Calvin Trillin discusses his book “Killings”
BROADCAST: Feb. 13, 1984 | DURATION: 00:54:28
Discussing the book "Killings" with the author Calvin Trillin.
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Studs Terkel Calvin Trillin is one of the wittiest writers in America. You may know this from reading his "New Yorker" pieces for years, the "U.S. Journal", which has serious writing as well. And if you're fortunate enough to read "The Nation", the oldest weekly journal in America, that's my plug, Calvin Trillin does a page called "Uncivil Liberties", funny and abrasive and biting and whimsical, but he's also a serious writer--that is, a serious journalist, in that in covering murder cases as he's done as part of his "U.S. Journal" work with "The New Yorker", cases of sudden, violent death in different communities, he's uncovered a part of America that has not yet revealed by traditional journalists, and the book is called "Killings", a collection of these revelations are what they are, by "Bud" Calvin Trillin, Ticknor and Fields the publishers, and I think it's one of the most revelatory books around and about in years, a study of our country. There's a phrase Calvin Trillin uses, "The way certain people die may tell you how they live and the community lives." My guest is Calvin Trillin. And so we begin. The contents of this book, "Killings", are a compilation of various cases you've not investigated as a detective, but covered as a journalist.
Calvin Trillin Right.
Calvin Trillin Yes. I started in 1967 doing a story someplace every three weeks for "The New Yorker". And gradually I found that once or twice a year I would end up at the scene of a murder, at least a sudden death.
Calvin Trillin Well, I didn't realize what I was doing until I had done half a dozen of them. But I think I was looking for a way to write about people, about ordinary people, not so much about issues or about what public spokesmen said about this or that. And you have a choice when you're trying to do that, it's [easier?] to write pieces about a typical such and such, or something like that, and that's not the sort of thing I was interested in. I said--and then I realized after a while that sudden death, particularly murder, is in the first place an excuse to be there. Talk about an individual's life. And in some cases it's the person who was murdered, in some cases the person accused of doing the murder, and about a community and about how people react to the death, and then it also turns out that something like sudden death gives shape to people's lives. So it's, for a reporter, kind of an excuse to be there and also the structure of a story, a way of writing about
Calvin Trillin That's true. If something like this happens, whether it's a murder or an accidental death or suicide, the shades are drawn. You're right. Just like that. And suddenly you see parts of people's lives that you otherwise wouldn't see.
Studs Terkel This is a place in which I happen to admire the people, certain ones who live there, very much. At least they're fighting strip miners, strip miners fight them. There have been mine wars, Harlan County, Letcher County, and that's where you came, in Jeremiah, Kentucky.
Calvin Trillin This was in Letcher County, Kentucky when a film crew that was working on a film for the U.S. pavilion in something called Hemisphere in San Antonio was taking some pictures of some people in some little shacks along the road there when the man who owned the shacks came and started shouting to get off the land, and they started to leave, and as they were leaving he shot Hugh O'Connor, the producer of the movie, quite a renowned documentary filmmaker, and killed him. And, of course, then there became a question of why he killed him and whether he had a right to kill him and whether he was, as the people there would say, "Us hillbillies don't like to be made fun of," even though some of the ones who would say that are people who were actually professional and educated and they would prefer to call themselves hillbillies. So it was, and in fact the trial had to be moved to Harlan County, because there's so much sympathy for this fellow, although nobody was particularly--
Studs Terkel What comes out of your book, though, of that incident, your coverage, is the fact there's a sensitivity that's so deep about being looked down upon by city people. That's one aspect, you know.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Calvin Trillin Because of the labor wars down there and had as its prosecuting attorney a man, then at that time, a man named Daniel Boone Smith, who was said to have been a lawyer in more capital cases than any man in the history of Anglo-American jurisprudence. He had, I don't know, seven, eight, nine hundred of them at that time, and he said that it was assumed by--everybody assumed that he wouldn't be very rigorous in his prosecution of this man. But he insisted that these people were well-behaved outsiders. They were strangers but hadn't been there to make fun of people. They had been there to record things for a proper American
Calvin Trillin Exactly.
Calvin Trillin Yes, and many people thought it was significant that the person who shot Hugh O'Connor was not the person who actually lived in the shack, whose picture was being taken, but the person who owned the shack. For years there have been people in that part of Kentucky who have done fairly well while everybody else has been--
Calvin Trillin Well, the first trial was a hung jury. And then on the second trial as it was about to begin, the man who had shot O'Connor, Ison was his name, did a deal, more or less, a guilty for several years in prison. And I happened to be sitting there when people in the, who worked at the court started discussing it. And one woman said, "Well, us hillbillies don't like to be made fun of." And said, "I wouldn't have. We just don't like it." And then another woman, a gentler woman, said, "Well, we're not all like that, mean like that." And the first woman said, "I wouldn't have gone on that man's land to pick me a mess of greens." And someone said, "They didn't know that." "Well, they know it now."
Studs Terkel You know why your book is so good? It seems that this time of so much, the appeal it seems to me officially, is so much meanness rather than something else in our spirit, that we have this insight into a community of basically good people. And so you go from there to Iowa. Iowa, where the tall corn grows, you got two marvelous cases. Let's start with the one at Central Junction, 1971. Jim, Tex, and the one-armed man.
Calvin Trillin Yeah. These were, I guess Jim Berry was probably the most disreputable fellow in Center Junction, Iowa and Tex Yarborough was, I guess, in the lower ten in Maquoketa in Iowa. The one-armed man actually had a name, but I never heard anybody call him anything except the one-armed man. They were arguing at a bar, Jim and Tex had met over their interest in CB radio, and then they had a long couple of days in a bar it seems to me, and the, the one of the people in the bar was this one-armed man. He was from Bald Knob, Arkansas. He was a pipeline worker. There are a lot of pipeline workers who live in Bald
Calvin Trillin That's right. And apparently the folks in Bald Knob have a subscription to some pipeline magazine or newsletter and then when they see that there's jobs someplace, they just all get up and go and then they go back to Bald Knob, and for complicated reasons they got into an argument about whether there was such a thing as a water dog, and what one looked like if there was one, and eventually--
Calvin Trillin Yeah, it was some kind of fish-like animal in a river. And Jim of course, they had--it was in one of those bars that is all beer company art, except for some tapestries of a stag at bay that the woman who ran it said that some foreign-looking man came and sold them once, and I don't think because of the argument, but just because the things, the way things went somehow at the end they were back at Jim Berry's house and Tex walked up to the door, and Jim Berry shot him.
Studs Terkel We're talking about something, life in middle America, really, is Iowa, where the soil is pretty good. We'll come to that in a moment. And these construction work, a couple of other guys who had in and out life, typically American macho guys who were at a bar, you know. We're talking about a certain kind of mindlessness, aren't we?
Calvin Trillin Yeah. People who happen to have a gun and didn't do much and both, I think both Tex and Jim really were from out of state. Jim was from Tennessee, and Tex was from Texas, of course, and they both had gone up there because maybe there was a cheap house available near where their wives had grown up or something like that and didn't do much.
Studs Terkel By the way, as you're talking, another aspect comes in. This comes out in your book in its own subtle way. The trenchant quality of life here. These two guys were from--we always think of somebody in Iowa as being there for generations. You go to a small town in South Dakota, and then suddenly you realize nobody knows who anybody is.
Calvin Trillin That's true. There are a lot of people who--I discuss in the introduction of this book a piece I did once about a body that was found in a trunk in St. Petersburg of a woman. A lot of people called the police station saying they thought they knew who was the body in the trunk, and it was always somebody like well, a daughter who had a couple of kids and left them up north and worked as a cocktail waitress, and there's a whole group of people that just kind of move around from place to place. That's true.
Studs Terkel And so much of America. We're thinking of Iowa now, this case you're talking about of Tex, Jim, and the one-armed guy. I always think of the hotel I was raised in as a kid. A random fight for no reason when life's kind of rough and then a few drinks are there, during the Depression this was very frequently the case. You remember the "La Strada"?
Calvin Trillin Right.
Studs Terkel At the very end he gets in a fight, the strong man. She dies, the clown girl, she dies. And this guy's in a bar and he's drunk, and they kick him out and he's thrown out in the street. You know one day, you know one day his head is going to hit that curb and he's going to break his head.
Calvin Trillin Right.
Calvin Trillin Sometimes people would send me--I know somebody, I remember that somebody sent me a clipping about the case in Westchester, Pennsylvania. Occasionally I'd read something in an out-of-town paper. People might tell me about it. Just odd ways. And sometimes a very tiny clipping, an inch or inch
Calvin Trillin Kourdakov.
Calvin Trillin He's involved with a group that raises a lot of money to help Christians being oppressed behind the Iron Curtain. It turns out I hadn't realized it before I went out there that's a kind of a specialty of Glendale, partly because the first group had a lot of spinoffs where people would accuse them of something and go form their own group, so they have three or four rival groups helping oppressed Christians. Sometimes the same oppressed Christians. I mean, they tend to use the same examples of people.
Studs Terkel By the way, before we come back to Sergei's case, you and I met the same man who hung around Glendale, we met him in Arkansas, of course, the great colorful figure of the '30s, Gerald L.K. Smith--
Calvin Trillin That's right. "Mother," he always called her. And then it said, "Wouldn't it be nice to have an Easter service?" And pretty soon "Wouldn't it be nice to have a Christ to the Ozarks statue?" And then, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a Passion Play?" And he kind of told the people in the town which was in between tourist booms that a Passion Play would draw a lot of folks to the town, and so they were pretty much able to separate that from what they always referred to as his "controversial work" in
Studs Terkel Are you aware that about a year after you, he spoke? When I went to see him down in Eureka Springs he says, "There was this couple did something for 'Esquire,'" referring to Calvin Trillin and his wife Alice, who were down there, he says, "Well, they were very charming, didn't treat me right." And there I was seeing him, and we were at the foot of the Christ of the Ozarks, that is, it blesses about four states simultaneously, it's huge. Or [pure?], and out of it comes stereophonically the voices of Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kate Smith singing hymns. But the point is, you cover these aspects. You did, and you do for "The New Yorker", and I may be using the Gerald L.K. Smith case as an example of what you do because we're talking about his home, his anchorage is Glendale, California.
Calvin Trillin Right.
Calvin Trillin Yeah. I suppose that's true. They must get a lot of checks through that post office in Glendale. He was, of course, the people would call, would say that he was still putting out, what is it, "The Cross and the Flag", or something--
Calvin Trillin Gerald L. K. Smith, which was of course, had been for years as this vehemently anti-Semitic publication, and the people were able to distinguish that from the Passion Play, which by coincidence often also had anti-Semitic overtones, but they never talked much about that.
Calvin Trillin Oh yeah, he was a defector. He was, he had supposedly jumped off a Russian trawler and he swam to Canada, and then it was said had a kind of a conversion in Canada, and somehow ended up in Glendale with this group and he was a tremendous find for them, because they said that what had really gotten him in Canada is he had seen the same Bible that he used to take from these poor Christians when he'd raid their services, three or four hundred Christian raids in some part of Siberia, this wonderful build-up, and then he was found one night, somebody called the police in a motel near San Bernardino in a kind of a little ski area or resort area there. And they went out and they found a kind of scared 17-year-old girl, the daughter of the family, the church family that had asked him to stay at their house, and Sergei Kourdakov, who had apparently shot himself while either showing off or cleaning the gun. And it was somewhat embarrassing to these Christians, although they immediately said that Sergei had said if he was ever found don't believe suicide, because the Russian secret police--
Calvin Trillin Right.
Calvin Trillin He owns seven guns, and you think, well, you know, it's a risk of defecting to America. I mean, where else would you--the girl you met on the church picnic's father have seven guns and of course he lent one to Sergei in case the Russians came after him, and Sergei ended up like most people--
Studs Terkel You think that is the case. Coming back to your approach, Calvin Trillin, you covered the ca--by the way, the writing is marvelous, and we shouldn't--if we only had time, we could read some of this as you did in New York recently, read beautifully. It's made for reading out loud. It's drama. It's done simply, without editorial comment, and it's suddenly revealed as a psyche of that community and part of our country. And here, too, you have the professional proselytizers embarrassed by this kid and yet it's accepted pretty well. It had to be somebody outside who did it.
Studs Terkel But there's something else I wish you'd read. It's also a picture of an emigre, a visitor to America, a stranger, an alien, who finds America and their dream and, in a sense, that's part of it, too. It's so sudden.
Calvin Trillin Well, there had been something about the American way of life, and since much of the testimony, of course, indicated that Kourdakov had already grown into the American way of life at the time of his death. A weekend at Disneyland and at a motel, a 17-year-old girl more emphatic about her reputation than about murder. Strawberry wine, a pair of custom-fitted ski boots, a Thunderbird in the parking lot. Where else but in America, after all, could Kourdakov find to his ultimate misfortune that the father of a girl he met at a church camp owned seven weapons?
Studs Terkel The American Dream realized to some extent. Calvin Trillin is my guest and we're talking about his book "Killings", which is different from some of the other books, his very funny books on diet and food, and his adventures, and his very excellent column in "The Nation", "Uncivil Liberties". This is different. This is straight reportage, but in the best sense. And suddenly we see a certain aspect of our lives through these random and deliberate killings, deaths. "Killings" is the book and Ticknor Fields the publishers, and there are about a half a dozen more cases we have to talk about. This is done chronologically, sort of.
Calvin Trillin Right. Because I thought the times were important as well as the place. And, for instance, the story in Pennsylvania 1970 was very much of a 1970 story, because that's the way people felt.
Calvin Trillin He was a very successful criminal lawyer in Miami. And in his 50s, I guess, gotten successful enough so that he had really turned to some divorce work. He lived in a place called The Jockey Club in Miami and I think I said that a divorce lawyer there could be as assured of his future as a dentist in Hershey, Pennsylvania. It was the sort of place where people were shedding wives and husbands for pretty
Calvin Trillin Well, they said the average age of one of the residents was 40, and that's a 60-year-old guy and a 20-year-old broad. And it was the sort of place where the people were so, the bartender was so accustomed to hearing people order by brand names, a Tanqueray martini, or a J&B on the rocks, and I asked for a Scotch and water, and he just looked at me puzzled as if I had asked for a jug of Busthead or something, I don't
Calvin Trillin Particularly in a place, Miami, which has a kind of a place of its own in America. It's not the only place like this, but nobody's terribly respectable in Miami, and if somebody has had money for some time, it may mean that they did their land flipping in the '30s instead of the '50s, and it's still a hard place to cash a check. It's a place where even in the most exclusive and in fact at that point restricted golf club where Havey St. Jean belonged, occasionally you'd read in the paper about one of the board's directors being accused of hanging out with bookmakers, or the IRS after somebody who fleeced some people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in golf and didn't declare it, that sort
Studs Terkel Well, of course what you've done here is you cover highlife, a certain highlife of Miami, a certain highlife city, too, to some extent. But it's not a question of who killed Harvey St. Jean. That's your story. It's what's surrounded the killing of Harvey St. Jean.
Calvin Trillin That's right, because in a way almost anybody could have killed him. He had defended all sorts of criminals, and I said he was at the point of defending criminals who had nicknames like halfbacks or middleweights. He had wonderful people like the Crying Adjmis, I think their names were, who were accused of defrauding somebody out of a lot of money for, I think it was a nunnery owned by a German named Finklestein or something, wonderful schemes, and he had many ex-wives himself, St. Jean himself, I guess six or seven.
Studs Terkel You know, somewhere, before we--hour's over to read some pieces from the book just the way you write it, to uncover it. So we go back to Tennessee. Cleveland, Tennessee in 1977. We skipped a couple of New England cases. We'll come to New England later. And this is the death of a baby. Melisha Morganna Gibson. A small girl, I should say.
Calvin Trillin This is a little girl, I guess three or four years old, who had been beaten. And was treated, and the doctor who treated her at the hospital was a doctor named Dr. Appling, who was really kind of carrying on a crusade about abused children in this town, Cleveland, Tennessee, which is a town that had some manufacturing. A lot of people had come in from the hills to work there, and very, very respectable town, a Bible town, and totally dry, and also conscious of its reputation, and Dr. Appling would say things like that the people who come in here get frustrated and they turn on their children, and I think although the people in Cleveland obviously wanted to protect children, they really at one point would just wish he'd shut up. He was kind of a busybody in a way to them at least.
Studs Terkel And Appling has to see all these children in the emergency room beat all to hell, and see them back in the emergency room beat all to hell, people seem like "This child here is mine, he's my property. I can maim him, I can kill him. None of your business." And he's, and he's a pain to most of these people, he and a young guy of another agency.
Calvin Trillin Yeah. Particularly because a pain to the local, what amounts to welfare. I mean, the social services group of the county, which was, well, it had the same goals as most of these groups around the country, which is to get families reunited, and it's a complicated business, often as you, as you know, abused children want to go home, and in this case it was turned out not to be safe to send this
Calvin Trillin He really ended up in a way kind of torturing her to death. As you may know, a lot of times children in a family all get along all right with the parents except one, who's perceived as different in some way or is merely the one picked on. And the, there had been a great fear about sending her back, and the foster parents who happened to be really the other side of the coin in Cleveland, Tennessee, the people who had probably--the mother of the foster parents actually knew Wanda's sister or brother, but they seemed almost a different race of people. They were solid churchgoing people in there, I bet their house had been cleaned two or three times a day since it started, and they loved kids, and--
Studs Terkel But Ronnie, see, so the child dies and it's known Ronnie, in a sense, killed her by having her walk back and forth and giving her the sauce to drink and eat and so, the child dies, and so now the town that was sore at Dr. Appling all of a sudden they're righteous, particularly the singer, the country singer Hank Snow, and you gotta read Hank Snow. A word about Hank, we know Hank Snow is a very popular country singer in the community, and perhaps explain the background of that.
Calvin Trillin Well, everybody had started to turn. They fired the welfare worker, although then the welfare workers went on strike saying, I thought rather persuasively, that she had done exactly what she was supposed to do, and what according to her--the policy. Says, "The commissioner announced a moratorium on returning abused children to their families and speculated on the possibility of easing the procedures available for terminating parental rights." And this is the real, the outrage. "Members of a Teamster Local picketed the governor's mansion urging that Ronnie and Wanda Maddux be given the death penalty if found guilty. Hank Snow, the country music singer, wrote the governor, 'I've heard countless people say if these radicals were burned in the electric chair or even lynched in
Calvin Trillin Yes. Ronnie's the radical. "'It would start some of these low-downs to giving some serious thought before committing these gruesome crimes.' There was some talk about sterilization as a way to prevent child abusers from producing more children to abuse. Those in the child protection field who believed that reform should concentrate on prevention of child abuse rather than on punishment of abusers found themselves grateful that the state legislature will not be in session until next spring."
Calvin Trillin Right.
Studs Terkel In the first place, the "mind your own damn business," the parents do own the child. This is the feeling of the community, and that's why Dr. Appling was looked down upon. When this death occurred, the switch onto righteous rage at this delinquent couple.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Calvin Trillin Right.
Calvin Trillin No. I hear about something usually, sometimes from somebody, sometimes the other Tennessee case about the high school girl who came home late and her father started chasing the car, I read about in probably an inch and a half wire service story in a paper, and I just thought, it just raised so many questions in my mind.
Calvin Trillin Yeah, it's interesting and I would wonder, well, how did--why did she do this, why did the father do this? How do they feel about, how do other people feel about it? And it'd interest me even though it isn't the sort of story that would interest, say, a newspaper, because the people in that particular case weren't terribly important, they didn't show any trend of what was happening around the country, it didn't affect a lot of people. But to me, that yeah, that was very interesting.
Studs Terkel We can't leave out New England. You know, after all, we've done the mountain country, we've done the Midwest, Iowa. New England. Manchester, New Hampshire. There's 1978, and there's a macho guy named Hank--
Studs Terkel Piasecny.
Calvin Trillin Yeah.
Calvin Trillin He runs a sporting goods store, he worked his way up from the mills like a lot of people in New Hampshire, in that part of New Hampshire. Manchester was kind of the classic mill town, Amoskeag Mills that were there. And his wife did the same, both--one of them is from a poor Polish family, the other from a poor French-Canadian family, and he became pretty successful in the sporting goods business, knew a lot of politicians, was apparently a great hunter. Man with a wild temper. Very stormy marriage. Couple of kids. The boy left very early, got married at very young, I suspect to get out of the house, and occasionally the police were called to calm down Hank. Eventually they got a divorce, and then the wife came back from a bar one evening with a couple she knew, and a local architect who happened to stop in the bar when he went to park his car. The couple left and the architect was left, and then apparently, the way the police were able to piece it together, Hank Piasecny emerged from the basement and killed both of them, stabbed one of them 13 times I think, and the other one 11, and was sent to the state hospital, and had a daughter who had seemed to be kind of a model student and went to medical school, Susan Piasecny, and then she started having some minor scrapes with pills and shoplifting or some bad checks, that sort of thing, and everybody thought this really had kind of ruined her, too. Eventually Hank got out in just a couple of years to everybody's horror, settled down and then one weekend she called the police and said that she was afraid something might happen to him, because he had been particularly mad at her. And they went and they found Hank with his head blown off from a shotgun and said he finally had had enough remorse and guilt build up that he had shot himself, and his daughter insisted that it was murder, that there was another hole in the body somewhere. Bullet hole. And, of course, she was such a pain in the neck, the police just didn't pay any attention to her, and finally got the body exhumed, and it turned out that there were, there was another hole, and it was murder.
Calvin Trillin I don't know that. Of course, she was in turn sent to the same state hospital, and I talked to the prosecuting attorney who had brought the case, and he said that it had to be, that he hated to ask that sort of, he hated to go along with a "not guilty for reason of insanity" plea, but in fact she had to be insane. She had committed a perfect crime. The man was actually buried, and it wasn't just that one suggestion that did it, she had to hound the police and scream and yell and finally had her brother agree to sign the papers and called up their own doctor.
Studs Terkel Well, toward the end, you know, of course this deals with ambivalence, toward the end this girl, Susan, who killed her father and is caught, trapped because of herself, while both parents are working, about argument starts, she remembers arguments and the violence in the house. "I've talked of all the bad things," she says at the door as the visitor--for the attendant to bring the key because she's now in the booby hatch, "But there was love, too."
Calvin Trillin That's true, and you know, I think she was right. I think there really was love, too, and the, when the son talked about his father coming up and showing his grandchildren how to hunt deer and everything, I bet there were times when that was a lovely man.
Studs Terkel Guns and love and--but also, he was a macho guy and way back in the case of our friends in Iowa, the macho guys, Jim in Central Junction, Jim, Tex, one-armed man, there again the macho feeling.
Studs Terkel And so we come to an athlete, and you read this in New York recently, you and I were together at a reading, it was very moving. In Knoxville, Tennessee in '79, Leo Cooper and his little daughter FaNee.
Calvin Trillin He was a former basketball player, a renowned basketball player in that part of Tennessee, and had become a high school, junior high school principal, married the homecoming queen, lived--had a son and two daughters, and in a way seemed kind of an ideal family. But the, one daughter was just obviously troubled, although very intelligent, and had fallen in with really a bad crowd, what her mother called the Union County crowd, that Union County was the next county to this kind of half-suburban, half-country part of Tennessee just outside of Knoxville.
Calvin Trillin You know, that's absolutely true, that's particularly true in that story, where the suburbs of Knoxville had spilled out over the ridge, as they say in Knoxville, and into these little towns that were right on the edge of kind of an Appalachian area in a way, Union County. And so the school has a kind of a mix of these kids.
Studs Terkel You have a crazy--this is happening, I know, and you're aware of this. Very much so. This is a no man's land, a twilight zone, as Appalachia. There are the Cumberland, there are hills and all this, and there's McDonald's and neon signs and franchises and a Holiday Inn all of a sudden, and this is all, so you can no longer tell.
Calvin Trillin You know, and she's kind of running around with a crowd that they don't approve of. And one night she was at the library, was supposed to have the car home at nine, I think, and she didn't come home. And finally at 11 she came home, it was a week after she'd had some particular problems, and parked the family car at the end of this long driveway they had, and then got into another car and drove off. And Leo Cooper jumped into another family car and chased them. And he chased them down these country roads and there's where he got back into these back roads where he was really, he could have been miles really, hundreds of miles from a place like Knoxville by the time he got back there. Didn't know the roads as well as the young man who was driving, who was driving one of these cars where he could tell where he turned because the muffler was dragging, you'd see the sparks, and thought he lost them and then went up over a hill and he saw the car ahead of him in the air, and it turned over a couple of times and he went and he pulled his daughter's body out of the car. Well, I had read about, oh, probably a two-paragraph story about this, a wire service story, and that's what really--and I thought, you know, what was she doing in there and why was he chasing, and all of these questions in my mind, and that's why I went down there.
Calvin Trillin Well, I guess it did. I mean, somebody there said, "Well, they they brought the boy up on a manslaughter charge and they originally had, the prosecuting attorney wanted to indict Cooper himself for, I think reckless driving, but the judge said something like, you know, "Any daddy worth his salt would've done"--
Calvin Trillin Exactly. And I'm not even sure--they stopped at one point and he says that she had an odd look on her face, and she--and he knew that he had to get her out of the car, and it's hard to say what any father would have done. I mean, it's hard to say, "Well, he made a mistake," or maybe he did and maybe he didn't. It's hard to say what
Calvin Trillin Yeah. I'll--"I think I'm going to die. And I really don't know why. But I look in my eye when I tell you goodbye. I think I'm going to die." Because there really is a question about what she was doing in the car and whether or not she really did tell the fellow "Get going. My father has a gun," which he claimed, and if so, why.
Studs Terkel Here we have--I suppose what you've done to me, what Calvin Trillin does in his reportage, which is also literature, is that you cover the cases barely, that is, barely written, but in the bareness is its eloquence. We get a picture of a country, of a community and of a country, a certain kind of girl living at a certain time, a drug here and there, a righteous father, good-natured guy, an athlete--
Calvin Trillin Right.
Studs Terkel You know, we haven't talked about two more cases, the cover. You've covered a number of them, Calvin Trillin has, in the book "Killings". Iowa again, Fairfield. This is a question of the boat people, or in fact a young [unintelligible] did an opera based on this, you know, of a South Asian family barging into a middle American family, and so in Iowa, this town Fairfield, was taking some of the Laotian people.
Calvin Trillin There was a little town in southeast Iowa, Fairfield, that had four or five refugee families and then another church brought some Hmong tribesmen over who were highland Laos as opposed to the lowland Laos, who were there before. And they, of course, knew no English. And the father spoke some Lao, so that they were able to communicate with these other people, and the Hmong tribesmen had been traditionally kind of discriminated against in Laos, thought of as the rubes and the country folk, and thought of as primitive and crude. And at some point, this family attempted to commit mass suicide. This family of Hmong tribesmen, and the piece really isn't so much about them, but about what happened in the town when this happened, particularly because one story that came out was the possibility the father, who survived this attempt, gave a very disjointed story with 60 reasons of why it happened. None of them very persuasive, and one possibility was that they had been threatened by these other people, these other refugees, which, of course in a way, made perfect sense to the church that was sponsoring them, because why else would people who had been treated so well do this, and made a terrible impression on the people who were sponsoring the other refugees, saying, "Our refugees couldn't do anything like that."
Studs Terkel You know, there are two more, one in Savannah and one in Grundy County, Iowa. We have--Savannah is, it's almost a Tennessee Williams-type story. George Mercer the IV with time on his hands.
Calvin Trillin Time on his hands and one of those young men who you see a lot of now, who maybe even more a few years ago when that story was written, who had done a semester here and a semester there and never quite decided what he was going to do. Came from a well-off family, although a family that had sold their business to a larger corporation and no longer actually ran the business, and again was in kind of an odd crowd, and was kidnapped, and the story is partly about that and partly about the weekly paper that printed the story of the kidnapping against the wishes of the family, and some of the tensions in the way people in that part of Savannah are accustomed to taking care of things, sorting out difficulties.
Studs Terkel Yeah, it's a top family, and the editor of the paper that was almost destroyed by the family, because the paper printed the news. The editor says, "The real improper thing was not that we endangered the boy's life," their son's life, "But that an upstanding powerful rich member of the community asked us to do something and we ignored his request."
Calvin Trillin Right.
Studs Terkel One of the funniest, of course this again is, Bud Trillin covering things. The mother of the boy who died, the other boy accused of the killing was also a member of that circle in a way. I would like to say that George, her son, was not a friend of this man.
Studs Terkel The last thing, and we got to keep that 'cause to me that's right out of Ibsen, and it's Grundy County, and a guy named Lawrence Hartman, a hard-working Lutheran I take it farmer and its rich soil and his wife Esther, who's an old German family, and something happens to him.
Calvin Trillin Yeah. He has, he is known as one of the best farmers in Grundy County, northern Grundy County, and where nearly everybody is a fine farmer. I mean, it's the real heart of family farming in America. Grundy County is said to have the richest soil in Iowa. And these are people who are almost all on the same farm that their ancestors came to in the 19th century from the same part of Germany. Strict hard-working people who don't wash their cars on Sabbath at least near the road where one of their neighbors could see them. And he was a very good farmer. Meanwhile, the land prices were going up in that part of Iowa, because, I think partly, people just suddenly realized this sort of land is limited. There isn't any more of it anywhere, nobody's making any more. God's not going to make another county like this. And he became at least on paper a rare rich man. And then when he was in his early fifties, I suppose, he had two sons who he farmed with, and he seemed to just go off the track. Started hanging around with someone he had met in a bar in Cedar Rapids. And his sons were trying to get him back, and--
Calvin Trillin Brassy kind of type, and nothing at all like the former Esther Meester, who was his wife, who was a very strong member of this family. Still baked pies from scratch and helped keep the books and helped run the farm. And people had all kinds of different theories about what had happened. Some people thought it was cattle-buying. I mean, you don't think of it much if you live in a city, but the difference between buying cattle and running a soybean operation is immense. I mean, a bean farmer or corn farmer is tied to his family. Comes home for lunch every day, or dinner as he would say.
Calvin Trillin That's right. And the sons, of course, had a, were outraged at this, the way their mother was being cheated on. And also even more so in some ways, they were terribly worried about him because he was a good farmer and he was letting down his end. They had, farm families that work together usually have very specific arrangements. In return for providing the feed, you get the labor or
Calvin Trillin Loves her pies, I'm saying, and when everything seems cleared up, not only he calls the ambulance and that something's happened and they go out there and his wife is dead. Bruised and battered, and he said she apparently fell down the stairs. He had come home and found her in the basement. Fallen down the stairs. And the boys of course had to be kept in another room at that point when they went over there, because they, the sheriff was afraid the boys would kill the father. Of course it was, there was a strong family in a lot of ways. It was so strong that the one thing they couldn't understand despite all his behavior, twice in a row he missed Christmas with the family, and that seemed to bother them almost more than
Studs Terkel You know, to me that's the way to end our conversation. Inflation. And suddenly you realize we're talking about a crazy moment. There's always been crazy moments in history of all countries, but in our country you covered the last two decades pretty much of these sudden deaths, these violent sudden deaths, murders, suicides. And then there's a picture, is there not? What do you find out at the very end? You. Bud Trillin come back home. What's your feeling?
Calvin Trillin Well, I think I got the feeling that on the whole, a lot of these people were leading regular lives, and a lot of these people were--nobody in this book, or practically nobody in this book, is what we think of as a criminal or was a criminal before these cases. It isn't a book about some maniac who went out and killed 85 people or anything like that. In a way, I suppose that what impressed me is how ordinary everybody was. How at whatever level of society, whatever background, how they were just leading their regular lives when something suddenly happened, often almost as an afterthought or accidentally. And of course, for me coming in and that gave their lives some sort of shape and gave me some excuse to be there, but one of the things I couldn't get over is that it all seems so accidental. I mean--
Studs Terkel Yeah. And the shade suddenly is drawn up and we see it. And Calvin Trillin is my guest and he's the journalist and the revelator as there used to be in old gospel, Black gospel, John the Revelator. Calvin the Revelator. "Killings" is the book, and Ticknor Fields the publishers and it's quite beautiful. And thank you very much.