Monday, May 1, 2006

Flashback: To an Adjoining Town to Investigate a Murder Where an Intruder Crashes a Party

[Another chapter for my kids and grandchildren to read some day after I’m long gone].

For the first time in a year and a half I enjoyed life in a small city without worrying that I would get stuck there in-perpetuity. So, lighthearted and free, I drove my 47 Chevrolet, the headlights sagging with fatigue and 100,000 miles, to neighboring Sauk Rapids (population: 250). Object: to get a Pulitzer prize for solving case of a missing bar-made which I assumed to have been murder (absolute fantasy for a 27 year old). Logistics: interview as many people as I could find who were regular patrons of the “V Bar” there, located in a neon-lighted semi-rural slum, a tacky bar that stayed open well after legal closing, patronized by denizens of nearby trailer camps.

Started off with the Benton county sheriff’s office (adjoining county to my own favorite, Stearns): no luck. They were distinctly opposed to any nosy newsmen. They had launched a cursory search but gave up. Reason: owner of the “V Bar” was paying them off to wink at closing law violation. Best lead I had came from talking to her parents. She was in love with the dissolute owner-bartender. He was two-timing her. They had remonstrated with her to leave him but she liked bad boys. One winter night when they had a public row at the bar over his roaming eye, she took off the ring he had bought her, slammed it down on the bar, got in her overcoat and stalked out. He followed her shortly after. He returned in a few hours alone, and ran the bar until closing at about 3 a.m. (two hours later than the legal closing limit). She was never seen again; he never mentioned it. Those who asked where she was were treated with icy disdain.

At noon I treated myself to a hamburger (this, before the era of McDonald’s) at a local greasy spoon. As I sat at the counter browsing through a copy of the Benton County Recorder, there was a deafening crash. All of us in the greasy spoon ran to the window. There was diagonal parking. Someone swung into the diagonal parking lot next to us and didn’t apply the brakes in time, pushing up over the curb, through a plate glass window and crashing into the hardware store adjoining us. We ran through next door, stepped through the chasm created by the crash (the rear end of the car was visible jutting out onto the sidewalk). A Sauk Rapids constable was assisting the driver out of the ruined vehicle. He was obviously drunk; an overweight farmer with a two-day stubble of beard, a jagged line of yellow tobacco juice traced down his double chins; eyes glassy.

A large group had gathered around. Nobody was hurt; attendants with brooms were sweeping away the broken glass and debris. The cop grabbed the driver by the collar, pulling him out of his car and told the group: “This guy did something just like this a month ago, believe it or not!” Everyone grumbled in disdain. The disreputable culprit stood forlorn. The cop said, “What’s your name? “ He asked several times. Then the driver said, “Gasser. James Gasser.” “You’re the guy who did this just a month ago at a Piggly Wiggly store, aren’t you?” The driver looked penitent. The cop said, “We booked you for drunk driving then and suspended your license. What are you driving on now?” The penitent handed over his wallet. No license. “Mr. Gasser,” said the cop, “this time we’re takin’ you in. Our municipal judge will decide but likely you can only get out by paying a $500 bail. Let’s go!” As the ruffian was led away, somebody in the group commented, “His name’s Gasser. Good name for him. He’s gassed to the limit.”

Nothing all that significant. I wandered around getting a few interviews, then headed back to St. Cloud thinking no more of the incident. When I got to the office, I decided to write up the accident for tomorrow’s paper which I did in curt style. But my editor didn’t like the brevity. He called me over. “Myron [our photographer]’s got a picture of the car sticking out of the hardware store. Tomorrow’s going to be slow. Why don’t you re-write this thing and give it more pep! What’s the matter with you? When you came here you were giving all these local stories more flavor! You’re spoiled writing about Hubert Humphrey? Write this one up cute; make a play on his name Gasser, and we’ll put your byline on it. It’s going on the front page.” Front page? A cheesy little car accident where nobody’s killed or hurt? “That’s all we got,” he said. “Anyhow, this guy’s done it before, swung into a diagonal parking lot gassed and plowed right into a grocery store! Repeat offender! See what you can do to juice this one up!”

Yessir. When you’re earning $67.50 a week and your editor wants a story juiced, you obey. So I called the constable in Sauk Rapids, got him to say a lot of entertaining things and wrote it up. When I finished, I thought it was way over the top but I handed it in. “Good,” said the editor.

When the paper came out the next afternoon, the story and photo swept the front page with a headline like: Gassed-Up Car Intrudes on Peace of Sauk Rapids; Driver Gasser was `Glassy-Eyed’ in 2nd Over-the-Curb Store Invasion Says Constable. My byline was used. It struck me that we were exploiting the guy’s name, but it was the second-time and somebody could have been killed. I didn’t think about it again. Anyhow, I had more on my mind than Mr. Gasser. I had joined an organization called Toastmasters, International. It was a once-a-week dinner club which trained shy people how to make speeches. I had always been leery of public speaking when I was in school and decided to kick the fright. They had a free trial period for three weeks and I signed up. Everybody in the club had to stand up and make speeches, mostly short; after which they were criticized by the group. I found it helped me kick the nervousness. It was my night to make a debut with a six-minute speech which I had worked on for several days. So I forgot about Mr. Gasser and headed for Granite Bowl Recreation, a bowling alley with a banquet hall in the back where Toastmasters met.

I had no sooner arrived and treated myself to a Coke (no alcoholic beverages were permitted for main speakers) when a waiter came to me and said I was wanted on the phone. I went to the bar and took the call. It was a woman’s voice. She spoke in a calm voice but it was clear she was holding her emotions in check. “Mr. Roeser, I am Mrs. Gasser. I just want to tell you this entire family is distraught because of your story.” I said: well, I’m sorry, Mrs. Gasser, but I was right nearby when your husband plowed through the hardware store window.” She ignored it and continued: “That you and your paper are ridiculing our name…” I agreed with her that what we did was outrageous but I couldn’t give her any satisfaction. Then she shouted in an hysterical voice: “You ridiculed our name! Our children have suffered today in school! Do you know what you did, Mr. Roeser? You RIDICULED OUR NAME!”

Well, said I, I--. “You have humiliated us! There is no place for us to turn! My husband is outraged!” And she hung up. I went back to my table where the meal had already begun and my fellow members were making small statements while the remainder of the membership was taking notes for positive criticism. I started on my salad when the waiter again came to my table. I had a phone call. I got up and went to the bar. “Mr. Roeser!” she shouted in a voice that rattled the phone wires, “I want to tell you the pain of this thing is unbearable!” I waited for her to quit but it was clear she wasn’t about to. “Just a minute, madam!” I said. “Listen to me! Your husband plowed his car through a store window for the second straight time in a month! If I were you I’d…” but she continued half-sobbing, screaming. I hung up. Now greatly disturbed, I returned to try to grab the remainder of my meal.

I had just tasted the first morsel of my steak when the waiter came to me for the third time. Everybody wondered what was happening. I got up, went to the phone. This time she was calm. “Mr. Roeser, I just want to tell you this. My husband has got a gun and he’s heading over to the Granite City Bowl to kill you!” I was speechless but thought: So this is how it’s going to end for Tommy Roeser! This guy Gasser is going to barge into the restaurant and plug me! Should I get out of here now and leave my steak and forget the speech? Should I tell them I’m under threat of death and forget my speech? If I don’t and am killed, I can imagine what my mother will say. She will say “What? You say my son was shot to death in a bowling alley? Huh? You tell me that my son was trying to make a speech at something called Toastmasters at a place called the Granite Bowl in St. Cloud and an enraged drunk named Gasser who had driven his car through two store windows ran into the hall and shot him seven times? You say this happened in St. Cloud, Minnesota where the last time he was in danger of death his jaws were held shut by a frantic Finlander in Duluth where he was nearly strangled with suds from two dissolved Alka Seltzer tablets for a Knights of Columbus initiation? And now this?”

As I stood listening to her, the president of Toastmasters was at my elbow and said, “You’re on in two minutes!” I said, “Mrs. Gasser, listen to me. I take that threat very seriously. I am going to call the Sheriff of Stearns county who is a personal friend. He is coming to send a deputy here immediately and if there is to be a shoot-out, hear me…”

She tried to interrupt. I said, “No, you’ve been calling me all night! Now I want you to hear me! If there’s going to be an attempt on my life, by God your husband will pay the price—either by being pumped full of lead here or under a death sentence. Now I’m calling the sheriff of Stearns county!”

I was about to hang up and comfort the aghast Toastmaster President when she said, “No, no. Hang on!” A man’s voice came on the wire.

“Roeser, this is Marty Nilan your old Knights of Columbus friend. My daughter, Colleen, really had you going, didn’t she? We read the story in the paper and decided to play this gag. She’s study drama at St. Cloud State Teachers College. She’s terrific, isn’t she?”

Small town practical joke.

I hung up and followed the president back to the gathering which was awaiting my maiden presentation. The group looked at my ghastly white face, settled back and sat through the introduction, convinced that I was the worst victim of stage fright they would ever hear. Instead of making the formal presentation I had prepared for, I told them what happened. The uproarious reception told me that I had passed the first test and was accepted as a fellow Toastmaster.

But all the way home I said over and over, “That damned Marty Nilan!”

The next day at Sauk Rapids my investigation seemed to come to nothing. I was just about to scrub it when I was told the enraged owner of the V Bar, a big political shot in a tiny town, wanted to see me. I was as calm as I could be. Nothing could be as horrific as the series of phone calls from the screaming wife of James Gasser who was on the way to kill me.


Next time: How things turned out with the missing bar-maid.

No comments:

Post a Comment