Anyone who knew Tom Stevens was sure of one thing. The boy was going places. In the twelve years he had lived so far, Tom already showed signs of becoming a master salesman.
“I believe you could sell anything to anyone anytime you wanted to,” his father often told him.
The Stevens family lived in Rock Island, Illinois, not far from the Mississippi River.
Tom organized his two best friends ― Jimmy Wilson, and Matt Woodridge, into an aluminum can recycling powerhouse back when they were just nine years old. When he was only four, Tom was the first boy on his street to set up a lemonade stand ― in January. And even though snow already covered the ground, people still stopped and bought some. He could just as easily sell hot chocolate on the most sweltering day of the summer if he wanted to.
When he decided to go door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions at the age of ten, his parents were embarrassed at how much money their neighbors handed over to Tom. He even managed to sell copies of old newspapers to his own father when Tom was just five years old. His dad thought it was all in fun, but to Tom, this was serious business.
So it came as no surprise when he decided to start delivering newspapers. Not just a starter route either. Tom took over three established routes. At first his friends took turns helping Monday through Saturday, but since the Sunday paper was usually three times the normal size and weight, with all those circulars, special sections, and of course, the comics, Tom, Jimmy and Matt did those together. He paid them too. Now they all worked together every morning.
All three boys planned to go out for football next fall. Tom wanted to try out for quarterback. Jimmy had strong legs and broad shoulders. He was perfect for halfback. Matt, with his short, stocky build, and those extra pounds, planned to play center. They even dreamed of going all the way through college playing football together. That’s the kind of friends they were.
“Learn the value of a dollar,” Tom’s father always told him.
That was easy for him to say, Tom thought. His dad was still in bed by the time over half their papers were already delivered.
“This route will help us with exercise, strength training, and breathing,” Tom told his friends. “We’ll be in the best shape of anyone else on the whole team this year.”
But that would have to wait until fall. Right now they were beginning to enjoy their summer vacation. Well, “enjoy” might be too strong a word.
“We have to get out of bed at four in the morning to put these papers together and roll them up before we ever hit the streets,” Matt complained while sitting in front of a giant stack of Sunday papers he could hardly see over.
“But just think of all the other centers who are sleeping in this morning,” Tom told him. That was all his friend needed to hear, and he worked twice as hard.
“After we get to high school, maybe we can buy a car and deliver even more papers,” Tom added.
“Hey, between the football scholarships we’ll all get and the money we make from now till then delivering papers, we’re gonna be rich!” Jimmy hollered.
“Keep it down,” Tom cautioned. “What are you trying to do? Wake up the whole neighborhood? Besides, my Dad told me I could only take these routes if it didn’t interfere with his beauty sleep. Or was that my mom? I forget.”
“Let’s get a move on,” Matt encouraged. “We have to finish in time for Sunday school.”
Soon the boys rode off together, their bikes loaded down like pack mules carrying cloth bags brimming with papers. Tom had it all figured. Since Matt was such a big guy, they stuffed his bike with as many bags as it could hold. Then he had four more strapped around his neck and shoulders. Jimmy and Tom also carried bags, but not nearly as many. They rode side-by-side down each street. One tossed papers to all the odd-numbered houses while the other hit the even-numbered. “Hit” doesn’t totally cover it. Occasionally, a flowerpot took a direct hit, but so far no windows had been broken. Each time they went out, the two boys tossed their papers with greater accuracy.
Matt plodded slowly behind them, ready to re-supply whenever he was needed. Tom thought that throwing papers was good practice for the future game-winning touchdown passes he planned to make.
“Watch this,” he announced. Then he rifled his paper onto the front porch of a two-story house with a well-manicured lawn. It landed right in the middle of the welcome mat. “Hey Matt,” Tom called out. “I didn’t know you had so many friends in this neighborhood.”
“I don’t know any of these people. Honest.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. There’s a welcome mat, and ― there’s another welcome mat, and another and another.”
Matt just smiled back. He was too busy peddling his heavy load.
The entire route took the boys three full hours. There were the usual hazards to watch out for. Each boy carried a can of pepper spray for any dog dumb enough to come near, and a loud air horn in case the spray missed its mark. But Matt had already lost three pairs of his best jeans to a vicious dog that lived over on Maple Street. That’s because Matt was the slowest, and because it was impossible, with all the extra papers he carried, for him to let go of his handlebars long enough to defend himself. The other boys had to act like fighter jets guarding a bomber plane, but sometimes, they were just a few seconds too late and Matt was out another pair of pants.
The boys neared Maple when they heard that familiar sound. It was getting louder and, for sure, it was coming closer. Jimmy and Tom didn’t know it, but this time, Matt had a secret weapon for the dog. As that ugly, slobbering mongrel was about to take a chomp out of his right leg, Matt quickly pulled a paper bag from inside his jacket. He almost lost his balance but was able to grab the handlebar again just in time to keep from falling. Matt’s friends watched as he flipped his bag toward the dog. Immediately the hound stopped chasing the boys.
He had a look in his eyes that said, “Hummm, wonder what’s in the sack?”
As the boys rode away they watched him rip the flimsy paper bag apart to reveal a large hunk of fresh meat.
“That better not by your mom’s Sunday dinner,” Tom warned.
“Nope. She bought it for me special.” Once they were at a safe distance, Matt eased his bike to a stop and the others joined him. They continued watching as the dog that had plagued them on so many mornings grabbed the roast with his sharp teeth, tossed it in the air, caught it, then practically swallowed the thing whole.
“Now comes the fun part,” Matt chuckled.
At first the dog just stood there. Then he sat down in the middle of the street. Then he got up. Then he sat down again. All of a sudden he let out a whoop louder than any ambulance or fire truck the boys had ever heard in all the days they’d been delivering papers. That poor dog took off like he was running the hundred-yard dash. The boys could still hear the pooch howling even though he was already blocks away.
“What’s wrong with him, Matt?” Tom asked.
“Nothing that about a thousand gallons of water won’t cure.”
“Did you put something on the meat?” Jimmy asked.
Matt grinned slyly. “Oh I think I did.”
“What was it?”
“First, I soaked it overnight in the juice from a jar of jalapeno peppers. Then I took a bottle of Tabasco sauce, and finished it off with white pepper.”
“Man, that’s going to be one sick puppy.”
“You’re right, Tom” Matt agreed. “But not because it’s so hot.”
“Why then?” Jimmy asked.
“Matt. You didn’t!” Tom demanded.
“‘Fraid I did.”
“What?” Jimmy prodded.
“I took a bunch of laxatives and crammed them into some holes I made in it.”
“Matt!” Jimmy scolded.
“All I can tell you is his owners are going to be really upset when he comes home, lays down on the kitchen floor, and…”
For the next three full blocks the boys couldn’t stop laughing as they continued delivering their papers.