Anyone who transitions from kidhood to adulthood loses their innocence. For most folks, I suppose it’s a gradual thing. Losing innocence is not the same as becoming a rebellious teenager. Most parents rue the day when their charming child went to bed as a sweetness and light angel and woke up the next morning as a fire breathing, bloodsucking, obnoxious sub-human beast. Losing one’s innocence is different. It is mostly is a private matter. It’s not shared with or noticed by friends, parents, relatives, teachers. No one, really. It doesn’t hit like an onslaught of hormones. It can sneak up like ground fog subtlety muting a child’s Technicolor world. And the fog never ever quite clears completely. Welcome to the grown-up world.
At school, there were gray days ushered in by spirit-dampening bullies. To be sure, there were fights and hurt feelings and trips to the principal’s office that temporarily knocked the hue out of our full-color world. But all of this occurred within out kid-centric crystal bubble. The color always came back. Like all my kid companions I’d had glimpses of the world beyond. Through our protective bubble we could see enticing yellow brick roads that led to Oz and wicked witches, flying monkeys and deceitful people. We knew there were mean people. Tyrants. Murderers. They were in the papers, in schoolbooks and on the news. I’d even been to a funeral. I saw my grandmother laid out, still, white and serene and seen people crying over the finality of it all. I watched as a woman pounded out a mournful Rock of Ages on the pump organ at a white clapboard church in Friend, Nebraska, while people silently wept and dabbed tears from their eyes with white handkerchiefs. Still, it was somehow removed from me. I was a spectator. When the funeral was over, people ate, laughed, smiled and went on with their lives. The color returned as it always had. My grandmother’s funeral was in the summer of 1957. I was nine years old.
By December of that year the first seeds of the end of my innocence were sown. In safe, clean, white-bread Lincoln, Nebraska, a troubled young man and his 14 year-old girlfriend would do some terrible things. Horrible, unthinkable things. Things that took all the color away.
In the early morning hours of December, 1st 1957, unemployed garbageman, Charles “Charlie” Starkweather pulled a cap low on his head, tied a bandana on his face and marched into a gas station with a canvas bag and a 12-gauge shotgun. He ordered the twenty-one year-old station attendant Robert Colvert to open the cash drawer and put the $100 or so into the canvas bag. Starkweather then had Colvert drive him off to a friend’s house. Upon arriving at the house Starkweather killed Colvert with two blasts from the shotgun.
Murder was an uncommon event in Lincoln and the local media treated the robbery-murder as major news. Local authorities thought the crime was probably perpetrated by a transient, which lessened the tension somewhat. Still, people were on edge. A little more cautious than usual. Front doors, screen doors, backdoors and car doors that were never locked clicked closed. By Christmas, things returned to normal. New Years tallied up the usual number of drunk drivers and misdemeanors. The first three weeks of January were uneventful. Christmas break was over and the three Keister boys resumed their classes at Hawthorne Elementary School. All hell would break loose on January 21, 1958.
After the December 1st murder, Charlie Starkweather was feeling flush with the modest proceeds from the robbery. He heightened his relationship with his fourteen year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. He had money, a girl and power over others. But, the money didn’t last long and by mid January he was broke; then his landlady locked him out for not paying the rent. On the afternoon of January 21st, he went over to girlfriend Caril’s house and had an argument with Caril’s mother Velda and Caril’s step-father Marion Bartlett. Charlie knew how to end the argument. He shot and killed Velda then shot Marion and slashed his throat. When Marion and Velda’s two and a half year old daughter Betty Jean wouldn’t stop screaming Starkweather hit her with a rifle butt. She continued screaming, so Starkweather threw a knife at her killing her. Starkweather then stuffed the bodies of Velda and Betty Jean down the outhouse hole and tossed Marion in the chicken coop.
Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate stayed in the house for almost a week while the bodies of Velda, Betty Jean and Marion rotted in the outhouse and chicken coop. Eventually neighbors, family members and Marion Bartlett’s boss became suspicious and Charlie and Caril took off. The decomposing bodies were found a few days later and the news spread like wildfire. On January 27th, Charlie Starkweather struck again, but this time twenty miles out of Lincoln. Their victim was August Meyer, a seventy-two year old family friend. After killing him, they stole his guns and money. Later that day, Charlie killed two teenagers who had offered Charlie and Caril a ride. Their bodies along with August Meyer’s were found on January 28th and immediately connected with the Charlie Starkweather murder spree.
On the afternoon of January 27th Starkweather and Fugate made the bold move of driving back into Lincoln, even driving by Fugate’s home, which was ringed with police cars. The couple then went to a upscale section of Lincoln, parked their car and fell asleep. The next day, January, 28th, the couple killed three more people and stole their car. That house was directly in back of the house owned by friends of my parents. The Starkweather murder spree started becoming personal. Our innocent picket-fence world began to crumble.
By January 29th Lincoln, Nebraska was in lockdown. The governor called in the National Guard; Jeeps with mounted machine guns patrolled the streets and armed parents rushed to schools to drive their children home. I was one of those children. This was long before the days of email, cell phones and texting. Communication was not as swift as it is now. Because of a mix-up in communication and the general chaotic situation, I wound up walking home. Walking home alone.
All these years later, I still remember that walk. I don’t remember being afraid. What I do remember is that something was different. Nebraska in January is akin to the frozen tundra; shades of brown and gray. That was to be expected. What I do remember was the silence. No children were playing; no cars drove on the streets; no dogs barked; no birds chirped. Something was missing. I suppose it was my innocence. Nothing would ever be quite the same again.