Thursday, September 18, 2008

Yikes Ike: A journey to the scene of the crime

I find myself back in my old Southeast Texas home this week, helping friends and strangers return some semblance of normalcy to lives jumbled by Hurricane Ike, the third hurricane to hit here in the past four seasons.

From the joy of my daughter's wedding in Utah last weekend to the devastation of the Gulf Coast ... it feels a little like shipping out to war. I came because ... well, because I couldn't stay at home and just watch.

Last night, I helped unload two Red Cross 18-wheelers full of 12,000 gallons of bottled water. Today, we'll clamber on a few ruined roofs to begin the process of "drying in" -- sealing the holes temporarily against the humid, rainy weather. The air is already starting to stink of rotten food, tossed out of powerless, dank refrigerators and freezers. Reliefs crews are as thick as the mosquitoes. The wreckage is somewhat less than we saw three years ago with Rita, but if a tree sliced through your home -- as it did in the house next door to where I am staying -- then Rita was literally just a breeze compared to Ike.

Most evacuees haven't yet returned to this purgatory. It's not exactly a ghost town, but neither is it a vibrant place. An 8 p.m. curfew is still enforced, although scattered reports of looting are circulating. Maybe true, maybe not. Stores are opening in dribs and drabs, but usually only for a few hours. The days and nights are cool, thank God, making working and sleeping a little easier.

There is a resignation here. To storms. To disappointment. To the Sissyphean tasks of patching up a landscape and lives that will likely be wracked again in a month, a season, a year or a lifetime. The second most common thing you hear here is: "That's what insurance is for."

The first most common is actually a sign of hope: "Is everybody OK at your house?"

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Old Crimes, Long Memories: Bonnie and Clyde are bullet-riddled dust, but they are immortal in our imagination

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, two of the most infamous outlaws of America's Outlaw Age, have been rotting for 74 years in their Texas graves. But still today, you can buy a 1-inch square swatch of Clyde's blood-soaked trousers at one of two roadside museums, just up the lonely backroad from where the star-crossed lovers -- and cold-blooded killers -- were fatally ambushed by lawmen in 1934.

The Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum is one of those places that crime history buffs like me would drive a hundred miles out of the way to see (I did). It's been open less than a year in Gibsland, La., and is run by the son of one of the six cops who gunned down Bonnie and Clyde. It's also in the building that was once Ma Canfield's Cafe, where the lover-killers stopped minutes before the ambush -- their take-out sandwiches were found half-eaten on the dead Bonnie's lap.

The main industry in Gibsland (Pop. 1,091) in Bonnie and Clyde. Boots Hinton's Ambush Museum has artifacts related to the outlaws, including some of the guns seized from the outlaws' well-perforated car, the famed swatches of Clyde's pants, Bonnie's red tam, rare photos and films, even the prop car used in the 1967 film "Bonnie and Clyde" starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. (The real death car and Clyde's bloodstained shirt are displayed at a Nevada casino.) But there's another museum next door with more stuff. And every May, there's a festive re-enactment of Bonnie and Clyde's Shakespearean end.

Apparently nothing else of note has ever happened in Gibsland, which is fortunate for Gibsland. This little burg has capitalized brilliantly on its single grotesque event. History buffs, crime fans, or just tourists with quirky tastes flock here to pay $7 a head for a peek at a bloody page of history.

Just about 8 miles down the road, a cracked, graffiti-ravaged stone monument marks the exact spot where Bonnie and Clyde died in a hail of 130 bullets fired by 6 Texas and Louisiana lawmen who never gave the killers a chance to reach for their weapons. Within minutes, the place was crawling with curious bystanders, who snipped some of Bonnie's hair and pieces of her gory dress, picked up shell casings and broken glass, even tried to cut off Clyde's finger and ear ... all for souvenirs. Like something out of the Old West, photographs were taken of the disfigured corpses, and the town where the couple was embalmed -- not buried -- swelled to five times its normal size with gawkers hoping to catch a glimpse of the dead couple.

But what's the modern fascination with Bonnie and Clyde (or Dillinger, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy or Al Capone)? It's one thing for a true-crime author and history nut to chase ghosts of unrepentant, angry thugs, but ordinary people? It hardly seems to be the opportunity to live a moment of justice, but maybe ... Is it the promise of blood? A chance to rub up against death?

In the case of the former (and to some small degree the latter), author Joseph Geringer, who wrote "Bonnie and Clyde: Romeo and Juliet in a Getaway Car," explained the long-lived legend this way: "Americans thrilled to their 'Robin Hood' adventures. The presence of a female, Bonnie, escalated the sincerity of their intentions to make them something unique and individual -- even at times heroic."

Indeed. A few of the vandals who have defaced the stone marker at the death site pay tribute to Bonnie and Clyde. To be sure, locks of Bonnie's hair or even that half-eaten sandwich might turn up on eBay when you least expect it.