Where was Tom Sawyer when I really needed him?

Where was Tom Sawyer when I really needed him? By Bob Karolevitz Where was Tom Sawyer when I really needed him?

In the classic story, Aunt Polly had ordered him to whitewash "30 yards of board fence nine feet high." Borrowing the idea from Mark Twain, Phyllis ordered me to paint the four-board ornamental fence at the entryway to our farm lane.

Reluctantly I took the brush and gallon can and headed up the road. Like Tom Sawyer, I had other things to do; but unlike him, I didn't have the smarts enough to turn a revolting job into a golden opportunity for immense profit.

Starting with Ben Rogers, Tom explained that whitewashing was great fun and not work. He did such a masterful job of selling that Ben gave him what was left of the apple he was eating just to wield the brush for awhile.

Pretty soon other boys came along, and Tom let them take turns, too � provided they would give him something for the chance to have fun with the brush. Not only did the fence get whitewashed with three coats (to Aunt Polly's amazement), but Tom ended up, in the words of Mark Twain, with:

"Twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool canon, a key that wouldn't unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar � but no dog � the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange peel and a dilapidated old window-sash."

Tom also got a kite in good condition and a dead rat tied to a string to swing it with. Meanwhile, he just sat in the shade, contemplating his accumulated wealth. According to Twain, he would have bankrupted every boy in the fictional village of St. Petersburg if he hadn't run out of whitewash.

Unfortunately, no gullible individuals of any age came up the road for me to try the Tom Sawyer ruse on them. I had to paint the whole fence by myself. When Tom's job was finished, the grateful Aunt Polly gave him an apple (and he hooked a doughnut when she wasn't looking).

In my case it wasn't a totally unrewarded labor. Phyllis had a martini mixed for me when I got done.

Actually, I'm writing this column on July 23, 2000, the exact day on which the whitewashing chapter of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was first published in the Philadelphia Sunday Republic in 1876. The book itself was produced by the American Publishing Company of Hartford, CT, the first edition being printed on thinner good quality paper.

At that the public complained, saying that Tom Sawyer did not seem to be as thick as other works as Mark Twain which were sold at the same price. The publishers then switched to a much bulkier stock in ensuing editions to please buyers who were as gullible as the whitewashers.

Twain had two distinct lessons in the chapter of his book. The first one is: "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do."

The second great law of human behavior, which Tom discovered without knowing it, is: "In order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain."

Needless to say, I was obliged to paint our fence. Therefore, it was work, and I couldn't con anybody into taking over the brush.

© 2000 Robert F. Karolevitz

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