CHAPTER VIII

MR. PONZI'S MEDICAL CAREER IN MOBILE IS ABRUPTLY CUT SHORT BY A UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT

It was around the Spring or Summer of 1914 that I made my appearance in Mobile, Ala. I had come from Pensacola on the coast-wise steamer Tarpon. Not as a passenger. Only as a painter. On a contract job to paint the deck structure.

I did what I was supposed to do. But had some trouble collecting what was owed to me. I quarreled with the Captain. Told him to go to blazes. He went back to Pensacola, instead. I remained in Mobile.

In those days, one place was just as good as the next. I had discovered that I could paint—more or less. Signs were my specialty. Any kind of signs. But I could figure on a house painting job, too, and manage to make a living almost anywhere. I would work one town and shift to the next one without any trouble.

In Mobile I did fairly well at the beginning. Then things slacked up a bit. But as I was ready to move on, I noticed an ad in the local papers.

"Librarian wanted at the Medical College. Apply in person," it read. I applied. Knowing the Greek language, those big medical words were not exactly "all Greek to me." They were something I understood. So I landed the job. Which did not pay much, but I took it because it was dignified and congenial, so to speak. Not many would cherish it like I did, eating their noon lunch in an anatomical room full of corpses pickled in formaldehyde, with possibility of picking up a slice off someone's thigh, instead of a slice of boiled ham.

Speaking of congeniality, I had all sorts of pranks played on me by those medical students. Some of the boys were really cute in their ways! They would just as soon as not drop a test-tube full of typhoid germs into my soup. Or turn loose in the library a whole cage of guinea pigs injected with cholera morbus. Anything to provoke a laugh. One night, after a storm which had put the lights out of commission, I turned in, in the dark. My room was on the ground floor of the building. The moment I got under the sheets, I felt the presence of someone else in my bed. A drunken student, I thought. But it wasn't. It was a "stiff"—a dead negro—embalmed, too. As I could not carry him alone up to the second floor where he belonged, I laid him on the floor in my room. We both slept peacefully, but I woke up first. Such was the life at the college. One prank after another. But it worked both ways.

My duties as librarian were the least of all. I catalogued the ten thousand or more books in the library, and the periodicals, too. I observed regular hours and issued books. I collaborated also on the college publication. Typed the whole of it. Showed visitors around the building. And, nights included, I was tied up with the free out-patient obstetric service.

In this connection, when a call came in from an expectant mother, it was up to me to hunt up the two students assigned to the case—who, by the way, might be anywhere except home,—prepare their satchel, send them on their way. Sometimes it happened that one of the two students could not be found, or would not be found. Then I would turn into a mid-wife and go along myself. There was nothing to it. Nearly all were ordinary deliveries, not "special" deliveries. And, between attending classes, reading up text books, watching operations and postmortems, etc., I knew as much about deliveries as any of the boys, in fact, as much as any mail carrier. After all, it was only a question of waiting. I could not improve upon nature. It would have to take its course. And it usually did, sooner or later. And the waiting was not half as hard on me as it was on the expectant mother.

All considered, that job suited me fine. I got along capitally with the faculty and the boys. I liked Mobile, its bay, the well known Mobile Bay, its climate, everything. But my contentment did not last over a year. I should have known it wouldn't last. If it had, it would have interrupted a long circle of bad breaks.

Before I proceed to narrate the events. I must explain that the Medical College was a part of the University of Alabama. The university itself was located at Tuscaloosa. The Medical College was located at Mobile, instead of in the campus, because a medical college always needs to be where it may have easy access to a fairly large hospital. Mobile, being a larger city than Tuscaloosa, afforded better hospital facilities.

I do not recollect what had caused the Medical College to locate in Mobile instead of in Birmingham. All I know is that it was there and that, in my time, a bunch of Birmingham doctors were trying their darndest to have it removed from Mobile to their city. The Mobile M. D.'s were pulling their own political wires just as hard to have the college stay down there.

The moment I became connected with that institution, my loyalty to the faculty, naturally, led me to side with them. But it was not within the scope of my job to take an active part in the controversy, except in my capacity of collaborator in the college publication. As such, I worked hand in hand with one of the faculty.

He and I were real "buddies" in that fight. He was the most rabid opponent the Birmingham bunch ever had to contend with. At least, that's what we all believed. We banked on him. We had implicit confidence in his loyalty and sincerity, until something happened to shake our confidence in him.

It was the night before he was leaving for his summer vacation. He and I were alone in his office. He was straightening out his papers. Giving me some instructions; arranging things in general. And when he got ready to leave the building, he handed me two letters to mail.

"Be sure to mail them tonight," he told me, "because I am leaving on the morning train in the same direction and I want them to get to the destination before me."

I had no intention of disregarding his wishes. As soon as he left the building, I got ready to do the same thing and to go to the post-office. But I happened to glance at the envelopes. I noticed that one was addressed to a doctor in Birmingham notoriously active in the projected removal of the Medical College from Mobile. The other was addressed to the President of the university, whom we had reason to suspect was antagonistic to the Mobile crowd. I was thunderstruck. From what I knew, that faculty member was the last one who should ever have anything to do with such people. He and they were supposed to be at logger-heads.

I was a bit perplexed. There was something before me which did not look right. Yet it seemed inconceivable to suspect him of treachery. I did not know what to do. But my loyalty to the institution prevailed. I decided to open those letters. I could always seal them again and mail them if they contained no treasonable matter.

I opened them. Read them. And there, before me was the evidence that he had been double-crossing the college right along. He was working hand-in-hand with the Birmingham bunch.

My course was clear. I could not suppress that evidence and remain loyal to the college. I saw no reason for suppressing it anyway. Since he was a double-crosser, I owed him nothing. Let him face the consequences.

I called up Dr. Frazer, then acting-dean, and told him to come right over to the college. He did. I showed him the letters. He asked me to make copies of them, and took the originals. The following morning the derelict faculty member was asked to resign. He did not and could not decline to do so, under the circumstances.

Within a few days, the matter was reported to the President of the University. The faculty, of course, did not fail to express their chagrin at having discovered that he was siding with the Birmingham crowd. They felt that he should have been neutral. I don't know what he replied, but he made it a point to direct that I be fired.

Dr. Frazer showed me his letter. I laughed. Told him not to pay any attention to it, that the man who wrote it was crazy with the heat.

"But he is my superior in the University," said Dr. Frazer, "I must obey him."

"Not in this instance. But go ahead if you want to," I told him. "Only you'd better warn him that if I am fired I'll bring suit and let the world know the reason I am being fired."

"I can't tell him that," protested Dr. Frazer. "He expects me to tell him that I have fired you."

"Well, it's just too bad about him that I am not fired and that I won't be fired. On second thought, I believe I will spare you even that trouble. In the morning I will give you a letter from me to send along. If after that, he still insists that I be fired, it will be time enough for you to act."

I did write the delinquent faculty member of the University a letter. And what a letter! Insulting? Of course, not. Only diplomatic. But I had him in a corner and I let him have it. He had it coming, anyway. The result was that I was not fired. Not right away. He got rid of me in another way, though. That is, by failing to appropriate any more for my salary. And so, before summer was over, I was out of that job, after all.