Saturday, July 16, 2011

Another man’s albatross and the burdens thereof


Darn it, I’m a little shaken up at the moment. I got up this morning, all set to watch my dvr of last night’s “Ghost Adventures”; but I thought I’d check my mail first and found a red envelope waiting, my latest movie rental from Netflix. 

So I put that in the player instead, and have been watching it in fits and starts since.  It’s been very difficult to sit through this picture from beginning to end, but I have my reasons.  To be honest, I’m a little surprised.  

(Warning, this may contain some pretty graphic stuff.)

The movie is “Pierrepoint”, a British drama based on the life of Albert Pierrepoint, one of England’s “official hangmen” in the first half of the 20th century.  From 1933-1955, he executed approximately 600 criminals, all by hanging, and in a very precise manner.  He took measurements of the condemned, and from their height & weight, was able to calculate precisely how long the rope should be to snap their second and third vertebrae—providing a relatively pain-free and quick death “unlike the Americans who let them die by strangling.”   He took no pleasure in his career, and in fact hid his ‘title’ from society until after WWII, when he was asked to hang 200 Nazi war criminals.

Albert Pierrepoint, 1905-1992

Eventually though, the hundreds of executions took their toll on him and he became a fierce opponent of capital punishment, calling it “amoral, impractical and done only for revenge.”

It’s an interesting & well made film, but watching the repeated scenes of people crying, stonefaced, angry, begging for forgiveness all while having nooses slipped around their necks—it’s been making me relive something very unpleasant, from fifteen years ago. 

Back in April 1995, roughly 6-7 months before I moved to my current neighborhood, I was living in Sharpsburg—sad to say, not a very pretty community.  There were more saloons and cement than grass or kids, but the rent was cheap & I loved my apartment.  Well, aside from one small detail.

My apartment house in Sharpsburg; my place was in the back, the middle patio on the far right

Directly outside the balcony doors in my livingroom was a small parking lot, and the backporch & large picture window of my neighbor.  I had a direct view of their home life (as they did of mine), and we often caught each other watching one another.  It was a couple, roughly my age, with a young boy.  They fought often, and afterwards the man would come out on his porch & sit there and chain smoke, staring straight ahead.   I was a smoker too then, but after having my place painted the summer before, I only smoked outside.  We would nod to each other sometimes, but nothing else.  His wife only came outside to tend to her assortment of hanging baskets of plants and flowers. 

So one day I came home from work and my neighbor from upstairs stopped me in the hall.  “Oh you missed a good fight!” she said.  “That lady over there left her husband!  She had someone help her move out, and her husband was screaming and crying and pounding on their car!  Then the cops showed up & made him go back inside, and they waited until his wife left, & when everyone was gone he came back outside and ripped all her hanging baskets down and threw them into the street!  Then the cops came back and hauled his ass off to jail!”  After thanking Shelly for the big scoop, I went into my apartment and stepped outside on my balcony to have a smoke; across the way, their picture window was dark & all the baskets were gone.  The porch looked very bare.  It gave me the shivers, like all the life there had been sucked dry.  

 He came home the next day though, and spent most of his time on that porch, staring straight ahead & chain smoking.  One night I woke up around 3am, and got up to use the bathroom.  I peeked out my patio doors, and saw a small orange tip glowing in the darkness, and I knew he was out there on that porch, sitting alone in the dark.    

I kept my mom up to date on the ‘goings-on’ there, and one night she said “The next time you get home from work, if you see him sitting outside, walk over there and just say hello.”  So the very next day, I had my chance.  I walked over & introduced myself.  I made a joke about us already knowing each other from our respective porches, and he said “Yes… will you excuse me please”  and went indoors.  And for the next couple weeks, I didn’t see him again.

Friday, May 26, 1995.  It’s around 6pm when my mom calls.  As we’re chatting, I’m walking about doing things, and suddenly notice my neighbor is back outside on his porch.  He has a kitchen chair out there, and a toolbox, and is going indoors and out, back and forth.  When I tell my mom, she says “maybe his wife is coming home and he wants to fix the place up.”  It sounded good to me and I said “I think he’s going to put some hanging baskets back up.  He’s standing on that chair, and he’s hammering something into the porch roof.”   Mom says “good for him”.  We move on to something new, and I walk into my kitchen to wash some dishes.  As I come back into the livingroom (still on the phone), I look outside again.  He’s still there, staring down from his perch like he dropped something.  But something doesn’t look right.  It takes me a minute to realize the chair he was standing on is no longer upright; it’s laying on it’s side now, on the porch steps.  I feel like someone just punched me in the stomach and I stumble backward.  “Mom… he hanged himself.”  “DOUG CALL 911!”   She hangs up.  Time slows to a crawl, as I watch him suspended there.  I don’t remember dialing 911, but I hear a woman’s voice on the phone—“911, what’s your emergency…”

Without sharing any more grisly details, when the police (and firetrucks) arrived, I watched as they struggled to hoist his lifeless body down.  One of them knocked on my door, and asked if I wanted to speak with a police psychologist.  I said no, but told them how he wouldn’t stop watching me while putting up that noose.  The officer said “Trust me, he was looking right through you.  All he saw was release and revenge.”  When I asked what he meant, the officer said “He called his wife right before he did this and told her he was ready to talk about a divorce, and asked her if she’d come over.  We stopped her right up the street, she had their little boy with her.”  

.             .             .

I never went out on my deck again.  I kept my head down when I walked past those patio doors, and when that still wasn’t enough, I bought heavier drapes and kept them shut.  And just when I thought I’d have to live with the memory forever, a couple months later I came home from work and there was a Sheriff’s Notice on my door.  The owner of my building had deserted the property, it was going up for auction & the tenants had to vacate the premises.  (This did the trick, I think.  When I moved to another part of the city, I was able to put the memory to rest.)   And time, of course, heals all wounds.  Well, for most.

Ah. well a-day. what evil looks
Had I from old and young
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.


  1. This blog shows what a sensitive writer you are. I knew this story already but sat here gripped, and could've read on and on and on.

  2. Shawn, thanks so much for your wonderful words; I knew you remembered this, and to be honest I was a little worried what you'd think about me sharing it. Thank you again.

  3. Wow, Doug, so sorry you were witness to something so terrible. I imagine something like that will stay with you your whole life. But your piece was very well written and I agree with Shawn, gripping!

  4. Thank you Anon (and for letting me know who you are); I'm not sure I should've shared all this, but reading your comments here meant a lot to me.

  5. oh Doug... I'm so sorry that you experienced this...I didn't know that someone else's pain could move me this way... thank you for the insight into myself and also for the realization that my life is pretty wonderful compared to some.

  6. That was nicely said, thanks Courtney--and I agree, it was a good reminder (both then & now) of how fortunate most of us truly are.


Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad to hear from you and appreciate the time you take to comment.