In 1973, for my own needs, of a 3-story-tall, eleven-room, uninsulated, 1896-built farmhouse, which I could not heat with a conventional furnace, and the LP gas bills were unmanageable on a Teacher's wages, I decided to apply my education in Physics to design for myself the most efficient wood-burning stove that I could come up with. I then had to teach myself to weld in order to build it out of surplus and scrap pieces of steel. I built it outdoors, and modified an old 1953 Case tractor and PTO pump to operate some farm-hydraulic cylinders to make it. There's a long story there, but neighbors soon discovered that I was no longer paying for LP gas like all of them were, and they started showing up at my house. It was nice that they had interest in my efforts, but I was very naive and didn't really realize they were only there to try to get similar units for themselves!
I was eventually FORCED into being in business, a rather undesirable idea for a man who was educated to be a Research Physicist!
It worked out that each one that anyone bought immediately cause at least three of those neighbors to see it and want one. It all got rapidly out of hand. I rented a part of a warehouse and rapidly outgrew it. I bought a small abandoned factory and outgrew that. Then I wound up renting an 11,000 square foot WWII warehouse from a very corrupt man, a guy named Fisher! At a number of times in his life, he was on his way to many years in prison, but he always had enough money to give to the right people to make all those things disappear.
At first, I did not think any of that would affect me, as I was merely a tenant in one of hundreds of buildings that he owned. But I got to know the office people well when I brought in my monthly rent check. One day as I arrived, the receptionist was counting out $100 bills, a LOT of them! When she got to $5,000 she stopped and put them in an envelope. She excused herself for a moment to go into the office bathroom, and immediately returned. She was a good enough friend, and she saw how confused I was, that she explained that each month, she would put that envelope of $5,000 on the top of the toilet tank there?
I still did not understand, but it really was none of my business, and all I wanted to do was leave the rent check (and talk to her, because she was amazingly cute!) However, a couple minutes later, as I was still talking to her, a man came in the Office and announced that he was a Government Inspector, there to do the "unscheduled inspections" that the government apparently does to all large chemical companies. He greeted her, as they were clearly very familiar with each other, but then asked if he could use the restroom. He did, and came out a minute later with a big smile, and he said that the Inspection was complete and that their entire operation was fine.
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Well, being a very honest person, I found myself in a terrible dilemma! Should I contact the government to describe this highly illegal arrangement? But who would have believed me, since everyone else would have denied it all, and there was no actual evidence. And if I had done such a thing, my company would certainly have immediately been thrown out of the building we were manufacturing in, and there was no obvious other building around that was big enough for us. Also, my friend, the cute girl, would certainly have wound up at the very middle of it, possibly going to prison if she told the truth, but certainly being fired in any case. So I simply stayed silent!
I have still never figured out whether I could have done anything else!
OK. One of the many illegal things that the chemical company owner was doing was that he set up arrangements with hundreds of businesses in Chicago (and elsewhere) where they could deliver ANY 55-gallon drum, with ANY contents, without even specifying what was inside, by paying him $500 cash. There were constant lines of trucks filled with rusty old 55 gallon drums, all delivering those unknown contents to his company. Each truck represented probably $40,000 cash for him, and many arrived every day!
He transferred many thousands of those barrels to various buildings that he owned, but eventually there were so many that he had to start stacking them up in a field behind his warehouse. In March 1979, there was a stack, about 30 barrels wide, and around three city blocks long and usually four barrels high. This was a LOT of barrels, all of chemicals that were so dangerous that the $500 was paid just to get rid of them! A simple calculation showed me that there were at least 60,000 barrels in that stack. (for which he had received $30 million in CASH!).
In March 1979, they somehow started a field fire near the stack, and far before the Fire Department showed up, the north end of that stack of barrels was on fire. Our building (which we were renting from him) was 1.1 mile away. Unfortunately, we were exactly downwind! Whatever was in those barrels, often the bottom one in a stack would explode, which then launched the barrels above it high into the sky. In many cases, those flying barrels also then exploded. In any case, our building was immediately being rained on by thousands of pieces of red-hot metal barrel pieces, along with globs of many strange-looking chemicals.
Around that time, I decided to do some exploring in other parts of the building we were then renting from Fisher. We rented around half of the entire area of the building, the rest being mostly smaller rooms. One day I came across a container that was probably around 20-pounds in size that was clearly marked Potassium Cyanide! I wasn't sure but I thought that was the stuff they used to execute people! This container was rather rusty. I have no idea whether the contents were solid, liquid or gas, but I did NOT want to be around it any longer than necessary. On a different day, exploring the other end of buildings, I happened upon a DIFFERENT canister of about the same size, which was clearly marked Sodium Cyanide! That container was also dented and in rather bad shape.
From that day onward, I was extremely paranoid regarding the fact that I and as many as 85 of my employees MIGHT have been drastically affected by the condition of those two canisters. I have no idea if there were any more, because I became afraid to even explore any more.
But Federal Investigators were crawling all over Fisher's buildings by then, in investigating the fire and the fact that no one seemed to know what was in the barrels. The Fire Departments would not approach the fire within half a mile, until they had some people arrive in Moonsuits who went closer. In any case, I was fully expecting some Federal Investigator to come to our building, where I would have been honest with him. Unfortunately, I knew that he would instantly have sent us all away from the building so our business would have completely stopped all manufacturing. But I really expected one to arrive where I would have taken him back to see those two rotting canisters. None ever arrived, and none ever asked to talk to me.
I was trying to figure out how to proceed, as nearly anything I would do would have totally stopped all our production (and the income of those 85 employees). Fisher caused the first part of making my decision. One day in the Fall of 1979, during our very busiest season of manufacturing woodstoves, I arrived at the factory to see dozens of vehicles all parked in front of a locked gate. Fisher had learned (from his paid government people) that the Feds were about to arrive to go through OUR building! Fisher must certainly have known about the Potassium Cyanide and the Sodium Cyanide, and who knows what else, so he had all the 16-foot-tall fences locked around our building! None of us could get in to do any work! Fisher must have succeeded in paying off sufficient government people, because within a week, the fences were again open and we were able to continue production. Interestingly, no government agents ever showed up!
But during November, there were apparently a different group of investigators that maybe Fisher had not been able to pay off, so this time he had all the electricity shut off to the building (so no lights would work). So again, I had to send everyone home and no production got done.
It was clear that there was no future in trying to continue production in that building, so I started looking for another building. I found a possibility inside the city of LaPorte, Indiana, a building that occupied a full city block and contained 37,000 square feet of space. That building turned out to be the center of at least five separate ways where people massively cheated me, in all for about a total of a million dollars!
During December 1979, my employees decided to cause the final straw!
C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago