A Hospital in Swansea
The nursing sisters, wonderful though they are, seem always to get the edge of the ceramic bed pan painfully underneath what's left of my tailbone. Some day, someone may invent a mattress with a strategically located trap door which drops down to provide entry to a chamber pot. The pot would have to be well below the bed so as to allow the door to swing down unimpeded, and there might then be problems of aim, not to mention excessive splashing. But I am confident that these problems, like so many others, could eventually be solved.
Anyhow, one musn't complain. The best thing is to occupy oneself. Having failed at various crafts, and at water-colour painting, I am now composing my memoirs with the very kind assistance of the young ladies of the South Wales Hospital Visitors' Association.
I will spare any readers I may have an account of my uninspired childhood and rather sordid young adulthood, and will begin with some events that took place a dozen years ago in the American city of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
It was on a day in the late November of 1931 that my new boss, James MacPherson Garner, sat down, clumped his massive boots on his desk, and pinned me where I stood with a look. It wasn't really a hostile look, and there was something like a twinkle in his eye, but it commanded silence on my part. After a brief hesitation, he said,
"Space and time may only be illusory. Things in themselves need have no such dimensions. On the other hand, our minds are such that we cannot but perceive things in space and time. We can't even imagine them otherwise. That's what Kant says."
He nodded, as if to forestall any doubts anyone might have, and added,
"My idea of running a railway is merely an extension of that notion. There will be a uniform schedule for all regions. Every employee will be brought to the point where he can no more conceive of a train running late than one not moving through space and time. The man so trained won't bother to look up and down the line to see if there's a train coming before crossing the track. He'll look only at his watch."
I, James Watt Witt, was still, at least in theory, the president of one of the railways he was proposing to run. However, I have always been somewhat uneasy around men like Mac Garner. I am bothered, not only by their physical size and great rumbling voices, but by the easy and unassuming way in which they occupy ninety per cent of the available space and fail to notice how little is left over. Garner, for example, sincerely believed that he was reasonable, open- minded, and prepared to listen to the other fellow's opinion. He just didn't realize that other fellows didn't often have opinions while he was around.
I had never heard of Kant, and the part about the railway was patently absurd. Was I being tested, or did he really believe what he said? Or was he humorously exaggerating something he believed? Guessing at the last possibility, I assented with a weak smile. Garner gave me a different smile in return, as if I had reacted in a way that was to his advantage and my disadvantage. He then boomed,
"Here's the schedule."
With that, he took down his feet, snapped open his old leather brief case, and drew forth several sheets of graph paper. Plunking the sheets on the desk, he added,
"It may not be an expression of apodeictic necessity, but it'll do."
Uncomfortable with the idea of apodeictic necessity, whatever that might be, I preseved an outward calm as I took up the document. It did look rather like a railway schedule, but it had no city names on it, only single capital letters where one might expect them to be. That was presumably a reflection of the fact that it was somehow to apply all over the system. I didn't really understand it, but saw with relief that I wasn't expected to. Indeed, Garner told me that I could take it with me. He then indicated that the interview was over. I left quickly, closing the door quietly behind me.
At that time, the country was in an ever-deepening depression. My railway, the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western, was not doing well. Although we had a long romantic history, and were enshrined in the folk song, 'I been workin on the Delawar Lackawann,' we had a negative cash flow. Indeed, the line was about to go into receivership when Garner came roaring out of Texas with his oil money to put together a railway empire. Fortunately enough, he included the old Delawar Lackawann in this empire, and myself with it. I would not have fared well in a personal sense if a receiver had been appointed. Garner was therefore, in effect at least, my savior.
Unfortunately, Garner's motives seemed to be more mixed than those of the savior one would have chosen. There was little suggestion of a personal element, nor did I have reason to think that he particularly cared what happened to me.
Earlier in the fall, as a northeastern winter began to creep in over the hills, I took a number of measures to bolster my spirits. On the advice of a gentleman who wrote a newspaper column, I confronted myself every morning in the mirror and repeated the words,
"Every day and in every way, I grow better and better."
It was hard to say whether it helped. Among other things, it put me in mind of the Moslem doctrine that our fates are written on our foreheads in words that are invisible to us. Fearing that I might begin to see the invisible, I gave up the practice soon after Garner's arrival. He probabably did want me to improve my performance every single day in every way, but he would demand more than exercises in front of the mirror.
While doing my best to please, I also undertook to find out as much as I could about my new boss. But he wasn't a man who talked much about himself or his past. Not wanting to appear nosy, I invented a pretext to go to New York City, where I spent almost two days looking up back numbers of Texas newspapers in the main library.
Returning late at night, I hadn't much to show for my efforts. The papers did mention Garner and some of his business activities, but they were almost as reticent as the man himself. There was only one quote that stuck in my mind, from a Texas elder statesman:
"That Garner boy's just like his daddy. Whenever you argued with old Ezra, it always turned out that he was right and you were wrong."
I felt that I recognized Mac, and it was hardly reassuring that his father, whoever he had been, had been the same.
A little later, at a party given by a prominent Scranton society lady, I heard the hostess ask Mac how he had evaded the stock market crash and depression. He replied,
"The gushers jes keep on gushin, maam."
Mac was a far more complex man than that reply might have suggested. In the first place, the oil business, like others, had its problems. The gushers might have kept on gushin, but the market was off and prices were down. Moreover, as I was to discover much later, he wasn't, in nineteen thirty one, nearly as rich as he encouraged people to think.
Mac's real accomplishment went far beyond cashing royalty checks. He had formed a holding company in which he had a controlling interest, which itself had a controlling interest in another holding company, and so on. Along down the line, the bottom tier of holding companies, financed by the thousands of minority stockholders, bought the controlling interests in nearly bankrupt or bankrupt railways. There were lots of them in those years.
Right from the beginning, Mac addressed the public on a regular basis. He was happy to speak to any civic group in any town, be it the Rotary Club, the Women's Club, or the Fraternal Brotherhood of Hippopotami. He would speak to a town hall full of people on Washington's birthday, or he would bellow his message to a packed parade ground at a Fourth of July picnic. He had many variations on that message for different groups, but, in the end, it always came down to something like,
"Folks, we can lick this here depression if we want to. Jes do what I do. Go out there and start a business and don't let anybody tell you that you can't. If you haven't any capital, set up a lemonade stand on the sidewalk. And don't forget to have your lemons shipped to you on my railroad."
People would laugh, as they were meant to. Mac may even have inspired a few to start businesses, but that wasn't really the point. He wanted them to invest in his businesses, but he generally found it more effective not to ask them to buy shares in so many words.
Mac was able to sell stock in his many companies because he seemed to be making money hand over fist despite the bad times. Some of the small and not-so-small investors were the fairly simple people who are always willing to follow a man like Mac. But there were also some much more sophisticated people who, impressed by the amount of capital he had raised on his own, were willing to recommend him to the Wall Street investment bankers. These latter gentlemen weren't swayed by capital alone, but fancied themselves as great judges of men. The elder J. P. Morgan, for example, was wont to announce loudly,
"Nowhere in Christendom is there a man without character, no matter what his assets, who will be allowed to deal with the House of Morgan."
Mac, sly as he could be, had also a hearty forthrightness which these men liked. They knew about the slyness, having it themselves, but found it quite compatible with the teachings of the Episcopal Church.
The younger Morgan took to Mac, as did others. They then helped him
sell securities on a much grander scale. In the end, he controlled a
whole slew of railways, often owning outright less than one per cent of
At that time, I was in a state which, now lying in my hospital bed, I recognize as having been even more abnormal in a spiritual sense than my present physical state.
Despite the unavailability of so many things in war-time England, I have just received a publication from California. One of the articles describes what it calls "the trauma of divorce," a phrase that is new to me. It also says that people suffering from that trauma find it helpful to meet with other such persons. Evidently, they take turns describing all the hurts that have been inflicted on them, confident that no one else in the group will make fun of them.
There is always someone in California who seems to be able to explain to the rest of us, not only the meaning of life, but one's own special position in the great scheme of things. I was undoubtedly deeply enmeshed in the trauma of divorce a dozen years ago, but, since it hadn't yet been discovered, there were no groups of newly divorced men who met, once a week, to cry on each other's shoulders.
I may also have been in the grip of other traumas, yet to be given names and a place in science by our California friends. I knew only one thing, that I was in danger of losing much more than my wife. If Mac Garner hadn't given me hope, I would certainly have taken terminally to drink.
It seems to me now that Mac chose me, not only for my ability, but for my desperation. He wanted someone who had nothing to lose, someone who would undertake without question a job that others might refuse.
The specification of that job came only by degrees. When he originally hired me, he had said,
"I've got a job for you, Mr. Witt, an important job. Highly paid, too. You'll be one of very few men who report only to me."
I had accepted without knowing exactly what I was in for, but guessed that I might, among other things, be called on to fire people. That was the sort of unpleasant duty that often did get delegated. A little later, I said to him:
"If people start getting fired right after I've left a place, I'm going to be feared and hated. I don't mind that, but they'll also hide everything they can from me."
"Perhaps you'll be the man who tells me who deserves to be promoted. You'll be known as the talent spotter. Everyone will want to be your friend."
It was just then that I first noticed Mac's gold tooth. It showed only when he smiled broadly, and the idea that everyone would want to be my friend amused him greatly.
Once he had come to terms with the idea of my future popularity, Mac spoke of the problems of gathering industrial intelligence. Suddenly, I realized what he really wanted. I was to operate a far-flung internal spy system. I was to report only to him for the simple reason that he didn't want anyone else to know what I was doing. He then said, in a reasonable tone of voice,
"You obviously can't keep track of everything that goes on in the system all by yourself. You'll need a staff, probably a few people at a headquarters office wherever you decide to establish it, and then a field force. It may run to several dozen or more."
Since I was to be head spy, I decided, really on the spur of the moment, that I would rather not be bound to an office.
"I think it would be best for me to keep on a more or less perpetual tour of inspection with an assistant back at the office to run things."
Mac offered no objection, and replied,
"It looks as if you'll do a lot of travelling. A new town practically every morning. When you inspect the schedule, you'll see that you won't want to travel on our passenger trains. Take a few passenger cars and have them fitted out to suit you. Spare no expense. You can then have them coupled to any train, freight or passenger, and go anywhere you want. You won't mind leaving home, will you Jimmy?"
That last question was another joke. Mac knew perfectly well that nothing could suit me better.
At that time, we were in our temporary headquarters at Scranton. He was using the office I had formerly occupied as the president of the DL&W, and I was in the former office of the general freight agent down the hall. Returning to that office, I spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about the staff I would want.
I had never run anything one could call an intelligence operation, and it had never occurred to me that the Lackawanna needed one. On the other hand, Mac was a very different sort of railway president. He would enjoy knowing that such-and-such a person at such-and-such a division point was secretly reporting to us everything his or her superiors didn't want us to know.
More important, I had seen enough of Mac to know that he would create a great deal of controversy, both within the organization and outside of it. It would do no harm to have advance warning of the various kinds of trouble we would encounter.
The next morning, I went to the public library to continue my researches. It was in the travel section that I encountered books about spying. Several concerned Mata Hari, the Javanese dancer for whom French generals had had such a pronounced weakness. Miss Hari had unfortunately been executed before having a chance to compose her memoirs. However, there was another secret lady, the Danish Annaliese von Mackensen, who had spied on the Germans for the English in the war, and who had survived to produce no fewer than three volumes of memoirs. Miss von Mackensen wrote with fluidity, but seemingly in a frenzy. Choosing a page at random, I found,
"As a bohemian artist, I could swoop down on a man and demand the most extraordinary things. Oberst Reinecke was a staff officer, a military intellectual whose idea of intimacy was to make love as fully dressed as possible, preferably without removing his monocle.
The minute he stepped into my studio, I insisted that he pose for me and set about stripping him naked. Nothing remotely like it had ever happened to him. His nervous system was profoundly affected. Then, as I sketched him, I demanded answers. Where had he eaten lunch? What had the waitress looked like? Had she lusted after him? What was the last thing his mother said to him before she died? Whenever he paused in giving an answer, I screamed at him that it must be total intimacy or nothing. Only after I had broken his reserve did I reward him. In the following months I asked him many questions, only a few of which related to his job, arranging for the transport of reserve divisions to the Western Front."
My first reaction was that not many people could have succeeded with such tactics. But, still, I did know people who were good at dominating others psychologically. In particular, I thought of a manufacturer's representative named Speed Trent. While he had never been with the Lackawanna, and we had had only a few business dealings with him, these had been sufficient to convince me of his honesty. I had also been seeing him for a good many years at the YMCA.
The Y membership was made up mostly of bachelors like Speed, few of them really young, and middle-aged married men who wanted to get away from their wives. In addition to using the exercise facilities, both groups treated the locker room and adjoining lounge as a club. There was always a gentle condescension for the married men on the part of the bachelors, who might remark,
"If you stay here any longer, you'll get in trouble with your wife."
I had never been much bothered by occasional taunts like that from Speed, and, like others, I was actually rather pleased that he noticed me at all.
Many of the men who congregated around Y's in 1931 were terribly good and totally respectable. Some seemed rather like ministers, and would occasionally carry a Bible. Speed would sneak up behind such a man, sitting naked in front of his locker, and bellow out,
"Joe, how the fuck are ya?"
Apart from the shock of Speed's sudden presence, these poor gentlemen were very much upset by such langauge. But they were too cowed to make an issue of it, and generally managed to choke out that they were fine. Speed, knowing that they really weren't, would grin broadly as he gave his characteristic little chuckle.
A tall man with a sharply hooked nose that might almost meet his narrow protruding chin if he lived long enough, Speed had a squinting look which also did its part to disconcert his acquaintances. Even after dressing, an act that goes a long way in a YMCA to proclaim one's identity, the jury would still be out on him. It was his peculiar fate that he never looked entirely respectable, even after he had just stepped out of the shower and put on a newly pressed suit.
Whatever they may have made of these peculiarities, the other men were fascinated by Speed. They often gathered around his locker, and the more daring would trade jokes with him. Then, just when a man began to feel comfortable with him, Speed was likely to hand him one of the calling cards he kept in his wallet. One which I remember said,
"Sorry to miss you. I'll be knocking off work at noon to play golf. I'll be away the rest of the summer. Please send your orders to my attention. I'll be back in the fall, kissing your ass as usual."
People would laugh, sometimes heartily, but also a little uneasily. Indeed, Speed seldom gave anyone more than an ironic reply and a crooked little smile, occasionally walking off with the words,
"May you rest in peace."
I saw Speed at the Y the next day and invited him to lunch. After only the most casual description of the position, he gave one of his little laughs and accepted it. It seemed that he had become bored with his sales job, and would have accepted almost anything that promised to be different.
Returning to Miss von Mackensen, I found that she had been a bohemian artist only at certain times, and with certain sorts of people. At other times, particularly in the evenings and at social gatherings, she had been a frosty Danish baroness.
"General von Seydlitz was a man entirely ruled by vanity. He came to tea a number of times before I allowed him to succeed. Even while I was ensuring the intensity of his sensations, I gave him not a single kind word. As he lay afterward, flailing his arms and calling on God to witness his triumph, I told him that he was disgusting and revolting. It was true enough. I also told him that, even though I found him useful in bed, I wished to know nothing about him.
The general couldn't abide my refusal to recognize his importance. He would insist on telling me of his achievements, but I would belittle them. Only when he revealed secrets of the first military importance would I display a degree of grudging admiration. He tired me with his incessant demands, but I exacted a steep and rising price."
This again sounded rather like Speed. People were always trying to impress him, and I couldn't recall his ever responding with praise.
So far so good. However, in addition to field operatives, whom I would recruit slowly and carefully as opportunity presented itself, I needed an intelligence administrator. That position would require interpersonal skills of a rather different sort. The man I eventually hired, another YMCA bachelor, had been a locomotive superintendent on the Lackawanna for many years.
O. D. Davidson, 'Odie' as he was known, was a good deal older than Speed, in his late fifties. Quite unlike Speed, he was the most placid man imaginable, one who settled people down as effectively as Speed agitated them. That fact was reflected in their differing appearances. Where Speed was all sharp angles and bones, Odie, once a muscular man, had rounded and softened with age. Instead of being wound tight as if to spring, he was a man who took his primary pleasure in the digestion of food, shunning any activity that might interfere with it.
At the Y and elsewhere, people were attracted to Odie as much as to Speed, but they were more likely to tell him about their illnesses than their achievements. Speed had once advised a man with a fungus infection in the groin area that his penis would probably drop off in a month or two. The man, alarmed by Speed's prediction, later asked Odie,
"You don't think something like that could really happen, do you?"
Odie replied soothingly,
"You aren't using it that much, are you, Joe?"
Odie wasn't extravagantly kind. He didn't offer unsolicited solutions to problems of any complexity, and his placidity suggested that he was unlikely to undertake any very energetic action, helpful or otherwise, for the sake of another person. While he did project a vaguely sympathetic aura, even that sympathy didn't find its way into very many words. When informed of any misadventure, ranging from the trivial to the catastrophic, his standard reply was,
As a manager on the Lackawanna, Odie kept people busy, both in the engine houses and the offices, by simply wandering around and watching. The people under him were always aware of his movements, and they knew that a very slightly increased effort would earn them such a commendation as,
"Good for you, Joe, good for you."
As with Odie's other favorite expression, this one, while sincere enough, didn't have much passion behind it. He would say the same thing to a man in the gym who had just succeeded in pressing two hundred pounds. In either case, one felt that the success or failure of others would do little to improve or impede Odie's digestion.
At a deeper level, one could explain some of the surface differences between Speed and Odie. Speed railed at the civilized world as he found it, exaggerating and coarsening feelings in order to parody them.
Odie was, despite his taciturnity, a person who accepted what he took to be civilization. One might almost say that he reveled in it. A man of much greater sensitivity to the nuance of feelings than most people suspected, he was always trying to make little adjustments here and there in order to make things more comfortable. He was very nearly a gentleman. Indeed, he would have been but for an underlying scepticism which prevented him from making any gallant gestures.
Despite the disparity between them, Speed and Odie had something else in common that went beyond their bachelorhood. Neither seemed to have close attachments of any kind, whether of family or of the sorts of friendships that couldn't be abandoned in time of need. It wasn't surprising in Speed's case, but, in his way, Odie was even more of a floater. He knew that he could fit in anywhere, and he was profoundly unsentimental. He had been living with the same set of people for twenty years, but he casually accepted my offer, knowing that he would probably never see any of them again.
I thought the two men would work together effectively. Speed would roil the waters and cause people to react in revealing ways. Odie would know what to make of those reactions.