|Across the Fence: As good as his word|
|October 27, 2011 M. Timothy Nolting|
I met Clarence back in 1969 when I went to work for an internationally known engineering firm in Kansas City, Missouri. Clarence was the manager of Shipping and Receiving and was my boss. My prestigious position was that of ‘Mail Boy’. Yes, in 1969 there were job titles such as ‘Mail Boy’. I actually enjoyed that job and immersed myself in its simplicity as it distracted me from the bitterness of the bank’s foreclosure on our northeastern Kansas farm.
Clarence was a crusty old codger and I often wonder how he managed to land such a position with his crude and crass demeanor. He sat casually behind his desk all day long, every day, telling stories and jokes as he filled his ashtray with chain-smoked butts of Marlboro cigarettes and drank countless cups of bitter, black coffee.
Clarence loved telling stories, and his stories were filled with exciting events and interesting tidbits of history about the big city. Clarence said that he was a retired FBI agent who had been a new, young agent in Kansas City during the era of prohibition, bootleggers, bank robbers and gangsters. Clarence had tangled with the likes of Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and other notorious gangsters of the Midwest.
I was reminded of Clarence last week when I read an historical piece about Charles Arthur ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd. Floyd was run down, shot and killed by FBI agents as he hid behind a corncrib on a farm in Ohio on October 22nd 1934. It was, supposedly, Pretty Boy Floyd who masterminded the attempted rescue of fellow gangster, Frank Nash, from FBI custody. This failed attempt to free Nash resulted in the deaths of two FBI agents, a Kansas City police officer and the accidental killing of Frank Nash himself. The shoot-out occurred at the Kansas City Union Station and is now known as the Union Station Massacre.
It was Clarence who told me about the shoot-out. We had gone out of the office to pick up a new company vehicle that I was to drive back to the office. We had left around lunchtime, so we stopped for a sandwich and then headed downtown to the dealership. When we passed Union Station, Clarence drove around the block and parked nearby, then told me to come along, he wanted to show me something.
Once inside the old station I was astounded by the huge expanse of marble walls, towering pillars and ornate architecture. What a grand and beautiful building it was and still is. As we walked through the main corridor, Clarence began telling me the story of Pretty Boy Floyd and his gang’s attempt to free Nash.
“Nash and two FBI agents came down that corridor, from the train platform over there,” Clarence began as he pointed beyond the arched doorway.
“The rest of us were scattered around here to keep a lookout for anything funny and the Kansas City policemen came from over there to meet up with the agents. Pretty Boy and his gang came busting in through those doors over there, Tommy guns a-blazing. Everybody opened fire and bullets were flying everywhere. You wouldn’t believe the noise in here with all those gunshots. The two FBI agents who were escorting Nash were killed before they could get off a shot, having Nash cuffed between them. They killed Nash too. The Kansas City boys were also shot. One was killed but I think the other was just wounded. Pretty Boy and his boys got away clean.”
“Wow!” I whispered as I shook my head in amazement and a bit of awe. “Where were you during all of this?”
“See that corner over there,” Clarence said as he pointed to a marble walled corner of the main lobby. “There was a big oak bench over there against the wall and I was under it.”
We both laughed and I didn’t even consider that Clarence might have been a coward; I just figured he was smart enough to make himself as difficult a target as possible.
Clarence had many stories of his days with the FBI. Lots of them had a humorous twist but most involved serious threats and dangerous situations. It’s not too hard to imagine the violence of those times. I wouldn’t say that I considered him a hero but I admired him for the things he had done and often thought that he must have missed the old days as he sat and reminisced.
Clarence’s health failed him and he quickly succumbed to cancer. Those of us who worked with him went to the funeral and I was surprised at the small number of people who attended. There was myself and two other guys from the mailroom, Clarence’s boss, his wife, daughter and son-in-law. Where were all of his FBI friends? What about the old comrades from the KC Police Department? I thought it sad that no one remembered.
I have told his story a hundred times, embellished it with suspense and dramatics but never strayed from the basic facts as they were told to me by Clarence. Perhaps I will tell it again but it will have a different ending. This past week, for the first time ever, I looked up the historical record of that incident at the Kansas City Union Station. Some of the story, as told to me by Clarence, is accurate – though most of it is not. The shoot-out occurred outside the entrance of Union Station, not inside. The names of all officers involved and their actions during the shoot-out are very detailed and part of the historical record. Clarence’s name is not among those listed.
My disappointment is indescribable and I wish I could understand why Clarence thought he had to make up this story and present it to me as truth. Was I too naïve to see that he might have been pulling my leg? I accepted the story as truth. Was his life so empty that he had to make up events to fill it? Or was he nothing more than an extravagant liar?
I have grown up with the notion that a man is only as good as his word. When his word becomes undependable or proves to be false, so does the man. The road to regain integrity can be a long one. And now I’m left to wonder, who was the person I knew as Clarence?
Tim Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist, freelance writer, cowboy poet and entertainer. To contact Tim, email: firstname.lastname@example.org