Fuzzy pencils and they‘re only a dollar each! Get 20 of them.”
“I could buy a real beluga whale for what I’m spending in here,” I lamented. “The problem with you guys is that you never knew Johnny Spoon.”
“Did you say you wanted some beluga spoons?” Nancy asked. “I saw some right over there.”
She wasn’t listening, but I told the story anyway.
I really didn’t know Johnny Spoon that well. He was my brother’s age, and only rarely ventured into our neighborhood. Johnny Spoon was deep. FM radio deep. He scorned the music we took for granted, (that Steppenwolf? bad). He read and understood Hermann Hesse (that Steppenwolf? good). On July 16, 1969, Johnny had made up his mind to steer his life in a new and very un-1969ish direction.
“I’ve decided to live for money,” he said. “I know that kind of raw capitalism is considered bad these days, by hippy types and such, but it seems to me the easiest way to live.”
“How do you figure?” asked Glenn.
“Well, if I live for money, then it’s easy to discern a good day from a bad day. Let’s take today. I stand here this morning with 7 cents to my name. One nickel and two pennies. Now, if at the end of the day I have more than seven cents, then I can reasonably assert that today was a good day. But if I have lost my seven cents, then anyone can see that it was a bad day. If I end the day with exactly seven cents, then I will have achieved the kind of balance that philosophers dream about. You see, we all expect some bad things to happen to us in life, but as long as those bad things are countered by some good things, we can keep going. Yes, this philosophy has an appeal to it. I only have to earn enough money for food and drink and shelter. Since I live at home, shelter‘s taken care of. Water is free, and even if it wasn‘t, what kind of idiot would pay money for water? It comes free right out of the tap. And I’m not at all hungry. Yep. Living for money. I’m surprised nobody else has thought of that.”
At that very moment, as if the universe decreed it to be so, Coach Crabtree pulled up alongside us in his beat-up pick-up truck. In the truck bed sat our two neighbors, the Miles brothers, and Wayne Ketchum.
“Hey, boys,” drawled coach Crabtree. “I need some work done on my farm. I got some wood that needs to be stacked. If you three’ll jump in, we should get it done in an hour or so. What d’ya say?”
“Sure,” said Johnny, foolishly speaking for all three of us. “See how easy my new philosophy is? Coach will certainly pay us for the honest labor we perform for him, and my current cash reserves will increase. I read something in a Shakespeare play once, about how simple men spend their days in profitable labor and their nights in Elysium. That‘s us.”
“What’s Elysium?” I asked.
“I think it’s some kind of furniture,” said Glenn. “You know, like an ottoman.”
“Oh. What’s an ottoman?”
“A kind of empire,” said Johnny.
And so we piled into the truck bed and magically became a work crew. Wayne Ketchum was overjoyed at the prospect of getting paid, since all he wanted to do was look at Coach Crabtree’s wood pile. He was funny that way. As we rode out into the country, we all made grand plans for the money we’d earn.
The wood pile was as big as a two story building, but with six of us, we made short work of it. After an hour of separating little boards from big boards, we were sweating and pleased with ourselves. Coach Crabtree saw in our industriousness an opportunity. He asked if we’d help him mend a fence or two. Johnny jumped at the prospect of more work, and we trailed behind him. After our fence repair, it was close to 3:00, and we, being city boys unaccustomed to real labor, were about played out.
“Come on, boys,” said Coach Crabtree. “I’ll let you see my cows and then we’ll call it a day. They’re just right over…Oh no! My cows are out! Boys, my cows are out. Y’all are gonna have to help me round up my cows.”
And we did. For the next eight hours, we wandered through the back country of Marshall County, Tennessee looking for cows. We didn’t know how many we were supposed to find, or whether or not the cows we herded back were in fact Coach Crabtree’s. He admitted that he had no real idea which cows were his, but since he had no intention of selling cattle with the price of beef so low, he would wait until he heard from his neighbors. Wayne Ketchum wandered away to the east, and we didn’t see him again for three days. He was eventually found by a nice Amish family, who filled him with bread and butter, then dropped him off at the city limits.
“You should see the piles of wood them Amish have,” he said. “All nice and neat. They use it to build barns.”
It was nearly midnight when Coach brought the five survivors back to the park. We were hungry, thirsty, scratched, splintered, bruised, chigger-and-tick-covered, and bone tired. I wouldn’t feel such a weariness again until boot camp, but Johnny was in high spirits.
“We worked for him for 14 hours,” he said. “If he pays us just two dollars an hour, that’s 28 bucks. I will have finished the day with a 28 dollar profit. My net worth has increased by 40,000%.”
The five of us dropped out of the truck and stood at the curb, waiting for our wages. Coach Crabtree walked around to face us and reached deep into his pocket.
“I gotta go tell the sheriff that I lost Wayne,” he said. “but let’s settle accounts first. You boys done a good day’s work today.” Johnny stretched out his right hand to accept our payment. “Go buy yourselves some eat-a-snacks.” Coach dropped six quarters into Johnny’s hand, then smiled and climbed into his truck and drove away, swallowed by the July night. We stood in his exhaust, awash in knowledge.
“What just happened here?” asked Johnny. “He gave us 6 quarters for a whole day’s work? That’s not right.”
“No it isn’t,” said Glenn. “How are we supposed to split six quarters five ways?”
“And what’s an eat-a-snack?” I asked.
“You guys don’t get it,” said Johnny. “You just don’t get it. We gave away a day of our youth for thirty cents. We have lost July 16, 1969 forever. It’s gone. He bought it from us. For thirty cents.”
“Look,” said Johnny Miles. “He’s coming back. It probably just occurred to him that he didn’t pay us enough. He’s probably coming back to give us a hundred dollar bill to split five ways.”
“Yes,” said Johnny. “That must be it. He was tired, too. He just forgot.”
The truck screeched to a stop, and Coach Crabtree ran around to us. He stood in front of Johnny, and pulled one of the six quarters from Johnny’s right hand.
“That was close,” he laughed. “That’s a 1918 quarter worth $400. I didn’t mean to give that away. ‘Night, boys.” The truck roared away again. Johnny began to tremble.
“Well, now I feel better,” said Glenn.
“Me, too,” I said. “Give me my quarter so I can go to bed.”
As we gathered our silver from his bloody hand, Johnny stood there with a shocked expression.
“Hey, look on the bright side,” I said. “You started the day with 7 cents, and now you’ve got 32 cents. By your own definition, that’s a good day.”
“No,” he muttered. “I traded something of great value for this quarter, and I got the raw deal. I think I’m just going to stand here for a while and think about things.”
He might have stood there all night, if Coach Crabtree hadn’t pulled back onto Fourth Avenue. We scattered and Johnny scattered with us. Johnny Spoon didn’t come back to the park for a long, long time. The next day I saw that the quarter I had grabbed was the 1932-D Washington quarter, worth about $60. The Dad asked me how I came to possess it, and when I told him, he laughed and laughed.
“Is that a true story?” asked Nancy.
“Mostly true,” I said. “I did change a few names, but you can ask Glenn about it. Just don’t tell him the part about the rare quarter. He doesn’t need to know that.”
“If you were to find that quarter, you could sell it and send Johnny Spoon his share.”
“Nah,“ I replied. “He was better off with the hard-earned knowledge than he would have been with the money. Besides, Johnny didn’t care about money so much after that day. I think he learned all he needed to know about money on July 16, 1969. You know, if there had been more Coach Crabtrees 40 years ago, we’d live in a different world. But the Crabtrees don’t coach anymore. Now, they get elected governor of Wisconsin, and expect folks to be grateful just to have a job. ‘Here, take this loose change and be happy, you ingrates.‘ Poor Wisconsin. Poor all of us.”
“You should have returned that rare quarter to Coach Crabtree,” said Nancy. “That’s probably what he came back for.”
“Oh, no doubt,” I said. “But it seemed right for me to keep the quarter, even though I have since lost it. Johnny was right. There has to be some balance to the universe, especially when we’re the ones left holding the scales.”