CHAPTER VII

"PAGE MR. INSULL!" ON THE PONZI POWER, LIGHT & WATER COMPANY OF BLOCTON, ALA.

My meeting in Peachtree Street with the two Secret Service men convinced me that Atlanta, as the gag goes, was "no place for a minister's son." As a matter of fact, like the rest of Georgia, it was no place for anybody except a native "cracker." The Ku Klux Klan was very active. The streets of Marietta were still splattered with the blood of Leo Frank.

I made myself scarce p.d.q., and even quicker than that. "When the midnight choo-choo blew for Alabam," I was on it. Why Alabama of all places? For no other reason than that Alabama was in a western direction. "Go West, young man, go West!"

A few years later, astrologers told me it was all wrong. I should never have gone West. My stars pointed to the East, they said. And they were right. To become enlightened, a man ought to travel always in the direction of the sun. Every yap knows that. But, on the other hand, the eastern routes are so crowded with blue lodge members that a traveler must sit up all night to get to a railroad ticket-window ahead of them.

Be that as it may, I landed in Birmingham. I could not miss it. That is unless I catapulted from the train. And I wouldn't have missed it if I had missed it. The only thing of interest I found there was a "quack". An old acquaintance of mine from Providence.

This quack had an infirmary. Whether or not he had a license to practice is a horse of a different color. Maybe he did and, yet, maybe he didn't. Away back in Providence he did not have one. In fact, he had to leave in a hurry on account of that. But in Birmingham he might have had one. If he did, I don't know how he got it, because the only "medicine" he had ever taken in was castor oil when he was a kid.

I saw his sign over the infirmary and was attracted by the name. It was familiar. Out of curiosity, I went in to find out whether it was a case of two practitioners with an identical shingle or of two shingles for one and the same "doctor." The moment I saw the man, the recognition was mutual.

We talked. He was very frank about his activities. Couldn't very well have been anything else with me. The infirmary was a "racket," he explained. A good racket. He was cleaning up! With what? With fake claims against the coal companies!

This is how it worked. He had agents scattered all over. In every mining camp. They were on a commission basis. As soon as a miner was the victim of some accident, especially a minor accident, he would be coached by the quack's agent to exaggerate the injury, to make it appear an internal injury, and to decline any settlement that may be offered by the company.

Right away, or in due course of time, according to the nature of the injury, the victim would end up at the quack's infirmary. He would stay there weeks or maybe months, leading the life of Riley. Nothing was too good for him. The quack would report his condition to the company and vouch for any sort of internal injury. Eventually, a settlement had to be discussed. This invariably included doctor's fees and infirmary bills at figures that would have staggered even a Johns Hopkins or Mayo clinic's patient. Plus this, the company had to pay some damages to the man himself. The quack cut in 50-50 on the damages too.

The infirmary was always full. And why wouldn't it be? When genuine accidents were scarce, fake accidents were resorted to. A miner would get his "buddy" to throw a few lumps of coal at him. They would pile up some "slack". Summon help. And report a "cave in". The miner would claim minor injuries. The quack would certify to them and collect. And that goes to show that Barnum was right. There is a sucker born every day, and they make him a claim adjuster for a coal mining company! It surely is "a great life if you don't weaken!"

I had a splendid chance to get in that accident racket. I was offered a job. Not for my superficial knowledge of medicine. Rather, for my intimate knowledge of the quack's methods and past. But I am no blackmailer. I live and let live. Besides, that infirmary looked to me as if it might lead me to a relapse. That is, to one of those Alabama chain-gangs. And I gave it a wide berth.

I went to Blocton, instead,—a mining town with a sizable number of Italians where I figured that my knowledge of English might come in handy. In fact, I managed to eke out a living, sometimes acting as interpreter; others, helping the local storekeepers out with their books; occasionally as a male nurse to some battered miner.

Life was far from dull in that small community. Between christenings, weddings and other celebrations, we had more good times than we would have in a large city. It was like one big, happy family. A real brotherhood of common interests and endeavors and of neighborly love. Men, women and children were all banded together by a uniform hope in and fear of their lord and master, the capricious King Coal. Gaiety ebbed or flowed in that camp at the king's whim, according to whether he was lavish or the other way, with tons of precious black mineral or with his frightful destruction of human lives!

It was in my capacity of male nurse that I soon discovered something was amiss in that community. There was no running water. No electric current. The water was toted from wells and springs. Candles and kerosene furnished the light. To administer first aid under those handicaps was not a cinch. Yet, it had to be done because the hospital was two miles away and the only way to get there was walk.

I made up my mind that the camp must be provided with both light and running water. "To decide" with me is "to act." Even at those days I was no slouch at promoting. For the very good reason that money with me is always the last consideration instead of being the first. Why should I worry about the money? The money is always around to be had. The main thing is to have an idea. A plausible idea which can be dressed up and sold.

All I needed for that water and power plant were a gasoline engine, a pump, a dynamo and a tank. The camp was on the slope of a hill. On top of the hill and down part of the other slope, there was another small, but more exclusive district for the native population. At the bottom of that slope was a creek. The whole community was organized under a charter and had some sort of a town council.

It didn't take much to get a town meeting called. A notice was posted. Word passed around. And one Sunday afternoon we all gathered in the town hall. I was introduced and took the floor.

"Gentlemen," I said, "let's not waste any time in idle words. We are all here to discuss the ways and means and expediency of providing every house in this community with running water and electric light. I have made a superficial survey of the proposition and found that it would be practical to pump the water from the creek to a tank on top of the hill and distribute it from there. The same engine which runs the pump, could also run the dynamo for the electric current. I have no figures to submit at this time as to the cost of the plant, the piping and the wiring. I have no money to pay for it.

"What I propose to do is to get an estimate of the cost. Then I will form a corporation asking each member of this community to subscribe to one or more shares of its preferred stock. Enough of it to pay for the cost. I intend to retain a controlling interest of the common stock for my own services and sell the balance to cover overheads and other emergency expenses of the corporation.

"The rates for water and electric current will be determine by the town council as soon as I shall be able to submit figures for the running cost of the plant and the amortization of the preferred stock. I expect those rates to leave a reasonable margin of profit for the common stock. While I am desirous to promote the welfare of this community, I feel that I am entitled to some returns for my time, energy and services.

"Just now, I ask that a resolution be put to a vote of this meeting endorsing my activities and endeavors and directing the town council to give me a deed to the land needed for the power plant and water tank and a franchise to run pipes and wires. I thank you."

The resolution was unanimously adopted. A few days later, I was given the franchise at a special meeting of the town council. I had a power equipment company send down a couple of engineers to lay out the whole thing and give me some figures. In another month or so, the plant would have materialized.

But … something happened to upset my plans. Something always happens! It never fails. Something so entirely unexpected that it catches me unaware. Like a flower pot that lands on a man's head from a three-story window.

That time, it was an accident. Not to me. To one of the nurses at the company's hospital. Pearl Gossett was her name. She had been cooking a patient's meal on a gasoline stove. The stove exploded. She was frightfully burned. The entire left arm and part of her breast and shoulder were actually one mass of charred flesh.

A couple of days after the accident, Dr. Thomas, the company's doctor, came over to the camp. We were very friendly. He never failed to call on me whenever he was at the camp. He did not fail that day. He stopped at the house where I was staying and we drank a bottle of beer. Our conversation drifted to the nurse.

"How's Pearl?" I inquired. "Is she making any progress?"

"Her condition is very serious," the doctor said. "Almost desperate. Gangrene is setting in."

"Can't anything be done to save her?" I asked.

"Skingrafting, perhaps," he replied. "I wanted to try it. But I can't find anybody who will give up as little as an inch of his skin for her."

He told me he had asked everybody around the camp. He had been turned down in each instance.

It did not seem fair that a young girl like Pearl should be permitted to die such a horrible death. That nurse had been so kind to her patients that it seemed inconceivable that she should meet with such ingratitude. It made my blood sizzle to think that any person could be so selfish, so cowardly as to refuse a mere inch of his own skin to save a human life.

"How many inches of skin do you need altogether, doctor?" I asked him.

"Forty or fifty, I guess," he said. "But I can't find even ten in a community of 2,000 or more people."

"You're all wrong, doctor," I said. "You have found them. I will give you all the skin you need."

"You?" he said as if he was afraid he had misunderstood." You? You will give the whole of it?"

" Yes, doctor," I confirmed, "I will. When do you want me?"

"We cannot put the thing off very long," he answered. "But I don't want to hurry you either. You might want to prepare for it. Sort of brace up. When can you be ready?"

"I am ready now," I told him.

Dr. Thomas took a good look at me before he replied. He wanted to make sure I wouldn't flinch. Evidently, what he saw in my eyes decided him.

"All right then. Come along," he said. "But you better put your coat on," he added with a twinkle in his eyes, noticing that in my eagerness to follow him, I was going in my shirt sleeves.

That evening, I was put on the operating table.

Before they gave me the ether, I wanted to know from what part of my body they were going to peel my skin.

"From the thigh," said Dr. Thomas. "By the way, from which leg shall we take it?" he asked.

"It's all the same to me," I told him. "Take it from both, if you need it."

And he did. When I came to, both of my legs were bandaged, from hip to knee. And sore! Oh, boy! But what's a couple of sore legs more or less between friends? Just a trifle! In fact, I was in the hospital the best part of the next three months. Convalescing? No. Shedding more skin on the installment plan. Enough to make a couple of suit-cases. But I say that with no regret. It was probably instrumental in saving that nurse's life. If not her life, her arm. In either case, I am glad to have done something to help a fellow being. Regardless of what it may have cost me.

Undoubtedly, I suffered physically. The ordeal was quite painful. Also, I incurred some danger from complications. Pneumonia, for instance. But I did not get anything worse than pleurisy. Economically, it just blew my power plant to smithereens! But again I may say: What's a power plant more or less in the land of Insull? A trifle! A mere trifle! He did not miss it! And neither did I. Not much.