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Dismembered again

Once upon a time, the Panhandle city of Vernon was a national laughingstock. Its people were ridiculed as bumpkins and cranks, freaks willing to shoot off their own hands. Then things changed. Time and hard work helped bury the past, and now Vernon has reclaimed some of its dignity. If only that were the end of the story.

By Thomas Lake, Times Staff Writer
Published September 2, 2007


VERNON - Nothing binds a town together like a powerful story: the Giants win the pennant, for example, or a mother wolf rescues twin boys from the riverbank, or a silversmith and a borrowed horse conspire to foil the Redcoats.

In this town, the story is broken.

The characters are not heroes. They are not even villains. They are merely conniving mercenaries with a tolerance for gore.

If you have heard of Vernon, population 780, an old steamboat port between the red hills of Alabama and the white shores of Florida's Emerald Coast, there is a good chance you have heard this story. To the outside world, it has become Vernon's master narrative.

Poor country folk get desperate. Poor country folk get an idea. Poor country folk buy insurance. Poor country folk fire guns at selves, blowing off hands or feet, and poor country folk get rich.

There are many strange things about this story. Here is one of the strangest.

If you go to Vernon today, you will find that it has nearly been forgotten. Most or all of its limb-deprived protagonists are dead, replaced by able-bodied workers and entrepreneurs who have quietly written Vernon's sequel: Small town outlives indignity, finds something like prosperity.

But there is one more strange thing about the old story.

It has stayed alive.

Mutated.

And it is about to reproduce. 

I. Dismemberment

How does a town become known as Nub City? Why did more than two-thirds of all loss-of-limb accident claims in the United States in the late '50s and early '60s come from the Florida Panhandle? What was the first event in the bloody chain that led a national insurance investigator to Main Street in Vernon, to sit in a parked car on a hot summer night, watching the maimed walk by in a shuddersome parade?

We have a few clues.

Vernon was cursed with a long run of misfortune in the first half of the 20th century, according to a history of the town by Mary Cathrin May. The steamboats stopped running and the sawmill closed and all the major railroads through Washington County passed the town by, even though it was the county seat, and then voters moved the county seat to Chipley, and jobs became scarce, and bright young residents left for college and never came back.

As for the Nub Club, as they would later be called, someone had to be first. His identity is lost to history, but this much we can guess. One day he took a look at his hand and he compared its future earning potential to the value of his insurance policy and he made a simple calculation.

There was an accident.

Money changed hands.

Word got around.

More accidents.

L.W. Burdeshaw, an insurance agent in Chipley, told the St. Petersburg Times in 1982 that his list of policyholders included the following: a man who sawed off his left hand at work, a man who shot off his foot while protecting chickens, a man who lost his hand while trying to shoot a hawk, a man who somehow lost two limbs in an accident involving a rifle and a tractor, and a man who bought a policy and then, less than 12 hours later, shot off his foot while aiming at a squirrel.

"There was another man who took out insurance with 28 or 38 companies," said Murray Armstrong, an insurance official for Liberty National. "He was a farmer and ordinarily drove around the farm in his stick shift pickup. This day - the day of the accident - he drove his wife's automatic transmission car and he lost his left foot. If he'd been driving his pickup, he'd have had to use that foot for the clutch. He also had a tourniquet in his pocket. We asked why he had it and he said, 'Snakes. In case of snake bite.' He'd taken out so much insurance he was paying premiums that cost more than his income. He wasn't poor, either. Middle class. He collected more than $1-million from all the companies. It was hard to make a jury believe a man would shoot off his foot."

Not that the insurance companies didn't try. According to Ken Dornstein in his book Accidentally, on Purpose: The Making of a Personal Injury Underworld in America, they hired John J. Healy, the above-mentioned investigator, to look into the accidents. He observed that Vernon's second-largest occupation seemed to be watching hound dogs mating in the town square, and that its largest was self-mutilation for monetary gain.

"To sit in your car on a sweltering summer evening on the main street of Nub City," he wrote, "watching anywhere from eight to a dozen cripples walking along the street, gives the place a ghoulish, eerie atmosphere."

Nearly 50 men in Vernon and surrounding areas collected insurance for these so-called accidents. None were convicted of fraud. But the increased scrutiny - along with some companies' refusal to sell any more policies in that area - brought an end to the maimings.

Vernon, however, remained a laughingstock.

Around 1981, the filmmaker Errol Morris rolled into town. He wanted to tell the story of Nub City. He did not succeed: The film, according to his Web site, "had to be retooled when his subjects threatened to murder him."

What Morris produced instead was 56 minutes of surreal monologues from an idle police officer, an obsessive turkey hunter, a pastor fixated on the word "therefore," a couple convinced that the sand they keep in a jar is growing, and, among others, an old man who claims he can write with both hands at once.

"He picked all the nuts in Vernon," City Clerk Sharon Cobb said recently. Though Vernon, Florida was not a blockbuster, Roger Ebert called it an "unforgettable film."

Two years later, Vernon became briefly infamous again. On June 20, 1984, according to the Associated Press, the Vernon City Council was discussing the firing of the town's only police officer. As a former schoolteacher spoke in protest, council president Narvel Armstrong gaveled him down and adjourned the meeting.

The next part would be hard to believe if weren't on tape. A cameraman for WMBB in Panama City happened to be there, and his footage shows Armstrong, then 46, a slight woman with a white blouse and a helmet of brown hair, walk past another woman and backhand her in the head.

You see a barefoot young man join the fight. He pins the teacher against a wall and stands over him. The teacher raises his hands to shield his head, but it does not work. The barefoot man's right fist is tireless. He clocks the teacher six times before the camera turns away. Later you see the teacher's face covered in blood.

You see an older man fighting too. He is thick at the middle, balding, wearing khakis. He punches a woman while the barefoot man holds her arm. He assists in the thrashing of the teacher. You see his right hand whooshing through the air, connecting with flesh, and you look for his left hand but it is gone.

In its place is a metal hook. 

II. Regeneration

Hands. Rita Patel's are delicate and caramel-colored, with a perfect manicure and a profusion of golden rings. She uses them to ring up Advil and potato chips and medicated chicken feed at the Dixie Dandy, Vernon's only grocery store, which she and her husband own and operate.

"We make a good money here," says Patel, 44. "I never get problem with anybody."

Go a few steps farther south on State Road 79 and you find Miner's Movie Mania, which is also a tanning salon, and the hands - soft, pale, smooth - of Charles Withrow, 57, a former truck driver who moved here seven years ago from South Bend, Ind. This is his store. This is his town.

"I love this place," he says, looking through his front window toward the grass-covered square, toward the new library, toward Dee's restaurant, which serves fried green tomatoes that could make a proud man beg. "Because I know if I fell down out there . . . had a heart attack . . . broke my leg, there'd be 50 people come to my aid."

This is the new Vernon, where folks know your name, where the streets are safe and narrow, where McDonald's and Wal-Mart have yet to swoop in and crush local enterprise, where wild desperation has given way to hard work and tranquility, where the words "Nub City" are rarely spoken.

Family poverty fell by more than 40 percent between 1990 and 2000 alone. Washington County's per capita crime rate was fifth-lowest in Florida last year. Unemployment, which reached nearly 30 percent countywide in the early '80s, had dropped to 3.1 percent by April.

Many residents drive elsewhere for work - at tourism jobs in Panama City, for example, or at one of the two state prisons within 11 miles of Vernon - but some, like Louie Fromm, have put down roots on Main Street.

Fromm is 27, half Thai and half German, with calluses on his nimble fingers from playing his acoustic guitar. He uses his hands to build computers for a company he founded, Overkill Computers, which sells what he calls "Blatantly Overpowered PCs," and to whip up the frozen coffee drinks he sells in his latest venture, the OK Internet Cafe.

When he needs a bulk order of heavy cream, he does not go to Sam's Club. He goes across Main Street to the Dixie Dandy. When small, shirtless boys scamper in off the sidewalk to get out of the rain, he gives them cups of water and permits them to loiter.

"It's self-preservation, plain and simple," says Fromm, who has three children under the age of 6 with his wife, Heather, a prison nurse. "You gotta take care of those around you."

Across Main Street at KC's Pizza & Subs, where the decor includes a collection of stained glass roosters, Mayor Oscar Ward is eating something called the Burning Vernon Burger. It is slathered in Cajun seasoning and fried jalapenos, and it is hotter than the Florida sun. It even has its own rhyme:

Burnin Vernon
Oh what a treat
With its onions and peppers
Stacked up so neat ...

As Ward grasps the burger in his heavy hands, he thinks about the coming transformation.

He says it will wreck this town. 

III. Destruction

Four months from now, if all goes to schedule, big steel machines will punch a hole in Vernon's heart.

They will crush the Dixie Dandy, where Rita Patel rings up Louie Fromm's heavy cream.

They will flatten Miner's Movie Mania, where Charles Withrow sells Vernon, Florida on DVD.

They will demolish City Hall, at least two gas stations, an auto parts store, a church, a public park and KC's Pizza & Subs. They will not stop until they have eradicated all the buildings on the west side of the highway. They will be following government orders.

The Florida Department of Transportation is spending $50-million to widen State Road 79, which runs through Vernon like an asphalt spine, so the folks in Panama City Beach will have a four-lane highway on which to flee from hurricanes. Some officials say the demolition is unavoidable.

Mayor Ward says it is avoidable, or at least it was: The state could have routed the new highway through the woods to the west, thus leaving Vernon unscathed. Business owners like Withrow and Fromm get most of their revenue from local customers - not from tourists passing through - so they probably wouldn't lose money if the highway shifted.

Nevertheless, here's how DOT spokesman Tommie Speights explains the decision to run the highway through Vernon:

"The city fathers and the county and the general public all came to a consensus that if they bypassed it, it would really kill the city."

His choice of words is striking, because almost every Vernon resident interviewed about the issue by the St. Petersburg Times said exactly the opposite: that the widening, not the bypassing, would result in the city's death.

Almost everyone said that.

There were two notable exceptions.

Both are local politicians. Both used their official positions to support the widening. And both stand to make a profit.

One is James Boswell, Ward's predecessor as mayor, and a former engineer for DOT. His house sits at the edge of State Road 79, on the east side, where it will be left intact by the excavators. Earlier this year, the county assessed its value at $57,575.

It is now on the market for $950,000.

"The perfect location for a Conv. Store, or other commercial ventures," says the real estate listing. "CORNER PROPERTY ON HWY 79 AND MOSS HWY 279! VERY BUSY INTERSECTION, HWY 79 TO BE 4 LANED SOON!!"

The other exception is Narvel Armstrong, the same Narvel Armstrong who smacked the woman upside the head at the council meeting in 1984, the same Narvel Armstrong who was suspended from office by Gov. Bob Graham, the same Narvel Armstrong who pleaded no contest to simple battery and got off with a fine and a suspended sentence, the same Narvel Armstrong who was quickly re-elected and recently got a certificate for 25 years of service from the Florida League of Cities, the same Narvel Armstrong who remains on the council today.

"I've never been wantin' to do anything for myself," she said when asked to explain her enduring popularity. "I always want to do what the people want done."

Once the Tom Thumb convenience store is torn down, Armstrong's house is likely to become highway-front property, according to real estate agent Max Wells. The county assessed its value at $22,150 this year. Armstrong has put it up for sale. She wants $365,000.

You may hear a note of eerie familiarity in the news that Vernon itself is about to be dismembered for cash.

There is more.

Remember the video of the brawl in City Hall?

The barefoot man is Armstrong's son Coleman.

And the man with the hook?

Her husband, J.C. Armstrong, who died in 2002 at the age of 71.

When a reporter asked her how he lost his hand, this is what Armstrong said:

"I think you know."

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Mary Mellstrom and computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245.