IN A WORLD in such flux as scarcely to be recognizable from one day to the next, it is comforting to know that some things -- like tearjerking devices to extract money -- abide unchanged. The technique remains the same, only the price discloses the ravages of inflation over the years.
My enunciation of this cheerful bit of homespun wisdom is evoked by a report in The Washington Post of Oct. 17 that an unemployed citizen in or near Omaha is offering one of his eyes for sale for a tax-free settlement of $10,000. It brought to mind one of the first newspaper stories I ever wrote almost exactly 43 years ago, in The Washington Daily News.
I remember the story fairly well. It was about a man offering to sell one of his eyes for $1,000.
The would-be purveyor was an aging leprechaun, the map of Ireland on his face and the odor of rotgut on his breath. He wandered into the Daily News' offices one day proposing not only the sale of an eye but also, for a fee of $5, the story of his offer, down payment as it were for a prospective additional $995. In this, he was more astute than the Omaha man who, according to The Post's account, not only got no money for his story but was willing to pay for an advertisment relating it.
The Daily News was the natural place for my eye-vendor to come, the conventional adjective for it, then and until its lamented demise, being "raffish." It went for stories like that, whereas The Post was far too dignified (and, besides, probably did not have in those days $5 in its petty cash to spare); Cissy Patterson's journals, the Times and the Herald, were edited by worldly folk who had done and seen everything twice and recognized a piece of malarkey when confronted with it.
The News, however, did have $5 somewhere in the cashier's cage, and I was assigned to make the story known to a public that would presumably be horrified by a plight so desperate as to induce a man to part with one of his eyes.
I cannot recall my words but, being very new to journalism, relatively young and infinitely moved, I suspect that my prose ran pretty far to the ultraviolet end of the spectrum.I do remember that we did the story up proud -- much fancier than The Post's one-column, bottom-of-the-page effort the other day -- with a two-column photo of the old codger, the camera focused square on his eyes and a headline reading something to the effect of, "One Bright Blue Eye for Sale."
Well, what with his $5 payment and a few additional bucks contributed by me and others on the staff and by several of our readers, all brought to tears by the old man's distress and proposed sacrifice, my Irishman acquired enough capital to buy a couple of quarts of stuff that would tinge those blue eyes temporarily with a bright infusion of red and enable him to get to Baltimore with the same yarn to a paper there and thus, by similiar stages, on to Wilmington, Camden, Philadelphia and points north, lubricated each day.
It was not until a day or two later that it was pointed out to me and others on The News that we had tumbled for one of the most venerable money-extracting ploys in the business, not quite a con game but pretty close, a hardy perennial that had been making the rounds ever since surgeons began wielding scalpels and newspapers existed to report their doings.
Not, of course, that any successful eye-transplant had then -- or has since -- been accomplished, and nothing more than half-an-eye transplant has ever been attempted (that to the horror of the medical profession). Corneal transplants, sure, but corneas, usually donated in the wills of thoughtful people, can be had from eye banks without overwhelming difficulties and without the cost of a living eye.
But be that as it may, the offer of a living eye, for cash, has been around a long time. The Washington Post's publication the other day of such a proposal just goes to show that there will always be naive reporters, gullible newspapers and recurring proof of P.T. Barnum's immortal dictum.