Penitential Life – Part 1

A stand-in for a real insurance company

A fictional life insurance company like the real one where Dave worked in the 1980s.

In the spring of 1981 I was a year into living on credit cards and unemployment checks. My job had ended when my grant wasn’t renewed and the University had run out of funds to pay me. I still came to my office every day, trying to find another academic job and struggling to write up my last research project. Collection agencies were calling but by the grace of God my landlady had written a loan for my six-month’s back rent.

With the job search and writing going nowhere, I scanned the want ads every day. An item popped out: earning potential with steady employment. I called. The guy on the phone was a smooth talker with a nice warm voice; “Sure, come on out. Today is fine.”

It was a modern building with one of those high atrium lobbies with catwalks pinned to the wall to reach the offices. Penitential Life was on the third floor. I’m terrified of heights, but I took a deep breath and scrambled out of the elevator across the walkway and through the door. Eddie, the boss, looked to be in his late thirties. He wore a dark sharkskin suit, was maybe five foot-six and had a trim mustache. As he led me back to his office he skimmed my resume. How delighted he was to meet me and how impressed he was with my university credentials! Like me, he came from Boston. He had been in law school when an opportunity so wonderful and so unique had led him to change the course of his life.

He leaned into me across his desk. “David, the people who succeed in America are the owners. They don’t work for anyone else—they work for themselves. They help other people, people from all walks of life, to achieve financial security, and in the process they achieve it for themselves. Every time they help a family to reach its goals using one of our financial products, they take ownership in that family’s success. And every year, when that product is renewed, they—you, David, if you choose to join us—receive an income, and that income is for life!”

“Is he really offering me a job,” I wondered.

He was.

“David, I hope you’ll consider us. You must have so many good opportunities, with your wonderful qualifications”

“Is this life insurance,” I asked.

“David, it isn’t insurance, it’s protection for people’s lifetime security.”

“OK,” I said, “when do I start?”

When I headed to the elevator I didn’t notice that I was on a catwalk thirty feet above the atrium floor. I was elated to have a job, at last. The realization crept in slowly that evening as I lay in bed: The job I had accepted was commission sales with no regular salary. I had noting else. Might as well give it a try.

There were maybe 15 people at the meeting of new trainees. One was a recently fired air-traffic controller; one was a young blond woman who looked like Daisy-May from “Li’l Abner,” another had been a policemen, and another a minister.   There was coffee and two big boxes of doughnuts on a table at the back of the room. Eddie explained that we’d have to pass the Missouri Insurance Agent’s licensing exam before we could sell the company’s wonderful financial products. In the meantime we’d be in class with Sam, our licensing instructor, or in the field with an experienced agent, learning the ropes.

Sam turned out to be a marvelous teacher, and drilled us on the ins and outs of insurance theory and of Missouri Law. It made perfect sense: people banded together to share the risk of unforeseen events, like accidents, fires and illness. Death was foreseen, but its time was not. I passed the exam with no trouble, but in my cynical mind I concluded that each provision of the law had resulted from some egregious fraud, probably perpetrated by some sleazy insurance company on its gullible customers. I kept this reservation to myself.

I trained with Johnny, Ben and Thomas. Ben had been hog farmer and truck-stop owner. He was large in both dimensions, friendly and direct. “OK That’s good,” he said after hearing my recitation of our standard presentation that we called a “Pre.” “And you have to listen to people, too, to gain their trust,” he added, ‘”but sometime you gotta bullshit ‘em. It’s just part of the business.”

Johnny had a deck of yellow cards on the seat between us as we drove. Each had the name and address of a potential customer, someone who had bought a kind of accident insurance called “Instant Issue.” Teams of agents went door-to-door selling these policies from a large pad for thirty-five dollars. They promised to pay a fixed amount for every day the person was confined at home or in the hospital after an injury that required a doctor’s care. A computer at the home office generated the cards and sent a new batch to the local agency every week.

Several months after the initial sale, we went back to the Instant Issue customers and pitched our life insurance as a beneficial upgrade to the accident policy they already had. The qualifications for selling Instant Issue seemed to be youth and high energy. After all, they were cold-calling. For us, on the life insurance side, the requirements were grey hair and the appearance of wisdom and compassion. I was forty-two and had enough grey to qualify.

With my agent’s license and yellow cards in my new folder, I went out on my own for the first time. The cards took me to a lower middle-class neighborhood in north St. Louis County where I knocked on several doors and found a couple of single mothers at home. We were supposed to make appointments for the evening to meet with both husband and wife. The ideal was to provoke tears in the wife by projecting dismal images of destitute widows and orphans. “It usually brings the checkbook out,” Ben assured me.

Next week – More shenanigans at Penetential Life.

Under Fire

The Upper Meramec

Map showing Wesco where Dave came under fire in 1973 and the scene of the 2013 shooting near Steelville

When I was 34 and recently divorced, a graduate school friend, Jim offered to take me fishing. An ardent angler, he had explored much of the Upper Meramec River south of Steelville, Missouri to find the best locations. I bought a cheap spinning rod, some lures and a tackle box and equipped myself with a fishing license. Jim took me to a spot just beyond the tiny village of Wesco in the southern reaches of Crawford County. Here the dirt road crossed the narrow river on a concrete slab, providing easy passage at low water.

We pulled off and parked in the grass. As we walked upstream along the east bank Jim cast his lures into promising pools visible from the shore. The riverbank was narrow, constrained behind us by trees and thick brush, and in places we had to wade in the river get through. Jim was hoping for bass or catfish, but had to settle for a few crappie.

We came to a place where the river turned and widened. Jim pointed to some whirlpool flows near the opposite bank. “That’s a deep spot, where bass and catfish like to hide,” he said, adding that we could probably wade halfway across to make casting into this pool easier. We did, but my lure snagged in the pool, because I was less experienced than Jim. “Sometimes property owners along the river sink old bed springs into these pools to frustrate fishermen. They consider the whole river to be their private property.”

I had a girlfriend, Billie, with two daughters, Angela 10, and Erin 8. A couple of weeks after my trip with Jim I offered to take them down to Wesco to enjoy the river and maybe catch some fish. We parked where we had before and I led them along the bank to the spot with the deep pool. We waded out to get closer to the pool at the bend in the river. Then I heard something that sounded like a man shouting. I looked up and saw on the western bank of the river a lawn with a house at the back. I couldn’t make out what the man who had come out of the house was saying but I saw that he had a rifle. Unsatisfied with our lack of response he fired some shots into the air.

I told Billie and the girls to get down and we crouched and beat a retreat into the thick brush beyond the eastern bank. I listened for the sound of bullets crashing thought the trees above us but heard none. I was scared but focused on getting us to safety. We cut through the brush on a zig-zag course back to the car and I drove to the Crawford County Sheriff’s office in Steelville, the county seat. It was maybe 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon when I opened the door to find a thin young man sitting at a desk with a radio dispatch console.

“The sheriff isn’t here; I’m his son and I’m just filling in as a dispatcher.”

I told him our story. “You shouldn’t have been there,” he said. “It’s private property.” I was dumfounded by his response. I had seen no signs forbidding trespassing. I said, “What?”

He continued. “That’s a well respected family from St. Louis who come down here on the weekend to enjoy their property. They’re entirely within their rights to drive trespassers off.” “Who are they?” I asked. “I can’t tell you that,” the young man replied.   I was still shocked and said nothing as I returned to the car. All sorts of thought raced through my mind; the first was that the young dispatcher would be singing a different tune of one if the children had been shot by this guy, and other was that it’s OK to shoot at women and children in Crawford County.

Monday morning I called Ben Roth, the attorney who had handled my divorce. He said that Missouri had never defined property rights in rivers and streams. Some owners consider the whole stream, including the opposite bank to be theirs. The guy we had encountered must have held this belief because he was still shooting as we reached the bank opposite his property.
All of this happened 41 year ago, in the summer of 1973. I never went back to Wesco nor did I take anyone fishing on the upper Meramec again. I didn’t have time to research Crawford County property records to determine the name of the man who had threatened us with gunfire.

The Meramec at Wesco is not easily floatable in low water, but that’s not the case 28.6 river miles north near Steelville, where it’s good deal wider. It was there in August 2013, that a man, James Crocker, shot and killed Paul Dart, Jr. a member of a large canoe-float party. It’s clear from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s coverage that many canoe-float parties involve a lot of drinking and pot-smoking. Property owners along the river get tired of trash and human waste left by drunken floaters.

Given my experience with Billie and the girls, I wanted to know how law enforcement in Crawford County would handle this new case. The circumstances were different: to any observer, we had looked like a family with two children simply wading in the river. Dart’s group included nearly 50 people and some were intoxicated. They stopped at a gravel bar and one of them walked into the woods to urinate. Croker appeared with a 9-mm handgun and told them to get off his land. When they didn’t budge, he fired a warning shot next to the man who was relieving himself. Then other floaters reproached Crocker and a dispute arose over the ownership of the gravel bar. One of the floaters, not Dart, picked up a rock and Crocker shot Dart in the face. He died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital.

Had things changed in Crawford County in the 40 years since our incident? Apparently so. The press and TV news supplied extensive coverage, and on Sunday, the day after the killing, the county prosecutor, William Seay, charged Crocker with second-degree murder along with several other violations The trail began on Tuesday, May 13, 2014 and the jury took only two hours to convict Crocker of second-degree murder. Crocker’s defense rested on his claim that the floating party was trespassing on his land, but a surveyor testified that Crocker’s property line was 381 feet from the gravel bar where the shooting took place. A self-defense claim by Crocker was rejected by the jury who recommended a sentence of 25 years. All 59 of the 60 potential jurors admitted to owning firearms, but the panel of twelve jurors selected sent a message by their finding, that you just can’t shoot at people who you believe to be trespassing. I wish that sentiment had prevailed 40 years ago when I visited the sheriff’s office in Steelville.


A package of unfiltered Luckies

The Lucky Strike package design when Dave started smoking in 1957

It hadn’t occurred to me to smoke when I was in high school; both parents smoked unfiltered cigarettes, but among kids my age, only the thugs, greasers and delinquents did. None of the college bound kids smoked.

It all changed when I got there myself. I was 18 and devoid of social skills when I arrived at Middlebury College in the fall of 1957. Unable to make friends, I sought refuge in the college radio station, WRMC, where I hoped to sharpen my electronics skills and gain some degree of social acceptance. Maybe, I thought, the shared activity might generate some companionship. Besides, there were a couple of girls who worked at the station and maybe I could gather the courage to ask one of them out.

Most people on the radio station smoked. In fact, the American Tobacco Company paid for our United Press teletype service; all we had to do was play their Lucky Strike® commercials on the air. And it gave out little sample packs of five cigarettes each on campuses nationwide, including Middlebury.

In the dorm and at the radio station, the people who smoked seemed relaxed and at ease with each other. They didn’t have problems making friends or asking girls out. I picked up a sample pack of Lucky Strikes and smoked one. Of course, it tasted terrible, but I knew I had to stick with it if I wanted the social benefit that I saw in smoking. After I few days I got used to the taste and told my mother on the phone that I had started. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, “but of course Joe and I have smoked for years. I guess everyone does.”

Later that fall Middlebury’s fraternities held their annual “rush,” in which they looked over the male members of the freshmen class for potential members. Each of the ten fraternities hosted events called smokers on Friday and Saturday evenings which we attended in groups over a period of several weeks. I felt no less awkward and embarrassed at these gatherings than I had before, even with a cigarette in my hand or sticking out of my mouth. And none of the fraternities selected me; instead I wound up in an independent mens club.

I kept smoking unfiltered Luckies throughout college and succeeded in making a few friends; some smoked and some didn’t. Two of them had pipes which required constant reaming and scraping with a special tool they carried. When I tried one it tasted terrible in spite of the pleasant aroma.

Lucky Strike Ad

An ad for Lucky Strikes from the early 1940s

In my first year of graduate school at the University of Vermont in 1961, I met a young woman, a non-smoker, who became my fiancé. Her name was Helene and after our engagement two years later she produced a very funny hand-drawn cartoon showing what I looked like as a smoker. There were spikes of fur coming out of my eyeballs and mouth, ugly spots on my face and hair sticking out in all directions. The inspiration for her sketch had come from the Surgeon General’s first report on the health hazards of smoking issued in January, 1964.

By that time, I had transferred to Princeton to complete my doctorate and very few of the people in the lab where I worked smoked. After six years of what I called real cigarettes—those without filters, I quit cold turkey. I had no trouble, but I joked that if I ever had another cigarette, I would inhale so deeply and with such satisfaction that the smoke would pour out the eyelets where I laced up my shoes.

Helene and I married in 1965 and moved back to Middlebury where I had a teaching job. Our daughter Hanna was born three years later. A year after that, in 1969, we moved to St. Louis, where I took a research appointment, but Helene was not happy. We separated in August 1970 and divorced in May 1971.

Filtered Kents

Kent Golden Lights – Dave’s last cigarettes when he quit on February 28, 1986

The stress was too much; I powered myself through the initial months with Librium and attempted to cover my anxiety and grief with a return to cigarettes. This time I chose filters as less risky than what I had consumed before. I smoked Kent Golden Lights® for 16 years.

In 1985 I took two smoking cessation classes, and in the second one acquired some samples of Nicorette®, the nicotine chewing gum. I worked then for McDonnell Douglas and carried the Nicorette in my brief case every day until February 28, 1986 when the boss decreed that smokers would have to move to a separate part of the office. I dropped my cigarettes into the wastebasket and took out the nicotine gum. I haven’t smoked since. It wasn’t until 1996, 38 years after I started smoking and 10 years after I quit, that second hand smoke began to irritate my eyes.

Nose Job

When I began my job in the Department of Otolaryngology at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, in 1969, I kept my ears open and picked up all sorts of medical information. Sometimes it came from the grand rounds I attended every week, where cases and scientific papers were discussed or simply from chatting with the residents that I taught in class or who worked in my lab. After I had been there a few years, I had a question for one these physicians, a guy who had some expertise in respiratory dynamics.

“Irv,” I began, “I think I have a deviated septum and I have trouble breathing though my right nostril. Should I do anything about it?” “Well, you might think about it,” he said. “It can lead to trouble later in sleeping or even in your bronchial tubes, sinuses or lungs.” We both knew that surgery was the only option – something called a “submucosal resection” done under local anesthesia. What Irv didn’t have to say was that smoking cigarettes, which I did at two packs a day, was a far greater risk to my respiration than any deviation of my septum could be.   But Irv wasn’t my physician, and the residents knew not to give unsolicited medical advice to their colleagues and friends.

CAT scan picture of a deviated septum in the nose

An image from a CT scan showing a deviated nasal septum

It took another year of stuffiness and obstruction to convince me to get it done. I wasn’t getting any air at all on the right side when I asked Irv to suggest a surgeon. “Don Sessions is pretty good with noses,” he replied. “You’ll be in and out in less than a half hour.” A couple of days later in his office, Don took a look and said, “Yup. It sure is. Let’s get you scheduled.”

I checked into Barnes about a week later in the early fall of 1977, a couple of months short of my fortieth birthday. My girlfriend Nancy had driven me and stayed with me in the room for an hour or so. When I said that I was frightened she reminded me how minor the surgery really was. I calmed down, and after she left, a resident came in to give me a pre-op physical. “Hey, chief, aren’t you the guy who taught us about cochlear microphonics and all that auditory stuff? “Yeah, that was me,” I replied as he checked me over. When I woke up the next morning I wanted to reassure myself with my usual morning routine of shaving and showering—and smoking a couple of cigarettes which was allowed then in hospital rooms.

After I rode a gurney to the OR, a nurse pinned me to the table with a sheet and started an IV. I was still scared, and it must have shown. “Would you like a little Valium to settle you down?” she asked. I nodded. “Yeah,” she said, “here it comes.”

Then Don Sessions came in along with a couple of residents whose voices I recognized from behind their surgical masks. The nurse scrubbed my face with Betadyne and placed a drape over my eyes and a second one over my lower jaw.

“OK, here goes,” Don said as he jabbed me with a long needle, right above my upper lip, directing it from left to right. It hurt like hell. “Scream, curse, do whatever you need to,” he said as he emptied half the syringe into me. Then another shot in the same place, this time from right to left, followed by two more directed upward along the outside of my nose. My face was starting to feel numb. After two more shots inside my nose, Don said, “Here’s a little nose candy,” and placed some powdered cocaine up inside each nostril.

After that there was a lot of scraping, crunching and chiseling. Maybe it was the Valium and cocaine but I didn’t mind. I’d had a lot of dental work done under local anesthesia, and this didn’t seem much worse. But then from under the drape I saw a long chisel headed toward me. “Now just give it a hard tap,” Don told the resident who was holding small mallet. My head shook with the impact. “No, you’ve got to belt it lot harder,” Don said. Now I was scared. Was this the resident’s first try? Would the chisel go too far this time and plunge into my eye or my brain?” There was another sharp jolt and my head shook again. “OK, there it is.” And he held up a triangular piece of bone for me to see.

“We’ll stitch you up now. We’re due at Stan Musial and Biggie’s for lunch, and we have to get moving.” I felt a twinge of disappointment; had I not been pinned down to the operating table, I could have been joining them at the restaurant. He installed a plastic splint inside my nose on both sides and pinned it in place with a heavy suture that he drove through from one side to another with a straight needle. Then he stuffed what seemed like several yards of gauze packing into my nose. Of course I will still very numb.

Back in my room, the nurse put an oxygen mask on my face since now I could breathe only through my mouth. I reached for the phone to call my parents in Marblehead and spoke with my father assuring him that I come through the operation OK. Then I dozed off until the resident came in to check up on me. After he left, I wondered if I could smoke with only my mouth to breathe through. I went in to the little bathroom and lit a cigarette. I took a puff inhaling the smoke. Then I blew it out—no problem.

I went home the next morning and stayed there for a week. I was sore and there was a little bruising around the bridge of my nose, but I could sleep OK. I got used to breathing though my mouth. Of course the packing was uncomfortable; it looked terrible and it dripped. At the end of the week I went back for my check up. Don was out of town, so another staff physician took out the splint and all packing and cleaned me up. I could breathe again.

Back at work I joined my usual lunch companion in the cafeteria: Roy Peterson, a professor of anatomy who supervised the laboratory where the medical students dissected their cadavers. I told him about the little piece of bone they had taken out. “Yeah, that’s the vomer,” Roy said. “If you like we can go upstairs and I show you on one of our cadaver skulls.” I was curious and wanted to see what the bone looked like in its normal position.

Skull from an Egyptian mummy

A cast from an Egyptian mummy showing a right-deviated nasal septum. The numbered pegs aid in reconstruction of the face.

We had to go through the dissection lab to get to the display cases with the skulls, and I was relieved that all the bodies were covered with sheets. I may not seem squeamish, but partially dissected people are too much. At the display case, he pointed out the bony parts of the nasal septum that remained in the skull. “There’s the vomer right at the base of the nasal opening—see, that little triangular piece. You know that septal deviations are very common; you can even see it this skull. It’s usually not bad enough to obstruct breathing, though. They even found deviations in Egyptian mummies.”

I wondered if the ancient Egyptians had the same trouble breathing that I had before the surgery. Probably not I had to admit. They didn’t smoke.


A lethal mixture

A tempting Christmas punch!

The large punchbowl looked so inviting on the table in the woman’s apartment at the Town and Country Apartments in St. Louis where I had recently moved in 1970 when I was 31. I had separated from my wife at the end of August and had chosen the Town and Country for its proximity to my work at Washington University Medical School just around the corner. I had met a few of the other inhabitants, mostly med school employees and physicians around my age. One of them, a librarian who worked on the main campus, had invited me to a small Christmas party in her apartment.

I was planning to stop by on my way a larger gathering that Saturday, to be held on the top floor of the Olin Residence, a dorm for medical students not far from my apartment. The party in Olin was put on every year by the residents in the Department of Otolaryngology (Ear, Nose and Throat) in which I held a teaching appointment. Everyone from the department was there: faculty, staff and, of course, the residents, who produced a video skit each year.

The punch at the little party in my apartment building had maraschino cherries, pineapple chucks, tangerine wedges and orange slices floating on the top, along with ice cubes. There were other refreshments, too: Christmas cookies and fudge. I hadn’t eaten supper because I knew there’d be lots to eat.

I’m very nervous in social settings where I don’t know most of the people, and in those years I smoked to cover my unease. Besides, I’m no good at small talk, and at parties I head to the food table when my conversational gambits fall flat.

I didn’t really know what was in the Christmas drink. If I had to guess, I’d say canned Hawaiian Punch with ginger ale, pineapple juice and a little sugar mixed in—nothing more. After failing to start up sustainable conversations with the only two people I knew, I went back for a few more cups. I saw no harm; it just tasted sweet. A little while later, I thanked the hostess and headed to the big party at Olin.

Dave Crowley & Don Sessions

Dave Crowley, Ph.D. and Don Sessions, MD, from faculty photos taken in the early 1970s

When I got off the elevator on the top floor, I needed the restroom—no surprise with all that fluid on board. Inside I heard retching sounds from one of the stalls, and one of the residents I had taught staggered out, shaking his head. “Wow, that’s strong stuff in there,” he said, and bent over the sink to rinse his mouth.

I found the bar, and after what I had witnessed in the mens room, decided on a gin and tonic. “Just a little gin,” I said. I took a sip and turned around. On my left was a row of chairs aligned against the windows, and sitting in them were a few resident’s wives, and several faculty couples. Most of my colleagues were a decade or so older than I was, but one, Don Sessions, was about my age. He and his wife Jan had recently moved to St. Louis from Alaska, where he had fulfilled his military obligation at an Air Force Hospital. They were a relaxed young couple, and before separating, my wife and I had enjoyed chatting with them.

To my right, opposite the chairs was the food table with a large punch bowl, but unlike the one at the party in my apartment building, this bowl didn’t contain punch. Instead it was filled with a special dipping sauce prepared by one of our residents, Dr. Frank Lucente, who had boasted of his culinary skills and had promised a special treat for the annual party. Containing unique ingredients, the sauce was intended to complement various crackers, breads, celery sticks and other crudités that he supplied. It was his pièce de résistance and with artful garnishing around the rim, it seemed so attractive that no one dared take the first scoop, lest an ugly divot mar the glistening surface.

I was debating whether to be first to sample Frank’s work of art when the room began to spin around me. I lurched back and forth a couple times and forced my feet with deliberate effort to convey me back to the mens room where I dove into a stall. Like the resident before me, I staggered to the sink afterward to rinse my mouth and wash my face. Then I felt OK.

Back at the bar, I asked for a ginger ale and took a couple of wary sips. No one had yet sullied the surface of Lucente’s dipping sauce. As I walked past it, the room spun again, this time with greater violence than before. My feet gave way and I stuck out my hand to steady myself, plunging it nearly to the elbow in the bowl of Frank’s culinary creation. I looked with horror and lurched in the opposite direction, landing in Don Session’s lap. Thank God it was Don and not one of the senior guys.

How I made it back to the mens room I don’t remember, but when I got there, there was another resident passed out on the floor. I jumped back into the stall and rinsed my mouth afterwards.   The guy on the floor was groaning. Beside me at the next sink was a young Brazilian physician who worked in my lab. He grinned at me and laughed. I looked at him and said, “Erol, I think I’ve had enough. I’ll see you Monday.”

I stumbled back to my apartment, grateful that I didn’t needed to drive. When I saw my hostess from the small party, I didn’t have to ask her what else had been in her wonderful Christmas punch. I already knew.