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MYTH ABOUT A LAD WHO TURNS REJECTION INTO RICHES TAKES MYRIAD FORMS

SHARE MYTH ABOUT A LAD WHO TURNS REJECTION INTO RICHES TAKES MYRIAD FORMS

There are many legends about notable careers that began by accident. Here's a classic version, as told to me by a friend in California:

"My grandfather used to tell about a country lad who went to the big city to seek his fortune, but had no luck finding a job. One day, wandering through the red-light district, he spotted a `Help Wanted' sign in a window."They were looking for a bookkeeper, but after the madam quizzed the boy about his education and discovered that he could neither read nor write, she turned him away.

"Feeling sorry for him, she gave him two big red apples as he left. A few blocks down the street, he placed the apples on top of a garbage can while tying his shoe, and a stranger came along and offered to buy them.

"The boy took the money to a produce market and bought a dozen more apples, which he sold quickly. Eventually he parlayed his fruit sales into a grocery store, then a string of supermarkets. Eventually he became the wealthiest man in the state.

"Finally, he was named Man of the Year, and during an interview a journalist discovered that his subject could neither read nor write.

" `Good Heavens, sir,' he said. `What do you suppose you would have become if you had ever learned to read and write?'

" `Well,' he answered, `I guess I would have been a bookkeeper in a brothel.' "

My friend believed his grandfather's story until he heard another version about a piano player who was turned down for the bordello job and went on to become a famed concert pianist. The punchline was similar.

This legend was the inspiration for William Somerset Maugham's 1929 short story "The Verger," the title of which is a British term for a church caretaker.

In the story, Maugham's hero is fired by the vicar when it is discovered that he is illiterate. Quite by accident, he becomes a tobacconist and eventually comes to own a string of shops in London.

One day, when taking his day's receipts to a bank, he is asked to sign some papers, and the banker discovers that he can neither read nor write.

Astonished, the banker asks, "Goodness, man, what would you be now if you had been able to?"

The successful man replies, "I'd be verger of St. Peter's, Neville Square."

This story was adapted for the 1950 film "Trio," which is based on Maugham's works. When he was accused of plagiarizing the plot from another work, Maugham explained that he had heard the story from a friend and that it was "a well known bit of Jewish folklore."

I was reminded of another accidental career-decision story when I read in January about the death of football great Bronko Nagurski. The Associated Press said:

"According to football lore, he was discovered in 1925 when Minnesota coach Doc Spears drove past a farm and saw a muscular boy plowing a field - without a horse. Spears supposedly asked Nagurski directions, and Bronko picked up the plow and pointed (with it)."

The part about plowing without a horse appears in a 19th-century story called "The Young Giant," one of Grimm's fairy tales. The tall tale has equivalents in the folklore of many other countries.

The feat of pointing with a plow has been told about nearly every legendary strong man in both European and American folklore.

In overseas versions, the strongman's discoverer was usually a military recruiter scouting rural regions for soldiers to enlist in the czar's, king's or emperor's army. Whenever a country lad pointed to the city with his plow, the recruiter signed him up.

In the United States this turned into an apocryphal story told about numerous athletic recruiters to explain how they discovered a promising player and launched a notable career.