One huge bit of disinformation that’s been kicking around for generations is that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Several of my colleagues living on Boston’s Beacon Hill spent a vast amount of time talking this up and getting sick on weird concoctions that made them ill, and then when they recovered, they would beat their chests and exclaim that they were invincible. The leader of this cult of stupidity was a guy named Tom Armstrong. He was a latecomer to the merry crew at the Folkie flop house we called the Palace. And he was not a good influence on the others.

At this point, I was no longer in regular residence because I was in the Navy. For the time being, I was stationed in Newport, Rhode Island, and it was convenient to shift into civvies, catch a bus to Boston, and pretend to be a civilian for a while. Serving in hospitals had given me a chance to observe the adverse effects of toxic materials on the human body, so I tried to establish a position directly opposite that of Tom, stating that harsh and poisonous substances might not kill you right away, but over the long haul they did their damage.
Talking to a wall might have done more good. Instead, every Thursday, there was the cocktail of the week. And the following day, there were satisfied groans about how bad it had been.

Finally, one morning, I pulled into the bus station near Park Square and hopped off a red-eye express to find Tom waiting for me. “Come on, John’s very sick!” I was hustled into a car, and we careened toward Beacon Hill while a panicked Tom laid out the previous night’s events.

The cocktail had included a generous dose of Nux Vomita*. Now just as it sounds, this substance is a powerful and dangerous product derived from the seeds of the tree, sometimes referred to as the strychnine tree because of the poison strychnine it contains. Nux Vomita is not something to play around with. I don’t believe it has been on the USP Materia Medica since the 1930s. It is rumored to have finished Alexander the Great and many others. I asked Tom what had persuaded him to include this in his Thursday concoction, and he replied with a smile, “It’s supposed to give you impressive Woodies.” “So you poisoned everyone for the sake of an extra hard boner? What sort of a fuckin’ idiot are you?” His reply was a snide “Well, it worked for me.”
We arrived in time to see John hauled away by an Ambulance. His girlfriend, a nurse at the nearby Mass General Hospital, had come over and found John nearly comatose in a pool of vomit and called for help. She had brief nasty words for all of us but singled out Tom for a blistering rebuke that left the rest of us in awe of her ability to peel paint off a post with only her tongue.
The Thursday night club continued for about another year until Tom was diagnosed with liver disease. This chilled the enthusiasm for poisonous cocktails and demonstrated that did not kill you immediately could kill you just a bit down the way and not make you stronger.

*Inspiration for this post was stirred by another blogger using a picture of some ancient medications, including Nux Vomita. The photo stirred up memories of an incident close to the one I’ve fictionalized here. Thanks, Doc!

2 Replies to “Nux”

  1. You’re right: that phrase is one of the biggest lies there is! It doesn’t make you stronger. It just makes you pissed off with life.

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