On the fortieth anniversary, redux.
You’ve heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Mighty Fitz was a Great Lakes ore boat and, at more than 700 feet, among the largest of her kind. Thirty-five years ago, in a raging late-autumn storm, she broke in two and found the bottom of Lake Superior , taking 29 men with her. You’ve heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald because Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about her. But you’ve never heard of my Uncle Bill, because no one ever wrote a song about him.*
Bill was a cop’s cop and a detective sergeant in the Cleveland suburb of Bedford Heights. That Monday he and his partner, James Toth, visited Blonder’s Paint Store with books of mug shots. The store had been robbed five weeks before, and there still was no arrest. Bill was a sweet man, but that kind of thing pissed him off, so he was going to work the case until something broke.
Nobody was in the front of the store, so Bill walked through to the back. Michael Manns was waiting for him, hiding behind a bathroom door, because he was robbing Blonder’s Paint Store again. Manns and his crew had the employees held hostage in the back room. The moment Bill came through the door, Manns put a pistol to Bill’s neck and pulled the trigger, blowing out Bill’s spine and carotid artery. Bill fell flat to the floor, shattering the big glasses he always wore -- except his official photo.
Manns knew exactly whom he was killing when he murdered my uncle. Bill hadn’t wanted to startle store employees fresh from the prior robbery, who might be jumpy at someone coming through the door unannounced. So he’d called out “Sgt. Prochazka, police department!” as he walked through.
After firing the shot, Manns fled with his accomplices, George Clayton, Dwain Farrow and Duran Harris. Store employees, now having seen the robbers twice, were able to identify them and Clayton, Farrow and Harris were arrested within a day or so by Cleveland police. Manns was on the run for several weeks, until police caught up with him in Detroit.
The funeral procession drew police cars from 49 states, every province of Canada and most of Northern Mexico. Bedford Heights was a small department, but despite all the other lawmen there, the BHPD wouldn’t let anyone else stand honor guard over the coffin, day and night, until they put it in the ground.
Bill, with his twin brother Bob – also a cop – was the youngest of ten brothers and sisters. He left my Aunt Loretta, a daughter and three sons. Over the days of viewing, I saw the strongest people I knew – the strongest people I thought there could be – reduced to mewling, groveling beasts by their grief. During the service, someone played “Amazing Grace” on the piano. Bill’s youngest boy stood before the coffin and saluted, exactly like John John in Stan Stearns’ iconic photo.
All four men were convicted of aggravated robbery and murder. Our family had people at every day of trial. On the day each man was sentenced to death, all eight of Bill’s surviving siblings, and dozens of cousins, nephews, and nieces stood witness. Not long after that, all of the death sentences were commuted to life in prison when a court ruling banned Ohio’s death penalty. Harris was granted parole and freed in 2003. Corrections officials had failed to inform the family of the parole hearing, so no one was there to oppose his release. Now, as the other men’s hearings periodically arise, someone is always there – led by Bill’s son Robert, a cop in Willowick, Ohio.
However much we love or are loved, however deep our connections to our wives and husbands and children and friends, there is a sense in which we each travel through life aboard a ship with a single passenger. Even shared experiences are felt uniquely, individually. Standing in the same storm, each of us hears the thunder at a slightly different moment, feels the wind from a certain, personal angle. So it was that, drenched in sadness that entire miserable, sleet-soaked funeral week – and although I loved him so much – I did not cry for Bill.
I was too busy making an acquaintance of hate, whom I hadn’t occasion to meet before then.
Twenty-nine sailors, a good cop and a teen boy’s faith all died that day thirty-five years ago, to be buried under steel gray waves, or brown earth or black despair. I said I was through with God that day, and for twenty years I made good on that vow, except to make war on Him from time to time. But He wasn’t done with me. So today I can pray for Bill, and for his family – and even for Manns, Clayton, Farrow and Harris.
But that’s another story.
*Actually, as it happens, I wrote a song about him -- which amounts to the same thing.