Hark hark … a shark?
As a child, Eddie “The Shark” Clark had two epiphanies. One was that only fools put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. The other — he was no fool.
So at a time when other kids dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, astronauts, cowboys, pirates and explorers, he dreamed of becoming a con man. Which is what he did.
He had some of the equipment for it. He had Norman Rockwellesque young boy looks — a mop of reddish-blond curls, bright blue eyes, a button nose — plus a quick wit and the enough charm to make others think he actually cared about them. Unfortunately, he lacked the breadth of Bernie Madoff’s sociopathic chutzpah and Alexis Mdivani’s princely pretense. Beyond that, he could never keep his hustles to himself, and had to brag about them, even before he put them in play.
Thus he was doomed to Con Man Bush League, reaching first base now and again, but destined never to cross home plate. Suffice it to say, his nickname was ironic.
He lived in my dorm during his first, and last, foray into the hallowed halls of Old Siwash. And it was there I saw him run the game he called, “The Grand Slam of Academe.” As might’ve been expected of Eddie, it ended up no runs, no hits, three errors and no one left on base.
He had research papers due in three courses — English, history and philosophy — as did we all. Suckers that we were, we busted hump to write a different paper for each course. But not Eddie. First, he was going to hand in the same paper to all three courses. Second, it was a paper he didn’t write. Instead, he’d gotten it from his cousin, who went to some prestigious university. His cousin had gotten an A on it for a history course, and Eddie figured the subject would be appropriate for the other two courses as well. It was titled, “F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Twentieth Century’s Paradigmatic ‘New Man.'”
A bunch of us were in a local gin mill when he told us about it.
“This is a killer,” he said. “Alls I gotta do is type up three copies, hand ’em in, and I got three aces right there.”
In typical fashion, when he said he was going to type them, he was lying. Actually, his hopelessly nave girlfriend would type them for him, just like she did his laundry.
“You’re not serious,” said my roommate Mick McDonald.
Mick was a good kid — straight-arrow, hard-working and honest to a fault.
“Eat your heart out,” said Eddie.
“But that’s cheating,” said Mick. “You’re basically putting the screws to the kids who did all the work themselves.”
“Hey,” said Eddie, “nothing personal, just business.”
With that, he stood, cocked his hand like a pistol, winked and walked out.
A DIY petard hoist
It was a perfect plan … at least on paper. Then again, so were Gallipoli, trickle down economics and Agent Orange.
We handed in our papers the day before Thanksgiving vacation, and would get them back the week after we came back to school. But before the papers were returned, Eddie’s history teacher told him to meet him in his office after class.
The teacher was Dr. Ralston, a campus legend. He was a nationally known Theodore Roosevelt scholar and, unlike a lot of professors, he was as involved in his teaching as he was his research. As a result, he drove his students mercilessly, probably like he drove himself. But underneath it all, he was a good guy: He was always in his office for extra help, or even just to stop in and visit. And if you worked hard and needed a break, he’d give it to you. He did for you, and he expected you’d do for him. And if you didn’t, you flunked. As a result, student opinion was sharply divided between the serious students, who loved him, and the slackers, who hated his guts. Not that he cared — he was there to educate us, not win our adoration. Moreover, he was one of the most viciously sardonic people I ever had.
Eddie went in his office and after they got settled, Dr. Ralston started.
“I want to talk to you about your paper,” he said.
“Oh?” said Eddie.
“Yes,” said Dr. Ralson. “It seems you handed in this paper to two other courses as well.”
“Is there something wrong with that?” said Eddie.
“There is,” said Dr. Ralston. “It’s against my class policy.”
“Oh, no,” said Eddie, wide-eyed and innocent. “I didn’t know that.”
“It was in your the first-day handout,” said Dr. Ralston. “But I really don’t care about that.”
“That’s great,” said Eddie, breathing a sigh of relief.
“The paper is absolutely brilliant,” said Dr. Ralston.
“Thank you,” said Eddie, dripping fake humility.
“I only have one question for you.”
“Shoot,” said Eddie, back to his old smug self.
“What’s a paradigm?”
“Excuse me,” said Eddie.
“Paradigm,” said Dr. Ralston. “What is it?”
It only took Eddie a few seconds before he had an adorable comeback.
“It’s a pair of ten cent pieces, right?”
“Not quite,” said Ralston, unsmiling.
“Why’d you want to know that anyway?” said Eddie.
“Well, since your paper is on F. Scott Fitzgerald as a paradigm, I thought you might know what it meant,” said Ralston. “Forgive me if I’m wrong.”
At that point Eddie realized his scheme had gone sideways, but had no idea exactly how or why.
“Does the name Margaret Fratinelli mean anything to you?” Dr. Ralston continued.
Eddie shook his head but said nothing.
“When I said the paper was brilliant, I meant it,” said Ralston. “It’s so brilliant, it could be the work of a serious twentieth century scholar.”
Eddie just sat there, waiting for the ax to fall.
“As a matter of fact, Mr. Clark, it WAS the work of a scholar.”
Ralston said nothing, letting Eddie twist in the wind. The silence went on till finally Eddie couldn’t take it anymore.
“It was?” he squeaked.
“Yes,” said Ralston. “That Margaret Fratinelli I mentioned? She’s renowned for her work on, of all people, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“In fact,” he said, tapping the paper on his desk, ” she delivered this very paper to the Society of American Historians annual conference four years ago.”
Another long and uncomfortable silence followed. Then Eddie spoke.
“Will you tell my other teachers about this?” he said.
“No need to,” said Ralston breezily, pausing for effect. “I already have.”
“So I guess that’s it?” said Eddie.
“Just one more thing,” said Ralston. “I don’t know what your plans are for next semester, but if they include returning here as a student, so to speak, you need to change them.”
Eddie sat there, unable to move, trying to process what’d just happened.
“And now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do,” said Ralson. “Some of us actually work, you know.” Then he smiled, though it was less the smile of teacher than a hit man, which as far as Eddie considered, he was.
A parting shot
When Eddie got back in the dorm, he came in our room, looking gut-shot. Of course we asked what had happened, and he told us.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “If that paper was plagiarized, how could a professor at a famous university not know it?”
“Simple,” said Mick. “He didn’t read it.”
“Whattaya mean?” said Eddie.
“Just what I said,” said Mick. “He never read it. Just looked at the kid’s name, if he even did that, and then slapped a grade on it.”
“How could he?” sputtered Eddie. “Reading it was his job. They oughta fire the schmuck — or hang him!”
“Hey, relax,” said Mick. “You’re taking this all wrong.”
“Oh?” snapped Eddie, “And how should I take it?”
“Like I would,” said Mick.
“Which is,” said Mick, pausing before his punch line, “nothing personal, just business.”
Then he stood, cocked his hand like a pistol, winked, and walked out.