Tuesday, March 14, 2006

All Right, Here Goes: The Special Deputy Sheriff Story

When the establishment of Stearns county, Minnesota, the most Germanic county in the U.S, decided to run a German ethnic smart young lawyer against the incumbent, Art McIntee, thought to be an Irish Democrat which he never conceded or denied, the view was that it was the year when the old man goes down. A hulking man, 6 foot one, weighing 250 pounds, with hands the size of Mike Ditka’s with belly protruding over a spectacular silver belt buckle, McIntee was the embodiment of a well-advanced John Wayne in the film Big Jake which I loved and have seen at least five times. McIntee was well over 80, with a huge bulbous nose and rheumy eyes. It was those eyes that gripped you: tiny, elephant’s eyes that had seemingly seen everything, which searched you like all good cops’ do; indeed elephantine was the adjective with facial skin once tanned but now grey like an elephant’s hide. Yet when he walked in a room, he had presence that clung to him when as a young officer in `27 a year before I was born, he had dropped two of Ma Barker’s sons with two shots and went on to be a celebrity in the Police Gazette.

He kept the same gun which he showed to kids and wore it easily, carelessly, in his holster under his coat. Huge, with sloping shoulders, he sported a light tan western-style hat with suit coat and black string tie, giving off the attitude of command from the late 19th century (when he was born). His hair was white and longish, not unlike a southern patriarchal lawmaker. His speech was so inarticulate it made a hit with the farmers in the county, but gradually they were dying out and replaced by youngish types with at least a high school education (McIntee’s was 6th grade tops). Yet McIntee had a solemnity that froze people in their tracks. I always think of him in connection with his tiny eyes encased in whirlpools of wrinkles like the words of Hamlet’s ghost-father: But that I am forbid/ To tell the secrets of my prison-house/ I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/ Would harrow up my soul, freeze thy young blood [Act I, scene 5, lines 13-16]. It is significant that Gene McCarthy, born in Stearns’ town of Watkins, to a German mother and Irish father, entirely conversant with classic philosophy and theology could converse with McIntee in laconic Stearns language, which made McIntee all the more important to me.

Why, we asked him, do you want to run again? “Just once more,” he said. “To round out my pension. Then Pete can have it.” Pete, last name Lahr and properly German, nodded. Very well, then we’ll all have a go at it, me with my newspaper reporting, Lahr with his superb detective work which I attributed to McIntee. All the while me getting my hair cut free by an Indian prisoner, filling up on Mrs.McIntee’s cookies, once in a while taking a senile, tottering ward to a nursing home.

Here I should say that I was not the only one at the newspaper who free-lanced in abject contravention of spotless journalistic ethics. The paper’s sole photographer, Myron Hall, had nine kids, was not paid very much more than I by the venomous business manager Otto Rupp. Whenever Hall covered a car accident he hawked copies of his photographs to personal injury lawyers; whenever he covered somebody 98 or so years old, he’d line up her adult children, grandchildren and great grandchildren in a photo that was littered with tiny heads, selling copies to each relative. The front page makeup editor, Chuck Rathe, would rail at the photographs of hundreds of heads where one would do but recognized that poverty made Myron do it. Indeed, even Francis Rupp, Otto’s son who was our engraver, who was similarly underpaid hustled photo engraving work on the side after hours. But it was the photographer, Myron Hall, who was a genius not just at hustling but his trade. Had he worked for a big city daily he would have been one of the greatest photographers of all time.

Even so, when he wanted to, Hall could get Associated Press awards for his work, as he did one day when we arrived at a house where the occupant, in trying to pick up the morning’s mail from a rural box, was struck by a car, with car and victim careening back to his front porch where his house number sign, dislodged by the force, fell off its perch and on his chest. Without moving his dead cigar from his mouth, Myron took the shot, went back to the paper’s darkroom and produced the print that won him the national AP prize: a picture of a gruesomely dead guy, mouth open, eyes staring sightlessly ahead with the house sign on his chest—which Myron labeled “Change of Address.” The picture haunted readers of The New York Times almost to this day.

One day I was writing at my old Remington manual typewriter in the newsroom, with the gabble of the day bubbling about, when I suddenly became aware that the talking and joshing had ceased. Looking up I saw Otto Rupp, the business manager, reading over my shoulder. Thank God I wasn’t writing about McIntee. “I notice,” said Rupp, “that your candidate in announcing he’s running again has taken on a literary flair.” McIntee always had an interest in language, I said. “Interest in language, my ass! This is just a warning that the minute I catch you embroidering on him it’s over.” Yes sir. “To read your stories he feeds the hungry, clothes the naked. When’s he going to raise the dead? Huh?” He strolled away. Once again I vowed to continue deifying McIntee. And shortly after, in validation of Rupp’s words, McIntee truly did raise the dead.

It happened not long after, that summer of 1954, when I was lounging in the anteroom of the county jail eating cookies that the old man stormed in and told us—Mrs. McIntee and me—that a young woman swimmer had apparently drowned in his Stearns county hometown of Paynesville, population about 250. A trivial event in a big city like Chicago but McIntee wanted to carry Paynesville by a huge margin and that meant he must devote personal attention to it—and not delegate it to his chief deputy. So we roared out there, he driving his police car with the lights blazing and siren going, zipping through the towns. Normally he had a driver but it was personal politicking time so he drove. My job was to cover the story excitingly but how exciting can a story be of a sheriff trying to dredge up a body from the lake. Lake Paynesville was a much bigger lake than I had supposed—extending past the frontage of the town. It was a summer resort.

We arrived dramatically, our car lights easily outshining those of the Paynesville city police. The tearful husband had been taken away. A diver had just appeared in a wet suit but it looked hopeless. We knew where she began swimming but she had intended, foolishly, to swim across Lake Paynesville so she could be down there anyplace. The first thing he did, was raise his arms crucifix-fashion and evoke a hush. When all you could hear were the birds twittering, he said: “I want all boats off the lake—all of `em.” A runner raced to convey the news. “Next I want everybody out of the lake—everybody. That goes for the homes along the shore.” The Paynesville police roared down the street with a loudspeaker: “Everybody out of the lake!” “Now,” said McIntee, “I want the chief of police here to go to a bakery and bring me back a loaf of day-old bread. I want bakery bread, a day old, not cotton bread and not sliced.” He took off. There was a murmur in the crowd. McIntee didn’t respond to it but walked to the pier, standing there looking across the lake in deep thought until the police chief returned with the bread. Pictures were snapping. The crowd murmured, marveling. “I know what he’s gonna do,” said one wiseguy in the crowd but if he heard it, he didn’t indicate. Myron Hall the photographer arrived, took a shot of the sheriff silhouetted against the sun, gazing out calmly at the lake.

The loaf arrived in a white wrapper. He tucked it under his arm.

“Now I want somebody to row me to the center of the lake. And row very, very gently not to stir up the water.” Immediately a boat with rower appeared. With great difficulty, the old man got into the boat, helped by many hands while it seemed to tip precariously. After he sat down with great difficulty, he said: “Now I want the diver.” The slim diver came on. “Now,” he said, “somebody give the diver that buoy from the swimming section with the flag on it.” It was produced. I said, do you want me, too? Stupid question. I was the reason for the exercise.

The tenderfoot Chicagoan I was at 26, I got in the boat with only slightly less difficulty than McIntee. “I want nobody to make a sound,” McIntee told the crowd. They stood silently. Then we rowed, while somebody in the crowd murmured, “God bless you, Arthur.” He put a giant finger to his lips: shhh. Not acknowledging the prayer, he sat staring moodily as the rower pulled the oars. At his admonition we were silent. When we got to the center of the big lake, he beckoned the rower to stop. He unwrapped the bread, sniffed it and delicately placed it in the water. Then we waited, quietly. We stood watching the loaf of bread floating in small circles, then bigger circles. Silence.

“Mark where it goes down,” said the sheriff and we followed the thing in its circles around the lake. Finally, when it got soggy enough it sank. “Mark it with the buoy,” ordered McIntee which the diver did. “Wait.” We did. After an agonizing five minutes, he told the diver, “Now put on your mask and slip over the side. Gentle, now. Gentle.” He did.

We sat silently while he was gone. I pondered the strategy of this. What the bread was for I didn’t understand. It must have been some old country tale. Then the diver came up with nothing.

“Back again,” said the old man. He obeyed. When after two minutes later he came to the surface, he was carrying the body of a very white, dead, beautiful young woman. McIntee stood up, precariously, and took the body from the diver, stretched her out on the boat and applied every style of resuscitation he could devise, mouth-to-mouth and the regular kind. She looked like she was asleep, not agonized but peaceful. But dead.

When we got to the pier, Myron Hall was there for the shot. I knew what was coming next. Many hands steadied the boat. McIntee arose and with a mighty heave, lifted the girl up in his arms like a child, her lifeless head falling on his shoulder. A priest was there to give the last rites conditionally along with the sobbing husband. As many male hands steadied the boat, as we held on to him and his burden, he stepped onto the pier, mighty and aged, his hat on the back of his head. Myron’s shot was a local immortality. My story began “Sheriff Art McIntee couldn’t save the young woman but with an unique strategy passed through many generations of Minnesota pioneers based on where a loaf of bread sinks in a lake, he raised the dead.” The story went out across the state along with his comforting of the sobbing husband. The story’s telling was for Otto Rupp who never troubled me again.

His reelection that fall wasn’t all that difficult.

[I still haven’t got to the special deputy story for which, forgive me. It’ll either be told tomorrow or whenever I get around to it.]

No comments:

Post a Comment