Monday, November 22, 2010

#167-EXPLANATION

At end of the summer in Indianapolis I went to Connecticut for a long weekend with them all, Mother and Dad and my brother Peter at our house in Connecticut. When I stepped down from the train at the Westport/Saugatuck station what got their attention was the new hat I was wearing. A hat I had seen in a store window on a Friday afternoon and that had seemed just the thing to wear for when I was up in Chicago that night. At the train station in Connecticut, they all said in turn, amused and exasperated, that now he has a pork pie hat. Home!

At the beginning of November I spoke to them on the phone, an election night duty call much like a duty holiday call, though like those holiday calls I actually did want these occasional connections by phone back then. When it was clear the awful Eisenhower would win I went to a pay phone on a windy street so as not to be overheard calling home from the United Press bureau. To avoid an argument I skirted the issue of the election. Dad had said he could hear in my words that I had picked up a Middle Western accent, though actually in Indiana some people thought I sounded British.

The pork pie hat. The hint of a Midwestern accent. Always something that brought me back to a sorry role in the lurking family story, which I tried so hard to sweep under the rug until this time 30 years later when I was at last on the hunt for what was there behind the family fa├žade.

When in Connecticut on the long weekend I told them only of the up times in Indianapolis. Of getting promoted to covering the Legislature for United Press, of getting bylines. I did not tell them of things that would only bring them back to their constant jibes. For example, this girl I went out with whose father had the Muzak concession for Indianapolis. On the walls of their homey kitchen there were framed sampler style sayings about the divinity of music and its soothing of savage beasts (breasts?) while down in the basement a huge spool of tape, set on its side, was turning night and day sending out the most awful syrupy stuff to every waiting room and office building in Indianapolis. She was a sweet girl and bright, and I did not want them attacking her even though it would only be their version of her and she would never hear it.

Was this why I was so angry? That they could not see beyond themselves? That nothing was meant to be real? It was crucial to their sense of who they were that my late paternal grandfather had been for a time quite famous, an American novelist who had been on most freshman English classes required or suggested reading lists.

I could not talk to them about what really interested me because they could not connect, perhaps, to any stories that they did not themselves create. So I didn’t tell them about the little man who had just been released from prison after 17 years – one of the stories I was on. It turned out he had been the grand wizard or dragon or something of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan in a time leading up to World War II when the Klan had run just about everything from politics to outright crime in Indiana. But he had been convicted after it was found he had kidnapped a girl, forced her into a Pullman sleeper compartment in one of the many trains running up to Chicago, and there he had not just raped her, he had bitten off her nipples.

I had not heard anyone mention the Klan until this guy was released, and now, knowing how it had controlled the state, so much that puzzled me was suddenly clear. The Legislature I had been covering had just passed a law that, if the courts did not object, would mean a 10-year-old child could go to the electric chair in Indiana for nighttime burglary. Everyone knew who did nighttime burglary. Non-white rapists.

And I had seen the governor, his name was George Craig, standing in the back of a black convertible, surrounded by men with guns, standing as if he had his arm his arm up and out in a way that was halfway between a blessing to his people and a fascist salute. He was driven slowly around the racing oval at the state fairgrounds stadium. He had risen not in the usual ways of politicians elsewhere but through the state police and the American Legion, which has its black marble national headquarters right here.

With this new information about the role of the Klan in Indiana, so much fell into place. The Klan control has been recent enough that almost all the puffed up politicians I covered had to have been members to be in politics. Governor Craig, and cruel, taut senator William Jenner, who had taken over as inquisitor from the disgraced Senator McCarthy, and the obese Senator Homer Capehart whose family manufactured juke boxes that the mob insisted every bar purchase – all these bizarre men. And the Southern racist layout and traditions of the city. And the prevailing suspicion of foreigners, including denizens of the East Coat. And the ever widening use of the electric chair. It all fell into place with this information about the Klan.


And now 30 years later in New Hampshire on the search for what went so wrong that my cousins were coming to horrible ends, I thought back on that time in Indiana and wondered if there were not some piece of information, such as what came out when the prisoner was released in Indiana, that would be about something so awful that it would explain everything.

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