June 15, 2015
OUR LOVE AFFAIR WITH DESPERADOES
MONTPELIER – As I write this, on a Monday afternoon, two escaped Clinton Prison inmates are still at large, and the assorted constabulary are still searching for them everywhere they can. Thankfully, the national media have begun to lay off the hourly updates of “breaking news, which has thus far consisted of the same details repeated ad nauseam, but adding a day every 24 hours to the length of the search. CNN, the champion of channels that flog a story to death, are no doubt scanning the ether frantically for news of a plane crash or a ferry capsize. I almost hope they find one; the confusion of the young anchorpeople – the escapees are sometimes “suspects” and at others “desperate killers” – is getting pretty old. Suspected of what? We know what they did, and by now, pretty much how they got out of the escape-proof concrete fortress, poking a sharp stick into the eyes and egos of law enforcement and prison authorities.
The officers warning television viewers that the two escapees are desperate and dangerous men have largely faded from the frequent news conference updates, replaced by local Adirondack folks who opine that “they might be almost anywhere by now – even in Oregon or Canada or overseas or even in Vermont.” People with whom I’ve raised the subject of their probable capture appear less interested in that than how they’ve managed to elude it so far; how they’re getting around while leaving almost no traces, obtaining food or money without raising suspicions, and where they might be headed (someplace else, everyone hopes). The men seem to be attaining the legendary status of Robin Hood, Pretty Boy Floyd, Butch Cassidy, or Billy the Kid. It’s also possible that the viewing public, desensitized by the customary hyperbole of television broadcasters, commentators, and weathermen, are taking the case far less seriously than perhaps they ought to be.
Fugitives and desperadoes are nothing new to the North Country. It’s big, fairly sparsely populated, and thickly wooded. The bad news for a fugitive with an automobile is that there are also few roads for his pursuers to cover; but if he’s on foot, physically fit, and comfortable in the woods, he can go on for quite a while, nicking food and clothing from unattended camps.
The paucity of roads was a problem for the Prohibition Era desperadoes crossing the Canadian border with loads of booze for the thirsty thousands a few dozen miles south. Speed thus became a factor in the practice of their trade. Souped-up Cadillacs and Packards that could go like hell with a heavy load were the preferred rides. About sixty years ago, in a bar in Keene Valley, New York, I sang a song called “Bert LaFountain’s Packard,” about a famous runner of rum. An old-timer asked if I’d like to meet Bert, who was alive and running an illegal bar in his house in Saranac Lake. I got to meet him, briefly by kerosene lamplight, and left after a couple of minutes.
That was two years after I had a personal experience with the manhunt for the AWOL Air Force major and burglar, James Call, who in August of 1954 had shot his way out of an Adirondack summer camp where four Lake Placid police had cornered him. During his escape into the woods he’d shot three of the officers, one of them mortally.
The North Country went nuts. There were cops everywhere, and vigilantes with deer rifles combing the woods, which was made more difficult than usual by millions of dead trees downed by the Big Blow of 1950. When I drove through Speculator one day, far from Lake Placid, the curb was lined with kids armed with BB guns and broomstick rifles. The fugitive was rumored to have a mustache, so artists’ depictions showed him that way. I had a bit of a mustache myself.
The search continued all through the winter and following summer. Call was supposed to be holed up in a hovel somewhere in the woods – as indeed he was for a while – and many young fellows still hoped to locate and capture “the phantom killer of the North Woods.” It was more than a year after Call’s escape that I was hiking with a pretty good-sized pack down Feldspar Brook, west of Mount Marcy, and headed for Adirondak Loj, about five miles away, when a kid about my age sprang out of the bushes, pointed the muzzle of a .22 at my chest, and shouted, “Drop the pack!” It did no good to tell him I was carrying it out to the Loj; he’d have nothing but the pack on the ground and my hands away from my sides. Thus packless, irritated, frightened, and inconvenienced, I was frog-marched with occasional prods five miles to my original destination.
Homer Beede, the caretaker and an old friend, popped out of the lodge as we approached, raised his eyebrows in surprise, and hollered, “You got him! Good work!”
He kept that up for a few minutes, while I silently vowed revenge, then finally disabused my excited captor of his illusion. Next came the matter of my pack, five miles away in late afternoon. I wanted it delivered to me before dawn the next day. I swapped my flashlight and some extra batteries for the collateral of the kid’s rifle, and urged him on his way.
They never did get Major Call in the Adirondacks, just as they may not get the current killers on the loose somewhere near or far. He was picked up for pawning a stolen watch in Reno, Nevada, some time later, and had in his pocket a dog-eared copy of a wanted poster with his supposed likeness. He got twenty years to life in – you guessed it: Clinton Prison (and later Attica) – served a plea-bargain 13 years and died in 1974 in an automobile accident.
I have a feeling there’s worse than that in store for the current escapees. They may somehow be shot. And like many others in the “target area,” I’m not sure how I feel about that.