I do not remember when I first heard of my Uncle Max. I cannot think of a time when I did not know his name, his fate, and to never, never mention him in front of my grandmother. I have been thinking about him a lot lately, because he wanted to be a writer, and I cannot recall a time when I did not share the same ambition.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to save some family photos and documents from imminent destruction. In the clutter of things rescued, I found a manuscript my uncle had begun, but was not able to finish. It was handwritten in fountain pen, about a detective and his dog, in Chicago. Unfortunately, his hand and or brain appear to have tired after the second page, because his writing became scribbly, and there were more lines scratching out his sentences than sentences left intact.
In studying his photographs, I have wondered what he would have become given the chance to fulfill his destiny. Would he have become the doctor my mother says he always wanted to be? Or complete the novel about the detective and his dog, tentatively titled, Wink? Maybe he would have taken over his father’s farm, and oil leases in Central Oklahoma, although I understand he did not care for labor outdoors in the dirt.
It all is mere speculation. At twenty, he had gone from growing up as one of the wealthier kids in town, with a brilliant future ahead of him, to experiencing, four years prior, the devastation of 1929’s Stock Market Crash. He watched the terrible effect it had on his family. His college dreams went up in smoke, and he took work where it could be found to help them make it through the subsequent Great Depression. Times had changed everything and everyone during his most formative years.
The last job my uncle had was working as a clerk in a candy store. Owned by a couple; the husband was a prominent citizen in the community, including holding a position on the Board of Education. Taken as misjudgment and hubris of youth; he fell in love with the wife, and she with him. My uncle continued to work in the candy store while carrying on an affair with his employer’s wife, even as small town gossip swirled about them at fever pitch. And the husband, being betrayed by two people he trusted personally and professionally, endured the stories people were only too eager to tell him, not knowing exactly what to do, or how to make it end.
The situation came to a head on Thanksgiving day in 1933. The story unfolds with Mr. Candy Store Owner reportedly beating his wife. When she told my uncle, he rose to her defense, and accosted the husband on the sidewalk, in the middle of town, right outside the candy store. All accounts of the story say Uncle beat the daylights out of the husband. It was such a fierce beating, the husband left town, supposedly in fear for his life.
Moving ahead a couple months, the owner of the candy store returned to their town, found my uncle working in the store side by side with his wife, and upon making that discovery, fired him, and changed the locks to the store. Again, accounts of events following that are pretty consistent: Uncle did not seem to have the good sense to leave, or even back off. He made public scenes whenever opportunity availed itself, threatened the husband with his car, and made no secret of his dislike for the man.
Then on an April 28, 1934, for who knows what reason, my uncle went into the candy store, bought a Saturday Evening Post, and when the husband attempted to give him his change, my uncle thumbed his nose at him. Really? Uncle, what were you thinking?
It was sufficient provocation for the husband to order my uncle out of his store, at which point, Uncle smacked the husband on the side of his head with his magazine. And that was the end. The husband pulled a revolver out of his pants pocket, and shot my uncle in the heart. He died instantly.
It was such a horrific event, and people were so worked up, the husband was taken as swiftly as possible from their town to jail in a town near Oklahoma City, where he would await trial. According to news reports, there would have been a lynching had he not been removed so quickly.
His trial took place the following month, and I have been able to locate only one newspaper account of the proceedings. The story contained the husband’s testimony, which described in detail chronology and events of the relationship my uncle had with his wife, the fist fights he had with my uncle, and the shooting, itself. He was very forthcoming, not holding much of anything back. The verdict also was reported. Not Guilty.
I have puzzled for years over the outcome of the trial and the verdict. I requested transcripts so I could understand what happened, and what compelled the jurors to vote for acquittal. Unfortunately, I was informed the transcripts were written by hand, and the court reporters of the day always took their transcripts home with them. If there was no appeal to the verdict, they could destroy them at their leisure. Since the verdict was to acquit, the transcripts from my uncle’s murder trial were gone, forever.
I did obtain the judges instructions to the jury, and having read them many times, I only can surmise the jury had to have believed there was just cause for shooting my uncle. Based upon their fighting history, and the threats the husband said had been made against him, the jury could have agreed the husband felt his life was in danger, and believed he needed to protect himself, at that moment, with lethal force.
The newspaper article describing those court proceedings also has a final paragraph that gave me pause more than once as I read and reread it over the years. It described how the wife had managed the candy store while her husband was in jail, and that they planned to continue working together since he had been found not guilty. What? Who were you? Daisy Buchanan? And that is when I realized the irony of my uncle’s life. He who desired more than anything else to write the Great American Novel, had instead become it. Ten years after The Great Gatsby was published, my uncle had become Jay Gatsby, Oklahoma style.