During times of stress and trial, such as major disasters, surprising examples of heroism and altruism are brought to the surface in those whom we would least suspect of possessing qualities of that nature. Although it happened nearly a half-century ago in the town where my early years were spent, shortly after I had left, it was only recently, and quite by chance, that I learned of one such event. Human nature, in its deeper aspects, is essentially good, and no matter what the outer dross may be, it will find expression when the conditions of life are powerful enough to crack the hardened shell of the personality and permit the nobler attributes to shine forth. When this occurs it is worthy of note and observation.
I was a boy of fourteen and had been working in the telegraph office but a short time when Sherry, the manager, called me one day. There was a telegram in his hand, sealed and ready for delivery. Instead of immediately handing it to me he sat there thinking, as if trying to make a decision, idly tapping the message on the desk as I waited. Finally he said: "Here is a telegram for Fern Gordon over on Sandusky Avenue. She lives at the top of the hill, and you'll see a liquor sign on the front of the house, but don't go inside. Just rap on the door and deliver it to whomever comes; but remember now, don't go in. Just have her sign for it and then come right away."
Living in a town where everybody knew, or knew of, everybody else, even as a boy I had heard of Fern Gordon. Her name never appeared on the social pages of the local papers, nor was she ever a guest speaker on cultural matters at the Browning or Coterie Clubs. If any further elucidation is necessary, it might be added that two thousand years ago her prototype was told to go and sin no more. But human frailty, like time, has been marching on.
I did just as I had been directed. In response to my first rap someone called out "Come in!" but remembering orders, I rapped again. As she opened the door she was saying "You don't have to rap here," but when she saw me there was a surprised "Oh!" Signing for the telegram, she went for her purse and gave me a dime saying: "Here sonny, for you. Thanks!" and closed the door before I could say thanks myself. There were other messages from time to time, and she would frequently call for a messenger to pick up and deliver large, gaudy hats with big ostrich plumes from Fra Vance's Millinery Shop.
That was some fifty years ago, but it all came back to mind recently while I was browsing around in a second-hand store looking for old books back in the town where I had grown up. I came across a paper covered volume entitled "Historical Souvenir of the 1913 Flood" which I perused with considerable interest. It was the worst disaster in the city's history, flooding 550 homes, fifty of them being either totally destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, and several lives lost. Food and clothing were brought in by special relief trains, and troops from Toledo and Cleveland, in addition to the local militia, assisted in rescue work and maintaining order. There were the usual citations and tributes for rescue work and unselfish effort in relieving distress and suffering, but there was one paragraph in particular that caught my eye:
"Over six hundred persons were rescued from their homes and taken to the city hall, churches, and into the homes of the more fortunate who had thrown their houses open for the comfort of the flood sufferers. Fern Gordon of the east side did wonderful work in this way, virtually turning her house into a hospital for the afflicted, half-frozen people who were brought to her, thawing them out with hot water bottles, soap stones and blankets. So crowded was her house that children slept five and six in a bed, and in some rooms as many as twenty-five women sat around on the floor, bundled up in anything and everything to keep warm."
But it remained for an old friend, Bernie Smith, a retired druggist, to reveal a sidelight that gives a real edge to the experience, and which was not recorded in the "Historical Souvenir."
"In the midst of her troubles and difficulties in caring for and feeding the disaster victims, she came to me in a perfect rage, angry, disillusioned and weeping. Believe me, it wasn't just an 'act,' she was really 'burned up' and ready to take the town apart — what there was left of it. She had gone to a prominent business man, supposedly very religious — you know who — to buy provisions at her own expense to feed her disaster guests, and do you know — he wouldn't sell her a nickel's worth just because she was Fern Gordon! She was hurt, down deep, not injured pride or anything like that, but really hurt because anyone could be so indifferent to human suffering. 'I'm no angel,' she said, 'but what has that got to do with it? It isn't for me, but for women and children who are cold and hungry! What kind of a heart does that psalm-singing old hypocrite carry around under that stuffed shirt of his, anyway? What kind of religion do you call that? I've left a lot of money in your store in the past, Mr. Smith, and now you are going to do something for me. You know all these prominent people who are handling the supplies, so get busy and pull some strings! Why should people go hungry just because some sanctimonious old phoney doesn't like me? It just doesn't make sense!'"
If it were necessary to point out a moral it might begin something like this: "There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us" — perhaps that is why we have been admonished to "Judge not, lest we be judged."
(From Sunrise magazine, October 1953; copyright © 1953 Theosophical University Press)
It is another's fault if he be ungrateful, but it is mine if I do not give. To find one thankful man I will oblige a great many that are not so. — Seneca