Chapter 3: Bad Medicine
Copyright© 2011 by TC Allen
All through the South we had a different type of patent medicine peddler in those days, very different from Doogan. This one was called a "snake oil salesman," among other things. The year I was born the Volstead Act was passed, which made it illegal to buy alcohol for use as a beverage. And like all other reform movements started by well meaning meddlers who have no true concept of human nature, the Volstead Act created more problems than it solved.
Bootleggers of all sorts prospered and multiplied as rum runners smuggled boatloads of whiskey into this country from Cuba, Mexico and Canada and elsewhere. As a rule anything prohibited becomes in great demand because it is prohibited, if for no other reason. The South gave birth to another predator who saw an opportunity to reap great benefits from Prohibition and quickly jumped in to profit. He was the seller of street corner nostrums and cure-alls that were loaded with alcohol and God knows what else. Vern Sharp was one of the worst offenders of that bad lot.
The first time I saw Vern Sharp he hustled patent medicine on the street corner right across from Backus' Pharmacy. He stood there, all fancy and sporty looking in his blue and green and tan windowpane checked suit, as he gave his spiel to all the passers by. He looked so much bigger than life to an impressionable young boy like myself. I thought he was awesome, almost heroic.
What he peddled was "Doc Sharp's only known remedy to cure menstrual cramps, headaches and feelings of depression." It came in a clear glass bottle, which showed its murky contents. Affixed to the bottle was a green label with a line drawing of a pretty young woman sipping something from a tablespoon.
Because the "remedy" was nothing more than grain alcohol laced liberally with laudanum and cherry syrup, it was guaranteed make the user happy as a clam. (Laudanum is an opium derivative.) Of course, after a few times of "medicating" yourself, you became addicted to it.
However that wasn't Vern's worry, he would have moved on to other places and other suckers - or victims, according on your point of view. He knew he had a ready market if and when he came back through town again.
I thought Vern Sharp was the most romantic looking fellow alive. He was a big man, a little over six feet tall, taller than Pa in fact. His beer keg shaped body seemed to be all powerful muscle. At some time in his life, Vern had done a lot of very hard work and it showed. His big booming voice was always friendly sounding. His attitude and twinkling eyes made it seem he was either laughing at you or with you. It was kind of hard to figure out which.
"Now I stand here today offering for mere pennies, a fraction of it's true worth, Doc Sharp's own secret remedy that cures so many of the ailments which plague modern man and woman. Whether it be the phase of the moon for the ladies or the awful morning after feeling you men sometimes have on Sunday mornings after a night out sharing a few libations with your friends."
He paused dramatically and grinned for a beat, then continued, "I offer you Doc Sharp's own personal remedy with the unconditional guarantee it will always leave you feeling much, much better than if you left those symptoms untreated.
"My own dear father discovered this great remedy and brought it back from the darkest interior of deepest Africa. I, his only son and sole heir, now offer this amazing panacea to you for not five dollars as you might expect to pay, nor even three dollars or even two dollars. It is yours for the paltry sum of one measly dollar, just a faded picture of our great first president, George Washington.
"And you sir, are you the next to sleep tonight in the arms of Morpheus? One small dose of Doc Sharp's elixir will help you break the craving of the Demon Rum, guaranteed. Here, Sir." And he'd offer the bottle to a passer-by on the sidewalk. A few gawkers stood and watched the show, some of them buying.
"Aren't you going to get any, Pa? That stuff sounds great. It cures everything. The man says so." I was so excited the first time I saw Vern Sharp. Then Pa poured cold water on my excitement.
"Davy, the man is a common scoundrel. What he sells is a cure worse than the ailment. He is selling the misery of opium to the weak and the unwary."
"Well, Pa, why don't the sheriff do something and arrest him if he's a crook?" I didn't exactly doubt my father, but I wasn't all that convinced he was correct. Young boys want to believe in the unbelievable. No matter whether it's in street corner miracles or universal panaceas, youth wants to believe the unbelievable.
"Davy, the man lies to people. He misleads them. That is not a crime. It should be, but it isn't. Although come to think of it, if everybody who had ever told a lie was thrown in jail, just about everybody would be locked up and there wouldn't even be any jailers. They would have to be locked up too.
So we do the next best thing and try to be honest and hope people will be honest with us in return. If they are not, then we just have nothing to do with them. It doesn't take a man in business very long to learn the fact that he can't lie to his customers and keep them coming back to him. So you see how it works?"
"No, Pa, I don't," I told him honestly.
He tousled my hair and laughed and said, "You will, boy, you will." Just then Ma came up and we all three went in and had us each a nickel ice cream cone. Now that was something I could understand. Looking out the drug store window, I kept watching Vern Sharp standing on the corner across the street from us, hawking his wares.
Dan Houston one of our local town drunks walked up, bought three bottles and scurried away. Others would stop, buy a bottle or two, self-consciously glance across the street at the drug store and go on about their affairs. Vern Sharp did a booming business that afternoon. But then, whenever a person caters to the weaknesses of others, it seems business is always good, no matter what the product he sells.
We finished our ice cream cones and headed home with the few purchases we made and I forgot all about Vern Sharp. After all, I was getting to be "real grown up" (Pa said so and that was gospel to me.) and the world was so full of the new and the interesting. There were ever so many things to look at and feel, to taste and experience. No sidewalk flimflam man seen yesterday could compare with the fascination of a strange new bug or an egg that hatched twin chicks that didn't live or the birth of a new baby calf. There was something new and interesting to a growing boy.
Then perhaps six months later, I saw Vern Sharp again. There he stood on the same street corner, offering Doc Sharp's cure-all in the same sing-songy booming voice. It seemed the same people who bought from him were buying from him again. He did appear to have his loyal following. I was on my way to the movie so Vern Sharp held little interest at that time.
I saw Ken Maynard shoot the bad guys and win the fair lady in the movie "Drum Taps" for about the fifth time. Ever since I had started to show my reliability I was permitted to go to a Saturday afternoon movie matinee by myself and meet my folks at a predetermined place, usually the drug store or the feed store, sometimes over at the Bid a Wee Cafe.
That day, I noticed how he (Vern Sharp) was somehow different. His voice still boomed out and could be heard a block away and he said the same words as the last time I saw him. Now though, his eyes were all glittery and his motions were fast and jerky. There seemed to be something almost mean and vicious in the set of his mouth and eyes. He had changed and not for the better.
I met Pa at the feed store and we walked down Main Street to Ollman's Department Store to meet Ma. As we walked by Vern Sharp, Pa shook his head abruptly when he was offered a bottle of the "miraculous remedy."
We found Ma engaged in her favorite town pastime, poring over all the latest "fresh from New York City" dress patterns. She very seldom bought one, yet she went through them one at a time, admiring this style and critiquing that one. I looked at Pa and he looked at me and we smiled at each other at our secret joke.
"Did you get a new dress pattern, Honey?" Pa always asked her every time we met in Ollman's. And when she answered no, he and I smiled again.
When she saw the smiles she answered defensively, "Well, I looked through them and just didn't see any I would like to make for myself. Perhaps next time." We always grinned again and went to Backus Drug Store to get our weekly ice cream cones or over to the Bid A Wee Café for a meal.
This time, after we passed Vern Sharp, Pa told Ma, "It looks as if he's sampling his own wares, now," in a low voice.
Ma nodded and answered a bit later, "They who live by the sword shall perish by it."
"Ma," I protested, "The man didn't have no sword."