I discovered only one suspicious death in Zillah, Indiana, in October 1952, that of Luther Pierce, a twenty-two-year-old veteran of the Korean War and janitor at the elementary school. Joe McCarthy was running for a second term that fall, and newspaper photos showed “I Like Ike” signs hanging from every silo and barn.
According to the Zillah Courier, Luther’s body was found by the high school football coach on the two-lane road in front of the coach’s farm. I never met Luther, but I do remember Coach Whittaker, a big, blond man with a weathered face and narrow eyes. He was revered in Zillah for a certain focused ruthlessness. The year I graduated, he led the football team to a series of lopsided victories: 35 to 3, 42 to 7, and a memorable 51 to 0. Whittaker wasn’t content with a win. He had to grind his opponents into dust.
He was the kind of teacher who smacked a yardstick on your desk if you stared out the window and made kissing noises if you smiled at a boy. He tormented the slow kids and mocked the smart ones. Thirty years later, I can’t think of him without a chill running along my bones.
On the morning of Luther’s death, Whittaker pulled out of his driveway at seven and headed for the high school. Besides being a teacher, Whittaker was a conscientious farmer. I know he would have already milked his small herd of Jersey cows and opened the gate to their pasture. The chickens were fed, the hogs were slopped, and his wife had hung the first load of laundry on the clothesline in the backyard.
Whittaker stopped his pickup next to Luther’s body, which lay in the middle of the road. He climbed out and studied the crumpled form of a young Negro man whose left arm ended in a healed stump above his elbow. Luther’s neck was bent at an awkward angle. The side of his head was crushed. Blood stained his khaki work shirt. Tire tracks crisscrossed his jeans. A deep, black furrow ran from his groin to his thorax and obscured any other wounds.
Whittaker would have stepped back, satisfied. It looked like a clear case of hit and run. He heaved himself into the truck and angled it across the road to shield the body from further damage. Then he walked home to telephone the sheriff.
I imagine a morning sky, clear and shining blue, marred only by wisps of high cirrus clouds, angel wings that signaled a change in the weather. From his driveway, Whittaker could see for miles in every direction, across acres of stubble where corn had been harvested, past barns and orchards and outhouses. A line of willow trees traced the creek that meandered through his fields and flowed past the clock tower of Community Memorial Hospital. The hospital tower, taller than the surrounding church steeples, marked the outskirts of Zillah.
As he ambled to his house, Whittaker may have snagged a Gravenstein from the apple trees that lined his driveway, taken a few bites, and thrown the core into the bushes. He telephoned the sheriff, who in turn called my father, Bennett Kendall, the county coroner. That post, largely ceremonial, paid ninety-eight dollars a month.
By the time my father arrived at the scene, sheriff’s deputies were stationed at each intersection. He parked his car parallel to Whittaker’s pickup, bracketing the crumpled body between the two vehicles.
Already the temperature was climbing. It was going to be one of those Indian summer days when the sun softened the asphalt underfoot and mirages shimmered above the road.
I can picture my father squatting next to Luther’s body and examining it from all angles. He would have probed the gash and sniffed for alcohol before talking to the sheriff. He may have said the wound was consistent with the victim being struck by a flatbed truck. He may have commented on the surprising lack of blood. I don’t know. It’s not in the official report.
My father did pronounce Luther dead. He confirmed his identity—Luther Pierce was the only one-armed black man in the county after all—and supervised transferring the remains to the hospital morgue.
According to the sheriff’s notes, Luther’s body was moved less than thirty minutes after Whittaker found it. The coach missed breakfast with the football booster club, but he was sitting at his desk in the biology lab before the start of second period.
Years later, I found the newspaper account of Luther’s death hidden in my father’s attic. Someone—my father?—had crossed out the words “struck and killed by a vehicle.” But my father never openly disputed the official story of Luther’s death.
A silent, self-contained man, my father spent long hours alone, locked in his study. I grew up thinking he hated me, hated his wife, hated living in Zillah. Following his death, I understood my father’s ruling passion for what it was—a deep, bone-wrenching grief—but by then it was too late to love him.
I don’t know if my father stayed at the scene of Luther’s death after the sheriff left. He may have followed the trail of dried blood to the field where the cows grazed, or he may have rubbed out the footprints in the dirt lane between the pasture and the road.
I don’t know if he found the bullet lodged in Luther’s heart either, but I suspect he did. For all his faults, my father was a competent physician. But not as good as my mother.