by Ellis Parker Butler
This man, Benjamin L. Tummis had tears in his eyes as he told me this story of the seaplane "Gull" and the nobility of soul of Capt. Dugald M. Spintz. It seems that the four of them -- Capt. Spintz, Ben. L. Tummis, William Copperbotham, and J. Jones, left Oggenhavn on the seaplane "Gull" at 4 a.m., August 9th, to cross the arctic zone from Oggenhavn to Cashpagast, in Siberia. Capt. Spintz was in command, and Tummis, Copperbotham and Jones were practically strangers to him, the three men of his crew having had their feet frozen on the way to Oggenhavn and being unable to complete the trip.
The "Gull" left Oggenhavn flying low and NNW., but presently Capt. Spintz, at the controls, observed fog ahead and rose to about five thousand feet, changing the course to NNNNNW, which would have taken the plane directly across the pole. Shortly before noon, however, engine trouble developed, and the plane came down settling in a lead between two huge ice fields.
All that afternoon, and for three days and nights following it the four men worked on the plane, but with only partial success. By that time their food had given out entirely and the cold had become intense, and Ben Tummis, who was the mechanic of the party, stated their position to them plainly.
"Men," he said, "I'll tell you what we are up against. I've got the motor fair to middling, and that's all I can do with it. She'll fly. She's good to fly back to Oggenhavn, but she ain't able to take no four of us. She'll take three, and that's all."
"But, man," Captain Spintz cried, "that means leaving one of us here to die!"
"To die is right!" Tummis said. "The way this fog is it would be like leaving a needle in a haystack to leave a man here; no plane could ever find this lead again. Who we leave here will freeze to death sure -- unless he starves to death first."
The three men then looked at Captain Spintz questioningly. He was in command and he had the only firearm in the party, an army automatic.
"One of us has got to die here," Tummis said then. "I don't want to say nothing about captains being the last to leave a ship, but there you are!"
"Or we can draw lots to see who stays here and dies," said J. Jones, who was always a gambler.
"Or, being captain, and having this automatic," said Captain Spintz, "I can shoot one of you here and now, or shoot all three of you. But, he added, "I have something else to propose. I propose that all four of us be saved."
Ben Tummis told me when they heard this they thought Capt. Spintz had gone crazy, but the captain's next words showed that he had not.
"You say, Tummis," the captain said, "that the 'Gull' will carry but three of us. Which three?"
"Any three," Tummis said, "but not four."
"In other words," Capt. Spintz said, "it will carry you three?"
"Yes, sir," Tummis said.
"And how much do you weigh, Tummis?" the captain asked.
"One hundred and eighty, sir," Tummis replied.
"And you, Copperbotham?"
"One hundred and sixty-two, sir.
"And you, Jones?"
"One hundred and fifty-seven, sir."
"Making a total of four hundred and ninety-nine pounds," said Capt. Spintz, "which we will call five hundred pounds to be on the safe side. The plane will carry five hundred pounds, Tummis?"
"I'll guarantee that, sir," Tummis said, "but not a pound more."
"And I weigh one hundred and sixty-seven," said Capt. Spintz. "It is evident that it would do no good to leave Jones here, because he weighs only one hundred and fifty-seven pounds, and substituting me for him would make a load ten pounds too heavy for the plane to lift. And it would do no good to leave Copperbotham here, because I weigh five pounds more than he, and the load would be at least four pounds too great if I took Copperbotham's place in the 'Gull.' But Tummis weighs thirteen pounds more than I."
With that, Tummis said, he gave Tummis a look and Tummis turned colder than ever. Tummis said he was sure he was elected to die then and there. He was about to ask for a few minutes in which to say his prayers when the captain spoke again.
"However," Captain Spintz said, "human life is too precious a thing to be sacrificed if it can be saved, and if you agree to my plan we can all be saved. The cold here is so intense that it is absolutely antiseptic. It is an ideal place for surgical operations and, I may say, I have some experience in removing legs."
"Legs!" all three subordinates exclaimed.
"I said legs," said Capt. Spintz. "I propose that we each sacrifice one leg. The leg weighs, roughly, one-fourth of the human being's total weight. If we each give up a leg we can all return to Oggenhavn safely, to our families and friends. We have a saw. Yonder block of ice will do very well as an operating table. Tummis, you are first, if you please."
So Tummis placed himself on the block of ice, and Capt. Spintz cut off his leg, and did a neat job of it, too. Then Copperbotham placed himself on the block of ice and Captain Spintz cut off his leg, and he made a neat job of that, also. Then J. Jones placed himself on the block of ice and Capt. Spintz cut off one of his legs, and if anything, he made the best job of the three of J. Jones's leg. Then Captain Spintz sat down on the block of ice and took off his own left shoe, and Ben Tummis came forward and saluted.
"I beg your pardon, Captain," he said, "but I ask the honor of cutting off your leg, sir, being as I am a mechanic by trade and handy with a saw."
But Captain Spintz only smiled.
"That's very kind of you, Tummis," the captain said, "but I'll not have to trouble you. I'll just unstrap my leg, it's wood."
So he did unstrap it.
"And that just shows," Ben Tummis told me with tears in his eyes, "how you find nobility of soul even up nigh to the North Pole. We might have one of us have been left there dead if Captain Spintz hadn't been willing to make a sacrifice for us. But he was a real man, and he done it."