Junior Achievement

by William M. Lee

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Fallout is, of course, always disastrous-- one way or another

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“What would you think,” I asked Marjorie over supper, “if I should undertake to lead a junior achievement group this summer?”

She pondered it while she went to the kitchen to bring in the dessert. It was dried apricot pie, and very tasty, I might add.

“Why, Donald,” she said, “it could be quite interesting, if I understand what a junior achievement group is. What gave you the idea?”

“It wasn’t my idea, really,” I admitted. “Mr. McCormack called me to the office today, and told me that some of the children in the lower grades wanted to start one. They need adult guidance of course, and one of the group suggested my name.”

I should explain, perhaps, that I teach a course in general science in our Ridgeville Junior High School, and another in general physics in the Senior High School. It’s a privilege which I’m sure many educators must envy, teaching in Ridgeville, for our new school is a fine one, and our academic standards are high. On the other hand, the fathers of most of my students work for the Commission and a constant awareness of the Commission and its work pervades the town. It is an uneasy privilege then, at least sometimes, to teach my old-fashioned brand of science to these children of a new age.

“That’s very nice,” said Marjorie. “What does a junior achievement group do?”

“It has the purpose,” I told her, “of teaching the members something about commerce and industry. They manufacture simple compositions like polishing waxes and sell them from door-to-door. Some groups have built up tidy little bank accounts which are available for later educational expenses.”

“Gracious, you wouldn’t have to sell from door-to-door, would you?”

“Of course not. I’d just tell the kids how to do it.”

Marjorie put back her head and laughed, and I was forced to join her, for we both recognize that my understanding and “feel” for commercial matters--if I may use that expression--is almost nonexistent.

“Oh, all right,” I said, “laugh at my commercial aspirations. But don’t worry about it, really. Mr. McCormack said we could get Mr. Wells from Commercial Department to help out if he was needed. There is one problem, though. Mr. McCormack is going to put up fifty dollars to buy any raw materials wanted and he rather suggested that I might advance another fifty. The question is, could we do it?”

Marjorie did mental arithmetic. “Yes,” she said, “yes, if it’s something you’d like to do.”

We’ve had to watch such things rather closely for the last ten--no, eleven years. Back in the old Ridgeville, fifty-odd miles to the south, we had our home almost paid for, when the accident occurred. It was in the path of the heaviest fallout, and we couldn’t have kept on living there even if the town had stayed. When Ridgeville moved to its present site, so, of course, did we, which meant starting mortgage payments all over again.


Thus it was that on a Wednesday morning about three weeks later, I was sitting at one end of a plank picnic table with five boys and girls lined up along the sides. This was to be our headquarters and factory for the summer--a roomy unused barn belonging to the parents of one of the group members, Tommy Miller.

“O.K.,” I said, “let’s relax. You don’t need to treat me as a teacher, you know. I stopped being a school teacher when the final grades went in last Friday. I’m on vacation now. My job here is only to advise, and I’m going to do that as little as possible. You’re going to decide what to do, and if it’s safe and legal and possible to do with the starting capital we have, I’ll go along with it and help in any way I can. This is your meeting.”

Mr. McCormack had told me, and in some detail, about the youngsters I’d be dealing with. The three who were sitting to my left were the ones who had proposed the group in the first place.

Doris Enright was a grave young lady of ten years, who might, I thought, be quite a beauty in a few more years, but was at the moment rather angular--all shoulders and elbows. Peter Cope, Jr. and Hilary Matlack were skinny kids, too. The three were of an age and were all tall for ten-year-olds.

I had the impression during that first meeting that they looked rather alike, but this wasn’t so. Their features were quite different. Perhaps from association, for they were close friends, they had just come to have a certain similarity of restrained gesture and of modulated voice. And they were all tanned by sun and wind to a degree that made their eyes seem light and their teeth startlingly white.

The two on my right were cast in a different mold. Mary McCready was a big husky redhead of twelve, with a face full of freckles and an infectious laugh, and Tommy Miller, a few months younger, was just an average, extroverted, well adjusted youngster, noisy and restless, tee-shirted and butch-barbered.

The group exchanged looks to see who would lead off, and Peter Cope seemed to be elected.

“Well, Mr. Henderson, a junior achievement group is a bunch of kids who get together to manufacture and sell things, and maybe make some money.”

“Is that what you want to do,” I asked, “make money?”

“Why not?” Tommy asked. “There’s something wrong with making money?”

“Well, sure, I suppose we want to,” said Hilary. “We’ll need some money to do the things we want to do later.”

“And what sort of things would you like to make and sell?” I asked.

The usual products, of course, with these junior achievement efforts, are chemical specialties that can be made safely and that people will buy and use without misgivings--solvent to free up rusty bolts, cleaner to remove road tar, mechanic’s hand soap--that sort of thing. Mr. McCormack had told me, though, that I might find these youngsters a bit more ambitious. “The Miller boy and Mary McCready,” he had said, “have exceptionally high IQ’s--around one forty or one fifty. The other three are hard to classify. They have some of the attributes of exceptional pupils, but much of the time they seem to have little interest in their studies. The junior achievement idea has sparked their imaginations. Maybe it’ll be just what they need.”

Mary said, “Why don’t we make a freckle remover? I’d be our first customer.”


“The thing to do,” Tommy offered, “is to figure out what people in Ridgeville want to buy, then sell it to them.”

“I’d like to make something by powder metallurgy techniques,” said Pete. He fixed me with a challenging eye. “You should be able to make ball bearings by molding, then densify them by electroplating.”

“And all we’d need is a hydraulic press,” I told him, “which, on a guess, might cost ten thousand dollars. Let’s think of something easier.”

Pete mulled it over and nodded reluctantly. “Then maybe something in the electronics field. A hi-fi sub-assembly of some kind.”

“How about a new detergent?” Hilary put in.

“Like the liquid dishwashing detergents?” I asked.

He was scornful. “No, they’re formulations--you know, mixtures. That’s cookbook chemistry. I mean a brand new synthetic detergent. I’ve got an idea for one that ought to be good even in the hard water we’ve got around here.”

“Well, now,” I said, “organic synthesis sounds like another operation calling for capital investment. If we should keep the achievement group going for several summers, it might be possible later on to carry out a safe synthesis of some sort. You’re Dr. Matlack’s son, aren’t you? Been dipping into your father’s library?”

“Some,” said Hilary, “and I’ve got a home laboratory.”

“How about you, Doris?” I prompted. “Do you have a special field of interest?”

“No.” She shook her head in mock despondency. “I’m not very technical. Just sort of miscellaneous. But if the group wanted to raise some mice, I’d be willing to turn over a project I’ve had going at home.”

“You could sell mice?” Tommy demanded incredulously.

“Mice,” I echoed, then sat back and thought about it. “Are they a pure strain? One of the recognized laboratory strains? Healthy mice of the right strain,” I explained to Tommy, “might be sold to laboratories. I have an idea the Commission buys a supply every month.”

“No,” said Doris, “these aren’t laboratory mice. They’re fancy ones. I got the first four pairs from a pet shop in Denver, but they’re red--sort of chipmunk color, you know. I’ve carried them through seventeen generations of careful selection.”

“Well, now,” I admitted, “the market for red mice might be rather limited. Why don’t you consider making an after-shave lotion? Denatured alcohol, glycerine, water, a little color and perfume. You could buy some bottles and have some labels printed. You’d be in business before you knew it.”

There was a pause, then Tommy inquired, “How do you sell it?”

“Door-to-door.”

He made a face. “Never build up any volume. Unless it did something extra. You say we’d put color in it. How about enough color to leave your face looking tanned. Men won’t use cosmetics and junk, but if they didn’t have to admit it, they might like the shave lotion.”

Hilary had been deep in thought. He said suddenly, “Gosh, I think I know how to make a--what do you want to call it--a before-shave lotion.”

“What would that be?” I asked.

“You’d use it before you shaved.”

“I suppose there might be people who’d prefer to use it beforehand,” I conceded.

“There will be people,” he said darkly, and subsided.

Mrs. Miller came out to the barn after a while, bringing a bucket of soft drinks and ice, a couple of loaves of bread and ingredients for a variety of sandwiches. The parents had agreed to underwrite lunches at the barn and Betty Miller philosophically assumed the role of commissary officer. She paused only to say hello and to ask how we were progressing with our organization meeting.

I’d forgotten all about organization, and that, according to all the articles I had perused, is most important to such groups. It’s standard practice for every member of the group to be a company officer. Of course a young boy who doesn’t know any better, may wind up a sales manager.

Over the sandwiches, then, I suggested nominating company officers, but they seemed not to be interested. Peter Cope waved it off by remarking that they’d each do what came naturally. On the other hand, they pondered at some length about a name for the organization, without reaching any conclusions, so we returned to the problem of what to make.

It was Mary, finally, who advanced the thought of kites. At first there was little enthusiasm, then Peter said, “You know, we could work up something new. Has anybody ever seen a kite made like a wind sock?”

Nobody had. Pete drew figures in the air with his hands. “How about the hole at the small end?”

“I’ll make one tonight,” said Doris, “and think about the small end. It’ll work out all right.”

I wished that the youngsters weren’t starting out by inventing a new article to manufacture, and risking an almost certain disappointment, but to hold my guidance to the minimum, I said nothing, knowing that later I could help them redesign it along standard lines.


At supper I reviewed the day’s happenings with Marjorie and tried to recall all of the ideas which had been propounded. Most of them were impractical, of course, for a group of children to attempt, but several of them appeared quite attractive.

Tommy, for example, wanted to put tooth powder into tablets that one would chew before brushing the teeth. He thought there should be two colors in the same bottle--orange for morning and blue for night, the blue ones designed to leave the mouth alkaline at bed time.

Pete wanted to make a combination nail and wood screw. You’d drive it in with a hammer up to the threaded part, then send it home with a few turns of a screwdriver.

Hilary, reluctantly forsaking his ideas on detergents, suggested we make black plastic discs, like poker chips but thinner and as cheap as possible, to scatter on a snowy sidewalk where they would pick up extra heat from the sun and melt the snow more rapidly. Afterward one would sweep up and collect the discs.

Doris added to this that if you could make the discs light enough to float, they might be colored white and spread on the surface of a reservoir to reduce evaporation.

These latter ideas had made unknowing use of some basic physics, and I’m afraid I relapsed for a few minutes into the role of teacher and told them a little bit about the laws of radiation and absorption of heat.

“My,” said Marjorie, “they’re really smart boys and girls. Tommy Miller does sound like a born salesman. Somehow I don’t think you’re going to have to call in Mr. Wells.”

I do feel just a little embarrassed about the kite, even now. The fact that it flew surprised me. That it flew so confoundedly well was humiliating. Four of them were at the barn when I arrived next morning; or rather on the rise of ground just beyond it, and the kite hung motionless and almost out of sight in the pale sky. I stood and watched for a moment, then they saw me.

“Hello, Mr. Henderson,” Mary said, and proffered the cord which was wound on a fishing reel. I played the kite up and down for a few minutes, then reeled it in. It was, almost exactly, a wind sock, but the hole at the small end was shaped--by wire--into the general form of a kidney bean. It was beautifully made, and had a sort of professional look about it.

“It flies too well,” Mary told Doris. “A kite ought to get caught in a tree sometimes.”

“You’re right,” Doris agreed. “Let’s see it.” She gave the wire at the small end the slightest of twists. “There, it ought to swoop.”

Sure enough, in the moderate breeze of that morning, the kite swooped and yawed to Mary’s entire satisfaction. As we trailed back to the barn I asked Doris, “How did you know that flattening the lower edge of the hole would create instability?” She looked doubtful.

“Why it would have to, wouldn’t it? It changed the pattern of air pressures.” She glanced at me quickly. “Of course, I tried a lot of different shapes while I was making it.”

“Naturally,” I said, and let it go at that. “Where’s Tommy?”

“He stopped off at the bank,” Pete Cope told me, “to borrow some money. We’ll want to buy materials to make some of these kites.”

“But I said yesterday that Mr. McCormack and I were going to advance some cash to get started.”

“Oh, sure, but don’t you think it would be better to borrow from a bank? More businesslike?”

“Doubtless,” I said, “but banks generally want some security.” I would have gone on and explained matters further, except that Tommy walked in and handed me a pocket check book.

“I got two hundred and fifty,” he volunteered--not without a hint of complacency in his voice. “It didn’t take long, but they sure made it out a big deal. Half the guys in the bank had to be called in to listen to the proposition. The account’s in your name, Mr. Henderson, and you’ll have to make out the checks. And they want you to stop in at the bank and give them a specimen signature. Oh, yes, and cosign the note.”

My heart sank. I’d never had any dealings with banks except in the matter of mortgages, and bank people make me most uneasy. To say nothing of finding myself responsible for a two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar note--over two weeks salary. I made a mental vow to sign very few checks.

“So then I stopped by at Apex Stationers,” Tommy went on, “and ordered some paper and envelopes. We hadn’t picked a name yesterday, but I figured what’s to lose, and picked one. Ridge Industries, how’s that?” Everybody nodded.

“Just three lines on the letterhead,” he explained. “Ridge Industries--Ridgeville--Montana.”

I got my voice back and said, “Engraved, I trust.”

“Well, sure,” he replied. “You can’t afford to look chintzy.”


My appetite was not at its best that evening, and Marjorie recognized that something was concerning me, but she asked no questions, and I only told her about the success of the kite, and the youngsters embarking on a shopping trip for paper, glue and wood splints. There was no use in both of us worrying.

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