Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore: Childhood and Murder in the Heart of Americaby Ron Powers
Ron Powers felt compelled to revisit
- Editorial Reviews
- Product Details
- Related Subjects
- Read an Excerpt
- What People Are Saying
- Meet the author
Something had gone terribly wrong in Hannibal, Missouri. Within the space of six weeks, two killings-a manslaughter and then a murder-had taken place in the town that Mark Twain consecrated in his timeless classics about boyhood, the town that so proudly called itself "America's Home Town." Both were committed by adolescents.
Ron Powers felt compelled to revisit Hannibal. He had grown up there, and news of the crimes violated his faith in the town as an American sanctuary. The old "world headquarters of childhood" was not immune to the new national trend of violence by children. His hope was to find some explanation, some solace, some way of squaring these horrific tragedies with what he remembered about "his" Hannibal.
Powers soon discovered that returning meant confronting the shadows within the very concept of childhood in America, and within his own past as well. His cherished recollection of his youth as a heartland idyll, he realized, masked deeper and darker memories. To some degree he had come to see his early life in Hannibal the way successive generations of readers have come to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnselectively, blotting out their more violent prophecies. Far from saccharine celebrations of youthful wonder and small-town innocence, Twain's novels abound in ominous hints of chaos lurking at the edge of "sivilization."
Seamlessly interweaving an account of the killings-and the trials of the lost boys who committed them-and a memoir of growing up, Powers has written a deeply compelling indictment of an America that has broken faith with its children. What he found in Hannibal provided no simple answers to the question of why children kill. The symptoms of physical disintegration and social disaffection plaguing the country as a whole-commercial sprawl bordered by neglected neighborhoods, overworked parents, divorce and drugs rampant, a withering of civic consciousness-were everywhere, and the devastating human cost unmistakable. Yet Powers also found many quiet heroes in his hometown-ordinary people determined somehow to reinforce the weakening bonds between the young and the world around them.
Compassionate but unsparing, Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore illuminates the tortured paradox of childhood in present-day America: romanticized in public rhetoric, but brutalized by countless acts of indifference, ignorance, and aggression. While no one can fully explain what makes children commit murder, Powers places the unthinkable squarely at the heart of America's story.
Author Biography: Ron Powers is the co-author of The New York Times besteller Flags of Our Fathers, and the author of eight books, including a biography of young Samuel Clemens, Dangerous Water. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, he lives in Middlebury, Vermont.
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.02(w) x 10.14(h) x 1.19(d)
Read an Excerpt
Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore
Childhood and Murder in the Heart of America
By Ron Powers
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Ron Powers
All rights reserved.
ROBIE AND WILL
Late on a Tuesday afternoon in November 1997, around suppertime, two sixteen-year-old Missouri boys got into a 1988 Ford Bronco II and went out looking for some way to pass the time before heading over to the local Baptist college to watch a basketball game. They slipped into the continental cortege, the perpetual flow of kids in cars looking for something to do, some way to break through the blankness.
Their town was Hannibal, Missouri — "America's Home Town," as it billed itself in tourist brochures, a salute to its legacy as the boyhood home of Mark Twain. The teenagers were named William D. Hill and Robie Wilson. Wilson (he pronounced his name "Robbie"), a serious-faced boy with short-cut blond hair and a sturdy build, was the son of a Hannibal city councilman and letter carrier named Kyle Wilson. He did not live with his father, who was twice divorced, but with his mother and her new husband. Hill, also blond, was an athlete, tall and muscular. He had recently moved to town from Iowa with his mother and stepfather.
With Hill at the wheel, the two kids cruised around town for a while, looking for girls, for friends, for anything besides what they knew was and wasn't there.
Not much to do.
They stopped for a snack at a fast-food franchise, then headed out onto the streets again.
It was around six P.M. when they spotted the jogger.
They had found themselves rolling aimlessly along Pleasant Street — Pleasant Street of America's Home Town. The figure trotting toward them, up the grade, was a sixty-one-year-old machinist with Car Quest Auto Parts and an amateur railroad enthusiast named James Walker. Like Robie, he was a lifelong Hannibal resident. An army veteran, he had been married to Virginia Elliott Walker since 1957. Virginia, a pale and soft-spoken woman, had for a time served as the president of the Helen Cornelius Fan Club. Ms. Cornelius, a Hannibal native and country-western singer, had enjoyed some success as a three-time winner on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and later as an RCA recording artist in the 1970s. Her best-known hits were "We Still Sing Love Songs in Missouri" and "Tweedle-de-dee." The couple had one son, Michael Ray Walker, who lived in St. Louis.
Just now, James Walker was about midway through his five-mile run, which he made several times a week, always along the same route. He was at work on his goal of completing fifty-seven miles of running by the end of the month. Another fifty-seven, to be chalked up in December, would give him a thousand miles of running for the year.
Pleasant Street is an east-west road, both arterial and residential, near the western edge of town, two lanes of asphalt, no sidewalks. It had originated as a wooden plank road in about 1835, some sixteen years after first settlement, by a man named Fry, who cut it through three miles of hardwood forest in return for half of the fledgling town's remaining unsold lots. 1835 was the year of the birth, near Hannibal, of Samuel Langhorne Clemens — Mark Twain, the great mythifier of American boyhood.
Winter dusk had settled in on this November afternoon. The streetlights had been turned on, and Walker was wearing his customary bright yellow shorts, reflective vest, and orange fluorescent hat.
Walker chugged eastward on Pleasant, on the left side of the road, facing traffic. Hill and Wilson cruised westward on the downgrade. As they drew near the approaching figure, one of the boys — it was never conclusively established which — asked the other, "Do you want to door him?"
It was William Hill, the owner of the Bronco and a promising high school baseball player, who had clued Robie Wilson in on "dooring" or "awarding the door prize." The two had talked about it the previous summer, while idly tooling around a small lake. "Dooring" was a car stunt pulled occasionally in Iowa high school parking lots. It entailed a driver drawing alongside a student on foot while the frontseat passenger opened the door, giving the student an unexpected whack.
On this Tuesday, though, the recipient was to be not a high school student but an elderly man. And the "door prize" was to be administered not at a parking-lot crawl but at thoroughfare speed.
The Bronco closed on Walker in the 2500 block of Pleasant, a longish stretch in which the edge of the asphalt gave directly onto steep grassy lawn. The unsuspecting Walker had no route of escape.
What happened next differs slightly in the retelling by each boy. In either version, they made two runs at Walker before they struck the man.
William Hill later testified that it was Robie's idea to "door" the running man. Hill went along with it more or less offhandedly.
On the first pass, Hill swerved in Walker's direction, but perhaps because of the wind, Robie Wilson had trouble pushing the door open. "I missed him," he told Hill. Hill would testify that Robie urged him to go back.
Hill was reluctant, he said, but drove to the bottom of Pleasant and turned around. The Bronco retraced its route up the grade, overtook Walker, and continued up Pleasant a little way. Then Will Hill U-turned and made his second run.
Robie insisted that the first time they passed Walker, nothing happened; there was no discussion about "dooring." At the bottom of Pleasant, Hill made a right turn onto U.S. Highway 61 and headed north toward Hannibal — La Grange College, the site of the game. But after a block, Hill turned right again and looped back along a road parallel to Walker's route.
Whichever version of the story was correct, the Bronco was soon bearing down on James Walker for a second time.
Reemerging on Pleasant, with the trotting figure in his sights, Hill angled the car toward the man and, according to Robie, ordered Robie to open the door. Scared and confused, Robie complied.
Whatever the truth, James Walker paid the consequences. He never grasped what was about to happen. As the car approached, he made no effort to dodge out of the way. Robie Wilson pushed his door open. The onrushing steel caught Walker full in the face with explosive impact. The window glass burst, sending an eruption of shards back into the Bronco and outward along the pavement. The force was such that the window behind the passenger's seat shattered as well.
Robie Wilson glanced back at the collapsed figure and yelled, "Go! Go! Go!" Hill gunned his damaged car down Pleasant Street. He veered left into a more secluded, curving street called Shepherd Place, hurried along its tree-lined downhill contours until its terminus at St. Mary's Avenue. There he turned left again and took off along the central spine of Hannibal. At some point, Hill turned right off that spine — now Broadway — and plunged the Bronco down into one of the town's older, shabbier enclaves: a latticework of short, sharply angled streets fronted by century-old bungalows with peeling white paint; by sheds, freestanding garages, truck gardens. He drove a couple of blocks through this area to Market Street, a long and narrow winding hive of taverns and storefront businesses, early-century brick and wood frame, that once had teemed with raucous honky-tonk nightlife but now lay mostly dust-caked, abandoned, and Gothic. He pulled up near a cramped little bar and pool hall called the Water Hole, where he knew he could find his stepfather.
The Water Hole and the sagging storefronts alongside it formed a line of decay that was interrupted, less than a block to the east, by a jarringly spotless structure, all right angles and chrome and assertive colors. It spread, still under construction, like a nesting starship that had touched down on a dead planet. This was a half-completed service station.
New service stations and old bars formed a conspicuous proportion of commercial Hannibal, a glum dialectic. Corporate prosperity shouldering in on local subsistence. A vacuum of organic, selfsustaining community, scaled and designed for harmonious habitat by human beings. In their economic and architectural extremes, and in what was missing in between, the bar and the service station represented a significant vision of the America that in the 1990s presented itself to its young.
Before entering the tavern, Will Hill took his billfold out of his back pocket and put it on the seat of the Bronco. Then he found a rock and placed it inside the truck's cab. These items were meant to buttress the story that was already forming in Hill's mind, the story he would tell the Hannibal police.
Inside the Water Hole, Will Hill located his stepfather and told him the story he had rapidly formulated. Then he telephoned the Hannibal police and gave them the same version: his Bronco had just been vandalized, he said; someone had thrown a rock through the window, probably to get at the billfold that he had accidentally left on the driver's seat. (Why the billfold should still be on the seat after the vandal struck, Hill was perhaps not prepared to say.) When a squad car arrived at the bar a few minutes later, Will got in and sat beside Officer Darren Smith while he elaborated on the lie. He'd gone inside the bar to play pool at about five-thirty, he said, and when he came out an hour later he saw that someone had broken two windows in his car.
After Hill told his story, the officer let him go and he drove the damaged Bronco home, exchanged it for another car in the family, and the two boys went on to the basketball game.
A neighborhood man driving home from work came upon James Walker as he lay unconscious with massive face and brain injuries amid the glass shards. He called an ambulance. Emergency medical technicians tried to give Walker first aid at the scene; then they took him to Hannibal Regional Hospital, recently relocated from the town center to a field a few miles west of town. The next day Walker was transferred to a trauma unit at Blessing Hospital in neighboring Quincy, Illinois. He lasted another day, and then, on November 14, he died.
THE NET BEGAN to close on Will and Robie almost at once. While they were still at the game, the Hannibal police, who had never really bought Hill's "vandalizing" story, had begun collecting evidence linking the Bronco to the bloody hit-and-run on Pleasant Street. Sometime during the evening, Officer John Dean drove out to the Hill house on Moberly Avenue and examined the vehicle. Moberly is a short east-west street on the extreme southwestern edge of Hannibal, about two miles from the Mississippi riverfront and perhaps a mile west of the Water Hole. It dead-ends near an abandoned Moose lodge and the grounds of the Northeast Missouri Humane Shelter. The little street forms a southern border of a small community called Oakwood: once a settlement, later joined to Hannibal by the spine of another nineteenth-century plank road, and finally incorporated when that road became Market Street. Moberly lies below Market in an old cluster of floodplain bungalows wedged between the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks and Bear Creek. The tracks and the creek parallel Market in a meandering line toward the town center.
Checking out the Bronco's badly dented right door, Officer Dean found some orange fibers, the same color as the material in James Walker's fluorescent hat. He also collected some glass from the mostly hollowed-out passenger window; it would prove to match samples of the glass taken from the point of impact on Pleasant Street — glass that was demonstrably from a Ford product. Officer Dean spoke with Hill's mother, informing her of the pedestrian collision.
Mrs. Hill confronted Will with this information when he got back home. Panicky now, Will called Robie's house. Robie lived several hundred yards east of Will, on Kenwood Street. Robie's stepfather, Jim Beilsmith, answered the phone. A service garage owner, Jim had just returned home from an evening attending EMT classes; he was training to be an EMT to bolster his skills as a reserve deputy sheriff for Marion County. At the training site he had heard some radio transmissions detailing the collision; later, he had met some of the EMTs who'd been at the scene and listened as they described the injuries to Walker.
"It's after ten," Jim pointed out to Will. "No calls." "It's an emergency," Will replied. "Right," said Jim. "Everything's an emergency. You're a teenager." "No," Will said. "This is really an emergency." Jim handed the phone to Robie — who had started to undress for bed and was without a shirt — and gave him a two-minute time limit.
Nita Beilsmith, Jim's wife and Robie's mother, pondered this exchange as the two withdrew from Robie. A former EMT herself, Nita had a job with the Marion County Ambulance District and kept a police scanner at home. Nita had heard the transmission too, and just now, as she and Jim headed for their bedroom, she was thinking about something Robie had said in passing as he darted into the house and toward his bedroom, twenty minutes past his curfew: The window in Will's Bronco had been broken.
Robie listened to his friend for a few seconds before he tore into his parents' bedroom and shouted, "I gotta go to Will's. It's an emergency " Then he fled the house into the late-autumn night, still half clad. A few minutes later he called from the Hill house: "Come over. We've got to talk. Something's happened. Someone's been hurt."
At the Hill house, anxiety and wariness reigned. Two reconstituted families, unfamiliar with one another, groping in the night to comprehend the horror their children might have wrought and what to do about it. There was some discussion about how to deal with the police and disparities in the two boys' stories. In later court proceedings, it was suggested that someone in the group — a tangential adult who may have been drinking — loudly warned the boys, "You better get your stories straight! You better get them together!"
It was Jim Beilsmith who reached a point of resolve that ended the confusion. The reserve deputy sheriff abruptly stood up and said, "We're leaving. That's it." He returned to his house, phoned the police department, and told the clerk that his stepson Robie Wilson had information relevant to the collision with the jogger.
WHEN ROBIE ENTERED the police station after school the next day, he told the same story that Will Hill had told to Officer Smith. At the high school, he and Hill had behaved as though nothing of particular importance had happened to them. But they could not keep completely silent. A girlfriend of Hill's would later testify that before Walker died and before any charges were filed, Will admitted to her that his Bronco did indeed strike the running man. They'd only planned to scare him, Will told her; he guessed he'd gotten too close. In the months of rumor, gossip, and embellishment that inevitably ensued, some Hannibal High students would recall that one or the other of them had actually bragged about the dooring. At least one young woman thought she'd heard them boast that they had practiced on dogs.
On November 20, a week after James Walker died, Hannibal police arrested William Hill and Robie Wilson. Hill was picked up at Hannibal High School, Wilson at the Hannibal Alternative School, a separate facility for "problem" students.
This time, the two boys presented a new version of their essential innocence. Yes, they had been driving on Pleasant Street on that Tuesday afternoon, they acknowledged. Yes, they may have struck something. But the evening was dark, the pavement on that stretch extremely bumpy, and besides, the passenger door of Hill's Bronco did not shut properly; he had to keep a towel wrapped around it so it would stay shut. If anything resembling the charges against them actually happened, it was purely an accident.
The two were charged with involuntary manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident, hindering prosecution, tampering with evidence, and concealing an offense. Their names were withheld from the local newspapers, radio, and TV for several weeks, even though nearly all of Hannibal soon learned their identities. They were only sixteen. Juveniles.
BY 1997, AMERICA may have been a country in the throes of a "great escape" back to its small-town roots, but it was also a country in the early throes of a dreadful reckoning: it had somehow lost connection with its children. These two truths were in some ways interlinked. The dimensions of this breach, as they grew ever more insistently visible, were vaster than any of the partial symptoms that mainstream America had been fitfully acknowledging since the end of World War II: "juvenile delinquents," "beatniks," "hippies," "dropouts," "slackers," "rebellious" children of "dysfunctional" families.
Excerpted from Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore by Ron Powers. Copyright © 2001 Ron Powers. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Meet the Author
Ron Powers is the co-writer of The New York Times bestseller Flags of Our Father and the author of eight books, including Dangerous Water, a biography of young Samuel Clemens. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, he lives in Middlebury, Vermont.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews