On an Scrupulous Green Grocer

During World War 2, in Peoria, Illinois, John Scoutaris owned a business at 533 Main Street called the Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Company. It was one of those old-timey downtown fruit places that had the vertical displays on the sidewalks in front of the store. You know the type.

John was scrupulous in making sure that his customers received the best, the freshest produce available to them considering it was war time and many items were rationed. He sometimes made incredibly little money on his wholesale buys simply to ensure that his customers would have the best fruit and vegetables possible. John felt that to give the best was his part in the war effort, as minor as it may seem to us compared to those guys who were fighting and dying on the front lines.

One morning, as John was out front of his store, in his green apron, inspecting his wares, one of his regular customers, Mary Hunt, stopped by.

“Hi, John,” Mary said. John responded, but he was concerned that one of his cantaloupes on the second row from the top was probably too old to sell and thus not up to his usual standards. He picked it up and examined it closely. “Whatcha got there, John?” Mary asked. “Hmm,” John answered, somewhat preoccupied with the overripe fruit. “Oh, this,” he said, turning to Mary with the melon in his hand, “I think it’s about to go moldy on me, Mary.”

Suddenly, Mary took a keen interest in the fruit John was holding. “Say, John; what are you gonna do with that cantaloupe?” John told her that he always threw out the old fruit, that he would never sell anything not up to his high standards. But Mary persisted. “Would you do me a favor?” she asked. What she wanted was for John to start saving all the moldy fruit, especially the melons, for her in a box in the back. She told him she’d come by every few days and take it off his hands.

John argued weakly that he couldn’t sell her something that was old. She said she didn’t want to buy it—just to have it. John didn’t ask why; he assumed it might be something to do with pets or chickens or something. Maybe even composting. Mary seemed alright. She was a regular customer and a good one, and she was a war worker, also, John knew. So, he agreed. He began saving the moldy melons for Mary.

After a few weeks, Mary abruptly told John she didn’t need him to save the fruit anymore. John again didn’t ask why, and Mary didn’t offer a reason. In fact, John was a bit relieved. Besides, the box of old fruit attracted fruit flies, and who needs that in a fruit stand?

Several years later and after the war ended, Mary stopped by the fruit stand one day. “John,” she said, “I want to tell you why I wanted you to save that moldy cantaloupe for me.” “You don’t owe me any explanation, Mary,” John said.

Mary told John the story that she was a worker during the war and afterward in a biological lab that had government contracts. John said, yes, he knew she was involved in the war effort, and that’s one reason he never asked her questions about her work or the melons.

“Oh, I know, John. I wanted to thank you. You saved the lives of more people than most anyone ever has. You are one of the war’s heroes, and you don’t even know it.”

John was incredulous. “Whaaaat?” he asked, his mouth flying open. “What…how…why?” he exclaimed.

Mary continued. “Yes, John, I just thought you might like to know that the mold on that melon was the source for penicillin.”

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