The Siren and the Savior

by Tim Berry

01/04/2017

Republican  Clarence Tylee, from Okmulgee County, spoke loudly so everyone on the House floor and the gallery above could hear him: “On call of the House the business then pending shall be suspended one hour, and the Sergeant-at-Arms shall be directed by the Speaker to compel their attendance.” As Tylee finished reciting the House procedures his effort to stall this vote was becoming obvious—and this vote was paramount to the Republicans attempt to impeach Governor James Robertson and remove him from office.

Earlier that day, the Republican-controlled House Investigation Committee finalized charges against Governor James Robertson. They concluded that “Governor Robertson’s administration of his high office has been characterized by a waste and irresponsibility so great that it is beyond the time and facilities of this Committee to verify and present the concrete instances in full.”

As the charges against Robertson were brought to the floor of the House, several Republican representatives withdrew their support of recommending impeachment proceedings against Governor Robertson. But his shift was still not enough for Democrats to kill the motion. With their other options exhausted, Democrats called their only missing member.

The phone rang at 419 W Avenue G in Oklahoma City. Inside, Joanna Jerkins left her husband’s bedside to answer it. A gravely ill John Jerkins1 lay in bed battling gallstones, and had been absent from the House of Representatives for almost three days with nausea, vomiting, and severe pain in his lower abdomen. The stern-faced 52-year-old Democratic representative was informed that his party needed him to help the governor. Against the advice of his doctor, John Jerkins said he was on his way. An ambulance was dispatched to get Jerkins to the Capitol.

As Jerkins attempted to stabilize himself against the rocking and swaying of the steel behemoth, every bump in the road sent pain shooting from his midsection. Despite the motion Jerkins felt, the ambulance made only moderate progress through the city.

The ambulance driver jerked the wheel sharply to avoid hitting a small boy on a bicycle. The movement was enough to unbalance the vehicle, and it went skidding across the street on its side. Inside, Captain Jerkins, who was already suffering, was thrown around violently.

Outside the overturned ambulance, the neighborhood was buzzing. Word spread about the accident. One man rushed forward, pulled back the doors, and found Captain Jerkins in terrible shape, semi-conscious and babbling about how he needed to get to the Capitol. After a few minutes of this, Jerkins convinced the man that he needed to drive him the rest of the way to the Capitol building.

In the hour since Tylee’s Call of the House had begun, only two Republican representatives had arrived to vote. The only other representative that the Republicans could muster was I.L. Harris, from Oklahoma County. Harris was one of many Republicans disillusioned with his party’s recent descent into partisan politics. Harris initially voted against the adoption of the Investigation Committee’s report, but changed his vote under pressure from his colleagues.

Inside the House Chambers, Speaker Schwabe ordered “the roll called to ascertain who are still absent.” The reading clerk began in earnest. “Admire, Bailey, Beck, Bell, Brice, Butler…”

“Jerkins,” the reading clerk said loudly. There was no response. There could be no more stalling.

Suddenly from the back of the chambers there was a disturbance. A pale-faced John Jerkins shuffled slowly up the aisle. The front of his shirt was covered in blood. His face contorted in pain. Jerkins used his left hand to hold a handkerchief against his bleeding head wound as his right arm hung limply at his side. A colleague ran to help him to the front so that his vote would be counted.

Jerkins voted nay.

Whispers of what had happened to the police captain began to spread across the room. The spectator gallery broke into cheers as the crowd realized Governor Robertson’s remaining term had been saved by a man suffering deeply from sickness, a broken arm, and an open head wound.

The Speaker read the final vote count aloud. Forty-two ayes. Forty-two nays. A tie. The motion failed. House Democrats celebrated, but Jerkins didn’t stick around. The wounded representative was taken to University Hospital, where he was treated for the injuries he received in the ambulance wreck.

Captain John Jerkins died a few weeks later. Upon hearing this news, the indebted Governor Robertson ordered that all Oklahoma flags to fly at half-staff in his honor.

Footnote:

¹ Two years earlier, Jerkins became a captain in the Oklahoma City Police Department. His oldest son served alongside him as a mounted officer. This unit was established by Mayor Jack Walton; the eccentric mayor and future governor ordered that “all the police horses would be equipped with rubber horseshoes so that criminals wouldn’t hear them approaching.”


Originally published in This Land: Fall 2016.