Roy Exum: Just Try Some Saltpeter

Saturday, July 13, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Dental Tech Melissa Nelson
Dental Tech Melissa Nelson

I was saddened to learn the State Supreme Court in Iowa ruled Friday that, yes, it is alright to terminate an employee solely because he or she is “irresistible.” I’ve worked at several places and that has never happened to me. Then again, I’ve also been to Iowa where the streetscape is markedly different from the Deep South. Here there are so many irresistible people it is almost commonplace but, in Iowa, you have to look pretty hard sometimes.

The storyline is that this dentist in the town of Fort Dodge hired a very capable young lady named Melissa Nelson to be his assistant but – at some point -- began having “the urges” when the two would work on cavities and molars in close quarters. They worked together for 10 years, mind you, but Dr. James Knight finally told her that he couldn’t stand it any longer and gave her a pink slip with a month’s severance pay.

He freely admitted Melissa was one of the best assistants he ever had and later told the court her firing was actually a direct order from his wife, who had determined if Dr. Knight didn’t get rid of Melissa it would ultimately destroy their marriage. Oh please! Mrs. Nelson is married with kids of her own and never, not even once, flirted or did anything untoward in the office. Further, Dr. Knight didn’t get her emotions stirred up at all.

It made no difference. The court – all male – ruled in the appeal on Friday that the firing was based on feelings, not gender, and therefore did not constitute gender discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Melissa vows she’s going to keep fighting. “I think it is completely wrong,” Nelson told ABC News. “I think it is sending a message that men can do whatever they want in the workforce.”

Iowa attorney Ryan Koopmans went it one better. “People think this decision is just unfair,” Koopmans said. “It’s really unprecedented. In this case there is no new evidence there is no fact that the Supreme Court missed. The only thing that’s new here is the public reaction to the opinion. Which is mostly negative, actually overwhelmingly negative.”

I contend the whole thing could have been handled not in a court but with a dose or two of saltpeter. When I was about eight or nine, scampering all over my grandfather’s huge farm, my Dad took us boys to some old ruins on the property and showed us where the Confederate Army once had a saltpeter mine. He explained that in the Civil War you couldn’t just walk into Ace Hardware and buy gunpowder, and that armies had to make it from scratch as they traveled about.

In the way he would teach us about all kinds of stuff, he urged us to find out more about it and we were eager to learn about anything that would blow up. So we soon made our own gunpowder – true story! It was really very simple – one part saltpeter, two parts sulfur and three parts charcoal. Sulfur was easy to get – that yellow powder you remember from chemistry – and we would grind some barbeque Brickettes two or three times in the corn grinder until it was fine dust.

But what about the saltpeter? Dad would just laugh and say something like, “Why do you think the saltpeter mine was built here?” So us junior sleuths learned that saltpeter was best found in bat guano. “What’s that?” we cried and Dad said, “It’s a Spanish word,” came the reply. So we tore around like madmen to find a Spanish dictionary and learned “guano” means “dung.” Glory! Just a short run up a steep hill from the ruins of the mine was a cave where a lot of bats still lived.

Bat guano has been the top source of saltpeter since before the Revolutionary War so soon we scraped up a bunch of dried guano from the walls in the cave, mixed it with sulfur and charcoal dust according to the recipe and – KaBOOM! – we made gunpowder just like the Confederates. Then dad explained bat guano was a great source for “niter” -- potassium nitrate. People had used bat guano as “niter” for many centuries.

Well, we thought that was great until The Old Man slyly mentioned, in an off-hand way he used to do, that saltpeter was also thought to be a splendid way to kill a man’s “urges.” Don’t tell me you haven’t heard it – every man in the South knows about the saltpeter. Our GIs in both World Wars swore it was in the cigarette paper the government issued to the troops and, every summer at camp, “those in the know” would spread word the cooks were sprinkling it in the pitchers of our “Bug Juice.”

If you’ll follow my thinking, all Dr. Knight needed to do was call the place he got his Novacaine and add some saltpeter to the order. According to legend, he would have been able to better concentrate on his patients instead of Mrs. Nelson. But, alas, I have just learned after living over a half of a century that saltpeter -- or potassium nitrate – has no effect whatsoever on a libido. In candor, Dr. Knight really should just have invested in a cold shower because the lawyer bills at this point must be awful.

The whole thing is just as absurd as the saltpeter myth. How can any court rule on feelings? Dr. Knight      should get some professional therapy – which I’m told is better than saltpeter – and leave the poor girl alone. My goodness, how could any woman go to a dentist who by his own admission has such a now-gnarly history with “irresistibles?”

I refuse to believe you should hire or fire people based on looks. I know some homely girls have threatened Hooters but when you hire appearance over ability, it’s rarely going to turn out as well as going after a good and decent person.  I’m thinking the Iowa Supreme Court should have ruled more along the lines, “Physician, heal thyself.”

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