Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Summer, 1959: Prologue to the Novel, 'Gone from Me.' (Excerpt)

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Summer, 1959: Prologue to the Novel, 'Gone from Me.' (Excerpt)

Article excerpt


Tyler, Pennsylvania.

Even before that summer, before the accident in which Butch and Larry were killed and Linda scarred, Death was everywhere. The portents were all there, if only we'd been paying attention, if only we'd been able to read them. In February the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and Richie Valens were killed in a plane crash in a frozen Iowa cornfield, and we'd mourned. Shortly after their deaths a song came out about their metamorphosis into three new stars in the sky. Gee, we're going to miss you, the singer crooned, everybody sends their love. I listened, and felt a lump in my throat. How marvelous, I thought, for death to become a song.

I was thirteen.

There were other deaths too across the nation, duly reported in the Tyler News-Herald: a fifteen-year-old girl in Wheeling, West Virginia, shotgunned her father and mother to keep them from getting a divorce. A teenage boy in Wisdom, Kentucky, stabbed a grocer to death. His father told reporters his son hadn't been "normal" since falling out of a tree when he was four. "He started strangling cats after that," he said. "I'll kill anybody," his son told police. In July they electrocuted Charlie Starkweather, who with his girlfriend had killed eleven people across the country. Ministers blamed it all on Elvis. In New York, juvenile delinquents were stabbing and zip-gunning each other on playgrounds; in New York, cabdrivers were being murdered. In the movies mutant insects and monster dinosaurs destroyed New York, and in the next movie, a week later, destroyed Tokyo.

TV's "Superman," George Reeves, killed himself. Or else he was killed after jumping from a window, madly believing he really could fly. We heard each story and weren't sure.

People were killed in Tyler too. In April Clete Thurston blew his wife's face away with a shotgun in front of their two little daughters as she begged for her life. He'd suspected, wrongly as it turned out, that she'd been having an affair with a bagboy at the Bi-Lo. After killing her, he drove to the Bi-Lo, walked in with his shotgun and demanded to see the boy. Luckily for him, it was his night off. Thurston put down his weapon, sat on the floor, and told the terrified check-out lady to call the police, that he'd done a "dirty thing" back at his house. They found his two daughters, mute and terrified, in the car. Thurston said he hadn't wanted to leave them alone in the house because there was no one to look after them now that his wife was dead.

And others. On New Dairy Road, Herman Kootz, who'd lived alone for years, was found dead in a one-room house piled high with newspapers, hubcaps, boxes of empty soup cans. He'd been shot once in the heart. He was in stocking feet, and mice had nibbled through his socks and partially eaten his toes. A neighbor was soon arrested and confessed. He and Kootz had had a feud of years running, the neighbor swearing that Kootz kept stealing the newspaper from his rural delivery box. And in the Third Ward Aaron Barbee told his estranged wife he was going to go have a few drinks to get up his courage to kill her. He went to the bar, had a few drinks, came back, sent his two little boys out to play, and then did just that. When the police came, he was out in the yard with them, fixing the seat of the swing set.

Nobody was killed for money or possessions. Everyone was killed out of revenge, or jealousy, or love, love gone sour, love gone crazy, although that was little consolation to the loved ones, now the dead.

Others just died:

Mrs. Hannah's husband collapsed of a heart attack as he was carrying in the family's first TV set. The TV smashed on the walkway, and he died. Colleen Mulcahy's father died earlier that winter of lung cancer--the word was still whispered, never spoken aloud, as if it alone were the instrument of contagion--but no one bothered to wonder if he'd smoked. After all, newspapers still advertised "low-calorie sugar" and "healthy cigarettes. …

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