Behind the Headlines in the Sixties
Another chapter fragment from newspaper days in the 1960s, now as seemingly ancient as the stories of H.L. Mencken from Baltimore and Ben Hecht from Chicago.
The Cap Pistol Killings
Buck had dozed off in his Augusta apartment’s tiny front room watching an Atlanta Braves spring-training game on his $99 GE portable television. Chloe was in the bedroom typing a letter to her mother. They had been married now for a few weeks, not that they made a big deal about it. Neither one of them trusted marriages, Buck because his parents split when he was very young, and Chloe because she was about seventy-percent a sixties flower child. But they went through the motions in front of a Justice of the Peace on the Wrightsboro Road, mainly because Buck’s grandmother was afraid they’d be arrested for “living in sin.”
Buck knew damn well that the sheriff he helped elect, and who was in business with Buck’s uncle on the side, would not allow Buck to be arrested for anything short of murder. But you never won those kinds of arguments with Buck’s grandmother. Chloe thought his grandmother’s worries quaint until she saw Buck denied service in a restaurant, and sneered at as a damn beatnik, because of his mustache; the whole 1960s idea of hippies had not quite penetrated the Deep South. Redneck hostility unnerved Chloe, but Buck’s reaction had been to start growing a beard as full and dark as his Confederate cavalry ancestors, and spoiling for a fight.
After the JP said the necessary words they drove to Greene’s Drive-In on East Boundary, staffed by male Negro car hops in immaculate white jackets like some last fading whisper of Tara. Their wedding feast consisted of the best chocolate shakes on earth, and huge delicious hamburgers. Then they went back to bed and didn’t come out for a couple of days. Buck was out of work and Chloe hadn’t started looking yet.
The next time they emerged from their apartment, Buck stopped at a local hardware store to buy a box of pistol shells. He wanted to take Chloe out on the Savannah River Levee where his grandfather taught him to shoot, and familiarize her with firearms safety.
The hardware store clerk wouldn’t sell him any ammunition.
During their marathon sexual “honeymoon” somebody with a rifle had murdered Martin Luther King Jr. up in Memphis. American cities had begun to burn in paroxysms reminiscent of the Haitian and Nat Turner rebellions of previous centuries. Somebody in Georgia had ordered cessation of all firearms and ammunition sales to prevent spread of black insurrection.
Buck was infuriated. He called the sheriff and raised hell. The sheriff apologized and sent a squad car with police ammunition so Buck could instruct his new wife. Some left-over Reconstruction rule, he told Buck, that some asshole with a long memory dug up from the days Confederate veterans were forbidden firearms. Damn hardware-store clerk should have realized the order was meant to apply only to niggers this time around; kind of a belated payback because the defeated South had a long, long memory.
Buck had been fired from the Chronicle a couple of months before. His political uncle, who owned a competing suburban weekly, offered him a byline for anything he cared to write about to thumb his nose at his former boss…no salary of course. But he got a commission on the ad sales and his uncle slipped him a campaign-treasury twenty every couple of days to make ends meet while he looked for a job.
Buck wanted to write a scathing story about the old Reconstruction law. His uncle wouldn’t go for it; he was the first elected Republican in Georgia since the Yankees and carpetbaggers lost power to resurging Southern Democrats. All that Reconstruction crap had been the work of Republican puppets put in office by the occupying Northern army. Now a hundred years later, Republicans were the conservatives; Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were campaigning in Southern primaries, and his uncle didn’t want to give Democratic liberals anything to embarrass them with. Buck felt claustrophobic, hemmed in by generations of political complications.
At least baseball still was baseball, even with the nation once more in bloody turmoil. So he sat down to watch the spring-training game. He remembered his first spring day back in Atlanta after getting out of the Army: the streets aswarm with expectant black faces in groups and bunches, an electric tension in the air that made him uneasy. Then on Peachtree Street he got close enough to a silent group to hear a transistor radio: the crowds were waiting for the new-minted Atlanta Braves, having moved from Milwaukee, to take the field for their first home game, led by Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, who as a Jacksonville minor-leaguer had torn up the South Atlantic League when Buck was a kid.
This year’s spring-training edition of the Braves couldn’t hold his interest, and he dozed. The telephone ringing in the kitchen brought him almost awake. But he heard Chloe answer and began to drift off again. Then she was shaking him gently. “Telephone, Buck,” she whispered. “It’s the sheriff…”
The sheriff showed up early, driving a big navy-blue Plymouth Fury, wearing a white cowboy hat and a wrinkled seersucker suit. He was so big he took up a lot of the front seat. When Buck got in, there wasn’t enough room on the bench seat for anyone to sit in the middle. “You’re wide as your Uncle Raymond and damn near as tall as your Uncle Luke,” the sheriff said as he pulled away. “It’s that runt of a daddy from Arkansas I can’t see any resemblance to.”
“Where we headed?” Buck said.
“Trailer park out on Lumpkin Road. The shooter got a friend out there. He showed up drunk as a skunk not too long after the shootin’ and passed out on his couch. Slept pret’ near all day. Woke up with a hell of a hangover and pretty depressed, his buddy says. When WRDW ran a story about the shootin’ last night, he tole his buddy ‘that was me.’”
“He killed them all, right?”
“Yep. His wife, her parents, her sister and her sister’s husband. His wife was pregnant, so that’s six, with five shots.”
“Jesus Christ! A massacre.”
“Pretty much. Tole his buddy the bun in his wife’s oven belonged to somebody else, so he didn’t care about that either.”
“Stone-cold killer,” Buck said.
“Nah, just trailer-park trash. The daddy made it, almost, to a neighbor’s after he got shot. Knocked a bicycle off its kickstand and somebody came out.”
“Nobody heard the shooting?”
“Sure did. They said it sounded like a cap pistol.” They were on Lumpkin Road now. “Nobody pays attention to a cap pistol.”
“Some kind of small-caliber? A .22?”
“Or a .32. Cheap piece of crap, suicide special he got at a pawn shop, accordin’ to what he told his buddy.”
“Saturday-night special,” Buck said automatically. “That’s what they’re calling ’em now, since the New York Times called ’em that in a story.”
“This was a Tuesday night,” the sheriff said. “Who reads the damn New York Times in Georgia anyway?”
“Cheap piece of crap, but he killed five for five,” Buck said.
“Six, with the baby,” the sheriff said. “Reach in the glove box there, Buck.”
Buck thumbed open the glove box. “What do you need?”
“Take out that .38 Police Positive there, Buck. Tuck it in your belt. Just in case this ol’ boy goes crazy on us.” He was slowing to turn into the trailer park now. He smiled. “You ought to recognize that gun, Buck. That was my service revolver back on the city cops. The one I gave you to play with at the Fireman’s Ball when you were six.”
“Everybody in this damn town seems to know that story.” Buck folded out the Colt’s cylinder. “Just as loaded as it was that night.”
“I still got a copy of that picture of you that ran in the Chronicle wearin’ that cute little sailor suit Luke sent you from Korea,” the sheriff said. “Holding that there pistol next to your granddaddy in his Santa Claus suit.”
“My grandfather was not very happy about it.”
The sheriff grinned. “Well, he was on the wagon then, stopped drinkin’ a long time before I did. World sure was a lot more fun back when we were drinkin’ men. Here we are.” He pulled the Fury in front of an old single-wide trailer. There were no other cars around, and certainly no marked sheriff’s units.
“Where’s the cavalry?” Buck said.
“Didn’t want to scare him off, Buck.” The sheriff climbed out of the car. Buck noticed the snubbie Colt Cobra under his coat. It looked about the size of a pocket-watch on the big man’s belt.
“So it’s just us?”
“Should be plenty,” the sheriff said. “Hell, you were an MP and all.”
“I had a .45 then.”
“Overkill,” the sheriff snorted. “That ol’ .38 does the trick just fine. Not that I expect we need it.” He was already headed for the trailer door. Buck had to hurry to catch up, jamming the old four-inch Colt in the small of his back.
The door opened before the sheriff got there. A scrawny redneck in a wife-beater undershirt and baggy shorts peered out…“Still got his gun,” he whispered hoarsely. “Wouldn’t let me have it.”
“S’all right, Rufe. You just step on outside.” The sheriff’s bulk filled the door. “Buck, come on. Hey, Teddy,” he called out. “How they hangin’?”
Teddy was seated at the tiny dinette in the trailer. He had on a filthy T-shirt and baggy coveralls and didn’t look as if he’d shaved in a week. He was shoveling food into his mouth from a heaped plate of grits and cut-up fried eggs…Buck could smell the liquor sweat from the door. “Guess I better not sit in one o’ them little old chairs,” the sheriff said. “Liable to collapse it an’ break my fool neck,” He hunkered down a few feet from the man at the table. “Slow down there, Teddy, you’ll get indigestion sure. You can finish your meal.”
“Thanks, Footsy. I’m awful damn hungry. Didn’t eat all day yesterday. Didn’t have much appetite after what I done…” He glanced at Buck. “Who’re you? Nathan Bedford Forrest?”
The sheriff laughed. “That is a handsome beard ‘ol Buck is growin’. You keep on not shavin’ and you’ll have one of your own. Buck is with the newspaper…case you want to tell your side about Telfair Street.”
“Well that’s right nice of you,” Teddy said to Buck. He put down his fork… inches from the old top-break revolver, finished in cheap black-spotted chrome. “Ain’t a lot to tell though. I just had enough o’ that bitch’s cheatin’ ways.”
The sheriff’s big hat brim nodded slowly. “Women can test a man’s patience, that’s for sure. But Teddy, I think you’re going to need to talk to a lawyer about all this. What with doin’ her kin folks and all.”
Teddy swallowed and tapped his fingers nervously next to the gun. “Yessir, I’m gonna need to talk to several lawyers, be my guess.”
“I can fix that up for you, son,” the sheriff said peacefully. “But you gonna have to come on downtown with me and Buck.”
Teddy blinked, looked down at the gun… Buck felt his insides clench; he didn’t see how the sheriff could get to the snubbie hunkered over like that. “You through with your meal?” the sheriff said in a kindly voice.
“It’s kinda curdlin’ now, to tell you the truth…Thinkin’ about all that again.”
“Bring your coffee along, that’ll settle it some.” The sheriff stood up with a grunt. By the time he was erect, the old chrome revolver had vanished from the table. “I figure you’re done shootin’ for a while,” he told Teddy.
“Yessir.” Teddy stood up slowly. “I don’t even know whose brat she had in her belly, Footsie. She laughed at me and said it could even be her brother-in-law’s…She just knew it wasn’t mine cause I always shot blanks.”
“Well not always,” the sheriff said quietly. “Not night before last, anyway.”
Teddy seemed to brighten. “Not that time, nossir.”
“Grab your coffee and let’s go on in.” The sheriff stepped to one side. “Better not say much more, buddy, till we get you one of them lawyers.”
Buck followed them out of the trailer. The sheriff tossed him the car keys. “You drive us in, Buck, I’m gonna sit back here with Teddy.” He held the man’s coffee cup until he was settled and passed it to him.
Buck’s by-lined story of Teddy’s arrest took up almost the entire front page of his uncle’s weekly, and he wrote the headline: “’Cap Pistol’ Killings Leave Six Dead.” For once the weekly completely scooped the Chronicle, and Buck was tickled when he heard that his asshole former boss almost foamed at the mouth about that.
But he couldn’t peddle the story to the Atlanta wire services. “White trash killings?” the UPI man said baldly. “No standoff with the shooter? Sorry, Buck, it’s just not sexy.” The Associated Press man was less callous in his dismissal, as befit the AP, but just as firm. “Reads like a PR piece for that hick sheriff,” he said. “Not interested.”