The Beginning (Not Really)
Dec. 23, 2014. Mark Ylen is driving. It’s my day off. A newspaper day off, which means I work six hours instead of nine. The valley’s emerged from relentless days of rain; I’m worried we won’t make it. The roads will be closed. We won’t get pictures. Mark is unflappable. He asks for my map. I hand him the printout, and he regards it like a passing thought. “Oh,” he says, tossing it aside. “I know where we’re going.”
He grills me to pass the time. Asks about Sheriff Kendall and the Reverend Roy Healy. Asks what really happened, why I thought Dave West did it. I tell him I have my doubts about the official story. Its sources would have been more sympathetic to West, and some of it didn’t make sense, but I’ll never know for certain. There’s an overall element of truth, I think, spiced with well-meaning dramatic embellishment. What West did was awful, yet I couldn’t dismiss him as evil. There’s no clear-cut villainy, and to paint him as such would be dishonest. We’re talking about a 69-year-old man in 1922, who likely remembered a wilder America, when towns were more mud-tromped villages than well-mannered cities and a fella had less government snooping around his business.
Albany vanishes, flattens into patches framed by hills. I think back to a conversation I’d had a year earlier with Allen Parker. What used to be Dave West’s land has been in his family for more than 70 years. His father acquired it from West’s grandson, George Washington Pierce, in the late 1930s, when the old West place, long abandoned, was kneeling toward the grave. Parker lives with his wife in Visalia, California, but he comes back. “The character of the country has changed in my lifetime,” he told me. “In one span we counted nine places where there used to be farms. Now it’s just great big fields.” I’d spot an occasional tree as it zipped past the window, rooted alone, sheltering nothing.
We turn left onto Plainview Drive and into Plainview, proper. The town hasn’t officially existed since 1906, when its post office shuttered and mail was redirected to Shedd, but its sense of community remains. Residents still call it Plainview, although with its glorious buttes and lush green palate — striking vistas in the spring and summer — the name always felt misleading.
It’s almost 11:30 a.m., the time we’d arranged to visit the former West property. We’ve been on the road maybe 20 minutes. But me, I’ve been on this road more than half my life.
The Beginning (Really)
Some of you may remember when J.C. Penney moved from its downtown base to Heritage Mall in the late 1980s. Around that period — early ’89, say — the old building became home to an antique shop, and sometime that spring, I went inside with money to burn. I was 16 years old.
I’ve always liked “old” things, but was never interested in kitsch or garments or baubles, but in letters, documents, scrapbooks, journals — the personal, sentimental ephemera no one surrenders until they’re gone. On that first trip, jackpot: three Albany High School yearbooks from the early 1920s, likely acquired from an estate (morbid in retrospect, yeah).
As a junior aficionado of the Algonquin Round Table, I found that era fascinating, and became obsessed with the idea of setting a short story in Albany that danced in time, stealing liberally from the plots of “Peggy Sue Got Married” and W.P. Kinsella’s “The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.” Except in my version, the old Albany High School downtown served as the agent that would connect my characters to their distant past.
The first half was a piece of cake: Five men in their mid-80s attend an informal class reunion at their old high school. One reveals that in structures of such vintage, magic and memory take over after everyone leaves — a combination so overwhelming it can actually manipulate time. So they return that evening and gather in the gymnasium, where within minutes they’re swept back to 1921.
And that’s as far as I got, ’cause I was swept back, too. I immersed myself in that year. How would these characters have spoken as young men? How would they have dressed? Where would they have gone to blow off steam? What music would have thrilled them? I tackled that last question by buying every Dixieland/ragtime compilation I could find and renting period-appropriate copies of “The Ziegfeld Follies” from the library. What I discovered was a surprising affinity for sloppy, slurpy, sleazy jazz — have you ever heard “Over in the Gloryland” as whiz-bang cathouse frisson? Parsed the ribald lyrics to Eddie Cantor’s “You’d Be Surprised”? Hot stuff.
For the rest I needed professionals: the surviving members of Albany High School’s Class of 1921. Poring through the phonebook, I found six still living and living in Linn County. Being a naïve and precocious youth, I wrote down a few questions, activated a microcassette recorder and, without a second thought, cold-called each of them, assuming they’d be delighted to talk to me.
Surprisingly, they were. Our conversations typically began with sideswipe confusion, followed by skepticism then acceptance when they realized my curiosity was genuine. Each settled naturally into stories of scampish youth. Why, if you wanted to go out on a date, you asked the girl’s father, by God, and had her home by 11, so neck while the necking was good. Of course there was no liquor, but, yeah, there was liquor. “After school we’d wander over to the field at Central and watch the afternoon football game,” one alumnus waxed and when I, an ’80s kid spoiled by bright Friday nights, asked, incredulously, “Who plays football in the afternoon?” he chuckled, “No stadium lights, young man.” The same chap then recited, from memory, chunks of dialogue from the senior class play, “The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary,” and Albany High’s fight song, ending with a pithy “Rah, rah, rah.”
To get a feel for the characters I’d created, I’d drag my subjects through the class list. What was Edward Sox like? Clyde Archibald seems fun. Minerva Braden sure was cute. They were very forthcoming until I got to one name:
“It says here,” I’d say, “that his class nickname was ‘sheriff.’ That’s an odd moniker. Why’d they call him that? Was he, like, a goody-two-shoes?”
“Oh, no,” one woman responded. “Clark was lovely. But if we called him ‘sheriff,’ it’s because his daddy was the sheriff. Oh! What happened to that poor man.”
“Who? What — ”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said curtly. “It’s too sad.”
Well, now I had to know.
The following weekend I went to the library and yanked spool after spool of the old Albany Democrat on microfilm. I cautiously rolled through 1921 without incident and wondered if I’d be stuck at this duty for months, examining every single page to the tiniest, most insignificant item.
I needn’t have worried. What happened to the sheriff was so tragic, so horrific, so monstrous, that I found the story within the next half-hour. In fact, it was impossible to miss. Issues flew past in blinding blocks of blots, but the second edition of the Albany Democrat’s Wednesday, June 21, 1922, leapt from the pack, an extraordinarily bold design, with a headline at a size reserved for war:
SHERIFF AND MINISTER DIE.
There you have it.
I filled most of a notebook with the basic story and decided to pump an actual cop for additional information: in this case, my great-uncle Lowell, then an Albany police officer. “Hmmm,” he mused. “I’ve heard of it, but I can’t tell you much more than what you’ve told me. Maybe you could write about it for school.”
Great idea. And I knew just where to start.
Remember when I said there were six surviving members of Albany High’s Class of 1921?
Guess who numbered among them.
It took weeks to summon the nerve to call. This was a larger proposition than prodding a man’s brain for trivia; I was going to ask him about a specific and substantially traumatic experience. How would I broach the subject, even preface such a thing? “Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m a junior at West Albany High School with some potentially insensitive questions about your father”? I’d dial most of his number, then hesitate on the final digit and hang up. “Tomorrow,” I’d promise, “tomorrow.”
One tomorrow I was home alone. For whatever reason, I decided wuss time was over. Plunged ahead, hit every button, listened to the tumblers as they fell into place. Gave myself a three-ring cushion. One ring. Good. Two rings. Great. Th —
A woman. This was unexpected. The pleasant voice of a younger woman. Had I dialed the wrong number?
“Uh, hello,” I said. “Can I speak to Clark Kendall, please?”
There was a slight pause, then these exact words:
“I’m sorry, but he’s no longer in any condition to speak on the telephone.”
Less than a month later, Clark Kendall was gone.
I missed him.
I miss him still.
The Years Get Longer (Shorter)
I never forgot Clark. I never forgot the incident. It was always my intention to write about it someday. I did pitch it once, for a Democrat-Herald Focus edition in the mid-1990s, but for whatever reason, it was assigned to someone else. I was mad about that for a long, long time. Selfishly, I felt it was my story to tell. After all, I hadn’t gone looking for it. It found me. But the truth is I wasn’t ready.
Life intervened, as it often does. I moved a few times, changed careers, changed them back. But Sheriff C.M. Kendall, the Reverend Roy Healy and Dave West were never far from my thoughts, like they were patiently waiting. Then, in 2012, as I neared my 40th birthday, I resolved rather spontaneously that the time had come, and it was going to be a book.
The circumstances were perfect. Not only was I older, more patient, more sensitive and experienced, but technology had advanced to accommodate my needs. Records and references were easier to find. And what wasn’t in a database was just as accessible through tenacity. I became a fixture at the Albany Regional Museum, the Albany Public Library and the Linn County Courthouse, devouring ledgers, phone books, wills, land deeds, court cases, property maps and homeowner and census records. I badgered the state for various reports. I read all the accounts of the Plainview incident I could find — not just in the local press, but in wire dispatches from all over the country.
Research was fun, but lonely. The problem with a story like this is its lack of living eyewitnesses. Even the youngest players — Argyol DeAtley, Eleanor Healy — had passed on after long, fulfilling lives. Anyone with even the faintest memory of the event would have been children when it happened and near, or beyond, their 100th birthdays. Yet the project desperately needed other voices. If I was going to write this story, turn it into a book, I needed to involve the three families.
So I did.
It wasn’t easy, but I found them. I came across one in an Internet genealogy forum, another through exploratory emails to possible acquaintances. The other — turns out we had mutual friends. They all agreed to participate, for which I’m forever grateful. Carla Healy was the first, and she seemed amused when we met at the museum in Sweet Home and I blurted, “It’s so nice to finally speak to a PERSON.” “I don’t know how much I can tell you,” she warned, but then proceeded to be invaluable, with in-depth family histories, photographs and newspaper clippings regarding the Reverend Healy.
Terry and Judy Broughton, who oversee the Kendall family’s estate, were next, and they were not only giving of their time and home, but they gave me access to the impressive archives. The Kendalls kept everything; I’m typing this next to a box of letters, photo albums, poems and journals.
I was worried that West’s descendants wouldn’t be receptive, but Gary and Ingrid Margason proved lovely and encouraging, even providing me with the only known photograph of Dave West, taken many years before the tragedy. I can only hope they were pleased with the outcome. I tried to be fair to everyone with the information I had at hand.
Even as I drafted the book, I thought “Ghosts of Plainview” (original title: “In Plainview”) would work as an abridged standalone in the Democrat-Herald. Like I said, it had been the subject of earlier pieces — one in the ’90s, another in 2009 — but it had never been told quite like this.
The story’s length was troubling, of course. Even after I trimmed 60 column inches, the sucker was massive. I submitted it nevertheless to Mike McInally, along with an odd proposal: “Ghosts of Plainview” would inaugurate a PDF-only quarterly devoted to long-form journalism. That never came to pass, but “Ghosts of Plainview” stuck around until finally, it was suggested (not by me) first as a multi-part series, then as the Mid-Valley Sunday’s year-end feature. I knew I’d become an adult when I refrained from telling my editors they were out of their damn minds. It was long enough to eat up the entire A section. No one was going to read it. Would they?
“We need art,” McInally said. “We need maps. We need color.”
So we needed to go to Plainview.
Back to Plainview
Mark and I pull up to the house. Built in 1948, it sits a few feet back from where the West home stood. Allen Parker has told me this. He described the original structure in such vivid detail I can almost see it. I’d called him the day before to ask permission to visit the property. I had also spoken with the Mannings, who lived nearby and had proven just as crucial to this story in 2014 as George Washington Manning had in 1922. “I don’t see why not,” Parker said, “but I don’t know what you’re expecting. The barn is all that’s left from back then.” From a visual standpoint, the country itself was more than enough.
The property is smaller in reality than in the sprawl of imagination. We trudge through the rain-softened lawn to the barn and I stand near what may have been an opening — it’s hard to tell; the whole thing had collapsed a half-century earlier — and look toward the house, a view that today is blocked by another building. But this is where it happened. Three men died here, one in this very barn, another about 30 yards to the left, the other in the road. Posses combed the area over a long summer night, a line of cars firing spotlights toward us. Voices shouted. Shots thundered. Then nothing, forever. You can feel it, a weird, mournful silence.
Preparing for Publication
“Ghosts of Plainview” was approved as the year-end feature about a week before we went to press. I had a Herculean task ahead of me. First I had to notify the families and fact-check the piece with them, no easy feat so close to Christmas. I frantically emailed copies to the Margasons and Carla Healy. I ran a draft past Wendell Manning. The Broughtons actually came into the newspaper office and read it in the conference room. They all signed off and cleared photos for use. And when “Ghosts of Plainview” was published, it marked the first time in history that all three men appeared in the paper together.
Mark snagged some great shots at Plainview, but the lead was perfect, acknowledging both the property’s history and the slow passage of time. Meanwhile, the horizon remained unchanged. (My only regret is that we didn’t capture it in better weather. There’s little more beautiful than Plainview on a sunny day.) That Saturday Jesse Skoubo drove out to the Broughtons’ home and took pictures of the sheriff’s badge and a saddle commissioned many years later by his son in memory of that sacrifice. Clark wanted people to remember. So did I. Somehow I felt I owed it to him to see that they did.
Epilogue (Long, Strange Trip)
Hard to believe after six months, but I’m still getting stopped about “Ghosts of Plainview.” Honestly, I wasn’t expecting such a reception, or any reception whatsoever. My biggest fear was boring readers to death with exposition. I agree with that criticism to some extent, but it was important to me to establish Sheriff Charles Kendall, the reverend Roy Healy and Dave West as multidimensional people, not tragic paper archetypes marching to their denouement again. Time’s rather cruel in that way. It numbs us to horror. Trivializes its participants, robs them of humanity. Hopefully, I succeeded in bringing the three men back, if only for a while.
I’ve seen Roy Healy and Dave West’s graves. But I visit Charles Kendall’s now and then. He gets progress reports on the book and the occasional tangent into my life, like he’d care. I tell him I’ve wanted to write this story since I was 16. It just took a while. I’m sorry I couldn’t meet him, sit him down over a cup of coffee, discover for myself what everyone liked about him. And as the manuscript winds to its inevitable end, I find it difficult to say goodbye.
I dream about them sometimes. Is that weird? Walking through Albany, I find myself in a part of town so old that 1922 just kind-of stuck around. There’s a dance hall. White wooden building, low, blackened windows. I hear laughter and the thrum of Billy Murray’s “How Are You Gonna Wet Your Whistle (When the Whole Darn World Goes Dry).” Sounds like a helluva party. But when I enter, there’s no one but an older woman. I recognize her. Charles Kendall’s wife, Estella. “I need to talk to him,” I say. She smiles. “He’s around,” she replies, “but you’ll have to wait.” So I do. Then I wake up. And write.