Monday, October 25, 2010

An Old Story, An Old Wound

In 1971, Atlanta was still very much a small town. The interstate highways were not completed, so a trip from Atlanta to Marietta took an hour or more. (It still does, but for different reasons.) I remember one leg of this journey required crossing a one-lane bridge. That's one lane total as in "You go, then I go".

My grandfather lived in Marietta. He and my grandmother had divorced years earlier (an unusuality in the 1970's South) and we grandchildren trekked up to see him a couple of times a year. His was not an active presence in my life. He was distant, both physically and in my knowledge of him. But we lived with his shadow every day. Me with the idea of him built only from observations through small-child eyes; his children with the heavier memory of what might have been. He was short, trim, and drank Coca-Cola like a fiend. He was smart and well-read. From what they tell me of him, I would have liked him. I loved my grandmother with all my heart and I think I would have loved him, too.

This is how I envision what happened.

One morning in May of 1971, two men (I imagine) sat outside his house in Marietta and waited for him to come out for the drive to work. When he did, they got out of their car and walked toward him with guns. I believe he did not recognize them. They said nothing. They simply shot him dead and left his body there in the driveway for others to find. I imagine him being shot in the front, for some reason, as if it would have been ignoble to flee. He lived on a large piece of land, so neighbors probably did not hear the shots.

The gunmen then walk into the house to find his wife. She, presumably, had heard the shots. Perhaps she even saw it happen from the kitchen window. She tries to flee, running to the back of the house, locking doors behind her. It does no good. The gunmen find her and, without saying a word, shoot her dead, too.

The gunmen then leave. They take nothing, even though my grandfather has hundreds of dollars (a much larger sum back then) in his wallet and there are valuable things in the house.

I was six years old and just finishing first grade. I remember someone came to get me out of school and tell me what happened, but I don't remember who it was. I was not allowed to attend the funeral because of the press. Back in 1971, the murder of two prominent Marietta citizens was considered a huge story. I suppose it would be even today. But it was a big deal nearly 40 years ago. So the press and the questions were considered too much for the sensitivities of a six-year-old boy.

And, with that, my grandfather was gone. True, I had not had the opportunity to get to know him well, so I felt the loss then less keenly than I might have. It's really only now, that I look back on the person I might have been had he been around, that I feel sad. And I wonder why. What was the motive for his murder? That's the thing I'd really like to know. I don't care so much who did it. I care about why.

Why do I dredge this up now? Well, because of NPR, of course.

I was driving home last week, listening to our local NPR station. It's pledge week and they were mentioning a radio program they'd done which won a Peabody Award. It was produced in 1978 and was entitled "The Eyewitness Who Wasn't". It covers the trial and subsequent exoneration of the Marietta Seven -- the people accused of the murders of my grandfather and his wife.

My curiosity has been aroused. I had no idea this program existed, but now I must hear it. I wasn't actively seeking information on this murder, but I would like to understand it better. So I'm looking for a copy of the radio program. It was so long ago that I'm worried about finding one. Our local NPR station does not have one -- being public funded, archive storage and space is a luxury they can't affort. So, I'm contacitng the Peabody folks to see if maybe they have a copy.

As they say on the radio, stay tuned.

And if you listen to NPR and haven't yet donated, please do so.

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