When Machine Gun Kelly rolled into Oklahoma
my dad was a farm boy in Okeene. His world
was a simple venue of unlocked doors,
Wednesday evening prayer meetings, drugstore
soda fountains, and Co-op elevators.
Happiness was measured in bushels,
then meted out on high school scoreboards.
Even tonsillectomies happened on the kitchen table.
My mother, on the other hand, was from Tulsa,
a town with decidedly rougher edges.
Her father, a former law man, killed crows
with dynamite, one stick in a 55-gallon drum
packed with gravel and hung from tree roosts.
Grandpa charged 2 cents a head (when he could
find them) and traveled from farm to farm.
You could follow the trail of splintered
trees from Oklahoma to Missouri.
He enjoyed his work—especially the occasional turn
with a farmer’s daughter whom he’d sport with
in the back seat of his Model T, right next to his box
of Atlas blasting caps. My grandmother and my mother
were casualties of his dynamiting career, my mother
being conceived somewhere along the back roads
of northwest Missouri after an explosion
in the rear end of his Ford.
But I digress.
It would not be easy imagining all
these lives intersecting, all these accidents
of history fleshed out then blown to bits
like crows–leaving only random pieces
to be counted like beads on an abacus.
But time gets marked different ways:
the meeting of my father and mother
at an Oklahoma State Kappa Sig mixer in 1941,
my birth ten years later, and the death of
George Francis Barnes Jr, aka “Machine
Gun Kelly” in 1954.
And then there was 1930, the year Barnes
and his wife purchased a Thompson
submachine gun at the same Missouri
hardware store from which my dynamiting grandpa
bought his blasting caps and explosives.
“I was there when they walked in.” Grandpa told me once,
“They were polite. That’s about all I remember—
except that she was a real looker. Later I saw
the wanted poster and realized who they were.
Next time I was in Joplin I bought me a Thompson too…
just in case I ran into them again. There was a big reward.”
In 1961, when I was ten, I wrote J. Edgar Hoover
asking for his autograph (I collected autographs)
and he sent me a machine signed letter with the
admonition to always obey my parents.
For the record, I never did.
Still, J. Edgar did have an eye
for handsome hoodlums, because along with
the “autograph”, he enclosed two 30’s era wanted posters,
one of Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and the other of
George “Machine Gun Kelly” Barnes.
Grandpa never did collect his reward,
and when he died I searched everywhere
for his Thompson, but it, like so many other things
in his life, had vanished. However, not long after
I read an interview with Machine Gun Kelly’s
old cellmate at Alcatraz–then a tour guide
with the Park Service. He said Barnes
was so mild-mannered and unassuming they called him
“Pop-Gun Kelly”. But he snored so loudly, they’d have to
slap his face to rouse him. And when Kelly woke
startled from sleep, disoriented and groggy,
his cellmate reported he said the same thing.
Always the same thing.
“Where am I?”
And then rolled over and went back to sleep.