I still remember where I was when I heard that murderers Caril Anne Fugate and Charles Starkweather were “on the loose” in our town.
It was one of those moments suspended permanently in time—like the day my father heard the news about Pearl Harbor on the car radio as he crossed a certain bridge south of town. Or the day FDR died. Or the day, a generation later, when I froze before a barroom TV set listening to details of a report that Kennedy had been shot. Talk about news.
Not that the local press hadn't covered Caril and Charlie. They had. I'd read all about the young couple—she fourteen years old, he nineteen. Belly down on our new rose-beige wall-to-wall carpet, elbows grinding into the nylon tufts, I read how they were wanted for maybe killing Caril's mother, her stepfather, her little half sister. But what did that mean? Only another family squabble. Why, just the week before, belly on the same carpet, eyes on the same daily, I'd read all about that nice Mr. Williams, a shoe repairman over in Beatrice, Nebraska, only forty miles south of our town. Mr. Williams shot his wife, two daughters, and one son, killed them as they slept, then ran down to the basement and blew his head off. With a 16 gauge shotgun. Who would have thought it. And I read, the same day, a report about that despondent housewife up in Hibbing, Minnesota, who killed herself and her three kids because she was going bananas. Small wonder. Hibbing—what can you do in a place like that except count stars of a clear night?
Granted, the circumstances of the Fugate-Starkweather killings were a bit bizarre. The body of Marion Bartlett, Caril's fifty-seven-year-old step father, was found wrapped in newspapers and stuffed in a chicken coop out behind the Bartletts' one-story house where Caril lived. He'd been shot and stabbed. The body of Caril's mother, Velda Bartlett, thirty-five, was wrapped in what looked like bedclothes and stashed in the outhouse. Shot and stabbed. The body of Caril's little half sister, Betty Jean, only two-and-a-half years old, reporters said, was found near Velda's, stuffed into a card board box. Betty Jean hadn't been shot. She'd been clubbed to death and her throat slashed: skull fractures and lacerations, the paper called it.
Weirder yet, Caril and Charlie had sat a strange sort of wake with the bodies, staying with them for at least two days. Maybe six. Warding off relatives who came to inquire, shooing away a lady who stopped to buy eggs, calling in sick to the Watson Bros. trucking company for Mr. Bartlett so nobody would suspect.
Still, when you added the details up, what had Caril and Charlie done, really, but lopped off a few of her kin? Big deal.
How could I know that these family deaths were only the beginning of a chain of murders that would make Caril and Charlie a Legend in Their Own Time? How could I foresee that a young movie producer, Terence Malick, would fictionalize them sixteen years later in a movie called Badlands? That NBC-TV would feature Caril's prison life in an hour-long documentary which, in turn, would spawn a book, Caril, that draws heavily on this TV footage? Or that the New York Daily News, running a series about “liberated” women criminals, would bill Caril as a predecessor of a long line of female terrorists, the latest sensation being Patty Hearst?
Today, Caril and Charlie seem well on their way to becoming my generation's Bonnie and Clyde. Born on the heels of the Depression, suckled on World War II, isolated and alienated without the words to express it, Caril and Charlie shared more with my generation than we, perhaps, were willing to admit. At that time, in 1958, in Lincoln, Nebraska, we were prone to magnify the differences. There seemed to be many.
For one thing, I was literate. A junior at the University, I was busy stuffing myself on Shakespeare and the classics, and squabbling with my parents who said that classics wouldn't feed me, that I should study teaching instead. Or nursing. That way, when my husband died, I could support the kids. Caril, who wore her dark brown hair in a ponytail and fancied white baton boots, was still in high school. She was considered a spunky kid with a “certain elfish charm” who could pass for eighteen. Charlie was an out-and-out high-school dropout with red hair, bandy legs, and bad eyesight. At five foot two, he stood an inch taller than Caril. He worked on a garbage route, shouting obscenities at people, telling old guys how to drive, and generally acting surly. “Nobody knowed better than to say nothin' to me when I was a-heavin' their goddam garbage,” he wrote of himself later. Illiterate. As his writing showed.
Besides, I had taste. Caril and Charlie might settle for hamburgers and TV, but I went to see foreign films and ate in one of the town's foreign restaurants: a pizza parlor, the first one I'd ever seen. I would never have shopped for Christmas presents in a filling station, which Caril and Charlie did. They favored a stuffed poodle. Charlie drove a souped-up '49 Ford with missing hubcaps and no radiator grill; he wore a black motorcycle jacket and black cowboy boots, cheap ones, several sizes too big. He stuffed the toes with paper. No, he didn't impress me. Just another greaser, the sort who edges his car ahead of yours at the stoplight, revs the motor, guns out on the yellow. Or hangs around the hamburger palaces, wisecracking. Charlie was nothing compared to my boyfriend, Gene, a University senior who drove (when he couldn’t beg his old man’s Mercury) a hearse with print curtains at the windows.
Charlie got in trouble with the cops, letting underage Caril drive his car. But not us. We had our illegal beer busts down by the old creek bed, forged our ID’s so we could spin down to Omaha and drink hard liquor like the grown-ups did, bought our Trojans in the corner drugstore, and made out like bandits on the back roads.
But then, what could you expect? Caril and Charlie lived in the seedy north part of town, Charlie in his rented room and Caril with her folks in that ramshackle white frame house of theirs. Gene and I lived on the right side of town, though my sector, south Lincoln, was so good my folks could look down on Gene, whose mother rang a cash register in the supermarket and ran around with Air Force Base people, and whose father, like Charlie's, was a carpenter. My family moved to south Lincoln after my father's small-town-based trucking firm collapsed under the brunt of Jimmy Hoffa's illegal union-organizing activities. That period of ominous phone calls, tires punctured with ice picks, railroad spikes heaved from speeding cars, strange men in out-of-state automobiles conspicuously cleaning their shotguns outside my father's office, initiated me into violence. My uncle Glen, known as the hothead in a hotheaded family, kept a shotgun on the front seat of his car and a pistol in the glove compartment. He followed our trucks out of town, daring any Teamster thug to mess with him. When I was younger, Glen fought Japs, and regaled me with stories of going to Ku Klux Klan meetings with my grandpa. Not that Grandpa went after blacks; there weren't any in the whole county. He went after Catholics, instead. A year older than Charlie, I considered myself much more sophisticated, despite my small-town upbringing. I snickered knowingly when I read in the Lincoln Journal, the week Caril and Charlie went on their rampage, that only eleven shotguns and five pistols were known to be squirreled away in the University's whole dormitory system. Didn't I know better? Why, my boyfriend and his buddy could hustle up a better arsenal than that between them. So I wasn't particularly impressed when the county sheriff found Charlie's hot rod—and three more bodies—some sixteen miles south of town.
Two of the three new bodies were discovered at the base of the stairs in an abandoned storm cellar. That seemed fitting. Storm cellars are common in Nebraska, dug to provide shelter from the tornado funnels that periodically pass by. My grandmother had one, a cave dug half underground with double wooden doors at the top, cool in the summer and warm in the winter. “Stand in the southwest corner with your back against the wall,” my mother instructed us as we sheltered in our basement. “That way, if the house caves in, you won't get killed by falling debris.” We huddled there more than once, staring at the wringer washing machine and the metal rinse tubs, waiting.
Caril and Charlie went to the abandoned storm cellar to get warm—it was January—when their car got stuck. They didn't stay long; the place spooked Charlie. “A hole in the ground, looks like a bomb shelter," he described it. Actually, the cellars more closely resemble the World War II munitions storage units near Hastings, Nebraska, half-buried Quonset huts mounded with dirt like freshly turned graves, camouflaged with grass so enemy pilots couldn't spot them. “They cast no shadows,” my father said. But bomb shelters were a topic of considerable import that January. Russia had recently launched two Sputniks, and we had yet to lift off our first spaceship from Cape Canaveral. For that matter, we had yet to launch our first ICBM. And with SAC's national headquarters only sixty miles away, Lincoln was bound to get a lot of atomic fallout as Russian bombers came streaking over Alaska, past our DEW Line.
The third body was found in a small shack not far from Charlie's car, which had gotten stuck in a farmer's driveway. When Sheriff Merle Karnopp spotted blood in the snow, he called for reinforcements: his men, some Lincoln cops, and state troopers. They closed in on the farmhouse with a bullhorn and tear gas, not to mention assorted firearms. Some thirty neighbors—farmers and townspeople from nearby Bennet, population 350—gathered to watch the fun. Okay Charlie, we know you're in there, come on out with your hands up, the sheriff shouted over the bullhorn. We'll give you five minutes. And for five minutes, as if in silent prayer, everyone waited. Then, okay, here we come, ready or not, and they were off, heaving nine tear-gas bombs into the house, running in, guns drawn, running back out again, eyes streaming, waiting until the tear gas cooled down enough for them to have a look around. They found an empty house. But the blood in the snow led to an outbuilding where they discovered the farmer, old August Meyer, seventy, dead as a doornail. He'd been blasted in the head with a .410 shotgun at close range. The first officer in the door nearly puked at the sight.
That's when the panic began.
August Meyer was an old friend of the Starkweather family; Charlie, his brothers, and his dad, Guy, had gone to the Meyer place many a time to hunt. ‘lf Charlie'll kill an old friend like August, he'll turn on his own father,’ Guy Starkweather said, and he bolted his doors and windows against the return of his son.
He wasn't the only one to worry. The farm people south of Lincoln did, as well as those in the little town of Bennet. The two other victims had lived there: Robert Jensen, seventeen, president of the Bennet High School junior class and member of the football team, and his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Carol King. They'd gone out on a date the night before, cruising the back roads, I speculated, as Gene and I were wont to do: parking on the crest of a hill, cocking the rearview mirror so we could spot the headlights of any would-be bushwhackers before they saw us, slumped in the front seat, jockeying positions to miss the gearshift. We kept a pistol ready in the glove compartment, just in case. If we'd been Robert Jensen and Carol King, Starkweather wouldn't have stood a chance. No, siree, we'd of blasted his head clean off—Gene's gun was a heavy German model.
Robert and Carol had stopped to give Charlie a helping hand with his stuck car—a custom on the plains where it's a long trek between filling stations or farmhouses. They got taken to the storm cellar for their trouble. Robert was shot six times—killed in self-defense, Charlie said; Carol was not only shot but stripped and viciously raped. Officials never did say how, but we could speculate, we who had heard by then, that somebody, Caril or Charlie, had rammed a shotgun repeatedly down the throat of Caril's little half sister, Betty Jean, until she choked. We could almost see Charlie ramming Carol with his .22, could almost hear him hollering (in all-American fashion) “Up Yours!” as he pulled the trigger.
Radio stations began broadcasting descriptions of Caril, Charlie, and the stolen Jensen car, a dark blue 1950 sedan with twin aerials on the rear fender. It was assumed to be hidden south of town—or else speeding across the plains in some great getaway scene.
People who lived near Bennet packed their kin, if they could afford it, and fled to Lincoln for safety. Those who remained picked up their guns and posted themselves by their doors. “Gonna shoot first, ask questions later,” one farmer said. The sheriff told folks to call their neighbors every half hour or so, make sure they were still alive, and many people called out-of-state relatives as well. Pbone lines out of Bennet and nearby towns were jammed all afternoon and evening—a preview of the panic that hit sections of Lincoln the next day.
I was running an errand at the University's School of Journalism when I heard that Caril and Charlie had doubled back into Lincoln, killed three more people, and were currently “on the loose,” possibly in my section of town. Now that was news. For they hadn't killed just anyone. They'd killed three of our kind, decent folk—the sort whose kids wear braces. That news changed my whole perspective. I'd gone to the journalism school in defeat, to switch from my prestigious liberal arts major in English to something practical: news reporting. But what an auspicious beginning! With nine people dead, the story began to assume national proportions. Sure enough, even the intellectual New York Times found it fit to print.
I heard this latest development, appropriately, from the head of the journalism school, a toughminded news writer, a man who encouraged students to the kind of enterprise shown by an editor in Camden, New Jersey, covering the story of mass murderer Howard Unruh. The editor called Unruh up at home, before cops had time to corner him, and asked nonchalantly, “How many people have you killed, Howard?” Unruh, a World War II vet, had killed thirteen, gunning them down at random on the main street. He held the national record for mass slayings—at least until Juan Corona's hatchet killing of twenty-five migrant workers, a record toppled recently when twenty-seven dead boys were unearthed in Texas.
I listened respectfully while the department chairman read the details off the AP wire—how Caril and Charlie had doubled back from the August Meyer farm into the south Lincoln section; how they had cruised the neighborhood (Charlie knew it well from his garbage run) and eventually slept there, undetected even by the Skyline Dairy man; how they were let into the fashionable home of C. Lauer Ward by his unsuspecting housekeeper. She knew Charlie; he used to shovel their snow.
Mr. Ward was away working at one of his many jobs. (He was president of the Capital Bridge Company and the Capital Steel Company, which supplied raw material for the bridge company, and director of several of Lincoln's banks.) Caril and Charlie hung around quite awhile, binding and gagging Clara Ward, his wife, and Lillian, the housekeeper, in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Both women were stabbed to death. Charlie said he had to kill them in self-defense when the maid came at him with a gun. Later he switched stories, saying Caril did it.
Charlie met Mr. Ward in the vestibule as he came home for supper. The industrialist got Charlie's customary greeting: a blast in the head. Now the killers were loose, cruising around somewhere in Mr. Ward's big black 1956 Packard, license 2-17415.
The chairman warned me to be careful going home; I felt a chill, or premonition, and left, cutting swiftly across the school's flat parking lot to jump in my mother's Chevy. Safe. So far. The school's tall carillon, dubbed the “Singing Silo” by students, interrupted its rendition of “Nellie Gray” to chime out the noon hour. A modest erection compared to that three-hundred-foot University of Texas tower where Charles Whitman would let fall a spray of ammunition that hit forty-six people, held one hundred cops at bay. His record was eighteen dead.
I arrived home unharmed, parked Mom's Chevy in our double garage, and hotfooted it into the house. I found my mother cowering in a corner of the dining room, our portable radio, its cord stretched taut, blaring beside her. If I hadn't known better, I might have thought she was listening to a tornado warning.
“Thank goodness you're back,” she said. I didn't have to ask her if she'd heard. Danger gave us a sudden common bond, dissolving our differences.
We sat as far away as possible from the windows, debating whether or not to draw the curtains. Mother was for drawing them so Caril and Charlie couldn't see us, trapped like flies in a spider web. I wanted to leave them open. True, that might give the couple a clear shot, but at least we could see them coming. A decided advantage, I argued. With the curtains drawn, the pair could be within pistol range before we knew anyone was there. Mother finally, reluctantly, agreed.
My father called. He'd been trying to reach us, he said, but was unable to get through from his office (he was state purchasing agent then) in the Capitol building. The lines were too busy. We didn't know it yet, but the news of the Ward family deaths piled up the heaviest traffic on Lincoln telephone circuits since V-J Day. My father said he was vaguely acquainted with the dead man, and wasn't it awful, and Vic (my father loved being on a first-name basis with the governor) might have been the last person to see Mr. Ward alive. Don't come home, my mother begged him. He said he didn't plan to.
Together, Mother and I listened to the radio. Caril and Charlie, charged with first-degree murder and described as “armed and dangerous,” were presumed to be somewhere in town. State patrol cars were ordered to converge on Lincoln. About forty or fifty sheriff's deputies, farmers, and state patrolmen searched for the Ward car; their ranks soon increased. Between one and two hundred National Guardsmen were called into active duty by Governor Victor Anderson. “All the experienced combat men we can get,” the governor ordered. And the FBI got into the act. Not to mention volunteers, as the word, “a killer is loose in the city,” spread. There was talk of forming Vigilance Committees, of making a house-to-house search, indeed, a closet-to-closet one. Soon a total of twelve hundred men were guarding us. And that wasn't counting individual householders who stood armed in their yards, protecting their loved ones against imminent massacre.
Around us, neighbors sat in paranoid vigils like our own, although we didn't find that out until afterward, when the fuss simmered down to a series of cocktail party stories. Many folks left their garage doors open and the keys in their automobiles. That way, people reasoned, Caril and Charlie wouldn't need to come looking for anything. Large fast cars, preferably with full gas tanks, were considered the best insurance. ·
Some neighbors took more drastic action, like the woman who filled up all her big cooking pots with water, and kept them bubbling on the stove. “I figured they'd come in the back door if they came at all,” she explained, “because our kitchen is close to the garage. So I waited next to the stove. When they walked in, I was going to heave boiling water all over them.”
When our doorbell rang, we froze. In whispers, we debated our strategy: Mother said we should stay put, but I argued against it. Wouldn't we be in a better position to defend ourselves if we found out who it was? Then, if necessary, we could call Father at the State Capitol building and he could summon the National Guard …
At length, I tiptoed to the window. It was only my boyfriend, Gene, and his best buddy. Husky prairie boys the both of them, waiting on our front porch, rifles slung over their shoulders.
Naturally, I opened the door.
The pair filed into the living room, smelling of beer and brandishing loaded rifles; they had shotguns in the car. And pistols. Gene's buddy wore his pistol concealed, strapped in a holster to his sturdy chest. His pockets bulged with shells. They'd volunteered to join Sheriff Karnopp, who was broadcasting openly for a posse. The sheriff gathered, Gene told us later, every local lush from every bar in downtown Lincoln. Some had never held a gun before. The sheriff armed them all; he had to. You couldn't beg, borrow, or steal a gun in the whole county, Gene said. Every man had his hand on his.
Having determined that I was still alive, Gene left, revving 1.1p the motor on his borrowed Mercury and peeling out. Let smart-ass Starkweather try to ditch them. Fat chance. Old Charlie didn't know what he was up against. Off they sped.
Downtown, the radio reported, some of Governor Anderson’s newly summoned National Guards men were protecting the National Bank of Commerce, which Charlie was expected to rob. District court recessed early. Hotel business began to flourish as concerned employers booked rooms for their employees rather than have them venture home. The Lincoln Air Force Base volunteered its helicopters, and citizens were urged to report any sign of a black Packard, license 2-17415.
The radio station KFOR put up one hundred dollars reward for information leading to the capture of the pair. So did the president of the United Garbage Association—good PR for his suddenly maligned profession. Lincoln's Mayor Bennett S. Martin offered five hundred, stating that he believed the killers were still in the city, that they were using our town as a base for their bloody deeds. Governor Anderson put up a thousand.
The radio kept broadcasting the Ward licenseplate number until we had it memorized. The station received dozens of phone calls—it would receive hundreds—describing a black Packard cruising someone's neighborhood. People were urged to stay off the streets, especially in south Lincoln. My mother began worrying whether my sister Margery would survive. She was due to be bussed home from high school, to be driven right through the main target area. Should one of us try to meet her? Or was the risk too high? The warnings to remain indoors weighed heavily, but I volunteered, being young enough to enjoy the surge of adrenaline that anticipated danger provides. A rush, we'd call it now.
As I headed toward the front door, the radio broadcast another sighting of a black Packard, this one with three numbers of its license verified. The car was only blocks away. I hesitated. My mother urged me to stay in and let Margery take her chances. We listened while the station verified one more number on the plate; the car was a block closer to our home.
I dashed to our tall hedgerow, concealing myself as best I could from the lethal street. Periodically, I poked my head out of the greenery to scan the block. How I wished Dad hadn't sold his hunting guns. I could use one now. Not for nothing had I dropped by the ROTC building once a week for target practice, strapping myself into a shooting harness, flopping down on my belly military fashion, sighting down the long barrel. I had a credible record for bull's-eyes. It was ironic that I should wait unarmed.
Margery, I had decided, would have to come the first, most dangerous, half block by herself. If she made it to the corner, I would signal her home by waving my arms. If it worked, knowing the depth of Margery's stubborn nature, I thought she'd be as likely to slow down as speed up if she saw I was in a hurry. But I underestimated her terror: she came running. Not that it mattered much. By the time we were safely indoors, the radio had reported that the sighting of the black Packard was a false alarm.
Meanwhile, Caril and Charlie were hundreds of miles away, in Wyoming. They'd beat a fast retreat from Lincoln in Mr. Ward's Packard, heading northwest on Highway 2, one of the state's least frequently used roads. Charlie dyed his telltale red hair black with shoe polish, but he needn't have been so careful. The widely publicized dragnet of the state was actually concentrated almost entirely southeast of Lincoln. Officers had reasoned that Caril and Charlie would head down Kansas City way; wasn't K.C. the nearest metropolitan area that could afford them a hideout? But the two weren't thinking like 1920s gangsters. They were headed for Washington state to stay with Charlie's brother Leonard, a chef.
On their way, a few miles outside the small town of Douglas, the couple noticed a new Buick parked alongside the road. They pulled over to take a peek. Inside, Merle Collison, a shoe salesman from Great Falls, Montana, was stretched out, catching himself a little shut-eye. Charlie woke him with a bullet through the window. Merle staggered out of the car, was blasted back into the front seat—and eternity—with nine bullets from Charlie's gun. “People will remember that last shot,” Charlie wrote of it later. "I hope they'll read my story. They'll know why then. They'll know that the salesman just happened to be there. I didn't put him there and he didn't know I was coming." Charlie could have been a Zen sage.
Then, of all the bum luck, the Buick's emergency brake stuck. While Charlie struggled to free it, Joe Sprinkler stopped to lend a hand. He thought there'd been an accident. Here, help me unstick this thing, Charlie ordered, pointing his gun Joe's way. Joe spotted the body in the front seat and thought better of it, and grabbed Charlie's rifle instead of the brake. As the two struggled, a Wyoming deputy sheriff, driving into Douglas on a routine errand, happened by. He didn't recognize the Ward car, but stopped when he saw the men fighting over the rifle. Caril hightailed it to his car, hollering, “Help! It's Starkweather! He's crazy, he just killed a man.” And the chase was on.
Charlie dropped his gun, leaped into the Packard, and lit out. The deputy radioed ahead; Douglas cops set up a road block. Charlie tore through it at better than a hundred per, kept right on going. The sheriff and the police chief joined the chase—into Douglas's city limits, out again, guns flashing. Charlie stopped when a shot shattered his window. He staggered out of the Packard, hand over his ear, shouting, “I'm hit! You lousy bastards hit me!” It was a hollow accusation. Inspection showed he had a superficial cut from a piece of flying glass.
It was over.
Caril and Charlie were, of course, celebrities. Their doings were reported in some detail: Charlie ate heartily and slept well in the Douglas jail. Caril, “stunned and dazed,” ate lightly, her matron said. That's because she had no idea her folks were dead. Caril, Charlie said, had no part in the killings. That's right, said Caril. She was just Charlie's hostage. Hostage, hell, replied Charlie. She had a gun; she could of escaped if she wanted to. He himself had no idea that the maid and Clara Ward were dead. He'd left Caril guarding them, he said, so she must of done it. Like she killed that King girl he'd left her to guard. Come to think of it, Caril was “the most trigger-happy person I ever seen.” Hadn't she killed Collison? Oh, he'd fired the first couple shots, but that wasn't dead enough for her. She finished the salesman off. And hadn't she blabbered all across the state something about how the maid just wouldn't die? Charlie, by contrast, had wanted to give himself up right after the Jensen shooting, but Caril would say no. Sitting there in the front seat with a .410 on her lap. What's a fellow to do?
“She seemed to have a hold on him,” Charlie's mother testified. Charlie wrote his folks: “but dad I'm not real sorry for what I did cause for the first time me and Caril had more fun …”
They signed their own extradition papers and came on home-by car-to stand trial. They were afraid to fly.
Lincoln folk sighed in relief at their capture, even if we felt a bit foolish that they were caught in Wyoming , and not in town. We stored our rifles away and let things drift back to normal—although nearly everyone found some excuse or other to drive out to the north section of town, take a gander at the Bartlett house, and see where the bodies had been hid.
The Lincoln newspapers began running page-one stories about dogs. The Journal revealed how Charlie had brutally kicked the Wards' poodle, how their Chesapeake Bay retriever “may have been kicked once.” The Humane Society looked for new owners: thirty people volunteered. The paper lauded them. Twenty more raised their hands. Photographs were published of the new owner and his daughter. A picture of Caril's dog, King, appeared. It didn't need a home; Caril's uncle was keeping it for her.
The newspaper editors, perhaps somewhat shamefaced for participating in a panic that had no basis in fact, began blasting the cops for not catching Charlie sooner. The December murder of a local filling-station attendant—at the station where Charlie and Caril had shopped for stuffed dogs—was blamed on Charlie. Why, asked editorials, hadn't he been caught then? The expose of the police department was the biggest since Lincoln's Great Bank Robbery of the 1930s, but nothing came of it. The cops, investigators decided, had done what they could do. They weren't to blame.
Caril and Charlie wrote pages and pages of confessions, especially Charlie: “Don't know why it was but being alone with her was like owning a little world all our own … lying there with our arms around each other and not talking much, just kind of tightening up and listening to the wind blow or looking at the same star and moving our hands over each other's faces … We knowed that the world had give us to each other. We was goin' to make it leave us alone … if we'd been let alone we wouldn't hurt nobody."
We read every word, and speculated about their psychologies. We couldn't read enough. Charlie, we learned, was an artist. He painted in oils, canvases executed in bold rough strokes, landscapes and animal skulls. The papers published shots of them. Once he painted an Indian—with red hair. “Like mine,” his mother told reporters.
Charlie's IQ was measured at 86, four points below the normal range of 90 to 110. His vision tested at 20-200, a point away from being technically blind. Thick glasses corrected his sight to 20-30. “He may go blind within a year,” his folks said, explaining his actions. They weren't sure why, but thought it was some form of astigmatism.
But social stigmatism seemed Charlie's major problem. He was shy, with a “peculiar walk, as though he straddles a barrel,” and he took a lot of razzing for it. Got himself into scraps. .
“I forgot about my bow-legs,” he wrote, “when me and Caril was having excitement. When I'd hold her in my arms and do the things we done together, I didn't think about being a red-headed peckerwood then.”
Specialists were called in to explain him. “Socially,” the University's criminologist said, “he was an empty man. The only way he could be important was by killing.”
Second-semester classes ground on. I learned how to report news. In my senior year, I covered Caril's trial as part of a Journalism 171 assignment. “Nearly an hour before court opened yesterday afternoon,” I wrote, “men and women jammed the anteroom. People pushed and shoved each other as they hurried down the hall. The uproar could be heard . . . from the courtroom.” Caril was found guilty of the murder of Robert Jensen and sent up for life.
A year later, inside the Nebraska State Penitentiary, forty-three official witnesses watched Charlie get juiced. He went with his fists clenched, they said. A few hours earlier, when the Lions Club over in Beatrice asked Charlie to donate his eyes to an eye bank, he retorted, “Hell, no! No one did anything for me. Why in hell should I do anything for anyone else?”
Outside the pen's gate, dozens of teenagers gathered on the midnight of his execution. Most came dressed in blue jeans and bobby socks. Some drove in, car radios blaring rock 'n' roll; some made their pilgrimages on foot. One girl told reporters, “Some of us knew him. Some of us wanted to be with him at the end.” A repentance of sorts. After all, we didn't mean him no harm when we called him a bowlegged red-headed peckerwood. We was just teasing. It warn't our fault he took it all so serious.
Charlie probably wouldn't have been impressed. “The more I look at people,” his confession reads, “the more I hated them because I knowed they wasn't any place for me with the kind of people I knowed. I used to wonder why they was here anyhow? A bunch of goddamed sons of bitches looking for somebody to make fun of … some poor fellow who ain't done nothin' but feed chickens.”
Now, sixteen years later, I sit in a darkened movie theater and watch Terence Malick's romanticized version of those days flicker across the screen. Charlie has changed. He's twenty-five, not nineteen, and fancies he looks like James Dean, a description lifted from a 1958 Time magazine. He shoots only when pressed; the Ward family is spared, Caril has no mother or half sister. Caril has moved to the right side of the tracks, lives alone with her father, has hair like a Clairol ad, and takes piano lessons. Together, Caril and Charlie (now Holly and Kit) move as in a dream. The transition from nobodies to newsmakers to cinematic heroes is complete; media provided the vehicle. Caril and Charlie have been immortalized, as it were, on their own terms. Or so it seems. Malick's Badlands, filmed from Caril's point of view, is as curiously detached as some of Charlie's confessions; our view of violence is as unemotional as the neat, round, clean, cinematic bullet holes left by Charlie's gun. The movie successfully shields us from the impact of those days. Like our news media, it ultimately supports our indifference to violence. At last, indeed, we are entertained by it.
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