This is the story of Robby and Tommy, and of the strange way in which their society valued their lives.
They were born in the same year and lived on the same street. Naturally they became best friends. They were always together, playing in one or another’s front yard, or riding their bikes around the neighborhood. In school, their teachers said they were twins who acted alike instead of looking alike.
Robby’s father was a lawyer. He went to work early every morning, and spent many weeknights working in his study. He expected his son would go to college like he did. On weekends he often took both boys to the museum, or the zoo, or the movies. Once in a while he took them to his office to play with the photocopiers.
Tommy’s father was a Ford salesman. He was a star football player when he was in high school, but he wasn’t quite good enough for a college scholarship, and he wasn’t that interested in college anyway. He was liked by everyone and made a good salesman. On weekends he often took both boys to a ball game, or the park, or the video arcade.
Both Robby and Tommy wanted to be deep sea divers when they grew up, then astronauts, then fighter pilots, then ambulance drivers.
But one year Robby’s mother got very sick. The doctors said it was cancer, and she started wasting away right before their eyes. One doctor gave her an experimental treatment, and she got better. One year stretched into two, and everyone started to forget she was ever sick. But suddenly she got even sicker, and began wasting away even faster. A priest went to her in the hospital, and Robby began to understand that his mother was really dying this time. He told her he didn’t want her to go, and she said she would always be watching him from heaven, and then she died.
Everyone they knew came to the funeral. As Robby watched his mother’s casket lowered into the ground, he said to Tommy that he was going to be a doctor. He wanted to make sick people well again, like that doctor with the experimental treatment, only he would do it better so it would never stop working.
Fast forward a few years. Robby became Robert, and Tommy became Thomas. Robert got a new mother, and he thought she was okay. He called her Karen instead of Mom though, and she was okay with that. Thomas said she was pretty, and Robert thought that was gross.
Thomas still came around for supper sometimes, but he didn’t sleep over anymore. Every night he had football practice or basketball practice or baseball practice, and he usually hung around with his friends from the team.
Robert read lots of different books because he knew doctors had to know a lot of different things. His dad bought him a set of encyclopedias, and he sat cross-legged with them on his lap for hours, going from one topic to the next. Thomas sometimes came over to read them too, and then they used Robert’s chemistry set to make stinkbombs.
Fast forward a few more years, to high school. Robert became Rob, and Thomas became Tom. Rob was the school brain, good at every subject, captain of the debating team, and winner of all the science fairs. Tom was the starting quarterback for the school football team, and star center for the basketball team. They didn’t see each other much. If they passed in the hallways, sometimes they would say “hi”.
In fact, Tom hung around with the “in” crowd, who made fun of Rob and his nerdy friends. Tom went quiet when they did that. Tom got a new girlfriend every month. Rob was awkward and shy around girls. He never got a date and took his cousin to the senior prom.
Tom got a college football scholarship, signed a contract for a major league team after his third year, and dropped out to play pro. Many top colleges offered Rob scholarships, and he chose the one with the best medical and biotechnology programs.
Tom got a vintage Corvette as a signing bonus. Rob kept driving his father’s old Tempo, the one his father had bought from Tom’s father fourteen years before.
Rob completed his undergraduate degree with honors and applied for graduate studies in biotechnology. He was accepted immediately.
Tom was named Rookie of the Year and he tore up his contract to get a better one. He got it.
Later that year, Tom wrapped his Porsche around a streetlamp and bought a Ferrari, but then got arrested for cocaine possession, suspended for a month, and was committed to rehab. He tried to punch a police officer on the way out of the courtroom, and Disney had to cancel their advertising contract with him. Fortunately, Mennen and Schick found his new rough image appealing, especially since it was splashed across the front pages of every newspaper in the developed world. They offered him new contracts.
Rob’s old Tempo finally died and could not be resurrected. He started taking the bus.
Rob finished his Master’s degree in a year and went on to Doctorate studies. The faculty put Rob’s professor in charge of a privately funded research project looking at new cancer treatments. After a year, the professor was spending more and more time flogging for additional grant money so he let Rob lead the research team. Rob couldn’t have been happier, despite his girlfriend of six months leaving him for a phys-ed student.
Tom was arrested again for cocaine possession, but the judge was a huge football fan. Tom was sentenced in absentia to one hundred hours of community service. He never served it. No one expected him to.
Over the next two years Tom’s addictions and erratic behavior began to affect his play, and he started to slide in the league standings. He was traded to a small market team and his adoring public forgot about him. The celebrity endorsements dried up, leaving him with only his base four million dollar salary. He was very unhappy, and he fell further into excess.
Rob and his team made worthwhile discoveries and published three papers, but they didn’t make the big breakthrough that the private backer was hoping for. They pulled their funding, which effectively killed the project. Rob was disappointed, but not so much. He knew he was close to something.
Later that year, Rob completed his Doctorate degree and became a professor at the same university. He pulled together a team of graduate students and restarted his previous research project. His old professor found him another corporate backer and Rob borrowed against everything he owned, and more besides, to buy better equipment for his lab.
Tom kept looking back at all he had lost. He grew despondent as he watched his cars and his summer house in France go up his nose. His girlfriend left with his Corvette, his friends dropped by less and less often, and he was suspended from the team for missing too many practices. He gained ten useless pounds and looked fifteen years older. He felt like the has-been the football pundits were calling him.
Rob followed his childhood dream with a fervor that left his fellows in awe. They rarely saw him outside of his laboratory. He even installed a cot in his office. Which he occasionally shared, as it turned out, with an attractive young graduate student on his team. She was caught up in the vortex surrounding the handsome young doctor with the soft belly and unruly hair, and a fire in his eyes that left her smitten.
The next year, Rob made a breakthrough that made international news. His discovery was credited with saving potentially millions of lives, and he was nominated for the Nobel prize in Medicine.
Tom’s agent told him his contract would not be renewed. Tom was deciding whether to go work for his father selling cars, or to put a gun into his mouth and end a lifetime of wasted potential, when his eyes happened to fall upon an article in USA Today. It was about a boy he once knew. The boy had grown up to accomplish everything he had promised to do. Tom looked at himself in the mirror, then threw up. He followed that by flushing the envelope of cocaine he had taped beneath the bathroom sink, then he went through his house gathering the rest of his caches. He flushed them too. That afternoon he called some friends in the league. He managed to get himself traded to an expansion team that he thought could be a Superbowl contender.
Before the end of that season, Tom rediscovered his love for the game and outran even the rookies. His star began to shine again. The endorsement contracts began to trickle in, and the sports pundits stopped calling him a has-been. As much.
Rob won the Nobel prize for Medicine. He graciously shared the cash prize of ten million kronas, roughly one point three million dollars, with his research team. After paying off his debts he still had enough money to buy a nice house. The award presentation was not televised in North America, so he bought a ticket to Stockholm for his father and stepmother to watch it in person.
The next year Tom led his new team to the Superbowl finals and the league named him Player of the Year. He received a million dollar cash bonus. His face was again front page news. His team renewed his contract for twenty two million dollars over three years, and new endorsement contracts came in at double that. He married a supermodel and divorced her a month later. She kept his new summer house in Italy and two of his cars. He then married an actress. That marriage lasted nearly six months, but fortunately she had signed a pre-nuptial agreement. Naturally she contested it, but his lawyer assured him that the case would be tied up in appeals for another ten years, giving him plenty of time to hide his assets.
Rob’s breakthrough was considered one of the top medical discoveries of the century. No one knew his face, and his name was quickly forgotten by the people whose lives he saved. Instead, they thanked their doctor, or the pharmaceutical company who supplied the drugs created from Rob’s research. Incidentally, that company’s stock split after the university sold them the patent.
Rob became a legend in the scientific community, and shared his time with as many research teams as he could. He preferred to stay near home though, in his four bedroom house that he shared with his wife – the attractive former graduate student – and their two children. He wrote in his memoirs that except for losing his mother at an early age, he was the luckiest man on Earth, and he would relive his life in exactly the same way.
Tom’s name lived on forever in the minds of sports fans and in games of trivia. He blew out his left knee at age 30 and decided to retire. He was wealthy enough to live better than royalty for the rest of his life, despite squandering millions on high living and failed marriages. If he decided to write his autobiography – which he never would, but if he did – he could have remarked that throwing a ball and running around pays very well for those who are good at it.
One warm autumn day, Tom suddenly remembered that article in USA Today, and he found himself wondering about his childhood friend. He nearly had his assistant look for Rob’s number to invite him over for a barbeque. Rob nearly accepted. And their society nearly wondered if it should value those who save lives more than those who entertain. But it didn’t.