Sometimes the process of writing a book scares up as many questions as it does answers.
Early in my book “Angel in the Upper Peninsula – A Memoir,” I mention that my father, prior to marrying my mother, spent two years in prison for armed robbery.
How I came to know that information, I don’t recall. It was simply something I grew up knowing. It was never openly talked about, like most family “secrets.”
Over the years I have often wondered about the details of his crime, how old he was when it happened, did he act alone?
Since I started writing my book I have grown more curious about some of the mysteries shrouded in my past. Through some of my sleuthing I have discovered that my mother’s boyfriend’s son, Bobby, whom I’d thought of and referred to as my stepbrother during the years he lived with us, passed away many years ago at an early age. I also learned that he had been married and found a social media site where his wife was asking if anyone knew any details of his past. I never contacted her – I doubted that she would want to know the real truth about her deceased husband or what I thought of him. His father, Bob, Sr., also preceded him in death.
My father, too, is now deceased. He died last year at the age of 88.
I hadn’t spoken to my father in decades and I didn’t attend his funeral.
Such is how most relationships have gone in my family. Although there are many great memories with my father as I grew up, and with my three sisters, over the years the loving bonds eventually withered and we all stopped communicating altogether. The causes are many and complicated and confusing and painful and, now, just too big to surmount.
I had actually been researching a murder that happened in Fontana, Wisconsin, back in 1974 when I came across the newspaper article that laid out the details about my father’s arrest back in 1950. I had purchased a subscription to newspapers.com to research the murder, and afterwards, on a whim, typed in my father’s name, and there it was. (Photo below.)
It was almost surreal to see the facts of the long-buried family secret staring me in the face, confirming the basic facts of the incident as I had known them all these years.
But there was also so much in the short article I did not know.
I had known a gun had been used, but I didn’t know that two other young men, Fred Adams and James Kemp, had also been involved in the crime. I also did not know that there was not just one robbery, but four -- a veritable crime spree that no doubt touched many lives in one form or another.
The pieces all fit. It had been my understanding that my father had served two years in prison. The article about his arrest was dated September 1st, 1950, and he and my mother were married on May 23rd, 1953.
Although the article is short, it reveals so much more than what is written. When I read it I can’t help but imagine the sheer terror the many victims felt when faced with a loaded gun, wondering if they would survive to see their families again. I also wonder who was holding the gun, my father? Or did the three robbers take turns? The article doesn’t say.
I think back to the last time I talked to my father. I had turned to him in a desperate time of need, and he mocked me. His cruelty shocked me.
But that was not the only time I remember his uncanny ability to inflict cruelty and seem to enjoy it. As a child I remember his odd, almost pleasurable smile while taking off his belt to whip me, making me think he was just joking, but then finding out moments later with sting of the leather against my skin, he wasn’t.
It was confusing. He was confusing. Most of the time my father was a barrel of laughs, even earning the moniker “Good Time Charlie” among his friends and his drinking buddies at the local tavern.
And so, when he would suddenly turn on me or one of my sisters, it was even more bewildering.
Most of the time when I think of my father, I remember an incessant jester, never missing a chance to make a lame joke. Driving past a Stop Ahead sign, he would invariably point to the sign say, “Stop! A head? I don’t see no head!”
He was goofy, and witty, reciting jokes, and poems, and Swedish nursery rhymes.
But that wasn’t who the men who stared down the barrel of a gun saw back in 1950. They saw the other Charlie, the heartless creature I had seen glimpses of so many times in my life, always when I least expected it.
Some might say he was only 19, he got in with a bad crowd, he didn’t know what he was doing. He paid his debt to society.
That may all be true. But what is also true, I believe, is if you have a conscience that will allow you to hold a loaded gun in someone’s face without compunction, just for money, you have a capacity for callousness that most people don’t have.
The article does more than solidify the facts of a family secret, it puts to rest any notion that my father ever had the character to be an honorable and empathetic man, let alone father, adding more validation to what I’d suspected all along.