(07/10/2018)
By Sidney Underwood
This story concerns the unexpected consequences of a good deed. The exact date of the incident is not remembered, but happened one summer day the late 1970’s. At that time I was employed by the DHHR as a social worker in Grantsville as was Mike Ritchie who deserves all the blame {not really} for what transpired on that day.

As current and former state employees know all too well, state agencies routinely experience “belt tightening” periods when tax revenues decline. Newly planned programs are shelved and current active programs are rolled back because of budgetary cuts. Hiring freezes are ordered, merit raises become nonexistent, especially for field staff, and rumors of possible layoffs are heard.

During my 31 years as a state employee, I remember at least four times when we experienced those austere periods. What most employees did was to keep their heads down, keep working and hope that the problem would eventually go away. When administrations as well as programs changed in the state office, funding was usually restored and existing programs were given new names.

It was during one of those periods when administrators were “pinching pennies” that my adventure occurred. I had seen this many times before and can tell you that the first cut is to limit travel reimbursement expense. Limiting the use of office telephones for long distance is usually the next cut.

Also, administrators are told to keep a watchful eye on copy machines making sure they are not being used personal benefit such as printing out church bulletins etc., because paper stock and routine supplies receive extra scrutiny when revenue is scarce. I know I was guilty of using the copiers for personal stuff, but had no knowledge of others doing so.

I remember that we social workers were urged to car pool whenever working in the same area of the county to limit travel reimbursement. On this particular day, Mike and I were scheduled to see clients in the Cremo area. He offered to drive and I accepted the invitation to accompany him.

If you knew Mike as I do, you would see that he always seems to have a sunny disposition. He makes friends easily and has a self-deprecating sense of humor. What you see is what you get with Mike, and he is always willing to accommodate everyone. Mike and I have been friends for years and I have great respect for him as he is truly a nice guy.

Mike was driving his wife’s car which was a 72 Ford Pinto. I think Teresa had owned the car for several years before they were married and by the time she handed it off to Mike, it had accumulated many miles and had seen better days.

If you recall, Pintos subsequently became famous for exploding into fireballs when hit from behind by other cars due to faulty gas tank construction. Thankfully, nothing that drastic happened to us on the day of our trip.

That little car was very fuel efficient and perfect for traveling rural back roads. Mike, who was an excellent driver, often drove that car like it was a jeep. It was small and narrow and he would make it go beyond the roads through woods and fields to otherwise inaccessible places that saved a lot of walking.

At the time of our trip, Mike had only two vices that I knew about. The first was Mountain Dew, the soft drink and the second was Copenhagen snuff. He was real neat with the snuff always having a Dixie cup handy stuffed with a Kleenex to spit into. I was no stranger to chewing tobacco having used Beech Nut and Red Man occasionally, but had never tried snuff.

My problem was that I was loose as Granny’s goose when using tobacco and having to spit constantly so I confined my use to whenever I was outside. There was another employee who worked with us who could take a chew and seemed to never have to spit. That individual could talk and interview people and no one had any idea that he had tobacco in his mouth. To this day, I am mystified as to how he could do that.

Mike and I gathered up our folders, review forms and legal pads and signed out for the Cremo area. When I climbed into the Pinto riding shotgun, I noticed that he had his Mountain Dew and Copenhagen with him. We started toward Mt. Zion. The little Pinto ran well, but I did notice a peculiar smell inside the car. I dismissed that thought when I saw that the interior was rather cluttered and with the windows down it wasn’t all that noticeable.

Mike always called me “Under” which was one of the better nicknames used in reference to me. I always called him Mike because I had never given it much thought, although some people referred to him as “Oatie.” I never knew how that came about and never pursued the reason for it.

Anyway, there we were heading out to work and talking about anything that crossed our minds. Sometimes we would play this game when we saw an attractive young woman in town or along our route.

I would call out a number like 7 or 8 and Mike would look at me and say that the lady in question was definitely a 9. On our scale of things there never were any 10’s and a ranking of 9 meant that she was a real “looker.”

I realize that this was a juvenile male driven thing exposing our chauvinistic ways, but it was a fun way to pass the time of day together.

There was another category we used occasionally concerning the ladies we watched. If they were pretty, we gave them a high score. If they were pretty and also had what we called the “Wild Look,” we would give them a 9 and 1/2 which was the highest possible score. We could never really explain to anyone what the “Wild Look” was, we just knew it when we saw it.

Going up Phillips Run I saw Mike take a swig of his Mountain Dew and then reach into his shirt pocket for his Copenhagen and take a pinch.

I watched as he balanced his Dixie cup on the seat between his legs and saw him occasionally lifting it when he needed to spit. I sat there and marveled at his dexterity and the fact that he was having such a wonderful time enjoying the snuff. His ability to carry on a conversation was in no way inhibited by the snuff and that made it all the more amazing to me.

He glanced over and in a gesture of goodwill offered me some “Cope.” At first I declined, but being rather inquisitive, I eventually accepted a small amount and placed it in my mouth between cheek and gum.

I figured it would be similar to chewing tobacco. Mike assured me that it would be perfectly acceptable for me to spit out the window, I just needed to let him know when to slow down so he could accommodate me. I settled back in the car and after a few minutes realized that I might be having a problem. Unlike chewing tobacco which stays in a wad, the snuff had a tendency to float around in my mouth getting between my teeth and drifting toward the back of my tongue.

I tried to keep up with our conversation as we travelled along but soon found that I was experiencing a feeling that was similar to drowning. I really needed to spit. When I started getting dizzy, I became rather quiet just nodding my head from time to time instead of responding verbally. I remember that I held up my hand trying to indicate to him I needed to spit.

Sensing my discomfort, he pulled over and I was able to spit out a stream of tobacco juice. I settled back hoping the dizziness would subside as he pulled onto the road again. In a few seconds I realized my stomach didn’t feel quite right.

The dizziness was worsening and the sharp turns of Mt. Zion ridge weren’t helping the situation get any better. It was at this point that Mike casually said that Teresa had mentioned before that she thought the Pinto had a leaky exhaust and that she had smelled fumes in the car.

He asked me if I smelled any fumes. I think that was the tipping point for me when I remembered that peculiar odor when we started out.

Mike looked over and said, ”Under, are you alright, You look kind of pale to me. Talk to me, Under, talk to me!” I could not respond no matter how insistent he was. I could not talk because I was getting really sick with bitter bile rising in the back of my throat.

Mike, again seeing my struggling situation, pulled over onto the berm somewhere along Barnes Run and I staggered out of the car and spat out all of the Copenhagen.

There I was, my stomach churning and accompanied by uncontrollable hiccups and ready to vomit and so sick I thought I was going to die.

I had always assumed that I was one of those lucky few who never vomited. I had no experience in power puking and the subsequent dry heaves that I had heard so much about after an all night drinking binge, but felt that I was going to learn about it real soon.

Let me tell you it was so nice to have the Pinto to hold on to as the world went spinning by. The sky, trees and ground were moving way too fast for me.

The next thing I remembered was Mike standing beside me and asking over and over if I was going to be OK. He suggested that I take some of his Mountain Dew and use it as a rinsing agent to clear out the traces of Copenhagen.

I realized that was a wonderful idea and grabbed his “Dew” and filled my mouth and swished it around and spat it out. For the next few seconds I wavered between vomiting and not vomiting. Slowly the waves of nausea receded and my stomach started to settle and I felt that I might not die.

I managed a coarse whisper to him that I thought I would be OK in a few minutes.

I remember we got back in the car and continued on and soon turned down Rowells Run. Although I was feeling better I was chirping like a bird with the constant hiccups.

Seeing that I was recovering, Mike started kidding me about conducting an interview punctuated with hiccups. Even in my sorry state, I saw the humor in his remark causing me to give him a sickly grin.

When we arrived at the house Mike intended to visit, he told me to stay in the car and he would drive me on down the road to my appointment in about 20 minutes. I responded by telling him that the half mile walk would allow me to clear my head and I was sure I would be fine when I reached my destination.

I started walking still somewhat dizzy and not quite sure of myself. I gulped in huge amounts of air and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and walking in what I hoped was a straight line.

Gradually, I picked up the pace and soon was walking along with just an occasional hiccup to remind me of my failure to handle the snuff. When I reached the house and knocked on the door, the first thing I requested was a glass of cold well water.

I gave some excuse about the day being extremely humid and that I was very thirsty. If I looked a little off kilter, no one said anything while I was conducting business and I appreciated that. Someone did ask about my car, I told them I was riding with another worker and he would be picking me up shortly.

When the interview was done and necessary paperwork completed, I said goodbye and exited the house. I saw Mike sitting in the Pinto waiting for me.

He asked how my interview went and I replied that it went surprisingly well with no hiccups at all. Mike grinned at me and said that if I wanted to try some snuff again on the way back to town, he would give me some pointers on how to use it correctly.

I remember that I shook my head and said,” NO WAY!”

I then said that I agreed with Teresa, the Pinto definitely had an exhaust leak and there were fumes in the car which I could tolerate with the windows down, but not in combination with the Copenhagen!

I asked Mike not to tell anyone back at the office about my introduction to Copenhagen because I knew I would never hear the end of it. He said that he would never betray a friend.

As far as I know after all these years, my secret is still safe with him.


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